This time, the MSM got it right

Photo by Alex Ellinghausen

Before I get to the substance of this post, I’d like to provide some context. I’m a former Liberal staffer. The last time I was employed as a political staffer was in 1993, and I’ve never worked for the Liberal Party since, nor am I member of any party. I do not vote, and have not done so for the past two ACT and federal elections. I will not be party to any vote that results in Tony Abbott becoming Prime Minister.

I like Julia Gillard. She is a gutsy, intelligent and compassionate woman who I consider to be a formidable role model for all Australian girls and women. But I will not vote for her party either.

I provide this background in the hope that readers will accept that I have no political axe to grind when I say that the MSM’s coverage of yesterday’s political events is more perceptive than they are being given credit for, and that there seems to be a number of people using social media who are deluding themselves as to what actually happened.

Let’s revisit the event. After asking the Prime Minister in Question Time whether she continued to have full confidence in the Speaker and, if not, what steps she would take to remove him from the position, Tony Abbott then moved a motion to remove the Speaker due to him not being fit for office.

Abbott specifically used only the content of Slipper’s texts, which are in the public domain and uncontested, to craft his accusation against Slipper. Building upon the growing sentiment in the community against misogynist views and language demonstrated by the #destroythejoint movement, Abbott painted Slipper as a man who spoke of women generally, and one female Liberal MP specifically, in derogatory terms. He argued that a person with such objectionable views about women and who clearly had a bias against at least one MP was not fit for the non-partisan office of Speaker.

Abbott accused Slipper of being unfit for office based on the texts, not Ashby’s allegations which are still before the courts. In avoiding use of the Ashby allegations, Abbott denied the Government any grounds upon which to avoid the question of Slipper’s fitness for office, particularly that of needing to follow due process.

Nevertheless, due process was the Government’s chosen shield.

In fact, the Government had little else with which to defend itself. Having invested considerable political capital, in the form of senior female ministers, to raise and maintain concerns over Tony Abbott’s problems with female voters, the Prime Minister became wedged by Abbott’s motion. Abbott’s speech drew a clear connection between the Prime Minister’s fitness for office and Slipper’s, thereby making the motion about her judgement in recruiting him to bolster the Government’s numbers.

The PM was faced with a stark choice: oppose the motion and be seen to be defending the Speaker, or support it in the knowledge that this would be seen as a concession of ill-judgement on her part. Any such concession would also cast a shadow over the PM’s judgement in related decisions such as the formation of minority government with the independents and the Greens.

So the stakes were high when Abbott moved his motion. I initially misunderstood his reason for doing so, thinking that its purpose was to remove the Speaker. In fact, the purpose of the motion was to wedge the Prime Minister into having to oppose it, defend her own judgement, and by association, that of Slipper’s too. It does not matter that Julia Gillard said not one word in defence of Slipper during her speech: Abbott expected that her opposition to the motion would be damning enough.

What Abbott did not expect was the damning words that the PM levelled at him during her speech; a speech which appears to have divided Labor supporters due to its visceral content and emotive delivery. Some voiced concern that the speech was not befitting of a Prime Minister and that it might be seen by casual political observers as an intemperate outburst.

Conversely, the PM’s speech was embraced by the people who have recently formed a front line against misogyny, chauvinism and disrespect against women in public discourse. The coincidental timeliness of the PM’s rousing words raised the spirits of those now experiencing and witnessing a withering backlash against the #destroythejoint movement.

And what of those not involved in or supportive of the DTJ campaign? It is important to look outside that bubble to really understand how yesterday’s events are being interpreted.

For those much less engaged in politics than us – and let’s accept that there are many of them – the event played out thus: Slipper sent texts that were derogatory of women and Abbott claimed a person that held such views was not fit to be Speaker. In opposing Abbott’s motion to remove the Speaker (read: defending the Speaker), the Prime Minister unleashed a tirade against Abbott recounting the many sexist views leveled against her personally, or women generally, which he had never withdrawn or denounced.

In base political terms, Abbott won the day: he wedged the Prime Minister into supporting the Speaker, and was unintentionally rewarded with Slipper’s scalp later that evening. Abbott has however set a dangerous precedent for judging an MP’s character based on their private text messages.

Perhaps the Prime Minister’s impassioned speech compelled some concerned female voters away from Tony Abbott and towards her. Maybe, if they are prepared to overlook her refusal to see Slipper’s texts as evidence that he was unfit to be Speaker. And maybe, if they are also comfortable with the PM delivering highly emotive attacks in Parliament.

Looking at it this way, it is understandable why the media may interpret yesterday’s events as being a potential setback for the Government. Sometimes we need to take a step back to see the whole picture.

At what cost do we defend free speech?

On two recent occasions I’ve actively supported the limitation of someone’s freedom of speech. I joined the campaign to shame advertisers on Alan Jones’ radio program to withdraw their support. And I rallied people on Twitter to lodge complaints against a pro-ana Facebook page.

Initially, neither action sat particularly comfortably with me. While I’m not libertarian, I’m not a fan of censorship either. I value my right to say pretty much whatever I want about whatever I choose. And I exercise that right on a regular basis.

But I’ve begun to wonder why most debate about freedom of expression pivots on an all-or-nothing basis? Why does the proscription of certain verbal behaviours always elicit cries of censorship rather than endorsement of protection? And why is it assumed that if we as a society insist that certain types of speech are unacceptable, we will revert overnight to a totalitarian state in which nobody has the freedom to say anything?

Surely there’s a balance between free and societally-acceptable speech? Shouldn’t this be the goal in a free and democratic nation: the right to speak, to be heard and to be protected from harm?

Why should the right to speak include the right to ridicule, humiliate, or offend? Or in the case of the pro-ana page, the right to promote self-harm?

Why is the libertarian ideal of unfettered free speech always proffered as defense against harmful language? Australians don’t actually have the same constitutional right to freedom of speech that Americans have. It is not spelt out in our constitution, although legal rulings have interpreted it to mean that Australians have a right to free political speech.

Even so, most public discourse in Australia operates as if we have, or should have, unfettered free speech.

We have defamation, racial vilification and cyber-bullying laws to protect people from the most harmful types of expression. These laws are legal manifestations of the boundaries considered particularly important by society; acceptability thresholds built on qualities that we value such as common decency, tolerance, respect and compassion.

There are regular instances of society’s willingness to patrol those boundaries, with recent notable examples including the community backlash against those who said they hoped a child would get laid at the Logies; that an alleged murder victim should have known better than to walk home drunk in the middle of the night; and that the Prime Minister’s father died in shame of her.

Clearly, the community sees a role for itself in policing free speech.

And why shouldn’t it? Isn’t it something that we do every day? Do we allow our teenage son the freedom to call his grandfather an old cunt? Do we respect the right of a team-mate to ridicule another’s mental health by calling them psycho? Do we celebrate democracy when our sister is called a slut for what she wears or our friend is told to hang himself because he’s gay?

No, we demand that free speech be exercised in a responsible manner.

Perhaps the notion of free speech is similar to that of a free market. It’s hardly a coincidence that both are celebrated libertarian ideals. While great in theory, a free market is Darwinian in nature – only the fittest, in terms of competitiveness, will survive. Those exercising their right to be competitive in an unfettered free market can be harmful to others – either through reduced wages and conditions, cutting corners on safety and quality considerations, or through price gouging or collusion when fierce competition produces monopolies or duopolies.

Because of this, governments put protections in place to prevent harm to the community from overzealous free market operations. Not only do we as society accept it, we demand such protection.

Perhaps we should look at unfettered free speech the same way: a potentially harmful ideal that needs protective mechanisms built in.

I’m not advocating more laws to provide this protection: more a broad public acceptance that free speech is not an unassailable right that must be defended at all costs. Political free speech is another matter altogether, and I agree it is one of democracy’s foundation stones.

However, despite what the libertarians say, Australia will not slip into a totalitarian regime if you tell your son to be polite to his grandfather, your team-mate that it’s cruel to mock mental health issues, or assertively explain that slut-shaming and bigotry are unacceptable.

Freedom of speech must go hand in hand with freedom from harm caused by speech.

I know this isn’t a clear-cut issue and I honestly don’t know where the boundaries are. There are times when I find profane language to be quite beautiful. There are other times when polite language can be utterly offensive.

Then again, it’s not really what is offensive or shocking that is the problem, in my view, but what is harmful. It would be a challenge nevertheless to draw a distinction between language that mocks or ridicules with that which denigrates or abuses.

For me, the measuring stick is nevertheless composed of the qualities that society values: common decency, tolerance, respect and compassion. Or perhaps more succinctly: by treating others as you would have your loved ones treated by them.

Who should we blame when politicians lie?

Here’s my latest piece for the King’s Tribune…

Late in August, the Canberra Press Gallery awoke from a collective slumber and simultaneously concluded that Tony Abbott hadn’t been entirely honest with them. Or with the Australian people.

Well at least that’s one way of interpreting the political news at the time, following on from Leigh Sales’ challenging of Abbott’s relationship with the truth in one of the Opposition Leader’s all too rare appearances on a “serious” current affairs program.

Those of us whose cognitive capacities haven’t been entirely reduced to that of goldfish by the Age of Twitter can vaguely remember that at different times last year the media had similar revelations.

In March there was a searing piece in which Bernard Keane positioned 11 Abbott statements with another 11 that contradicted them. Annabel Crabb noted in July, “Mr Abbott’s one-man battle against demonstrable logic has entered a new and compelling phase”.

The cycle repeated in October, with Laurie Oakes reminding us, “while he lambasts Gillard over her broken “no carbon tax” promise, Abbott has form on the broken promise front himself”. Lenore Taylor questioned the veracity of both leaders, noting that “politicians have always gilded the lily, spun the message — in effect, stretched the truth. But lately they seem to feel free to take things one step further and ignore facts altogether.”

Then, as if an invisible hypnotist had snapped his fingers, the Press Gallery again fell into a snooze and Tony Abbott’s cursory relationship with the truth was almost entirely dropped by the mainstream media.

That is, until last month, when the revelation was experienced all over again.

What was different this time was the media’s collective conscience had been pricked by a non-journalist challenging them to acknowledge that they could no longer simply observe Abbott’s deceptive tactics. Journalists were embarrassed into exposing those lies and reporting what their consequences would be.

It was The King’s Tribune writer, Tim Dunlop, who called the Press Gallery to account. He described the Gallery’s theretofore admiration for Abbott as a kind of Stockholm Syndrome, with senior journalists like Laurie Oakes giving Abbott points for being the most negative Opposition Leader ever, Phil Coorey judging him “wise” for refusing to answer questions on funding, and Lenore Taylor publicly acceding to the Coalition’s tactical avoidance of the media on a “tricky policy issue”.

Click here to read more…..