Of all the indispensable words to have slipped their definitional moorings in the latter decades of the twentieth century – 'iconic', 'tragedy', 'legendary' – 'ironic' is perhaps the most conspicuous. Certainly its fall from semantic grace has been one of the more spectacular: where once this adjective was pressed into service to describe appropriate reversals of fortune or knowing asides at one's own expense, it now denotes little more than coincidence or simple incongruity. 'How ironic is that?!' an old friend will declare, having bumped into you for the second time in a week. Well, not ironic at all, actually, or no more ironic than 'rain on your wedding day', to take one of the instances of irony proffered by a certain Canadian songstress.
What I hadn't appreciated till recently, however, is that this over-application of 'ironic' is merely the symptom of a more general inability to identify genuine irony when it comes up. Take, for example, Tony Abbott's decision not to follow through on his promise to reform section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, the reasons for which he set out thus, in a press conference in early August:
We need new legislation to make it easier to identify, to charge and to prosecute people who have been engaged in terrorist activities overseas, such as, for instance, by making it an offence to travel to a designated area without a valid reason. We also need legislation, which I have commissioned the Attorney to prepare – which the National Security Committee of the Cabinet has commissioned the Attorney to prepare – to ensure that we are best able to monitor potential terrorist activity in this country – obviously with the usual range of safeguards and warrants, but that will include discussions with the telecommunications providers about the retention of metadata. We are also determined to engage in ever closer consultation with communities, including the Australian Muslim community.
When it comes to counter-terrorism everyone needs to be part of 'Team Australia' and I have to say that the Government's proposals to change 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act have become a complication in that respect. I don't want to do anything that puts our national unity at risk at this time and so those proposals are now off the table. This is a call that I have made. It is, if you like, a leadership call that I have made after discussion with the cabinet today. In the end leadership is about preserving national unity on the essentials and that is why I have taken this decision.
So, to paraphrase the PM: while we were proposing to extend your liberty, we are now proposing not to do so, because this push for greater liberty is standing in the way of greater unity, and this greater unity will prove essential to our plans to chip away at your liberty. Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is irony.
And yet how was this announcement received by those who had opposed the reform of 18C – by the people who on issues of racial sensitivity would have the state do their arguing for them? With a feeling that, in however small a way, they had helped to make a rod for their own backs? With a belated realisation that on questions of principle slopes are always slippery? With any sense of irony?
Nah. Welcoming the 18C climb-down as a moral and political victory – for clearly there can be no 'right to be a bigot' in twenty-first-century Australia – these progressives came over all indignant at the prospect of spooks raking over their emails and the plod detaining Muslims without charge. No link was made between the two stories, despite the PM having made it explicit. The aftermath was an irony-free zone.
Two months on, the penny still hasn't dropped, and the scope of the government's ambition is clear. Its proposed legislation will restrict press freedom, allow ASIO greater snooping powers (while granting its agents immunity from prosecution for all but a handful of violent transgressions), extend preventative detention orders, create control and contact orders and a penalty of life imprisonment for people who fight for a foreign country (or express an intention so to do), prohibit travel to particular countries, and mandate the retention of metadata. I'm assuming we can all agree that this is a serious time in Australia.
Most of this policy will be waved through by Labor, and most of it, I suspect, will prove perfectly acceptable to most members of the Australian public. Needless to say, there will be critics – people (you know the types) who would prefer to stand on the sidelines kvetching than take to the field for Team Australia. They will point out that majority support for policies such as these is immaterial – that liberal democracy does not depend, for its liberal-democratic character, on the will of the majority only; it depends on individual rights. Quite so. So why were those same commentators so dismissive of the (left and right) libertarians who took, and continue to take, the view that on matters of freedom of speech and expression the majority is as capable of behaving tyrannically as the king or the priest or the politician? Why, come to think of it, did they think it was relevant to say that 88% of Australians were against reforming the RDA?
Speaking for myself, I was never impressed – and certainly not persuaded – by this statistic. I imagine I'm in a minority of 12% or less on all manner of issues; I'm unlikely ever to see a government that reflects my ideological sympathies – a government, that is to say, that is both socially libertarian and economically socialistic. My compensation for this, however, is that I get to say of those in power that I think they're dishonest, or useless, or wankers, and that Team Australia would be a hilarious idea if it wasn't so bloody sinister. I get to exercise my freedom of speech. Now those who would treat that right as negotiable – who dismiss it as some kind of 'liberal' luxury – are asking 'the 88%' to get excited about threats to their privacy or rights to free movement and association. Call me a defeatist, but I don't fancy their chances.
One reason, though not the only reason, progressives took against the reform of 18C is that they regarded it as political in the narrow sense – a sop to the Andrew Bolts of the world, as well as a quivering two-finger salute to a constituency that had never supported the right. Well, they were partly correct about that. But having failed to stick up for the principle of free speech, they will find it much harder to argue on principle against the government's draconian security measures. The lesson is clear, or ought to be: be careful – very careful – what you wish for.
The Prime Minister and his minions say that the safety of the Australian people is their number-one priority and that they are proposing to limit our liberties in order to protect our freedom. We all know how to sneer at this rhetoric and where to look for the appropriate analogues: to the USA Patriot Act and the British state security apparatus, for a start. But the government's reasoning is really no different to the reasoning of those who would curtail free speech in the name of social harmony. In the end, it comes down to the following question: what kind of relationship between the individual and the state are we, the people, prepared to accept.
The left must take its fair share of the blame for creating a political climate in which voters and politicians alike are indifferent to questions of fundamental liberty. Now it is coming back to bite us. The Libs, no friends of liberty in their hearts (even George 'I'm a Voltaire man' Brandis continues to call Ed Snowden 'a traitor'), are about to excise a chunk of it. And they announced their intention to do just this while accepting that the need for unity trumped the principle of free expression. Sorry to rain on your wedding, comrades, but this deserves the name of irony.