Finkelstein would take us back before 1695

The benefits of freedom of expression are obvious. It allows for a range of views to be canvassed in the public arena, for criticism to be made of mad, bad and foolish government policies and for alternatives to the received wisdom to be aired. Free speech is a mechanism that allows a free community to advance itself and to create a better world.

However, for many people freedom of expression is threatening because it accepts that difference of opinion is the normal state of a civilised community.

It is worth recalling that most civilisations in human history have not tolerated such differences and have attempted to impose uniformity of opinion on their members.

The beginnings of freedom of the press can be traced back to the lapsing of the Licensing Act in England in 1695. This meant publishers did not require that their publications be licensed by the government before they could be printed and offered to the public. Any legal action against a publication would now need to be post-publication. The result was a growth of newspapers as well as books and pamphlets.

This freeing up of the circulation of ideas occurred at a time of great political conflict in England, at a time when what was termed the "rage of party" between the Whigs and Tories dominated English politics. The conflict between the two parties was intense as the stakes were high and perhaps the growth of a public sphere where ideas could circulate relatively freely made it more intense. Then, as now, the "violence" of the conflict was deprecated and ideals of civility advocated to curb its excesses.

There is no doubt many people of that time found the intense public debate uncomfortable but this did not lead to a reimposition of government controls.

And just as well. It is indisputable that a free political system cannot function properly without a free press.

But just as at the beginning of modern popular government so it remains true today that there are many who are frightened by vigorous public debate and would prefer to see it muffled and restrained.

In the 1690s the High Churchmen of the Church of England feared free debate because it threatened their monopoly of religious ideas. This, however, did not prevent them from making use of that freedom to attack their opponents with great, even excessive, vigour.

Today, it appears to be academics who fear free debate because it threatens them. They would like to have a monopoly of ideas in a whole range of areas, including the new religion of the academy, climate change science. And, of course, that has not prevented them from practising the "rage of party" in their pursuit of those who seek to challenge that monopoly.

The present government also seems to be tempted by the idea that somehow it can control public debate for its own benefit.

It has attempted to portray public debate in Australia as manifesting all the worst features of the "rage of party": dirty tricks, violence of expression, disinformation and attempts to manipulate the debate. These were all features of public debate in England in the 1690s.

Playing the victim, the government wants to place all the blame on its critics. It is a cunning strategy but, as they say, it takes two to tango. Government critics can point to the same sorts of practices by the government. If there is a "rage of party" in Australia today it is not just one side engaging in it.

Whether we like it or not, the reality is free debate and discussion will sometimes run to excess, especially when there is much at stake.

We would like everyone to behave in a civil fashion but, human nature being what it is, we should not be surprised if public debate sometimes looks more like a free-for-all in a public bar than a tea party. We must learn to live with our imperfections.

The point is that the alternative is much, much worse. Once the government fancies that public debate needs to be regulated we are pointed back towards that time when the government believed that it should license everything before it appeared in print.

Looking back, we should be thankful that once licensing in England was abolished it remained abolished.

Free politics requires freedom of expression. It requires vigorous debate. Without that debate there are many, especially in sections of the government and of the universities, who would love nothing more than to have a monopoly over ideas in this country.

Greg Melleuish is the Editor of The Centre for Independent Studies' Policy magazine and associate professor of history and politics at the University of Wollongong.