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MPs’ focus on Trump’s Twitter ban is chilling if you care about democracy

In his SMH Op-Ed, Dave Sharma completely misses the point. The entire world has just witnessed a shocking attack on democracy. All the “free speech” noise is deflecting focus from the far more important discussion about the staging of a violent coup by the US President. Trump has not been stripped of his political voice nor silenced. He has access to a press agency and the world’s media. He has fallen into his own trap. By dismissing traditional media outlets as “fake news” he has voluntarily limited his own options.

In Australia, with an election possibly on the horizon and growing evidence of a threat from far-right extremist groups, what is needed is calm, objective and clear leadership. We need swift and decisive condemnation of the violent attack and of the US President for inciting it.

Instead, we have a Prime Minister bucking the trend of other world leaders by refusing to condemn Trump, a Deputy Prime Minister indulging in his own incendiary remarks and loud complaints from Federal MP for Wentworth Dave Sharma about Trump being “silenced”.

Wentworth voters are unlikely to be impressed. Sharma lacks the more considered approach we might have seen from former members. Wentworth is a moderate electorate where people understand that free speech comes with responsibilities. Voters want a civilised debate not politicisation of important issues.

Particularly when Sharma and his colleagues including Craig Kelly are not averse to curtailing free speech themselves. In October 2020, Sharma tweeted that the idea of the Director General of the BBC suspending staff Twitter accounts for not being impartial enough was a “fair approach”.

Members of the current government regularly shut down debate in the Parliament, block members of the public, delete public comments which don’t suit their messaging, pursue secretive trials, vote to remove mobile phones from refugees and block Freedom of Information requests.

In 2020, Parliament was shut down entirely for several weeks and MPs actively tried to stamp out peaceful protests. Is this what we expect in a liberal democracy?

Sharma criticises a private technology company but fails to direct criticism to traditional media companies, many of which decline to provide platforms to commentators whose views differ from those of the companies’ owners. The climate change issue is a case in point. But if a member of the public wants to ask a question, have it answered or express their view in a particular newspaper or on a particular news channel and is refused, is that person’s freedom of speech curtailed? No.

Politicians in Australia are free to argue that Twitter should more consistently enforce the contractual terms that Trump and others knowingly signed up to. Few would disagree. But the answer is not some alternative world where only the courts can ban a seditionist from Twitter.

Perhaps it is time to properly define what “free speech” and other “freedoms” actually mean in Australia and legislate clear protections in a Bill of Rights. Or perhaps Sharma, as a sitting MP, could provide draft legislation to the Parliament to address the media regulation concerns he holds.

Voices of Wentworth was established in part due to Sharma’s own difficulties in engaging transparently and accountably with voters on social media. Twitter has a large, politically engaged and informed community of Australians, commentators, experts and journalists. Sharma’s tweets are often less than positively received. MPs upholding the important democratic principles of transparency and accountability have little to fear from Twitter. But those who avoid scrutiny may find it less appealing.

If Sharma wants to convince Wentworth that he is serious about transparency and accountability he will soon have an opportunity to prove it in upcoming debates and votes on the long-awaited Federal ICAC legislation.

But he can be assured, Wentworth voters are watching closely to see if he will act accountably, transparently and responsibly which is what we all should expect from our Federal representatives in our precious liberal democracy.

Opinion Piece written by Kath Naish.

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