Freedom to Disagree: the Erosion of Public Debate in Australia

Freedom of speech is the concept of the inherent human right to voice one’s opinion publicly without fear of censorship or punishment.

After the Zachy Mallah fiasco, I think we can all conclude that in Australia, this concept is under serious, serious threat. 
I mean, how else could you interpret the response to the ABC’s decision to allow a former terrorist suspect to ask Liberal MP Steven Coibo a very provocative – but no less important – question on Q & A a few weeks ago?

By way of summation:

The tabloid media had a field day, castigating the public broadcaster as actively promoting terrorism and calling for further cuts in what was equal parts hypocritical (Mallah had been interviewed in literally dozens of mainstream newspapers, radio shows and television programs in the preceding years) and illogical (nobody, I repeat nobody did or could be “radicalised” by what Mallah had to say, a point that was eloquently expressed by Dr Anna Aly on the program the following week);

Right wing group United Patriots Front protested the ABC’s headquarters, raising concerns for the safety of staff members and basically reminding us that proponents of White Australia are still very much alive and kicking.

Finally, and most significantly for our purposes, the government launched an official inquiry into the public broadcaster, indicating that the program may be axed and placing a three-month embargo on members of the front bench appearing on the show.

All because we allowed a young man, with a chip on his shoulder, to ask a question.

Specifically, what the government’s unprecedented decision to allow a Minister to unilaterally strip a person’s citizenship when they are suspected of fighting abroad – curb stomping the presumption of innocence, the rule of law and the rest of those pesky principles that we (used to) pride ourselves – on would have meant for him.

The minister’s reply? Instant and unapologetic exile. Even though Mallah was found innocent for terrorism charges. And yes, you read that correctly, the ABC is the one being reprimanded.

So what does this saga mean for Australia going forward? Well for a start, it marks a dangerous turning point in the government’s willingness to silence dissent and circumvent accountability.  Mallah is a dickhead, but if the ABC was wrong to give him a platform then they were also wrong to have the likes of Alan Jones or Andrew Bolt on the panel, who between them have spouted more racism and misogyny than Mallah – a guest – ever could.

It exposes a dangerous hypocrisy to take a stand against your detractors on principle, but stay silent when you’re not in the firing line. A notion perhaps best exemplified by the man who initiated the inquiry, our fearless leader Tony Abbott, who famously refused to boycott Jones’ radio show after he claimed that then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s father had “died of shame”. Why did he refuse?

Well, because “in a robust democracy – there’s got to be a range of views” of course.

The truth is that the censorship of the ABC is more about evading the issue than it is about facilitating a principled discussion. It is a loud and aggressive means of re-positioning the spotlight on unsubstantiated claims of bias, whilst laws that could reshape Australia’s legal system and fundamentally undermine our Constitution pass quietly through a diluted democratic process.

Democracy is about facilitating a dialogue, and whilst displacing the right to free speech will always be appropriate where a person is defamatory (i.e. Andrew Bolt’s false claim that Justice Popovic had pre-judged trials) or grossly offensive (i.e. Andrew Bolt’s infamous article “It’s so hip to be black” – sensing a theme here?), the onus is on the party crying foul to show why censorship is absolutely necessary.

It is my opinion that the government did not discharge this onus – nor did they really attempt to. The hoopla about national security absolving them of this responsibility the same way it did for Howard or Bush post 9/11.

Without the ability to subject ideas and opinions to critical discussion, how exactly are we free? Without the need to debate and deconstruct arguments, how exactly can we inform ourselves of the right way forward? Without providing rights to each and every Australian citizen to have their say on the issues that affect them, is our claim that we believe in equality accurate?

The truth is that the most appropriate response to ideas that we disagree with is getting involved in the conversation. There need to be standards yes – a respectful debate will almost inexorably be more productive than a mud-slinging contest – but the fact is that a person has a right to say that another person’s opinion is stupid, and that person has a right to say why that isn’t the case.

Criticize Mallah for his views all you want, but you can’t muzzle him because their not your own. The same goes for the program that facilitated them – especially when the Minister and his government had all the chances in the world to make a case against him.

In fact ultimately, by attempting to silence Mallah, he has earned a far brighter spotlight than he ever deserved.

That’s what happens when you censor people.

It’s a lesson we all need to heed.

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