The brief life and quiet death of Tony Abbott’s love of liberty
In Tony Abbott’s Australia, a young woman faces jail because word got out that one of his daughters was given a $60,000 scholarship to study at the Whitehouse Institute of Design. This scholarship was never advertised. Students at the college in Sydney had no idea such largesse was available. News of Frances Abbott’s win provoked a two-month investigation by the New South Wales Police and a charge of accessing restricted data without authorisation. Penalty: imprisonment for a maximum of two years.
How different it was all those years ago when young Tony won his Rhodes. Now that’s a scholarship. The win wasn’t a secret. No one faced jail when the news broke. But the young man and the prime minister have this in common: a most uncertain respect for free speech. Abbott had made his name at the University of Sydney as one of Bob Santamaria’s acolytes working to silence student unions by starving them of funds. The day the Rhodes was announced, in November 1980, he told the Sydney Morning Herald that John Kerr, Malcolm Fraser and the uranium industry were not “legitimate concerns” of student unions. “In my view, vast amounts of student money are being spent on extreme causes.”
Abbott never seemed the sort of man who would go out on a limb for liberty. In parliament he made a spectacle of himself early on by suing over a silly slur in Bob Ellis’ book Goodbye Jerusalem. He was up to his neck in the legal manoeuvring that landed Pauline Hanson in jail. He had the courage to demur when John Howard put WorkChoices before cabinet, but there is no record of him standing up to his patron when Howard prosecuted whistleblowers; stripped NGOs of funding; whipped museums into line; widened sedition laws; imprisoned the innocent Dr Mohamed Haneef without charge; and subjected the ABC to a decade of partisan abuse. When it came to liberty, Abbott was one of the Coalition pack.
Yet one morning in August 2012 he walked into the Amora Hotel in Sydney and pledged to take up arms in the Freedom Wars. “We are the freedom party,” he told an exuberant crowd gathered by the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA).
We stand for the freedoms which Australians have a right to expect and which governments have a duty to uphold. We stand for freedom and will be freedom’s bulwark against the encroachments of an unworthy and dishonourable government.
No Coalition leader has ever talked freedom as Abbott did that morning. The passion, the rhetoric and the undertakings he gave were new in the politics of this country. He might have been an American on the stump. Angels sang and trumpets sounded. He was promising to do more than stop the boats, axe the tax and end the waste. As prime minister, he would restore our lost freedoms. A new Abbott had appeared from nowhere to join the others who jostle for our attention. Politics Abbott is the one who rules them all. Values Abbott has his commitment to faith and a unique political past. Intellectual Abbott can turn out opinion pieces on anything from reshaping the federation to the future of marriage. But here on the stage of this big city hotel was Freedom Abbott:
Without free speech, free debate is impossible and, without free debate, the democratic process cannot work properly nor can misgovernment and corruption be fully exposed. Freedom of speech is part of the compact between citizen and society on which democratic government rests. A threat to citizens’ freedom of speech is more than an error of political judgement. It reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the give and take between government and citizen on which a peaceful and harmonious society is based.
Two years later, I sit here writing Freedom Abbott’s obituary. I’ll honour the form with the story of his rise from nowhere, the hopes he raised in his brief life, his impact on the politics of the nation, and his sudden death in August in the same week the cops charged the supposed Whitehouse whistleblower. They were rough days for liberty. By the time the prime minister abandoned his crusade to gut the Racial Discrimination Act, promised new powers to ASIO and prepared to store our metadata for the use of intelligence agencies, Freedom Abbott was on the slab.
The death wrecked Tim Wilson’s Free Speech 2014 symposium. Gathered in Sydney that week by the new human rights commissioner were figures from the left, right and centre, a peace council of the factions called to explore the great prospects for liberty under an Abbott government. But the day was a wake, with the same coffee and smoked salmon that come with a funeral – and the same gloom. The attorney-general, George Brandis, found another funeral to go to at the last minute. It wasn’t brave, but what could he have said to us? His libertarian rhetoric, even more lyrical than Abbott’s, had just been junked by his master. The Freedom Wars seem over without a shot being fired. So much praise had been wasted, so many hopes dashed, and now so much blame is being dished out. Abbott’s naïve admirers have turned on him for betraying Australia. In the aftermath of an abandoned war, the politics of liberty have shifted to a dark place.
“Dead is dead,” said Gertrude Stein. “But dead is not done. Not over.”
Abbott could always talk freedom. It was a topic fit for think tanks: civilised, big-picture, fundamental but tame. He always saw the dangers. They went back to Genesis: “In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve could do almost as they pleased. But freedom turned out to have its limits and its abuses, as this foundational story makes only too clear.” Cynics might argue the church had to be fought tooth and nail for liberal democracy to emerge. But Abbott has always said we have Christianity to thank for freedom and “the presumption of innocence, universal suffrage, limited government, and religious, cultural and political pluralism”. Among today’s great defenders of “freedom under law” he lists the crown and the papacy.
He never thought freedom owed much to the left. Tom Paine is not among his heroes. No revolution, not even the French, is given credit for liberty’s rise. Nor are unions, the labour movement and Marx. He is polite to Americans: he acknowledges the overthrow of George III matters to them, though he’s sure it means nothing to us. His praise stops short of the First Amendment. He doesn’t gush about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
For the past few centuries, freedom has spoken English. True, there were one or two upheavals along the way, but Abbott has always seen peaceful England setting the standard for liberty’s rise. He doesn’t turn to the great legal theorists to make this point. He quotes Tennyson’s lines about “A land of settled government, / A land of just and old renown, / Where Freedom slowly broadens down / From precedent to precedent”. This is his go-to quote when he talks freedom. He finds these lines pithy and beautiful. He loves to quote them when he’s talking liberty to American think tanks. Sometimes he rolls on to the next verse, condemning another England where “banded unions persecute / Opinions, and induce a time / When single thought is civil crime, / And individual freedom mute”.
An Oxford man is expected to dish out this sort of stuff. But an Oxford man might also have a closer look at what Tennyson is writing here: a Tory attack on the Great Reform Act of 1832 and the political division it provoked in England. His favourite quote on freedom is, in fact, an attack on one of the key, hard-fought victories against aristocratic power in Britain. Perhaps Abbott has no idea of this. Perhaps he’s just smitten by the poetry. What’s certain is his affection for the idea that liberty evolves naturally over time, dropping gently from the heavens. This is not freedom made by great upheavals or witnessed in declarations. There is nothing hard and fast about it. More than anything, it’s a matter of instinct. You know it when you feel it.
Abbott was always worried about the need to keep a brake on freedom. It’s the lesson of Adam and Eve, the teaching of his faith, and the fear that drove Santamaria’s crusade all those years ago in the universities of Australia. The Santa crowd saw themselves as campaigning for order in a world where too much freedom might mean curtains for civilisation. Abbott has grown since then as a man and a politician, but in 2002, as a young minister in Howard’s government, troubled by divorce and drugs, he was still lashing out at
a highly contagious mutant strain of liberalism that can’t work out when one person’s freedom stops and another’s starts, and which feels constrained by the ideal of freedom from discouraging (let alone preventing) self-indulgent, counter-productive and destructive behaviour. The liberal state carries within it the seeds of its own destruction if it is just liberal, if it cannot coerce or even criticise the misuse of freedom.
Abbott believed in a liberty of rules with freedom restrained and protected by the state. He doesn’t celebrate free spirits except, rather touchingly, those who ride bikes: “The bike is a freedom machine.” And he finds repugnant the idea of having a bill of rights to guarantee our liberties. He is not alone there on either side of the House of Representatives. Politicians look after themselves. Their instincts are finely honed. As Abbott told Laurie Oakes one night in 2008: “The problem with a bill of rights is that it takes power off the elected politicians.”
Freedom Abbott was still a few years away. Politics Abbott played a part in his unexpected birth. From the US, Australian conservatives had imported the strategy of branding their opponents – “liberals” there and “the left” here – as enemies of freedom. This works better in the US, where there’s a big constituency for the notion that controlling guns, taxing carbon and giving medicine to the poor are a frontal attack on freedom in a nation whose defining purpose is the pursuit of freedom. Here, we hanker as much for fairness as we do liberty. We don’t fear government. We’re not happy about paying tax but we don’t see it as a fundamental assault on freedom.
But Australian commentators took up the drumbeat of Fox News, and Liberal Party leaders began, shyly at first, to present themselves as evangelists for liberty facing the hostility of the left. “The left has embraced a new authoritarianism,” Brandis declared in April this year, in a ripping interview with the libertarian Brendan O’Neill for the website Spiked. “Having abandoned the attempt to control the commanding heights of the economy, they now want to control the commanding heights of opinion, and that is even more dangerous.”
Brandis invokes the ghosts of Stalin and Pol Pot to press home his attack on the left. Those with a taste for personal abuse more developed than mine might call this line of argument insane. I call it surprising. “How can it be,” Brandis asked a crowd at the Centre for Independent Studies in August last year, “that at the end of a century that saw the embrace by the authoritarian left of murder on an industrial scale as a political and ideological method, how can it be that we, on our side of politics, abandoned human rights as a cause to the left?” His message was: “We have to re-embrace the human rights debate. We have to remind people that we in the Liberal Party are the party of human rights.”
More than anything, the left is charged with smothering dissident voices in the debate over global warming. They treat sceptics with disrespect. Laugh at Lord Monckton. Reserve ABC science shows for scientists. Fail to give dissenters an honoured place on the platform. The exercise of judgement – scientific and editorial – in the debate is condemned as the bullying, authoritarian, anti-free speech behaviour of the left.
When Abbott jumped the ditch in late 2009 to join the sceptics, this became part of his thinking. So too did the American notion that small government equals freedom. He had dismissed the idea earlier that year in his memoir, Battlelines, but it began to shape his rhetoric. Replying to Rudd’s budget in 2010, the new leader of the Opposition declared: “The Coalition wants lower taxes, smaller government and greater freedom.”
And the leap to the sceptics drew him closer to Andrew Bolt, an eloquent News Ltd voice on the side of the Liberal Party and a scourge of plans to combat climate change. Abbott came to comfort the shattered columnist a few days after the Federal Court’s mortifying judgement in the case brought by Aborigines Bolt had attacked baselessly in the Herald Sun. Bolt told John van Tiggelen of Good Weekend that his “very influential” guest had “dropped in to urge him to keep going on all fronts. The impromptu dinner guest told him and his wife that his TV show, merely by existing, gave heart to a good many people.”
Abbott did not defend Bolt’s journalism: “The article for which Andrew Bolt was prosecuted under this legislation was almost certainly not his finest.” But he called for the gutting of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which penalises speech likely to “offend, insult, intimidate or humiliate” on grounds of race. The court had found that Bolt ticked all four boxes. Free speech advocates, long worried that the act set the bar too low, were calling for “offend” and “insult” to be pruned from the section. Julia Gillard’s government was hammered for defending 18C as it stood.
“This law will haunt Labor and constitute another chapter in the degeneration of its culture, a process now dangerously advanced,” declared the Australian’s editor-at-large, Paul Kelly. “Indeed, it is hard to find a more perfect example of the trap of political correctness and the legal-human rights culture of legislating for good behaviour than this application of the Racial Discrimination Act.” He commended Abbott and Brandis for swiftly promising to fix the act. “It signals a new cultural attack on Labor on grounds of political correctness.”
Freedom Abbott was a bastard child of the Culture Wars. He quoted Edmund Burke and John Stuart Mill, and even Voltaire, but his passion for freedom wasn’t a thing of abstract philosophy. Abbott was about to do what he did so well as leader of the Opposition: blast the government with whatever was to hand.
Something else was in the air in the days of Freedom Abbott’s birth. The Australian had received a fresh cache of documents about Bruce Wilson, the crooked former Australian Workers Union official who was once Julia Gillard’s lover. Earlier attempts to smear her with Wilson’s crimes had damaged Gillard badly. But she fought back hard and saw Bolt silenced, Glenn Milne dumped by the Australian and shock jock Michael Smith ousted from Sydney radio station 2UE. Now after a year’s lull, the story had returned. It was gold for Abbott, but, inside and outside the government, News Ltd was being accused of a vicious beat-up. The Australian on Saturday, 4 August 2012 had the story everywhere: on page 1, ‘Cops wanted Gillard’s ex charged’; on page 2: ‘Coalition wants alleged bagman investigated’; on page 23, Cut and Paste: ‘Fifty shades of nay, or how the real Dr No of politics keeps Labor from getting tied up’; and on the same page an editorial: ‘AWU scandal questions linger’.
Two days later, Freedom Abbott materialised in the ballroom of the Amora Hotel, electrifying a crowd of 300. His rhetoric was wonderful. Again and again, he was stopped by applause. He was so forgiving about the press. No journalist could fail to be pleased by his promise to protect speech that wasn’t always accurate and wasn’t always fair: “The price of free speech … is that offence will be given, facts will be misrepresented, and sometimes lies will be told. Truth, after all, only emerges from such a process. But thanks to free speech, error can be exposed, corruption revealed, arrogance deflated, mistakes corrected, the right upheld and truth flaunted in the face of power.”
Then his focus narrowed: “This is not a government that argues its case. Mostly, it simply howls down its critics using the megaphone of incumbency … Late last year, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy accused the Sydney Daily Telegraph of a deliberate campaign to ‘bring the government down’. The prime minister had a screaming match with former News Ltd boss John Hartigan over an article about her prior-to-entering-parliament dealings with a union official … The prime minister personally insisted that News Ltd in Australia had ‘questions to answer’ in the wake of the UK phone-hacking scandal even though she was not able to specify what these might be. It seems obvious that her real concern was not Fleet Street–style illegality but News Ltd’s coverage of her government and its various broken promises, new taxes and botched program.”
News Ltd was facing a distant threat on another flank. The former Federal Court judge Ray Finkelstein had delivered his report on media regulation. Controversy had been raging for months. All the proprietors were furious, but at the Amora Hotel Abbott leapt only to the defence of News Ltd, claiming Finkelstein’s proposed News Media Council “looks like an attempt to warn off News Ltd from pursuing anti-government stories”.
Freedom Abbott drew his first breaths speaking the language of a News Ltd executive. Hardly anyone noticed at the time. Abbott’s commitment to fight the Freedom Wars made the headlines. He nominated Brandis as his consigliore in the Coalition campaign for liberty. An agenda of sorts emerged: 18C would be slashed, anti-discrimination laws wound back and a “freedom audit” conducted of all Commonwealth laws to identify those that violated traditional rights and freedoms. Asked if he had what it took to achieve these reforms, Brandis replied: “I was born for it.”
Abbott’s calls for fresh candour and vigour in public debate were pitch perfect. The week before polling day he told the Australian:
Any suggestion you can have free speech as long as it doesn’t hurt people’s feelings is ridiculous. If we are going to be a robust democracy, if we are going to be a strong civil society, if we are going to maintain that great spirit of inquiry, which is the spark that has made our civilisation so strong, then we’ve got to allow people to say things that are unsayable in polite company. We’ve got to allow people to think things that are unthinkable in polite company and take their chances in open debate.
Australians frustrated by Canberra’s old indifference to liberty could cast their vote on 7 September 2013 with reason to hope. Even on the left there were signs of goodwill. Think tanks were cautiously delighted. But on victory night, something odd happened. I was there at the Four Seasons Hotel in Sydney in a throng of excited Liberals, drooling lobbyists and exhausted journalists. Flanked by his wife and daughters, the new prime minister declared Australia open for business. All the old mantras about boats and waste and carbon tax had a run, but there wasn’t a word said about liberty. Freedom Abbott didn’t show.
The swearing in of a cabinet was once a silent show except for the muttering of oaths. Now there are speeches. In the drawing room of Yarralumla with his cabinet duly sworn, Tony Abbott faced Quentin Bryce. He told Her Excellency: “We hope to be judged by what we have done rather than by what we have said we would do.” Fair enough.
10 October 2013: The state and territory attorneys-general meet in Sydney without discussing shield laws. The issue was on the agenda. With the change of government it vanished. It hasn’t appeared since. Efforts begun under Gillard to introduce uniform national laws to give effective protection to journalists and their sources have ceased.
25 October: Scott Morrison first utters the phrase “on water operations” to justify the unprecedented secrecy that surrounds the Abbott government’s blockade of refugee boats. Morrison whittles away the few rights and freedoms left to those caught up in Operation Sovereign Borders.
2 December: Brandis authorises an ASIO raid on the Canberra office of Bernard Collaery, the lawyer representing East Timor in its dispute with Australia over the Timor Sea Treaty. In March this year, the International Court of Justice at The Hague orders Australia to seal the material seized and keep it from all officials involved in the dispute. The order is binding.
3 December: Abbott rages against the ABC and the “left-wing” Guardian for together reporting that Australian spy agencies had targeted the phones of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his wife. “The ABC seemed to delight in broadcasting allegations by a traitor,” he later told Ray Hadley of the Sydney radio station 2GB. “This gentleman Snowden, or this individual Snowden, who has betrayed his country and in the process has badly, badly damaged other countries that are friends of the United States, and of course the ABC didn’t just report what he said, they took the lead in advertising what he said.”
11 December: Brandis announces terms of reference for the Australian Law Reform Commission’s audit of Commonwealth laws that compromise freedom. The terms’ focus is not individual liberty but “commercial and corporate regulation; environmental regulation; and workplace relations”. Free speech barely makes the list. Brandis tells the Australian Financial Review he is most perturbed by the “reversal of the onus of proof, the creation of strict liability offences, the removal of lawyer–client privilege and removal of rights against self-incrimination”. It reads like a list of everything tax evaders loathe about the law.
17 December: Brandis appoints the policy director of the IPA, Tim Wilson, to the Australian Human Rights Commission. Wilson’s mission is to restore balance to a body which the attorney-general believes “has become increasingly narrow and selective in its view of human rights” under Labor. This is code for the culture war complaint that the left is manipulating anti-discrimination laws to impose its moral agenda on a reluctant society. The Bolt case is a particular focus of the fear that protecting blacks, gays, foreigners and cripples from discrimination is stripping the rest of us of our freedom.
29 January 2014: Abbott blasts the ABC for reporting claims that Australian military personnel have punished asylum seekers by burning their hands. “I think it dismays Australians when the national broadcaster appears to take everyone’s side but our own,” says the prime minister. “You shouldn’t leap to be critical of your own country.” News Ltd joins the attack. The ABC falters. Its managing director, Mark Scott, apologises for imprecise wording in the original report, but three days later, Fairfax’s man in Indonesia, Michael Bachelard, finds asylum seeker Yousif Ibrahim Fasher: “He says he has no doubt that what he saw at close quarters on about January 3 was three people’s hands being deliberately held to a hot exhaust pipe by Australian naval personnel to punish them for protesting, and to deter others from doing one simple thing: going to the toilet too often.”
Tony Abbott at the Devondale Murray Goulburn Processing Facilities, July 2014. © Tony Abbott
6 March: Abbott threatens to cut the ABC’s budget if it doesn’t cave in to Chris Kenny. The Chaser team had crudely photoshopped the head of the News Ltd pundit onto a man with his pants down mounting a labradoodle. Kenny sued for $90,000. Missing in action is Abbott’s defence of lively debate where “offence will be given, facts will be misrepresented”. He tells 2GB’s Ben Fordham the ABC should settle the case or else: “Government money should be spent sensibly and defending the indefensible is not a very good way to spend government money. Next time the ABC comes to the government looking for more money, this is the kind of thing that we would want to ask questions about.” The ABC buckles. Kenny gets an apology and cash.
13 March: Brandis decrees artists who refuse private sponsorship on political grounds may be stripped of public funding. Troubled by Transfield’s links to offshore detention centres, a handful of artists had pressured the company to withdraw sponsorship from the Sydney Biennale. Brandis asks: “If the Sydney Biennale doesn’t need Transfield’s money, why should they be asking for ours?” He directs the Australia Council to find a formula for deciding when public funding will be withdrawn because private sponsorship has been “unreasonably” rejected. He does not rule out compelling arts organisations to take tobacco money. Months later, the council is still labouring over the words. However it’s done, Brandis wants artists to know they will pay a price for embarrassing the government. This threatens direct political intervention for the first time in the allocation of Australia Council funds.
24 March: Brandis tells Senator Nova Peris: “People do have a right to be bigots, you know.” The next day, he releases draft legislation to gut sections 18C and 18D of the Racial Discrimination Act. Abbott backs him. The proposal – drafted by Brandis himself – would allow almost unrestrained racist abuse in the name of freedom. Ethnic community leaders lobby for the act to be left as it is. Polls swiftly show nine out of ten Australians disapprove of the changes. Three-quarters of the 4100 submissions received by Brandis’ department are hostile. The department blocks their release.
23 May: Morrison strips the Refugee Council of Australia of half a million dollars allocated in the budget only ten days before. The minister explains: “It’s not my view, or the government’s view, that taxpayer funding should be there for what is effectively an advocacy group.” The CEO of the council, Paul Power, calls the cuts petty and vindictive. “This in many ways illustrates the state of the relationship between the non-government sector – particularly organisations working on asylum issues – and the government at the moment.”
1 July: Community legal centres across Australia are also forbidden to use Commonwealth money for advocacy or to campaign for law reform. During the Labor years, funding for NGOs had come with the guarantee that they were free “to enter into public debate or criticism of the Commonwealth, its agencies, employees, servants or agents”. Under Abbott, the guarantee disappears. So do many sources of independent advice. The budgets of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service, the Environmental Defender’s Offices and the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples are slashed. Axed are the Social Inclusion Board, the National Housing Supply Council, the National Policy Commission on Indigenous Housing, the National Children and Family Roundtable, the Advisory Panel on Positive Ageing, and the committee of independent medicos advising the refugee detention network, the Immigration Health Advisory Group.
16 July: Brandis threatens laws to double the sentence for reporting “special intelligence operations” by ASIO. Whistleblowers would not be protected, and journalists would not even need to know the operations were “special” to find themselves in prison for up to a decade. No public interest defence would be available. The shadow attorney-general, Mark Dreyfus, says: “We will not tolerate legislation which exposes journalists to criminal sanction for doing their important work, work that is vital to upholding the public’s right to know.”
4 August: Twenty-two-year-old student Freya Newman, a former part-time librarian at the Whitehouse Institute of Design, is charged with unauthorised access to restricted data following reports of Frances Abbott’s scholarship, after complaints to the police by the institute. The chair of the institute is Liberal Party donor and friend of the prime minister Les Taylor.
5 August: Abbott announces the metadata of all Australians is to be kept by internet service providers for two years and made available to ASIO and police. That trawl will, of course, include the metadata of whistleblowers and journalists. He abandons at the same time his two-year crusade to amend the Racial Discrimination Act. Both moves he justifies in the light of terrorist outrages by Australian nationals in Syria. “When it comes to counter-terrorism, everyone needs to be part of ‘Team Australia’,” he says, “and I have to say that the government’s proposals to change 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act have become a complication in that respect. I don’t want to do anything that puts our national unity at risk at this time, and so those proposals are now off the table.”
Freedom Abbott had outlived his purpose. He was useful in Opposition. That’s when phony contests like the Culture Wars can wreak havoc on your opponents. But to keep the banner of freedom flying in office was always going to be hard. No Australian government has ever managed the feat. And Abbott is proving no political pioneer. Nothing done in his first year advances the cause he championed in Opposition. His rhetoric has proved threadbare. Poor old Values Abbott died on budget night when an ordinary Liberal Party agenda was served up to the nation. A couple of months later, Freedom Abbott followed him to the grave.
The IPA marked the burial with a brutal full-page ad in the Australian. “Freedom of speech is an essential foundation of democracy,” said Abbott across the top of the page. Across the bottom the IPA replied: “We agree, Prime Minister. That’s why we will fight to repeal section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. Even if you won’t.” John Roskam, the executive director of the IPA, spoke of a party base betrayed and Australians left “sad, angry, disappointed and worried” by Abbott. “If the Coalition can sacrifice freedom of speech so easily, there’s nothing to stop, say, freedom of religion or the principle of equal education for girls and boys one day being treated in exactly the same way … under Tony Abbott, the Coalition believes freedom of speech is a threat to national unity.”
Brandis was simply humiliated.
Muslims were furious. Every ethnic community in Australia had put up their hand to protest, but Abbott had used the Muslims to cover his retreat. Tabloid pundits rammed the message home. It didn’t help that depraved clowns with Australian passports were cutting off heads for the Caliphate. Bolt blamed the Jews, the Muslims and, most of all, politicians who caved in to Muslim constituents:
Pardon? We must placate Muslim Australians by restricting our freedom to say something critical of their culture, for example, extremists being so prone to jihad? Of course other ethnic and religious groups – not least Jews – also fought to save these restrictions. But make no mistake: muzzling Australians is now seen as necessary to please migrant communities. Among Liberal backbenchers who fought Abbott’s changes, none was louder than Craig Laundy, whose seat of Reid has a Muslim minority comprising 10 per cent of the vote … politicians are now so desperate for these blocs of ethnic votes that they sacrifice Australian values to accommodate imported ones.
Tim Wilson was left with no freedom agenda. The day Brandis was supposed to address Free Speech 2014, Wilson announced he would soon set off on a “Rights and Responsibilities” tour of the nation to hear what we have on our minds. He will likely discover nothing new. Our worries don’t change much with time: the fate of the ABC under Coalition governments; the expanding reach of intelligence agencies; heavy-handed film censorship; feeble protection for whistleblowers and journalists; punitive laws against demonstrators; attacks on freedom of association; and the old bugbear of defamation. Nothing stifles public debate in this country as much as the fear of being sued for defamation. But a smart guy like Wilson knows even before he sets out that the Human Rights Commission can’t fix much on that list. Almost all our worries are matters of state law. In July, the retiring disability discrimination commissioner, Graeme Innes, told the National Press Club: “The best way, frankly, for the attorney to provide the commission with the greater capacity to deal with the freedoms he talks about would be to put forward legislation for a charter of rights.”
That’s the last thing Abbott stands for, though there is a fascinating shift underway in conservative Australia. Once despised as undemocratic, a bill of rights embedded in the constitution is beginning to be seen as a last resort to save our Way of Life. Even conservative Christians, hitherto the most implacable opponents of anything like the US First Amendment, are beginning to see their salvation might lie in such a form of words: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
And Abbott? Abandoning his freedom crusade has left him a diminished figure: not a pioneer of liberty in anyone’s eyes, just a blowhard on the campaign trail. The promises of freedom join all the other broken promises. Under Abbott no laws limiting freedom have changed for the better. Movement has all been the other way. The Coalition is running on instinct. We are back where we were under Howard. Freedom counts for little in political contest in this country. The only Abbott that matters, Politics Abbott, soldiers on. He has not lost his faith in himself. Astride the grave of Freedom Abbott in early August, as he ramped up ASIO’s powers and ditched his libertarian ambitions for 18C, he was still declaring: “I’m a passionate supporter of free speech.”
A lot has happened since that night, but this essay grew out of the 2014 John Button Lecture for the Melbourne School of Government delivered on 23 July.