Lately the Gillard government has been clothing itself in GetUp! attire, but last week it flirted with adding some ShutUp accessories.
The problems started when the political agenda of this government started to sound remarkably like the agenda of the far left special interest group GetUp!
It's a world view that allows you to believe democracy is a sufficiently malleable principle that you can barefacedly lie to the voters and not pay a big price. (How many billboards have you seen GetUp!, that self-styled protector of democratic values, pay for condemning Julia Gillard for lying to the voters? That would be zero, right?)
I suspect I'm not revealing any state secret when I say the political policy positions of GetUp! -- reeking of po-faced pieties and "We are the World" platitudes -- are distinctly minority ones. If this becomes your core support group as a government then you are in big, big trouble. Which is when Gillard moved from GetUp! to ShutUp.
Apparently the thinking is that we have too much free speech here in Australia. Maybe we ought to pick up on the great democrat Bob Brown's musings and go back a few centuries so we can regulate what the press says.
But putting all the siren song supporters of privacy laws to one side (and we can all await with eager anticipation the next GetUp! billboard in support of this latest thought-bubble policy creation), here is what is at stake.
Any new privacy law regime will make inroads on what people can say. It will take some speech off the table. There is an inevitable trade-off between free speech concerns and privacy concerns. If you shift the goalposts in favour of more privacy, then by definition you place more limits on free speech.
And I think that's a terrible idea. First off, our laws are already easily sufficient to handle phone hacking situations of the sort engulfing Britain at present. So that's a red herring, plain and simple.
Second, more aggressive privacy laws work not simply by allowing people actually to sue. They work also by creating an atmosphere where people censor themselves because they are afraid of being sued, precisely in the same way that our terrible hate speech laws at present over-reach.
Just look at France, which has strong privacy laws. You had an atmosphere there, no doubt also culturally influenced, where the past exploits of Dominique Strauss-Kahn came as a surprise to most people, save reporters. Do you think those exploits, and I explicitly assume that the New York City charges against him will collapse, but do you think his behaviour might influence whether some people voted for him?
Tony Abbott should have no part in this ShutUp agenda. In any contest between free speech and privacy I think long-term best consequences favour the former much more often. Certainly our present status quo needs no rebalancing in favour of more speech restrictions, and that's true even if it's sold under the banner of some human right to privacy, with a few perfunctory references to international treaties.
Amazingly, however, our present GetUp!/Gillard government seems to think a new ShutUp agenda may help it out with the voters. You have to wonder what planet it inhabits.
We can all only watch this train wreck of incompetence with incredulity. From GetUp to ShutUp, the whole thing has been one giant F . . kUp.
Author | Source | James Allan is Garrick professor of law at the University of Queensland.