Fun and instructive times in the latest instalments on the freedom — sorry ferrdom! — agenda, with day eight of the Oz‘s war against Yassmin Abdel-Magied, the ABC youf presenter who appeared on Q&A. The paper is now contradicting itself not only on its own editorial pages, but within its own editorials. The conjunction and contradiction, irrelevant to the wider course of events, is nevertheless instructive about the tangles the right has got itself into.

Top of the left page today is Planet Janet, tying Abdel-Magied’s appearance on Q&A — Abdel-Magied said that sharia law meant “obeying the law of the land you’re in” — with 18C. Huhhhhh? Well, as Planet explains, Abdel-Magied walked out of a speech given by novelist Lionel Shriver, at which Shriver put on a sombrero to protest at all them people arguing against cultural appropriation, etc. She’s free — ferrdom! — to say so; Abdel-Magied is free to walk out, and then write about it, as she did for the Grauniad. That’s how ferrdom works. Not for Planet. Apparently, Abdel-Magied’s action is akin to 18C, as part of a new hypersensitivity, etc. But you have a right to be huffy, hypersensitive, absurdly overreactive, etc (look at the poor-me act Bill Leak puts on these days). You certainly have a right to walk out on something as a way of expressing your fundamental disagreement with it. The right to free speech is not the right to an audience (bad news for the weekday edition of the Oz, given its sales).

[News Corp throws stones over Yassmin Abdel-Magied petition]

The issue with 18C has nothing to do with that; it’s about whether the state should have the right to adjudicate on the matter. That’s what the ferrdom! question is all about. Yet the editorial writers of the Oz don’t seem to understand that, for down and to the right of Planet (if that is possible), the second leader opens with the remark:

“The open question on Hizb ut-Tahrir in Australia is whether an organisation committed to a global caliphate should be banned.”

 How is that question even open if you believe in ferrdom! of speech? Unless Hizb ut-Tahrir is advocating specific violence in Australia, they have a right to say what they like. Why does the Oz believe the group should not be banned?

“The Australian has condemned the group for its subversiveness, intolerance and sexism … on balance we have said it is better not to force such views underground …”

No, uh, that’s not what ferrdom! means. It’s not an instrumental safety-valve to manage social dissent. It is, according to your ceaseless editorials and articles by op-ed house pets, a right. Indeed, Hizb ut-Tahrir is exercising one of the few constitutional rights we have, section 116, freedom of religion. Since religion is, by any definition, a world-view, religious sects’ right to have a discourse on how the world should be organised, arguing for a caliphate would be part of that.

The fact that the Oz is offering that as grounds to ponder whether the groups should be banned shows that the understanding of ferrdom! doesn’t extend very far inside Surry Hills. The “safety-valve” view of free speech offered by the Oz‘s editorial has nothing to do with ferrdom! — actually, it’s of the same species as 18C, the idea that speech should be managed for an implied collective social good. It’s quite in opposition to the Jeffersonian liberal pose the Oz takes — through Planet and the Little Bird Jennifer Oriel, inter alia — in which the right to all but the most violent speech (i.e. calling for specific persons to be harmed, etc) is affirmed. It’s long been a tenet of that sort of free-speech argument that you have the right to argue for the violent overthrow of governments, your own and others. Indeed for Jefferson, that was the core of free speech.

How does the Oz link Hizb ut-Tahrir and Abdel-Magied? Apparently, Abdel-Magied had some social media contact with Hizb ut-Tahrir after the Q&A episode aired. This was turned into a story by the Oz‘s Rick Morton — in a pretty sleazy manner reminiscent of red-baiting, and equally inimical to ferrdom! If you construct a free public exchange between a commentator and a group as “contact”, you are constructing free speech on a subversion and conspiracy model. The issue of the Oz‘s free-speech politics is one for the culture-war crate-diggers, of course; it’s an endlessly fascinating question as to whether Oriel, Planet and the leader writers are hypocritical or simply stupid and confused, unable to accept the real contradictions of the right’s liberal-conservative fusion. But the question of free-speech-as-safety-valve versus free-speech-as-right does have bearing on the interminable issue of 18C.

Five years into the 18C debate, it’s impossible to tell whether those supporting the ferrdom! agenda actually want the issue resolved at all; 18C is valuable for a section of the Coalition, as a way of keeping a fire lit under Turnbull, and to give James Paterson a chance to turn up to the Senate in his dad’s suit and pontificate.

The possibility that they don’t want 18C resolved is reinforced by the fact that they’re now on course to lose, for the third time, the attempt to abolish or minimise it. Planet moans on about the cowardice of the Liberal Party — “the Illiberal Party” — in not committing to nobbling or abolition of 18C. She should find some courage herself. There will be no change to 18C from the right side of politics while the Jewish-Australian community peak bodies oppose such a change, and they reaffirmed their opposition to such change throughout 2016.

[The Australian declares war on Yassmin Abdel-Magied, misses the point again]

The other multicultural community peak bodies are a big enough barrier — their opposition is equally staunch, and the Liberal Party courts them incessantly in its push to take additional seats in western Sydney — but absolutely nothing will happen to 18C unless the Jewish community peak bodies, typically to be found on the foreign policy right, change their viewpoint on 18C. Why would Planet be so coy about naming the pro-18C forces? Well, look under and to the left of Planet (the Kroger position): Malcolm Turnbull affirming a commitment to right-wing Zionism, as the expression of Jewish community belief. It ain’t, obviously, but it is among the peak bodies, and the Liberal Party isn’t going to pick a fight with them over a crappy matter like 18C. 

The ferrdom! forces are cruising for a third defeat on 18C, which will cement the law — perhaps in a cosmetically modified form — permanently into Australian law and culture. At that point, you might as well put it into the constitution, because consent to it will have been reaffirmed by the Australian public, a generation after the law was first out on the books.*

How have the ferrdom! movement so stuffed up the 18C fight? Leaving aside the possibility that they wanted to, it’s because they’ve constructed 18C as a lefty, radical measure. It may have been left-liberal when it was put on the books. But that was before John Howard and Peter Costello continued and extended large-scale non-preferential immigration and became the government that presided over the decisive transformation of Australia into a post-Anglo-Celtic society — at least in the major capital cities. So 18C isn’t a radical measure anymore; it’s a conservative measure, supported by the community groups of people who value social order over abstract rights.

People who see their freedom — not ferrdom!, real freedom — as not having to cop it sweet when the parking attendant says “good morning, raghead, beheaded anyone today?” every morning. These ferrdom! clowns don’t realise — or won’t admit — that the calls to retain 18C are coming from inside their own house. Hizb ut-Tahrir is, socially speaking, a conservative organisation too, advocates of a patriarchal, unitary religion, which prizes social order above the pursuit of individual life paths.

Abdel-Magied tries squaring the circle with this stuff about Islam being a feminist religion, but that’s lightly worn.  Fascinating, isn’t it? Despite their despite of humanities academia, you could be forgiven for thinking that the sole purpose of the ferrdom! agenda crowd is to provide raw material for cultural studies PhDs 10 years hence. Ah well, it’ll do until the crash comes, and real politics takes over again.

*note to any nonces out to portray this joke as literal: I do not support putting 18C into the constitution. I have argued for years that the left cannot support 18C , if we want to reserve the right to advocate civil disobedience, resistance and insurrection as part of free speech. I would suggest replacing 18C with a law on the model of European “nusiance/harassment” laws, which would cover events that fall short of assault, but deal with the things 18C justifiably covers: abuse in the street, repeated verbal abuse at work, refusal of service, etc. In a multi-ethnic society non-Anglo people have a right to legal recourse against that sort of crap. <

Peter Fray

Join us today for just $1 a week.

Get your first 12 weeks for $12. Cancel any time.

Our journalism is funded directly by our members — that’s how we maintain our fierce independence. We don’t rely on advertisers, clickbait or culture war obsessed columnists.

If you like what we do, join us today.

Peter Fray
Editor-In-Chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW