I remember when Tony Abbott won the leadership of the Coalition by one vote of caucus. I was a fan. Here was someone who was prepared to take a stand on principle. Of course I’d liked him before that and I liked him after that. Mr. Abbott was also masterful as an Opposition leader, causing such problems that Labor first ditched Mr. Rudd, then ditched Ms. Gillard, then Labor lost badly at the 2013 election.
Mr. Abbott had been rightfully relentless in pointing out that you just couldn’t trust Ms. Gillard. On a big ticket issue, the carbon tax, she’d looked the voters of Australia in the eye, and then later she’d done a backflip. She’d lied.
Of course in the lead up to the last election Mr. Abbott looked the voters of Australia in the eye and said that principle mattered to him and that free speech was a core matter of principle. Any government he led would do something about our awful Section 18C hate speech laws. Last week Mr. Abbott decided he didn’t care that much for this principle after all. He was jettisoning it. Too bad for you if that’s a main reason why you’d voted for him.
So let’s consider how the Gillard and Abbott backflips might differ, and also how people like me who voted Coalition in 2013, but who feel massively betrayed by this free speech backflip, might respond.
First off, you can’t deny that Tony’s backflip is every bit the lie that Julia’s was in the sense of making a direct promise and then recanting when the going got tough. If anything, Gillard had more of an excuse. She had to work with a minority Parliament in the lower house. That’s no full excuse of course, especially as she could have got the two rural socialists and Greens on board even had she not done this. She even had a sort of control of the Senate.
For Abbott, you can’t say either of those things. He has a big majority in the lower house (so less excuse than Gillard) but he can’t get things through the Senate (so more excuse). I think that is just another way of saying that if ‘my word is my bond’ Tony had passed repeal of s.18C through the House and put it to the Senate, and lost, many Coalition voters such as I would be less aggrieved.
As it is, you can’t help feeling that Tony Abbott is morphing into an Antipodean David Cameron. You know the plot. A right-of-centre Prime Minister gets elected and starts moving to the left. He sells out his core voters to try to win some support from the centre left. He reckons that his core vote has nowhere to go. When push comes to shove it will support him.
Yet it hasn’t worked out that way for Mr. Cameron in Britain. He was so dismissive of his core voters early on he even started insulting some of them. Party membership has tanked. And then the totally unexpected happened and a party to his right, the United Kingdom Independence Party started polling well into double figures. It even came first in the European elections.
Now Herr Cameron is trying desperately to re-establish his right wing credentials. No one believes him. If the Tories lose the next election, it will be directly due to this miscalculation – that by hanging your core vote out to dry and catering to the bien pensant inner city sensibilities you can up your vote.
Mr. Abbott has not done anything like the Cameron shuffle to the left. Not yet. But the sense that I had, that here was a man of principle, certainly seems to have been a naïve sense on my part. And come the next election, why should I, or you, believe any assurances he makes? He’ll be stuck in the same dilemma as Cameron.
Of course there is this huge difference between the Gillard porky and the Abbott fib. In the case of the carbon tax one side of politics was offering an alternative. With the illiberal hate speech law regime, and getting rid of it, Mr. Shorten is clearly worse than Mr. Abbott. Abbott may have lied. But Shorten would be worse. I am starting to think that the left side of politics these days doesn’t have a free speech bone in their bodies. Remember those Gillard media proposals?
Not only is that a huge shift of outlook for the political left, as it was that side of politics that three decades ago championed free speech, it leaves the pro-free speech voter with nowhere to go. Let me be clear. I would vote Labor next election if I honestly believed it would jettison s.18C, all of its other awful policies notwithstanding.
But as I live on planet earth, and know full well that Labor is a lost cause on free speech, I’m in the same position as many readers. What to do?
Here are a couple of small suggestions should you approach the next election and find that you cannot stomach Labor but are still angry that a core liberal value such as free speech means nothing to today’s Liberal Party.
To start, I will not be voting for the Coalition in the Senate. I suggest you don’t either. The lower house voting is what gives us a government. I may well hold my nose and pull the trigger for ‘my word is my bond’ Tony in the House of Representatives. But I will be tossing the above the line Coalition Senate ballot in the garbage.
Nor would I raise a finger to help with campaigning. And if you happen to be a Party Member, you could of course quit in protest. I will also find out what my local Coalition electorate candidate thinks about s.18C. Try to get him or her on the record. It won’t be easy. If there’s a small margin, they may have to come out against the party line and in favour of free speech. This is happening in the UK with some Tory MPs afraid of the UKIP vote.
When all is said and done, though, you’re left feeling as though you’ve been played by the Coalition. They think voters like me have nowhere to go. And in some sense they’re right. An Abbott government is better than a Shorten one, even on the issue of free speech. A government that can’t be bothered to lift a finger on a core liberal principle of free speech is better than one actively hostile to that principle.
A government that is prepared to take the issue of free speech off the table, in part because of the illiberal beliefs and values of relatively new immigrants and because that might help new anti-terror laws get enacted is better than one that these days can’t even spell ‘free speech’ let alone show any sympathy to its core underpinnings whatsoever.
So that’s the depressing state of play almost one year into this Abbott government. It will be going into the next election as a cohort of liars selling itself as the least bad option on offer.
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James Allan is Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland.
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