There’s free speech, and then there’s endorsing terrible opinions.
(Crikey) Liberal National MP Greg Christensen has said he will attend a Reclaim Australia rally in Mackay on Saturday, one of a number of rallies planned around the country. Reclaim Australia is an odious and obsessive cult, focused on an imaginary “Islamisation” of Australia. The group urges discrimination against Muslims, spruiks bizarre theories of a secret “halal tax”, and has members who are — as a dissident member noted on ABC radio yesterday — “anti-Semitic and misogynist”.
Christensen is no stranger to controversy himself, and since he is a backbencher and likely to remain so, his determination to attend the rally may not be a huge problem for Tony Abbott per se. But it does show up the utter chaos of Abbott’s opportunistic positions on free speech and radicalisation.
On the one hand, this is a government that affirms the “right to be a bigot”. On the other, it treats radical and bigoted speech as a virus that promotes radicalisation and must be socially managed. Free speech is sacrosanct — except when it occurs unscripted on the ABC and exposes government ministers to scrutiny, at which point they are barred from appearing on it.
To ban ministers from appearing on the ABC is bad enough; to refuse to impose discipline on an MP for speaking on the platform of a noxious xenophobic group shows the hypocrisy in full.
There’s a long tradition of political parties guarding their boundaries by limiting where and with whom their members speak. If Tony Abbott and Warren Truss do not enforce this now then they are guilty not of liberalism, but of cowardice. They will have de facto painted Reclaim Australia as more “Australian” than the ABC.
Furthermore they will have established what many of us have long suspected: in the views of the Abbott government, “radicalisation” is something brown people do, and their speech can be treated as violence to be controlled. Meanwhile, free speech is a white thing, which must be protected.
We think free speech, including odious speech, from all speakers must be permitted — but it does not need to be endorsed, and this is yet another test of Tony Abbott’s character. Or what remains of it.