The freedoms lauded one day were forgotten the next. There was no place for liberty if it meant free speech and the right to galvanise consumer power against the government’s favoured industry.
The space between the two speeches was a philosophical vacuum so deep it could only be crossed by George Clooney in a spacesuit with a jet pack – or a Prime Minister drifting in a bubble, beyond the laws of political gravity.
Nobody can be sure exactly what Morrison meant by the “mechanisms” to stop protesters, given existing laws already outlaw violence, obstruction, vandalism or creating a public nuisance. But nobody should assume this was merely tough talk. Morrison made a pledge to “outlaw” the boycotts. He will be expected to deliver.
The government plays down the scale of these changes. It says the Prime Minister does not want to restrict freedom of speech, will not stop a peaceful protest and only wants to target organised boycotts. But Morrison used the word “outlaw” in his speech, and that surely means some form of legal sanction.
Morrison now sets a course that looks utterly inconsistent with his convictions on other fronts. He believes so strongly in freedom of speech on religion that he seeks new laws to protect the faithful. With every step he triggers another question about his selective convictions.
Shane Stephan, chief executive of New Hope, which wants to expand its New Acland coal mine in Queensland, has a solution. He wants changes to Section 45DD of the Competition and Consumer Act to end an exemption for environmental activists.
Section 45DD forbids secondary boycotts in which someone – often a union – seeks to boycott one company because it is a supplier or supporter of another company which is the primary target. The section allows the boycott if its dominant purpose is “substantially related” to environmental protection or consumer protection.
“They are free to target us,” Stephan told ABC Radio National on Tuesday. “They just should not be free to target our suppliers of goods and services.”
But what exactly does it mean to “target” a company? Does it have to mean a picket line that obstructs a business and its customers? To go by the complaints from business leaders this week, it could mean a call for consumers to ban a company.
In other words, it could mean free speech. The government is struggling with this awkward reality.
Activists who call on customers to withdraw cash from a bank that lends to the Adani coal mine are not playing nice. They want to inflict peak financial pain. So be it. They have the right to do so when their weapons are words.
Company chiefs could argue back and defend themselves but prefer the helping hand of a Liberal government that is suddenly afraid of customer power in a free market.
The humiliating consequence for the Liberals was to have their government schooled on freedom this week by Mike Cannon-Brookes, the co-founder of Atlassian. Cannon-Brookes is the sort of problem the conservatives thought they got rid of a year ago – he’s rich, believes in action on climate change and lives in a harbourside mansion. But he is also smart. As a businessman he has thrived in the extreme capitalism of American startup culture, a world that embraces creative destruction and believes the slowest wildebeest deserves to be the lion’s supper.
“Choosing not to do business with companies that threaten the health of the planet is everyone’s basic right,” Cannon-Brookes said this week. “It’s a way to get business to do the right thing, because we are all accountable.”
Do the Liberals and Nationals really need this reminder of what the free market means? They have just been shamed by a billionaire who lives in a free market they only know from books.
Coalition governments always have a cohort of agrarian socialists who are eager to use laws and budgets to help friends in need, but the helping hand is getting bigger. One year ago their stated energy policy was to underwrite new-generation projects with a guarantee rather than hard cash; now the policy is to use $1 billion in commonwealth debt to help finance them.
So the protest laws are part of a bigger picture of legal and financial aid for companies lucky enough to win favours from the cabinet room so they can enjoy the mission creep of nanny state capitalism.
Morrison can enjoy the afterglow of his election victory for a few more months, knowing Labor is still searching for a direction while Anthony Albanese tries to give heart to a downcast team.
But the fact is that Morrison and his government are searching for direction as well. What do they stand for? They have no time for press freedom but are totally absorbed by religious freedom, while thinking that other freedoms depend upon your opinion about coal.
The protest law is certainly populist for the conservative base but it suggests Morrison has been spending too much time with the Donald Trump strain of conservatism. Perhaps the Prime Minister’s visit to Washington DC last September came three decades too late.
When Peggy Noonan remembered her time as speechwriter in Ronald Reagan’s White House, she had no trouble listing the president’s convictions. Here is just one. “He believed that government out of control is the main threat to individual freedom in the modern world.”
If Morrison needs a lighthouse in rough seas, those words might help him find the way.
David Crowe is chief political correspondent for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.
David Crowe is chief political correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.