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Q&A recap: Tony Jones brings back program’s controversial past with simple question

Q&A host Tony Jones ramped up the debate on freedom of speech on Monday night’s program. Photo: ABC Steve Ciobo found himself in the Q&A hot seat again. Photo: ABC

Canadian author and human rights activist Mark Steyn spoke against government regulation that impedes free speech on Q&A. Photo: ABC

Q&A host Tony Jones encouraged a spirited discussion on freedom of speech on Monday night’s program. Photo: ABC

Somewhere, Zaky Mallah’s ears were burning.

“Should people in a forum like this be able to say whatever they think?” inquired Q&A host Tony Jones during Monday night’s program.

The question seemed innocuous enough but in this instance came with an added frisson of anticipation. He was throwing it to the man on his right, a man who was sitting in the exact same spot when he last appeared on this program. On that occasion, Steve Ciobo – a government minister then toiling in the troubled ranks of Tony Abbott – found himself front and centre as the proverbial hit the fan, splattering everyone in sight, setting off a freedom-of-speech debate that ran for months and landing Q&A in the biggest crisis of its eight years on the air.

We are all older and wiser now, and Zaky Mallah – the one-time terrorism suspect whose fiery clash with Ciobo prompted that conflagration – will likely never darken the door of the Q&A studio again. As for Ciobo, he was back – now a happy warrior for Malcolm Turnbull and happy to hold forth, though perhaps hoping no one would mention his government’s efforts to cow Q&A into silent submission just seven months ago.

Fortunately Jones couldn’t resist, if only in passing, but Ciobo wasn’t biting.

“I’m attracted to the classic liberal freedoms as a starting point but it doesn’t apply carte blanche,” he began.

Jones: “Didn’t apply to Zaky Mallah, for example.”

Ciobo waved the interjection away, as he did sniping from other members of the panel. “I am attracted to the principle but there does need to be limits on it. I think that’s a reasonable position.”

The Mallah matter might have taken this discussion down an interesting path – for example, would the storm that engulfed Q&A under PM Abbott have happened under PM Turnbull – but neither Ciobo nor Jones seemed to have the heart to go there, perhaps wisely in both cases. On a hiding to nothing, the discussion moved on – from freedom of speech to freedom of drinking, otherwise known as the lockout laws currently roiling politics in NSW.

Questioner Margot Davis, lamenting the rise of the nanny state, wanted to know of the panel: “What are you going to do to stem what’s quickly becoming an insult to the vast majority of Australians who are intelligent, progressive and responsible members of our country before it ends in civil unrest and a fight for our independence?”

Steve Ciobo, a Queenslander, thought the NSW laws went too far.

“I know here in NSW it’s currently in place and the Premier Mike Baird has said assaults are down 44 per cent. How does that sit with the way in which patronage is down? I heard someone quip there were zero assaults in the Simpson Desert, too.”

Fellow Queenslander Terri Butler, the Labor MP on the panel, saw the argument in favour – including their proposed adoption on her home state. But it fell to visiting Canadian Mark Steyn – a renowned conservative commentator based in the US – to offer the most provocative if mostly sensible perspective: give a government a centimetre and it will take a kilometre. Or as he put, in assessing government regulation of our lives:

“If the state treats you like a child in every other area of life, then it can’t let you stay out drinking until four in the morning.

“It’s different for me to watch grown men wearing a helmet to ride a bicycle around a Sydney park,” said Steyn, who lives in New Hampshire – state motto, “Live Free Or Die”.

“It is a different way of looking at things. I think if you look to the government to insulate you against risk in that way, like riding a bicycle round a park on a Sunday afternoon, it’s very difficult to argue that untrammelled access to liquor until four in the morning should be an exception to that.”

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