Always beware of powerful white men whining about their freedom of speech being restricted. It almost invariably means, to invoke George Brandis, that they’re worried their right to be bigots is being questioned.

Magically, the non-news of ASIO head Duncan Lewis making perfectly unexceptionable observations about the link between not demonising Australia’s Muslims communities and the ability of security agencies to successfully engage with them in intelligence-gathering and counter-terrorism is suddenly a free speech matter. Right-wing Liberals are lining up to complain to The Australian that somehow their rights to engage in “an honest and respectful debate” or an “open and frank discussion” are under threat. “Chilling effects” are being invoked, and their “ability to exercise free speech” is at risk, seemingly.

It’s a minor point in the scheme of things, but let’s be clear that these aren’t people interested in any sort of “honest debate” about Islam. When their exiled prince Tony Abbott leads the “debate” by saying Islam is inferior to Western culture and needs a reformation, and couples it with calling for another Western military intervention in yet another Muslim country, it reflects how the real agenda is to vilify Muslims and widen divisions, not engage in some ethereal philosophical exchange about values and beliefs.

But the invocation of free speech points to probably the greatest hypocrisy of this beat-up. Like so many advocates of free speech, hard-right Liberals feeling rebuked by Duncan Lewis are only interested in their own free speech. None of them rose to express any concerns about the “chilling effect” of the greatest attack on free speech in Australia in recent years, the Abbott government’s data retention legislation, nor about another direct hit on free speech — the law that would enable the jailing of journalists for reporting on intelligence operations. There wasn’t a peep out of them when Tony Abbott was imposing a mass surveillance system with a direct, chilling effect on a free press and free speech.

Now, however, they’re worried about their right to publicly attack Islam without the head of a security agency suggesting that might not helpful to the men and women charged with preventing terrorism.

The hypocrisy is particularly profound for the court jester of the Abbott government-in-exile, Tasmanian Andrew Nikolic. The thin-skinned Nikolic is, unfortunately, a member of the Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, and apparently sees his role on that committee as being to badger those who have dared to question or criticise the imposition of mass surveillance or any other aspect of the government’s draconian extensions of national security laws. Recently in Parliament, Nikolic called for an end to debates over providing further powers to security agencies — such debate was a “luxury” that couldn’t be afforded and was “redundant” — security agencies, Nikolic argued, should not be “burden[ed]… further with nonsensical public commentary”.

The man who two weeks ago wanted an end to any debate about security powers is now complaining that his freedom of speech is endangered — and better yet, endangered by the head of one of the agencies that he didn’t want to see “burdened with nonsensical public commentary”.

As it turned out, at least Nikolic accurately predicted his own contribution.

Peter Fray

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