“It’s a free country. People will make their protest and make their voices heard”
Scott Morrison

A refreshing statement from Scott Morrison — had it not been used to rationalise the behaviour of right-wing conspiracy theorists, breaking social distancing laws to mass gather in protest on the steps of state parliament last week. Their insistence on doing so flies in the face of recommendations we have been hearing from politicians and public health officials over the last couple of months. So the question is: why the free pass from our Prime Minister?

You may recall hearing the phrase ‘it’s a free country’ thrown around the schoolyard. In unpacking the statement a little further, it is a powerful device, used to state that because an action is not instantly forbidden, it is therefore a totally rational, normal thing to do. It acts as a justification. It’s not a counter argument, it’s an on the spot defence, lacking in substance and without forethought.

It is a device that traps the argument in a feedback loop. In this case, it implies that despite breaking the law and risking the safety of other Victorians, anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists crowding the steps of Parliament House had a right to be there. Why? Because ‘it's a free country’.

When these fringe conspiracy theorists begin chanting for the arrest of Bill Gates, what does it reflect when our PM calls it a simple act of expressing “anxiety and frustration” — a reasonable response given the circumstances?

The duality of rhetoric we’ve seen Morrison use in relation to protest is stark in contrast. Last year's climate protesters were said to have been engaging in “indulgent and selfish practices” according to the PM. Threatening in tone, Morrison said activists were “testing the right to protest”. This has heavy implications for what free speech is endorsed, and what is not.

‘It’s a free country’ is commonly used by proponents of free speech, often as a substitute for argument. That is, the belief that an argument should be listened to on the basis that it is allowed to be stated, rather than because the argument is based on a substantial contention. When challenged it becomes a defence that doubles down and goes on the offensive, aggressively so. Any criticism of it becomes a symbol for tyranny, limiting an individual’s freedom.  It is not uncommon to see this used to justify hate, intolerance and opinions masquerading as fact. The Prime Minister’s use of the phrase does just that.

It is concerning to see Morrison now rationalising the behaviour of those who actively choose to disregard the recommendations of global health officials, preferring instead to consume their news and public health information from Facebook conspiracy echo-chambers.

Photo credit 📷 Jay Wennington