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The liberties of George Brandis by @awelder

In Andrew Elder, Brandis Remember This Freedom, Freedom of Speech, Freedom of the Press, Ideology, Journalism, Liberal Party, Media Reform on May 22, 2013 at 7:17 PM
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Tony Abbott and George Brandis before his address on freedom of speech. Picture: Sam Mooy Source: The Australian

By Andrew Elder

May 22, 2014

Margo: After the recent George ‘free speech’ Brandis speech  I asked (begged) @awelder to write me a piece on the civil liberties credentials of the man who would be Attorney General under an Abbott Government. This is Andrew’s first piece for @NoFibs. Thank you.

There is a story of a Queensland shearing team and a cook who was especially sensitive to their rough-and-ready ways. One day the shearers came for their meal break to find the cook refusing to serve them. Someone was sent in to find out the problem: the peacemaker returned to the shearers and asked “All right, which one of you bastards called the cook a bastard?”. After a pause one of the shearers replied: “Never mind that – who called that bastard a cook?”.

When George Brandis calls himself a defender of our liberties, and of media freedoms in particular, why is he taken at face value? What makes you think that if Brandis was confronted with a threat to civil liberties, he’d do anything but cave in and insist it was for our own good?

George Brandis was apparently big on civil liberties as a University of Queensland student, and studied their roots in philosophy and law at Oxford, as a Commonwealth (not a Rhodes, as so often misreported) Scholar. He became a barrister specialising in trade practices law, a field dedicated to defence against unfair market practices – essential freedoms play a role, kind of, but they involve the relationship between government and corporations rather than with or among individuals. Very little of his 15 years as a barrister was spent at the coalface of civil liberties, asserting the rights of clients from low socio-economic background against crusty police and snippy magistrates.

Before becoming a barrister, Brandis co-edited a book on Liberal politics called Liberals face the future. The book followed the defeat of the Fraser government federally, the defeat of longterm Liberal governments in states like Victoria, and the removal of the Liberals from Coalition government in Queensland. Three chapters are co-written by Brandis: ‘Liberal values’, ‘The Liberal Party: towards government’, and ‘Policy choices for Liberals’. All expound liberal philosophy and try to balance it against conservatism and libertarianism, but all shy away from actually showing what liberal policy might look like for Australians of that time.

In 2000 Brandis became a Senator, replacing Warwick Parer, who was one of John Howard’s closest friends. In his maiden speech Brandis quoted from Isaiah Berlin, Shakespeare, J S Mill and Adam Smith, and lumped ‘political correctness’ in with tyrannies. All the big decisions seem to have been taken, and Brandis would have our roles as citizens and legislators to provide the aspic in which they are to be preserved. Liberties are to be inherited and defended, not advanced or reinvented, nor extended to those excluded from the birthright in the past.

Most of Brandis’ parliamentary career has taken place since 2001, when the attacks on the US on 11 September that year ushered in a series of challenges to the execution of civil liberties under law. His thinking on the matter appears to have been piecemeal and working on trade-offs rather than on guiding principles on the execution of justice in 21st century Australia. Brandis claimed the Anti-Terrorism Bill (No. 2) 2005 represented:

a very conscientious attempt within the government to reconcile those two conflicting values: the real—not the imaginary or fanciful—threat of domestic terrorist violence in Australia and the fact that as a liberal democracy we fight with one hand tied behind our backs.

The lesson from the Second World War, and indeed the end of the Cold War, is that social/liberal democracies are more resilient than tyrannies – even those beset, to whatever degree, by political correctness. It is telling that Brandis relies upon the following quote to an extent that would have made the blood of his Joh-era Queensland youth run cold: Read the rest of this entry »

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