Liberal defenders of free speech curiously silent over banning of Bassem Tamimi

This article by Jeff Sparrow  and published by The Guardian Australia (10 April 2017) makes a very good point about the double standard of politicians who cry out against section 18C of the Racial Discrimination act as an attack on free speech, while at the same time being eager to deny this right to someone they don’t like. This case involves a Palestinian leader, denied entry into Australia to talk about the situation his people are facing.

Less than a fortnight after the 18C debate inspired so many thunderous denunciations of censorship, the Liberals have been granted an opportunity to put their principles in practice, courtesy of an attack on free speech carried out by, well, by the Liberals, actually.

The Turnbull government has intervened to prevent the Palestinian activist Bassem Tamimi from lecturing in Australia, cancelling his visa just before he boarded a plane for a scheduled speaking

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection justified the decision on the basis that “members of the public will react adversely” but then, in a nice touch, censored the detailed reasoning behind its censorship.

“For privacy reasons,” it explained, “the department is unable to comment on specific details of individuals.”

You’ll remember, no doubt, the grand rhetorical arabesques that accompanied the parliamentary sessions devoted to 18C.

“This is Australia in 2017, and now is the time that we must make a stand for freedom of speech.”

So declaimed James McGrath, the assistant minister to the prime minister, in a typical performance in which he presented his vote as part of a two-century battle for liberty that apparently began “in the Great War with an expansionist Germany.”

You’d think, then, that McGrath would be first over the top to defend Australians’ right to listen to a visiting Palestinian. Strangely, though, to date he – along with the other freedom commandos – seems to be missing in action.

As far as anyone can tell, the revocation of Tamimi’s visa followed Donald Trump’s missile attack on Syria.

“There is a risk,” says the department, “that members of the public will react adversely to Mr Tamimi’s presence in Australia regarding his views of the ongoing political tensions in the Middle East.”

When Malcolm Turnbull launched the recent palaver over 18C, he did so with a solemn pledge to “defend our freedom”. Yet here we are, a fortnight later, being told that, because the Middle East is central to international politics, we shouldn’t be permitted to hear the views of someone from the Middle East.

Or, to be more exact, that we shouldn’t be permitted to hear a Palestinian – because, of course, when the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, visited earlier this year, the government paid no attention whatsoever to adverse reaction from human rights activists and organisations.

On the contrary, Netanyahu was ushered into meetings with Turnbull, Bill Shorten, NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian, and sundry other representatives of the good and the great.

Mind you, Bassem Tamimi can’t really be compared to Netanyahu.

The Israeli prime minister has authorised the expansion of illegal settlements in the West Bank, settlements against which Tamimi protests. Tamimi has twice been declared a “prisoner of conscience” by Amnesty International during his detention by the Israeli authorities.

No doubt some Australians will disagree with Tamimi’s perspective on Palestine and the Middle East. Yet, after all the praise slathered over a certain cartoonist known for depicting Aboriginal men as thick-lipped, low-browed alcoholics, one might have assumed a consensus on the right about the validity of controversial opinions.

What did the prime minister say about Bill Leak’s “what’s his name then” drawing?

“A cartoon that united Australians, united them in defence of freedom, freedom to draw it, agree with it, freedom to disagree with it.”

So what happens to that unity when the conversation turns to defending Palestinians rather than denigrating Indigenous people?

Let’s turn to another Liberal known for his strong principles on such matters.

“We should always be wary when the government uses migration law to indirectly decide the views that can be expressed, and more importantly the views that Australians are allowed to hear.”

That’s Tim Wilson, of course, from an article published in 2015.

But in that piece, Wilson wasn’t defending a visit by a Palestinian. Instead, he was advocating for Geert Wilders, a far right Islamophobic politician who denies that Palestine exists.

Do we detect a pattern emerging here? Is it possible that maybe, just maybe, our politicians stand up for free speech if – and only if – they like what’s being said?

A shocking suggestion, of course, but time will tell.

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