You’ve got to hand it to Amanda Vanstone: she has the true anti-talent of the political hack. Hired in the endless pursuit of “balance”, she typically uses her column to advance a narrow Liberal Party agenda, her continued presence imposed, one guesses, on op-ed editors by the paper’s right-wing board. This week she’s had a sort of double triumph.
First, because Fairfax is on strike, her column hasn’t been knocked into shape by an overworked sub, so it is visible in its raw state, i.e. mentally disorganised and close to unreadable.
Second, even though Fairfax is now running ads for lost dogs and office party bum photocopies in a desperate attempt to fill space, Vanstone’s Monday column manages to be the worst thing in the paper, a ramble about Yassmin Abdel-Magied.
It’s the usual misconstruction of the debate, eliding the main aim of Abdel-Magied’s persecutors: to have her sacked from public broadcasting and state roles for “unauthorised” opinions about Anzac Day. In doing so, it repeats the usual illiberalism at the heart of Australian liberalism: that free speech is all very well, but there are some things you just don’t say. In the lucid first few paragraphs of the “article”, Vanstone notes:
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“[Abdel-Magied’s] experience [on Q&A] might have taught her to be careful. Anyone with a public profile can suffer far more than others when their words are picked up and amplified.
“Anzac Day is one of the moments that bring Australians from all walks of life and all political persuasions together.”
Could someone send this “liberal” an introductory text on liberalism, please? If your idea of a robust public sphere is that people should be “careful” about what they say, then you’ve adopted a totalitarian logic. The whole point of a pluralist public sphere and free speech is that there is nothing that brings everyone together, nothing that is not dissented from, disagreed with or questioned.
Vanstone’s comments, uninteresting in themselves, serve as a useful sample of “liberal” opinion: that the limits of free speech are set by whiteness, with Anzac Day serving as an acceptable symbol of such (hilariously, Vanstone notes that Abdel-Magied gets sick of being asked where she’s from; then notes “My family name is O’Brien and its origins seem obvious, but my husband’s invites frequent comment. I don’t care.” Another gem of incomprehensibility we would have been deprived of had someone competent been massaging the piece into shape.)
When the “unquestionable” limits of free speech start to be questioned, “national unity” is asserted above liberal values, a good guide to which way the right would turn, will turn, in the future. Like an earthquake revealing a fossil shale, the Fairfax disaster has at least given us this look into the very centre of “liberal” thinking. Vanstone’s ramble gives us a look into the mind of the eastern suburbs of everywhere. Free speech for us, and flog the rest of them. Please publish her unedited, even when the strike is over.