The words of the indomitable Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane's song, Crown of Creation, resonate today, stronger than ever with continuing attacks by politicians and other groups on the freedom of speech of those with whom they disagree.
While all politicians use spin to portray themselves in a better light than their opponents, the last two terms of the Liberal and National Party coalition federal government in Australia has seen an unprecedented attack on freedom of speech. An attack that has even extended to whistle-blowers who can be prosecuted for reporting criminal behaviour.
During the 2013 election, Tony Abbott successfully led the Coalition to victory, securing himself as the 28th prime minister of Australia. One of his promises during that election was that there would be no cuts to the ABC or SBS, both publicly funded media organisations. This became just one of many promises that Abbott broke. His first budget revealed cuts of $254 million to the ABC and $25 million to SBS, with around 500 jobs lost(1)(2).
These budget cuts were announced only months after Prime Minister Tony Abbott accused the ABC of not being 'on Australia's side' because they dared to suggest that asylum seekers could be telling the truth about abuse meted out to them by the Australian Navy(3). During this interview, Abbott also criticised the ABC's Fact Checking Unit, saying they should focus on news gathering. Apparently, actually checking facts isn't important, so it could be deduced that the government is only concerned about facts when they reveal their dishonesty.
ABC Fact Check had a field day with Abbott, for instance, exposing as false his claim that asylum seekers are illegal(4). No wonder he hated the Fact Checking Unit.
The man who would overthrow Abbott in a bloody coup, Malcolm Turnbull, was Communications Minister at the time. While many had hoped that replacing the feckless Abbott with the more statesmanlike Turnbull would result in better and more honest government. But nothing changed. Turnbull continued the government's subservience to the far-right parties and pandering to bigotry instead of challenging the lies and misrepresentations of the right wing extremists. But just like Abbott, Turnbull and the right-wing generally, struggle when the veracity of their claims is tested. So Turnbull maintained Abbott's attack on the ABC by axing the Fact Checking Unit(5).
The government continues assailing the ABC. Most recently by trying to influence its staffing policies, which ABC Chairman Jim Spigelman described as 'a fundamental challenge to the ABC's independence'(6).
While the ABC and SBS are publicly funded, their charters demand independence from political influence, yet it seems that our current leaders would rather the ABC and SBS were mouthpieces of the government. Perhaps it would be easier if the ABC was just renamed as TASS (the Russian New Agency whose every word was tightly controlled by the Soviet government back in the day).
In loyalty to their kind
They cannot tolerate our minds
Individual ministers in the government have also shown their inability to handle criticism and willingness to hide the truth.
National Party member and Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce was accused of arranging for the official parliamentary record, Hansard, to be changed after he gave a wrong answer regarding drought assistance to farmers. Following this, a letter was written to Joyce by Dr Paul Grimes, the then head of the Department of Agriculture, explaining that he had lost confidence in the integrity of Joyce. Within days of the letter, Grimes had stood down as secretary and shortly after, was sacked by Joyce who stated that their relationship lacked confidence and had no 'future prospects'(7). However, the letter from Grimes has now been made public following a Freedom of Information request, resulting in Joyce being accused of covering up not only his involvement in the changing of the Hansard record but also the reason for Grimes being sacked, namely that it was Joyce's integrity that was at the core of the issue(8). In keeping with his political leaders, Joyce showed he was unable to handle criticism, and worse, cover it up.
And then there's Attorney-General George Brandis. In true megalomaniac style, Brandis took it upon himself to establish a legally binding directive that no politician could directly access the Solicitor-General without first going through the Attorney-General. The Solicitor-General's role includes providing apolitical advice to politicians from any party as well as representing the Commonwealth in legal matters. The Solicitor-General Justin Gleeson understandably took exception to the directive issued by Brandis, believing that it undermined his independence and was pay back for an accusation from the government that he had met with Opposition leader Bill Shorten during the election campaign in 2016 (which is something he can do as his advice is considered non-partisan). The relationship between Brandis and Gleeson deteriorated to the point where Gleeson resigned, citing that their relationship was 'irretrievably broken'(9).
The government's highest law officer also has an inability to handle criticism.
Perhaps the most disturbing example of the government shutting down dissent is in relation to its refugee policies. The government has boasted of the effectiveness of these policies in stopping people smuggling, deaths at sea and 'illegal' migration (refer previously mentioned fact check article on the legality of asylum seekers). However, these are not the humanitarian policies that the government claims. Multiple agencies, including Amnesty International and the United Nations have reported systemic child abuse, torture and human rights abuses in the government's detention facilities.(10)(11)(12).
So what does the government do? Instead of rewarding whistle-blowers who expose human rights abuses, sexual assaults, child abuse and so on, it has made it illegal for people to reveal the horrors of Australia's gulags. It was only after a legal challenge in the High Court of Australia that the government quietly lifted the gag order on doctors. All other whistleblowers still face two years in jail under the Border Force Act if they expose the conditions and treatment of asylum seekers(13). In an era where there are Acts to protect whistleblowers, it is inconceivable that the government has made whistleblowing illegal when it comes to revealing human rights abuses.
When Gillian Triggs, President of the Human Rights Commission, dared to deliver a report that suggested Australia's treatment of refugees, in particular children, was found wanting. Numerous members of the government launched an all out war on Triggs, demanding her resignation(14). They were more incensed by the report's criticism than its contents. They'd rather shoot the messenger than stop abusing children in detention.
Even for those who are not employed or contracted to work in these centres, obtaining information is proving difficult. An accidentally released email shows that the Department of Immigration and Border Protection has been freezing the processing of Freedom of Information requests associated with asylum seekers on Nauru. This is a deliberate breach of the FOI legislation(15). Both the Abbott and Turnbull governments have relied on secrecy to avoid their turpitude being exposed. If questioned directly about asylum seekers, the standard response is that it can't be discussed because it is an 'operational matter'.
Australians pride themselves on living in a democratic country, where freedom of speech is revered and people can safely express their opinions and discuss events they have witnessed without the threat of bullying, intimidation, termination or imprisonment.
Australia's right-wing is stifling free speech through totalitarian censorship by either removing those who dissent, enacting laws that imprison those who speak up or by attacking the reporting capabilities of independent media outlets.
Instead of arguing over the right of people to be bigots (another of Brandis's claims)(16), Australians should be more concerned about the disturbing and ongoing attacks on our liberty and freedom of speech.
1. Australian Government, Ministers for the Department of Communication and the Arts, The Hon Malcolm Turnbull MP, 'The Future of our Public Broadcasters', 19 November 2014, http://www.minister.communications.gov.au/malcolm_turnbull/speeches/the_future_of_our_public_broadcasters#.WB79Fcx97CI. Accessed 6 November 2016.
2. ABC News, 'ABC funding to be cut by $254 million over five years, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull says', 19 November 2014, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-11-19/abc-funding-cuts-announced-by-malcolm-turnbull/5902774. Accessed 6 November 2016.
3. ABC News, Latika Bourke, 'Prime Minister Tony Abbott says ABC not on Australia's side in interview with 2GB', 4 February 2014, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-01-29/tony-abbott-steps-up-criticism-of-abc/5224676. Accessed 6 November 2016.
5. ABC News, 'ABC Fact Check unit to close following budget cuts', 18 May 2016, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-05-18/abc-fact-check-unit-to-close-14-jobs-to-go/7425638. Accessed 6 November 2016.
6. The Sydney Morning Herald, Matthew Knott, 'A fundamental challenge to the ABC's independence': ABC chair unloads on Turnbull government, 2 November 2016, http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/a-fundamental-challenge-to-the-abcs-independence-abc-chair-unloads-on-turnbull-government-20161101-gsfzdh.html. Accessed 6 November 2016.
7. ABC Rural, Anna Vidot, 'Agriculture Department secretary steps down after falling out with Minister Barnaby Joyce', 13 March 2015, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-03-13/agriculture-secretary-paul-grimes-stands-down/6315142. Accessed 6 November 2016.
8. The Australian, Jared Owens, 'Barnaby Joyce accused of cover-up over Paul Grimes sacking', 25 October 2016, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/barnaby-joyce-accused-of-coverup-over-paul-grimes-sacking/news-story/34ed5d43dfb57d2eb78bc4ca4b451200. Accessed 6 November 2016.
9. ABC News, Henry Belot and Ashlynne McGhee, 'Solicitor-General resigns over 'broken' relationship with Attorney-General George Brandis', 24 October 2106, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-10-24/justin-gleeson-resigns-as-solicitor-general/7960632. Accessed 6 November 2016.
10. Amnesty International, 'Australia's regime of cruelty has turned Nauru into an open-air prison', 17 October 2016, https://www.amnesty.org.au/island-of-despair-nauru-refugee-report-2016/. Accessed 6 November 2016.
11. The Sydney Morning Herald, Nick Miller, 'UN human rights review: Countries line up to criticise Australia for its treatment of asylum seekers', 10 November 2015, http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/un-human-rights-review-countries-line-up-to-criticise-australia-for-its-treatment-of-asylum-seekers-20151109-gkusj4.html. Accessed 6 November 2016.
12. Human Rights Law Centre, 'UN finds Australia's treatment of asylum seekers violates the Convention Against Torture', 9 March 2015, http://hrlc.org.au/un-finds-australias-treatment-of-asylum-seekers-violates-the-convention-against-torture/. Accessed 6 November 2016.
13. Al Jazeera, 'Australia lifts gag order on doctors treating refugees', 20 October 2016, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/10/australia-lifts-gag-order-doctors-treating-refugees-161020072304237.html. Accessed 6 November 2016.
14. The Age, 'The attack on Triggs is an Abbott stitch-up', 26 February 2015, http://www.theage.com.au/comment/the-age-editorial/the-attack-on-triggs-is-an-abbott-stitchup-20150225-13ogxw.html. Accessed 6 November 2016.
15. Guardian Australia, Paul Farrell and Ben Doherty, 'Immigration official says deparment is 'freezing' release of documents about Nauru', 2 November 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2016/nov/02/immigration-official-says-department-is-freezing-release-of-documents-about-nauru. Accessed 6 November 2016.
16. The Conversation, David van Mill, 'Free speech: would removing Section 18C really give us the right to be bigots?', 8 August 2016, http://theconversation.com/free-speech-would-removing-section-18c-really-give-us-the-right-to-be-bigots-63612. Accessed 6 November 2016.