• Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Environment minister Greg Hunt during a press conference in Canberra, Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013. (AAP)
Under an Abbott government, freedom of expression is a relative thing if it doesn't align with party policy. Earlier in the week Federal Liberal MP Andrew Nikolic, frustrated by his inability to win any political points in his campaigns against environmental community groups,called for them to be stripped of their charitable status and lose the funding associated with it.
3 Jul 2014 - 3:30 PM  UPDATED 4 Jul 2014 - 3:07 PM

In Opposition, Tony Abbott was more than ready to engage in heated and controversial debate on climate change.

Often contravening positions well-established in the scientific community and without significant evidence to support his statements, he justified himself as a crusader for freedom of speech and resistance to political correctness.

Recently, however, we have seen that in government, a new form of political orthodoxy is being enforced by the Coalition: the suppression of discussion of climate change.

While in a former life they were fiery advocates of the right of climate change denialists to have an equal say in public debate, and of anti-environment fringe groups to be given platforms to spruik their values, they have changed their tune. Once in government, Abbott’s defence of freedom of speech has started to come apart. He is using his new position of power to take action to limit the freedoms of those who might question the government’s increasingly tenuous position on environmental policy.

Earlier this week reports emerged of censorship on the government’s environment.gov.au website where the link between extreme weather events and climate change was watered down despite the widespread support for such a connection in the scientific literature. The Abbott government seems to want to suppress the suggestion that catastrophic weather events are anything more than a normal part of life and the weather. It would not be surprising if the change on the website was aimed at absolving the government of blame from Australians who have suffered and lost loved ones and homes in natural disasters such as bushfires disasters and were aggrieved that the government had not done more to address climate change. 

One of the Prime Minister’s main agents in this campaign to shut down environmental speech is his Attorney-General, Senator George Brandis. Like Abbott he has been a self-proclaimed defender of freedom of expression, but in government has embarked on a program of limiting these freedoms. On Wednesday, the Brandis ‘clause 5’ changes were introduced, removing the funding for Environmental Defender’s Offices and other community legal centres to engage in policy advocacy and law reform. In doing so he is removing the voice of those at the frontline of the law, working with the most disadvantaged and on some of the key environmental and political questions Australia faces, stopping them  from being able to contribute to public policy debates. As well as targeting political opponents of the government, or those who simply offer a different point of view than the Abbott environmental line, these changes deprive the nation of the benefit of informed and relevant opinion in our discussions of our future.

Another example of these processes are reports that scientific institutions are being forced to limit their research and activities so as not to question the climate change principles and policies laid out by the government. Climate change work is being taken away from research organisations like the CSIRO, with 18 job losses in Hobart this month hitting mainly the climate sciences and marine research. Despite the fact that it is placed at a unique position to provide valuable perspectives on the processes around climate change, the government is pursuing these cuts in an increasingly desperate attempt to silence opposition as it becomes more isolated from the growing consensus amongst other nation states on climate change. It sees the only solution as to defund the scientists and pretend that what they’ve observed in the oceans and landmasses in and around Australia is not actually happening.

Earlier in the week Federal Liberal MP Andrew Nikolic, frustrated by his inability to win any political points in his campaigns against environmental community groups, called for them to be stripped of their charitable status and lose the funding associated with it. In this way, unable to convince people in public debate, he would simply deny these groups the resources to engage in it at all and stop them challenging his government’s pronouncements. Like the Orwellian government in 1984 the Abbott regime thinks it is easier to gag its opponents and change the facts to suit its ends than to engage in democratic debate and defend its position,

Because of the political mess of Tony Abbott’s own making, and his inability to mount coherent arguments in support of the Direct Action policy, the Coalition has attempted to gag climate change discussion in an effort to stop criticism of an increasingly chaotic government. The defunding of EDOs and CLCs, the limits on scientific institutions, and Nikolic’s call for changes in the status of environmental organisations, all amount to an emerging pattern of behaviour by the government  in which the ability of the community and institutions to speak out against the Abbott regime’s line on climate change is attacked.

From a group that railed so hard against ‘political correctness’ in Opposition and promised to implement a brave new era of free speech and robust public debate, we see an increasingly authoritarian enforcement of a new form of political orthodoxy in the public sphere. It is something Labor will continue to fight against, and another reason why the next election cannot come about soon enough.

Lisa Singh is a Labor Senator for Tasmania and is the Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for the Environment, Climate Change and Water.