In the wake of the tragic death of 12 people in the Charlie Hebdo shootings on January 7, liberty seems to have re-entered the political lexicon. Not content with mourning the lives brutally cut short, politicians around the world are walking and talking with vim about the irrefutable necessity of free speech.
Tony Abbot has spoken up on this matter too. "Freedom of expression is the cornerstone of a free society," read Abbott’s statement. Later he claimed that the attacks were an “assault on Western society’s way of life”.
One wonders what Abbott has in mind when he refers to a way of life he loves so much. The people behind the attack, Abbott believes, are racked with hate.
“They hate our freedom, they hate our pluralism, they hate the welcome that we extend to all faiths, all cultures, all sexualities,” he proclaimed.
Is this the freedom that Abbott believes we have inherited from the European democratic tradition? A freedom associated with tolerance, hospitality, opportunity, equality, community and diversity.
Cynicism is a reasoned response. Abbott came to power on a platform of ‘stop the boats’. As Prime Minister of Australia he demanded that immigrants adopt the white Australian values he endorses. He has been outspoken against gay marriage. He reinvigorated the aristocratic tradition by reinstituting knighthood for Australians. He runs his government with an almost exclusively male and largely Christian cabinet. He oversaw the withdrawal of support for the housing and homelessness program. He slashed funding to the Indigenous affairs portfolio. He undermined state support for independent media. Let’s not go on.
Abbott is infamous as a promise breaker, but what is happening now seems a much bigger lie. Scoring political points by spruiking democratic liberty, while having a track record of actively privileging a white, male, Christian, heterosexual elite and curtailing pluralism takes Abbott’s promise breaking to a whole new level.
Abbott has broken the very promise of democracy. If there is anything we might inherit from the Western society that Abbott so lovingly refers to, it is not a mono-cultural white Australia populated by action men and housewives.
Democracy long ago promised that we might be freed from dogma, bigotry, intolerance and the sovereign rule of kings. Authority to govern was to be located with the people rather than with anyone claiming divine appointment or special privilege. Wealth too was no basis for authority in this democratic promise. It was promised that all citizens would be equal in the rights that they enjoyed.
Abbott’s track record does not show much love for that kind of democracy. His practical devotion is to elitism, social stratification, and the authority of capital. So who is emancipated in Abbott’s freedom? Who is liberated by the Liberals?
“Australia is under new management and is once more open for business,” he triumphantly declared when he won the election in 2013. This points to the truth that lies beneath and beyond the pontification about democratic freedom at a time of mourning.
Abbott’s real commitment to freedom is to the freedom of business and of corporations in particular. Freeing trade, liberating commerce from cumbersome laws that protect the environment, emancipating funds from social programs, allowing people without means to be victim to the commercial housing market; removing the restrictions of a minimum wage, putting people’s health at the mercy of market forces, deregulating University fees: these are the freedoms to which the Abbott government is dedicated.
Meanwhile, the report from the Senate inquiry into income inequality in Australia released late last year shows that income inequality is on the rise, and under the present government is likely to get even worse. The invisible hand slaps the faces of the people that democracy was designed to serve.
Income, like freedom, is not distributed equally, with the report identifying the most vulnerable groups being Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, people with disabilities or mental illness, single parents and new migrants. Add to that the expansion of precarious work, lack of access to housing, education and health for people on low incomes, and tax concessions available only to the rich, it makes for grim reading.
Abbott’s democracy is not fair. There might be freedom, but it is a freedom for the owners of wealth and capital.
Abbott might talk of the value of a free society but this is little more than another lie. We can only hope that while Abbott and his broken promises will pass, the promise of democracy will live on.
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