Largely by accident, the Q&A Zaky Mallah appearance beat-up has become the front line in defending a basic conception not only of free speech in Australia, but also of the notion of basic rights to fair process, the rule of law, and a public sphere separate to the state.
What we are seeing is a supercharged version of what we have seen in our history several times — the willingness of the self-styled “Liberal” Party to trash policies and principles they purport to hold dear, from habeas corpus to free speech to the separation of powers.
The attacks on all of these institutions are inter-related. The “citizenship removal” dance, with the draft law’s broad powers to strip a whole range of people of their citizenship for offences that range from foreign terror operations to damaging Commonwealth property, are a deliberate travesty of … well, everything.
They trash the principle that citizenship is a universal right, not extinguished even by odious criminality, that executive power should not supplant judicial process in dealing with the lives of individuals, the basic principle of natural justice, and the principle that laws should be tightly written, not grab-alls that allow for their capricious application.
That’s the intent, of course. It always has been. The “Liberals” will always trash the basis of liberal society for quick political gain. They did it during the 2001 Tampa crisis, when Parliament was presented with a take-it-or-leave-it bill indemnifying immigration officers from all criminal proceedings in certain zones.
They followed this up with obsessive attacks on David Hicks and any suggestion that he might have rights, and with Philip Ruddock’s sedition laws. All this was an echo of what might be called the founding act of the “Liberal” Party, the Communist Party Dissolution Bill and referendum of 1949-1950. And therein hangs a tale.
The Liberal Party had been founded by Menzies and a number of other people — many of them genuinely liberal, socially progressive people — in 1944. Menzies used the energies of such people to create a party with a broader base than the old business-oriented United Australia Party and nationalist parties, at a time when Labor was a more strictly working-class/union affair.
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Once the party was established, Menzies and his old UAP cohorts promptly purged the party of such people and reclaimed for the old UAP elite. The Communist Party Dissolution Bill was designed as the kiss of the whip. The Chifley government had found itself in conflict with the powerful Communist Party of Australia during the 1949 Hunter Valley CPA-led coal miners’ strike (when Chifley had sent troops to drive the miners back to the pits).
Defenders of Menzies’ attempt to ban the CPA have pointed out that this was a party committed to violent revolution. But the bill covered not merely card-carrying members, but anyone who could be deemed as such by the relevant minister. It was a plan for open season on the left, with plans drawn up for large-scale detention camps to hold miscreants.
How does a “Liberal” Party commit itself to such things? Because it isn’t a liberal party, of course. Nor is it even a conservative party in the British sense. The party has long had an illiberal reactionary streak, more in common with Latin American latifundia-backed reactionary parties — people who simply don’t see what all the fuss is about all this freedom and rights shit.
In Tony Abbott, such a party — or Coalition, since the National Party is wholly of that order — has found its natural leader. Abbott is from the reactionary clerico-fascist side of things, a man who wants a social order in which the acceptable of opinions are strictly limited. He is playing up to it well, but it’s because the role is a natural for him.
“As the Illiberal party fails to gain traction with their terrorising terror campaign, it’s inevitable that they would attack an outpost of society that declares us to be free and unafraid.”
To talk of “banishment” for people chimes well with a biblical Judeo-Christian narrative, but it is also of course another bid to up the ante — a relentless attempt to produce a situation that Labor cannot support, precisely because, from the late 1960s on, with the ascent of Whitlam and the death of Harold Holt (and the defeat of Gorton by McMahon), Labor became the home for people of a genuinely liberal disposition. Though some of that has gone to the Greens, it retains a strong base in Labor.
The gangsterish part of Labor’s right faction would like nothing more than to endorse Abbott’s push, or even gazump it. They are far closer to Abbott’s politics and personality than they are to what remains of the left in Labor. But they know it would split the party down the middle again and prompt another exodus to the Greens — who are getting ever closer to a Sydney seat and a second Melbourne seat.
The true nature of this illiberalism, spread across both parties, is a particular conception of the state and the public sphere. Talk of the Coalition wanting a small state is nonsense — they simply want to regulate in a different way, advantaging capital and controlling the everyday lives of people all the more tightly (one reason why Institute of Public Affairs/libertarian bluster about “the nanny state” is so ineffectual — they refuse to attack right-wing parties even when the latter adopt such measures, like “nudge” social design theory holus-bolus).
Thus the Illiberal Party has no problem with making the state and the public sphere largely coextensive. “Free speech” becomes an ever more narrowly circumscribed range of opinion with minor acceptable difference. The idea of “extremism” or “fanaticism” is then used to exclude any opinion that may challenge the legitimacy of the system itself, or hold it up to question — either from a materialist leftist viewpoint, or, as is the case currently, from a religious anti-democratic viewpoint.
This notion of a state-occupied public sphere is an essential feature of so-called “guided democracies”, such as Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore, the mullah’s Iran, and Putin’s Russia. Abbott’s Australia proudly takes its place among these countries and with the same sort of rhetoric: that concerns about free speech and liberties are the preserve of elites, who hold the safety of “the people” in disdain — such safety embodied in a paternal and authoritative figure, whose authority usually has a religious grounding, to give it a transcendental patina.
Against this conception of the social, is a genuinely liberal notion of the public sphere — one in which the state and its processes can itself be questioned, and in which ideas that critique the legitimacy of the state and the public sphere can themselves be aired. This is the idea of a genuine pluralism, where the right to speak is not dependent on subscribing to a set of pre-ordained state-designed values, of the “Australian values”-type kitsch. This is the genuine Jeffersonian liberalism encoded in the Bill of Rights, which Australian rightists like to bill and coo over, and thunder about “political correctness”.
The idea of a pluralist and free public sphere can be defended on any number of grounds, but it is ultimately based on an idea of confidence in your own robustness as a society and the capacity for reasoned argument between adult citizens.
In that respect, a show like Q&A represents pluralism at its best, a place where the conversation goes where it goes, and is to some degree shaped by the dialogue itself. The pseudo-liberalism of both the Liberal Party and of News Corp, represents the opposite — an authoritarian impulse, to guide and limit speech according to pre-ordained aims.
Which is precisely why News Corp and the Coalition are determined to kill it, with spurious nonsense about political bias and “disloyalty”. The “bias” is simply the effect of removing the bias inherent in the protected environment of News Corp. As soon as right-wingers are exposed to real debate they flail, ham-fists flying all over the place. Steven Ciobo should have welcomed the opportunity to enunciate his principles in the face of real challenge to them — because a challenge is an opportunity to make your ideas clearer, better, win people over. But he would have had to be competent to do that. In reality he’s just another faceless mook who’s come up through the entrenched machine of the party, which, like Labor, is a quasi-state apparatus, embedded by compulsory preferential voting and public funding.
Now the heat is really on. Q&A is already subject to a disgraceful “internal inquiry”. Now there are calls for a “pause and review” of the show, and the suggestion that ministers and others will boycott the show — Kevin Andrews in the first instance. Andrews is a poor debater, a mealy-mouthed old Catholic conservative, so it’s perhaps inevitable he would get out of a situation where he would be out of his depth. We’ll see if such an attitude gathers pace.
Should it do so, Q&A should do what the BBC and ABC have done in the past — simply “empty chair” the right side of politics if they try and make a pluralist composition of the panel impossible through boycott. More than any other show, Q&A represents the enactment of a pluralist sphere in politics. As the Illiberal Party fails to gain traction with their terrorising terror campaign, it’s inevitable that they would attack an outpost of society that declares us to be free and unafraid. If Mark Scott can’t defend this show up to the point of resignation, then it may be time for him to go altogether.