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September 08th 2014 print

James Allan

Victoria’s Worse-Than-Useless Liberals

The Garden State goes to the polls in less than three months, when voters will confront an unpleasant choice: Hold your nose and opt for more of the lacklustre same, including Napthine & Co's shameful disdain for free speech, or accept electoral defeat as an opportunity to clean house and re-discover core conservative principles

foot shooterPonder the Coalition government’s record in Victoria these last few years and then ask yourself what the ‘V’ stands for.  The answers that most easily pop to mind may well be words such as ‘vegetative’, ‘volte-face’,  ‘vilify’ and ‘vacuous’.

Start with ‘vegetative’, as demonstrated last week when the party was given the chance by the pre-selection battle for the seat of Hawthorn to bring in new blood — the IPA’s John Roskam — but opted instead for John Pesutto, Premier Denis Napthine’s legal adviser and a consummate insider.  Given a choice, the prize went to  the connected candidate who worked his way up through the party hierarchy.  The safe choice.  The insider’s choice.  The party shunned the outsider who brought the evident promise of principles and convictions to the table — and this is tragically typical behaviour on the part of a party now facing the very real prospect of utter defeat in November’s election.

As has been its habit, the party once again makes sure at all costs to avoid the Roskams, those who actually believe in free speech and who see through fashionable causes like, for example, the renewable-energy rort and its rent-seeking advocates.  Nope, it said, we want the guy that Ted Baillieu really wants, even though we had to get rid of Ted, who is standing down from Parliament in any case.  That’s the way to invigorate and renew the party, the insiders decided.

Likewise, ‘V’ is for ‘volte-face’ in the State of Victoria.  Why?  Well, when given the chance to do something, anything, about the state’s awful Charter of Rights (the one imposed on Victorians after a wholly one-sided and shamelessly stacked Labor-appointed ‘consultation committee’ recommended precisely what everyone knew it would: a statutory bill of rights) the Coalition government did nothing.  Nada.  Zero.  And this even though the review the Coalition government set up recommended gutting the Charter of Rights.  But Mr. Baillieu over-ruled his own party and his own MPs.  So Labor’s experiment in progressivism, in moving decision-making power from the legislature to the unelected judiciary, stays on the state’s statute books.  This despite what voters were led to expect when they elected the Coalition mob last time around.

Then there is the ‘V’ for ‘vilify’.  That’s my way of saying that the Coalition government in Victoria has been an absolute disgrace on the issue of free speech and in neglecting to demand the repeal of  Section 18C hate-speech provision used against Andrew Bolt.  This is the provision that legislates against ‘offending’, ‘insulting’ ‘humiliating’, or ‘intimidating’ others.  A virtually identical hate speech law in Canada was repealed last year by the federal Parliament.  The various special interest groups that lobbied so hard in Australia dare not tell you that life has gone on as before  for every single group in Canada that saw itself as vulnerable without these laws.

All the scare-mongering in Canada proved to be wrong.  But when the debate is broached here in Australia what does the Victorian Coalition government do?  It demands that Mr. Abbott not proceed with repeal.  It opposes the John Stuart Mill side of the debate, the one in favour of free speech, because of all the good consequences that so evidently flow from understanding that in a healthy democracy we all have an obligation to grow a thick skin and that all of us who hope to amount to anything — in fact anyone at all in a vibrant and free democracy — will have words cast in his or her direction that will be felt as offensive and insulting.  Tough!  Learn how to cope and move on!

That’s how free and democratic societies work.  But on this issue the Victorian Coalition government opts to forswear the liberal path in favour of the illiberal one.  It tells the Prime Minister to back off.  It sells out.  For that call alone you might think very carefully indeed before voting for this mob in the upcoming state election.  Maybe a spell in opposition will see them adopt a couple of policies that, at a push, one might be able to describe as, well, liberal.

And lastly ‘V’ is for ‘vacuous’.  On anything other than a wish to slightly reduce the debt and deficits they seem to be a crowd of MPs that believes in nothing and cares about nothing.   You certainly wouldn’t hurry to describe this Victorian government as possessing a ‘vertebrae’ or wanting on any front to be in the ‘vanguard’ or described as ‘vigorous’.

In the not-too-distant future – less than three months, to be precise — ‘v’ will be for ‘voting’ in Victoria.   Isn’t it sad when the only reason you can think to vote for one side is that the other side is worse.  So the Coalition won’t lift a finger on free speech, but Labor is worse.  The Coalition caucus is full of too many insiders and party hacks, but Labor is worse.  The Coalition let Mr. Ballieu leave in place the awful Charter of Rights, but Labor may well try to extend it.

I suppose you might say that for right-of-centre voters in Victoria, the upcoming state election offers a ‘very’, ‘very’ depressing choice.

James Allan, Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland, is the author of the newly published Democracy in Decline