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Tony Abbott in front of IPA sign.
Noted freedom lover and IPA fan Tony Abbott. (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

The 30th anniversary of the removal of the German anti-fascist protection barrier — that’s the Berlin Wall to you — has been the occasion for a few articles about the dangers of communism, a movement defunct for decades, at a time when it is capitalism and nationalism that threaten the possibility of life on Earth.

But it’s also been the occasion for what I like to think of as the “freedom paradox” — that those in our time who damn communism in retrospect as “against human nature” and celebrate the joys of individualism, are those whose careers most resemble the smooth organisational progression and circumspection that was characteristic of the Soviet era.

Take the bright boys and girls of the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), who celebrate the power of the individual and her/his conscience in the exercise of freedom — and spread throughout the media and institutions speaking about such in lock-step, prating about the freedom agenda.

Consider the latest in the series of attacks on freedom, the Morrison government’s crackpot, clientelist scheme to ban organised consumer boycotts of environmental purpose. The proposed law would give the state qualitative and explicit limits on free speech — a public servant deciding whether a free speech utterance was opinion, or a secondary boycott and an attack on consumer sovereignty.

But from the IPA there has been almost no comment, at least that can be found on their website and twitter feed; only a single remark to The Sydney Morning Herald criticising crappy measures to remove protesters’ welfare benefits.

That is admirable political discipline; with IPA figures such as Tim Wilson and James Patterson in the government, the freedom agenda has been sparing in its demands to say the least. Nor was there any protest when Berlin-based Cameroonian journalist Mimi Mefo was refused a visa — to attend a free speech conference! — on clearly racist grounds.

Mind you, “Freedom Boy” Tim Wilson had ruled, in a previous visa exclusion, that a commitment to freedom — sorry, Freedom! — did not necessarily involve objection to the exclusion of people, even if it was enforced solely on the grounds of what they had to say, because, borders.

The IPA and the whole of the right did get very exercised about one attack on freedom however: the government demand that the CPAC conservative conference (a franchise of a US outfit) register Tony Abbott as an “agent of influence”. They had been somewhat less exercised about the law when it was first introduced. Admirable apparatchikism, elevating protecting one’s own above and beyond general principle.

Over at the Centre for Independent Studies, supremo Tom Switzer — whose career perfectly resembles a sort of Brezhnevite rise of the grey grim organisation man (though, to clarify, I do not believe he has imprisoned dissidents or invaded Afghanistan) — has made some “protest” at the government’s proposed new anti-protest laws.

But it is couched in the language of strategy, a courtier’s letter to the prime minister, warning of the unintended consequences for freedom, of laws designed to nobble those grubby greenies. It is not an attack, from within liberal conservatism, on a series of Coalition governments that have been clearly repressive in intent.

Mind you, on a plus side, IPA veteran John Roskam has spoken out on the cross-media “Right to Know” campaign:. He’s decided to focus on the “self-importance” of journalists, and to brand as hypocrisy simultaneous support for press freedom and, you guessed it, 18C (which has broad provisions for fair comment). Fantastic.

The problem for such groups and individuals is not only the imperative to keep a courtier relationship with a right-wing government; it is also, especially for the IPA, the fact that the old Thatcherite purported claim to “free speech” within a “tradition/patriotism/security” message is becoming impossible when a commitment to the latter is increasingly expressed through restrictions on the former.

The IPA’s obsessions are increasingly turned to security, deregulation for business, the Anglo heritage as mediated through the Ramsay Centre push, and the need for “unity” (a strange passion for classical liberals) against division.

For all their claims to representing an Anglo tradition, they are becoming a continental-European-style reactionary force, more in line with Victor Orban’s “illiberal” regime in Hungary.

Apparently “actually existing liberalism” must be defended at all costs; even if that means silence or strategy on laws that would make it illegal for one citizen to urge another to buy product A rather than product B, for reason C — all of which the state should be, in general (there are exceptions) indifferent to.

If you can’t come out immediately and full force against a proposed law to restrict the freedom of both minds and markets in mutual definition, then does the liberal-conservative project still exist? Will these organisations start to suffer an exodus of members? Ah, the “freedom paradox”! Maybe they will need to build a wall.

How can the right extricate itself from the freedom paradox? Send your thoughts to [email protected]. Please include your full name for publication.

Peter Fray

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