Abbott’s survival relies on knowing when to fold’em

Political longevity comes, in no small part, from a government’s ability to survive its mistakes – the self-inflicted stumbles, dramas and crises that diminish it in the eyes of voters.

The key to survival is often a matter of knowing the right time to stick to one’s guns and when to cut one’s losses and move on.

The third approach is to create a diversion. A well-executed diversion can take the heat out of an issue by drawing the attention of the media and public away from the troublesome matter at hand. This creates space in which to find the necessary course corrections.

The trick of course is to know what is the right approach to take at any one time.

Over the past week the Abbott Government executed these tactics with varying degrees of success. In what is anticipated to be the first in a series of concessions over the coming months, the Prime Minister cut adrift the proposed amendments that would have watered down the Racial Discrimination Act.

The extent of the loss for supporters of free speech was writ large on the face of the Attorney-General, George Brandis, as he stood stonily beside the Prime Minister at the media conference announcing the backdown.

Both men knew this was undeniably a big win for the progressive side of politics, which had campaigned in concert with the representatives of ethnic communities for the retention of curbs on hate speech. Pairing the announcement with the declaration of new counter-terrorism measures was therefore meant to be a diversionary tactic to convince the media that the security changes were a bigger news story than the progressives’ win on 18c.

This manoeuvre proved more distracting than likely expected when it transpired the new measures also included the mandatory retention of information on Australian citizens’ telephone and internet use. Progressives who were one moment celebrating the overturn of the 18c changes, were then raging about the right to privacy and the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.

In effect Tony Abbott swapped one leftist soapbox for another, and while it’s true the Coalition’s core voter base enjoys seeing the Left prodded into outrage every now and then, they will have marked Abbott down on the anti-terrorist measures because of the associated “spine-weakening” on free speech.

So by the end of the past week, Abbott was getting no credit for taking the hard decision on 18c or protecting the nation with the new security measures. And following what looked very much like self-sabotage on Brandis’s part when he botched the explanation of metadata retention during a media interview, there was a growing need to stem the flow of outrage exacerbated by the exceedingly poor marketing of the security initiative.

A Machiavellian might be forgiven for thinking it was at this point the Government decided it needed a diversion from its diversion. Indeed, can there be any other explanation for the Liberals’ dour arch-conservative, Senator Eric Abetz, agreeing to appear on the commercial light-news program The Project on Thursday night?

Abetz’s subsequent comments on the link between abortion and breast cancer provided just the circuit-breaker needed to reset the outrage machine on social media and provide a whole new story arc for its limpet media.

This theory is not so far-fetched if one considers the times when other members of the Liberals’ extreme right have also seemingly been wheeled out to perform distraction duties. Senator Cory Bernardi’s comments on same-sex marriage and bestiality, albeit in opposition, are a particular case in point.

The added benefit of extremists like Abetz and Bernardi taking the stage in this way is that their behaviour and views tend to normalise those of less extreme conservatives, thereby dragging the “centre” of politics even further to the right.

As the past week closed, it could be argued that Abetz’s intervention had succeeded: it certainly seemed as if the mainstream media had moved on to other fare. And so as the new week begins, the polity awaits the arrival of the next bandwagon to clatter through the echo-chambers of Twitter.

What does seem clear is that the Prime Minister will have to cut his losses on a range of other measures if he is to get some semblance of the budget through the Senate. The time for stubbornness or diversion is well past.

This means finding ways to accommodate the crossbench’s opposition to changes to payments for families, eligibility requirements for welfare recipients, the GP co-payment, and changes to higher education charges.

In reality, the best way to demonstrate his willingness to negotiate on the budget would be for Abbott to formally set aside or scrap his paid parental leave scheme. Having already justified his broken promise on the 18c changes as being in the national interest, this would be the logical next step.

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.