One of the alluring aspects of right-wing politics is its insistence that sometimes the state is wrong. The tenets of liberalism – the philosophy upon which the Liberal Party is ostensibly based – as Elle Hardy recently put it, are ‘limited government, belief in the rights of the individual, and the desire to preserve the institutions that make our democracy function’.
Transparency in government should, then, be a natural fit with liberal values – an acknowledgement that citizens need to know what those nasty, over-reaching governments are doing in order to call them to account.
But, as we are increasingly seeing in Australia, the current Coalition government is decidedly uninterested in transparency.
The first hint was Scott Morrison announcing that asylum seeker boat arrivals would only be reported in weekly briefings; those briefings were then cancelled altogether – an almost polar opposite approach to that taken by the Coalition in opposition, trumpeting every arrival from the rooftops and even setting up billboards to advertise them.
Then Tony Abbott tried to strong-arm the ABC for reporting on allegations that the navy mistreated asylum seekers, point blank refusing to consider that the accusations may be true. Instead, we were given a dose of patriotism with an authoritarian aftertaste: to question the armed forces is to criticise the nation.
Last week we saw George Brandis repeatedly call whistleblower Edward Snowden a ‘traitor’ in parliament, claiming Snowden’s leaks had ‘put Australian lives at risk’, despite refusing to provide any evidence they had. This follows both Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop previously referring to Mr Snowden as a traitor.
Interestingly, some Republicans in the United States have actually welcomed the Snowden leaks, with one right-wing political commentator arguing that Snowden’s actions were ‘consistent with rugged individualism and privacy and everything that comes along with traditional conservatism’.
Individual rights are likewise being trampled by governments in Australia. Just recently Labor voted with the Coalition to cement the government’s powers to indefinitely detain refugees. The Victorian government is moving to restrict the right to protest, while Queensland’s over-the-top bikie laws erode basic rights of association and equality before the law.
Abbott has clearly forgotten his ringing endorsement of free speech only a few months ago, just before the election: ‘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.’
Despite talk of freedom, the reality is that right-wing politics in Australia is primarily geared towards maintaining the status quo. Abbott’s sermon on free speech was given not in defence of those seeking to hold the powerful to account, but on behalf of right-wing columnist Andrew Bolt. To Abbott, the most pressing free speech matter today is apparently an influential white man’s right to belittle a group of indigenous people.
Increasing secrecy, bullying the media and restricting the right to protest hardly show a commitment to small government or the rights of the individual. Instead of freedom, Coalition governments around Australia are giving us demagoguery, a lack of accountability and the erosion of democracy.
David Donaldson is a Master of International Relations graduate who lives in Melbourne. He tweets @davidadonaldson.