“Freedom of speech is not just an academic nicety but the essential pre-condition for any kind of progress. A child learns by trial and error. A society advances when people can discuss what works and what doesn’t. To the extent that alternatives can’t be discussed, people are tethered to the status quo, regardless of its effectiveness.
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. On issues of value, purpose and meaning, there is no committee, however expert, and no appointee, however eminent, with judgment superior to that of the whole community which is why the best decisions are made with free debate rather than without it.” – Tony Abbott 2012
George Brandis repeatedly justified his plans to remove the protections of the Racial Discrimination Act by insisting that “our freedom and our democracy fundamentally depend upon the right to free speech”.
How does he reconcile that sentiment with the substantial restrictions the government has placed on efforts by the media and public to access information about asylum seeker arrivals and conditions on Manus Island?
When ten aid workers from Save the Children staff at the Nauru detention centre raised concerns of sexual abuse and self harm of children in detention they were suspended.
“If people want to be political activists, that’s their choice. But they don’t get to do it on the taxpayer’s dollar,” the minister said.
I wonder if getting children on Christmas Island to ring Senator Ricky Muir begging him to release them so he will vote for legislation count as activism? I can think of a few more appropriate terms.
Yesterday it was reported that thousands of Immigration Department public servants face the sack if they fail to comply with tough new security tests imposed by their new bosses.
Immigration’s 8500 officials have been told they must complete an “organisational suitability assessment” if they want to work at Border Force Australia, the new merged agency combining Immigration and Customs.
There will also be a crackdown on second jobs, social media use and sloppy appearances among the department’s public servants, as the Customs agency hierarchy tightens its grip on Immigration.
Holders of a baseline security clearance must declare any criminal or other legal matters in their past, changes to their personal circumstances and even any shift in political or religious belief or affiliation.
But under the organisational suitability rules, the public servants must disclose “criminal or high risk associations, conflicts of interest, criminal history and/or involvement in criminal or illegal activities, compliance with border-related laws, use of illicit substances [and] compliance with the Australian Public Service values”.
Officers were told that a failure to take part in the process or getting an adverse ruling would result in employees losing their jobs, or at least being transferred to another public service department.
Could you imagine our politicians submitting to similar rules?
In 2012, when addressing the IPA, Tony Abbott said
“There is no case, none, to limit debate about the performance of national leaders. The more powerful people are, the more important the presumption must be that less powerful people should be able to say exactly what they think of them.”
Unless it is critical of him apparently.
In April last year an edict came from the office of PM&C
“PUBLIC servants will be urged to dob in colleagues posting political criticism of the Abbott government on social media, even if the comments are anonymous, under new Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet guidelines.“
Gag clauses preventing organisations who receive government funding from speaking out about legislation are still in force in Queensland and NSW.
“Where the Organisation receives 50 per cent or more of its total funding from Queensland Health and other Queensland Government agencies, the Organisation must not advocate for State or Federal legislative change. The Organisation must also not include links on their website to other organisations’ websites that advocate for State or Federal legislative change.”
There are so many examples of this government withholding information from the public.
The oft-promised cost-benefit-analyses are suddenly “commercial in confidence” as are the secret negotiations for the much touted Free Trade Agreements.
Freedom of Information requests are being denied. The blue books giving advice to the incoming Coalition Government were unavailable.
Tony Abbott said in that same address in 2012
“Essentially, we are the freedom party. 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.”
“From Menzies to Fraser to Howard and to the current government, the Liberal Party has been the party that gives more freedom,” he wrote in October last year on the occasion of the Liberal Party’s 70th anniversary.
Not, however, when it comes to draconian provisions in national security legislation, including jailing journalists for up to 10 years for disclosing information about anything deemed to be a special intelligence operation. Nor when it comes to freedom of information, where the Government is legislating for less freedom.
Appropriately, if coincidentally, it was Scott Morrison – he of the “on water” matters not to be disclosed to the Australian public – who introduced the Freedom of Information Amendment (New Arrangements) Bill in the House of Representatives, representing Attorney-General Senator George Brandis. That was two weeks before Abbott’s October comments.
The new bill abolishes the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, created as an independent position to foster a culture of open government and to review requests for government information denied by departments and agencies. The Attorney-General’s department, which certainly is not independent, takes over some of its functions. Reviews are sent back to the same government body that rejected the initial request, with the last resort an appeal to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.
Abolishing the Information Commissioner runs contrary to the trend in most of the Australian states and other countries, which have created similar independent offices.
A Senate inquiry laid bare the government’s other intention: to reduce access to information. Reviews by the Information Commissioner cost nothing, whereas an appeal to the AAT incurs a fee of $861, plus the costs of legal advice and representation, given that government bodies almost always bring their lawyers to tribunal hearings.
Once again the Australian people will have unnecessarily restricted access to government information and a complicated, legalistic, expensive system which defeats many people from even applying for access to information.
In May, Fairfax Media examined the activities of the North Sydney Forum, a campaign fund-raising body run by Mr Hockey’s North Sydney Federal Electoral Conference. They reported that members were granted meetings with Mr Hockey, including in private boardrooms, in return for annual fees of up to $22,000.
At the time Mr Hockey said he found the stories “offensive and repugnant” and promptly filed defamation proceedings.
And whilst pondering these obvious examples of hypocrisy and different rules for some, remember how whistleblowers are treated.
Stealing Peter Slipper’s diary and then engaging in a concerted attempt to destroy a man in the hope of bringing down a government is fine. Kathy Jackson is “courageous” in her persecution of Craig Thomson, though any mention of the alleged millions she misappropriated are a ‘witch hunt’.
When a former ASIO operative reveals that our government engaged in commercial espionage under the guise of Foreign Aid his passport is confiscated and his lawyer’s offices are raided and documents seized.
And when Freya Newman reveals that Frances Abbott has been given a $60,000 scholarship that was not available to anyone else she is prosecuted. The fact that the White House School of Design is a pollie pedal sponsor who benefitted greatly from the Abbott government’s decision to provide funding to private colleges shortly after is no doubt coincidental.
Freedom of speech, transparency and accountability are rights and responsibilities, but apparently only for some.