Abbott muscling up in fight for ideas

2013-04-24 04.49.50 amNICK CATER

Published in The Australian, September 24, 2013

WELL, that was easy. The climate tsar is deposed on Thursday, and by the weekend everyone has forgotten about it.

The Sydney Morning Herald’s News Review section, usually a reliable guide to the anxieties of the progressive intelligentsia, avoided any mention of Tim Flannery’s dismissal as chief climate commissioner last Saturday, save for a letter from Kate Barton of Glebe whose message was, in essence, about time too.

Extraordinarily, the Abbott government’s opening assault in the battle of ideas has been met with an unfurled white flag. Usually, it is the Right that crawls under the table at the first sign of cultural conflict, but this time the Left is crying uncle even before the real fun begins.

The dismissal of Flannery tells us little about the Coalition government’s approach to climate change that we did not already know. It does, however, signal that the Abbott administration will not bow to political correctness and has little time for the nanny state.

In the end, it would not have mattered if Flannery had been employed to persuade kiddies to clean their teeth at night or to encourage kindly thoughts towards stray puppies.

The problem with Flannery for liberal democrats was not that he was paid to tell us what to think about climate change, it was that he was telling us what to think at all.

Under Tony Abbott, there will be zero tolerance for evangelism on the public purse on anthropogenic global warming or any other matter.

When it comes to what is lazily described as the culture wars, the progressives have been kicking sand in the faces of liberal democrats for more than 40 years.

Each illiberal extension to human rights legislation, each finger-wagging gesture in the name of preventive health, each grant to a proselytising progressive quango passes on the nod.

Labor returned to power in 2007 with a somewhat romantic view of the state, believing that its instruments could be used to teach its citizens how to behave. From teenage binge-drinking to finding the cheapest place for petrol, the all-benevolent hand of the federal government was where wisdom would reside.

As George Brandis explained to the Sydney Institute this year, the democratic Left is an unreliable ally in defence of economic liberties, but up to now it had at least championed civil liberties.

“Today, it is the self-styled progressives of the Left who want to ban things,” said Brandis.

“They want to eliminate the expression of opinions which they find offensive.”

The Coalition has come to power with the philosophical momentum running its way. The successful application of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act to censure columnist Andrew Bolt was chilling at the time, but it now appears the case was not the dawning of a new illiberal era but the point at which the Left’s castigatory tendencies went a step too far.

Last year, when former attorney-general Nicola Roxon attempted to reframe anti-discrimination legislation to enshrine the right not to be offended, she had a fight on her hands.

ABC chairman Jim Spigelman took the opportunity of a speech on human rights to attack the Roxon bill.

The Institute of Public Affairs and the opinion pages of this newspaper joined the fray. Brandis forensically cross-examined Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs when she appeared before a Senate committee, leading her to admit that the new bill would limit the right to free speech. The legislation was withdrawn.

In March, the government backed away from legislation regulating the press not because it had come to its senses but because it had lost the argument.

In government, the Coalition intends to push back the intrusive incursions of the state on multiple fronts.

It is committed to repealing section 18C but intends to go further by reforming the Human Rights Commission.

The five commissioners assigned to guard against specific forms of discrimination will find their duties changed or abolished. Instead, the government will appoint at least one freedom commissioner responsible for upholding libertarian rights, the most important being freedom of expression.

On the broader ideas front, the national curriculum will be revisited and there will be reforms to higher education, including selective deregulation, flicking the switch from inclusiveness to excellence.

When the funding cuts start coming, the 38 staff at the Australian National Preventive Health Agency are likely to find themselves out of a job. The incoming government takes the view that its citizens should be responsible for controlling their own intake of fags, fats and firewater.

As for the arts community, Brandis, who is now Minister for the Arts as well as Attorney-General, told the Western Sydney Arts Forum last month that arts funding “too often rewarded inwardness, mediocrity and political correctness”. Brandis said the election of a Coalition government would mean a return to the principles of excellence, integrity, artistic freedom and self-confidence.

Ironically perhaps, the Coalition’s attitude to the most visible state-funded cultural institution, the ABC, remains unsettled. Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has been reluctant to align himself with the corporation’s critics but the pressure from the partyroom is substantial. A surprisingly large body of opinion on the Right wants the ABC to be abolished along with the Human Rights Commission, but the sensible minds look instead to reforming both institutions.

The first step should be the establishment of a major inquiry into the ABC’s purpose and performance, if only on the grounds that the technological barriers have shifted considerably in 30 years since the Dix Inquiry, which was the trigger for the last significant changes to the ABC’s brief.

The Left will have to man up if it intends to fight back, for the momentum is running against progressive conformity. Whatever else the eclectic new Senate may agree on, it will not be the principles of political correctness nor the nationalisation of everyday life.

Abbott’s cultural detractors have consistently underestimated the man, and would dearly love to categorise him as reactionary, stupid or mendacious.

Yet Abbott is a more substantial figure than that.

One important difference between Abbott and John Howard has escaped the Left’s attention. Howard was an astute pragmatist whereas Abbott is an intellectual who has fought political correctness from his student days and is not about to give up.

Call him old-fashioned, naive or behind the times, one thing is certain; Abbott has the measure of his intellectual opponents.

The real question is: will they ever get the measure of him?

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