“The Liberals have just justified to many Australian Muslims in the community tonight to leave and go to Syria and join ISIL because of ministers like him”

With those 27 words, Zaky Mallah plunged the Australian Broadcasting Corporation into hot water, the public broadcaster put squarely in the firing line of a desperate and weak Conservative government looking for an easy target to drum up its national security credentials and to help cover up its own failings in governance and economic management.

Mallah’s comments, made on the ABC’s topical debate show Q&A, were in direct response to remarks made by Steve Ciobo – a hitherto anonymous and irrelevant Liberal Parliamentary Secretary – who had been trying to defend his government’s view that fighters for ISIS should not be allowed to return to Australia. The argument was almost universally ignored until the following morning, when the mainstream media blew the conversation out of context and proportion.

Within hours the conservative Liberal/National Government had seized upon Mallah’s statement, with Prime Minister Tony Abbott attempting to override the debate and capitalise on Mallah’s words both in the name of national security and its ongoing culture war against the ABC. Conveniently though, Abbott and his government all too quickly forgot that the more alarming statement had in fact come from Ciobo, who immediately prior to Mallah’s comments had expressed a firm belief that he should be able to arbitrarily deport any ethnic person to whom he objected.

The ABC plays an important role in Australia’s liberal democracy, and has been correctly described by its managing director Mark Scott as a “public broadcaster and not a state broadcaster” But having already broken a core promise of “no cuts to the ABC“, Tony Abbott’s government has furthered the Coalition’s assault on the ABC by calling for “heads to roll” as a result of Zaky Mallah’s controversial comments.

Although Zaky Mallah’s comments rest on the fringes of popular opinion in Australia, the ABC’s Q&A program has fulfilled its aims of bringing all sides of the debate to the table. Moreover, Australia is a pluralist country, and for a national leader to attack the ABC over somebody else’s comments is downright stupid, especially when the comments were made on a television program that is specifically designed to encourage the expression of opinion.

Most people would accept that on any given topic, there will never be total agreement over any issue, and that instead of censoring different opinions, they should be used to gain further insight into the issue at hand. Not the government, though. In fact, by putting the focus on Zaky Mallah, Prime Minister Abbott is clearly trying to draw attention away from his government’s actual response to the issue of ISIS and Australian foreign fighters.

More importantly, the Coalition’s attack on the ABC shows how little the government actually cares about freedom of speech. Zaky Mallah’s claims that the Liberal Party justifies Australians fighting with ISIS may have been on the fringe of acceptable social commentary, but for Tony Jones to completely dismiss it as “out of order“, and for the government to use it as a means of renewing its anti-ABC agenda, undermines Australia’s liberal democracy and its pluralist principles.

Instead of screaming heresy whenever somebody shows dissent or voices a different opinion, Tony Abbott needs to sit down, shut up, and learn from his self-proclaimed mentor, former Prime Minister John Howard, who famously said “isn’t it a great country that allows this kind of exchange to occur” when questioned by convicted terrorist David Hicks on Q&A back in 2010. This was the same episode where the former leader had shoes thrown at him by an audience member.

Australia needs more discussion of its many issues, not less, and since its first broadcast in 2008, Q&A has contributed by mixing academics, social commentators, and politicians from all sides, as well as promoting live audience-driven debate and viewer interaction through Twitter. As the public broadcaster, though, the ABC is subject to legislation that does not apply to the commercial networks. It means that the ABC is also subject to far greater scrutiny and criticism – particularly from the conservative parties and media, who constantly accuse the ABC of a left-wing bias.

It has reached the point where conservative commentators at the Murdoch-funded newspapers scream hysterically that the ABC is not part of “Team Australia”, whilst conservative politicians attack the ABC’s Managing Director by asking “whose side” he and the ABC are on. Of course, the implied message is that the ABC is not on the side of the government, does not worship right-wing politicians, and is also against the Australian nation itself.

This nonsense obstructs quality journalism, prevents objective commentary, and ultimately tarnishes the ABC’s reputation as a trusted institution. It’s hardly surprising that politicians – regularly voted the most untrustworthy, unscrupulous and morally bankrupt collective in Australia – would bring down the ABC, given that the ABC is consistently voted in those same polls just as trustworthy as Australia’s High Court and Reserve Bank. Of course there would be outcry if Q&A suddenly broadcast something a little vivacious; those sorry excuses for human beings that currently plague our national Parliament would make sure of it.

In order to preserve the underlying principles of modern democracy, balanced journalism and freedom of speech, Q&A in its current “minimally regulated” form is absolutely vital in a nation where, more than ever, people of all ages must re-engage with social and political issues. More than that, it smacks of sheer hypocrisy when the very same people that can march in support of free speech following the Charlie Hebdo attacks in France, can then turn around and attempt to censor speech in their own nation.

Amid highly-politicised cuts, broken election promises, unwarranted criticism, yet another inquiry, and competition from the Murdoch press, the ABC currently finds itself under immense pressure to deliver quality news, current affairs and political commentary. The hysteria and anti-ABC rhetoric from Prime Minister Abbott and Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull is particularly damaging for the national broadcaster, and is aimed solely at starting a smear campaign that ultimately seeks to stop the ABC from airing objective criticisms of the government.

Cutting funding from the ABC and then abusing parliamentary privilege to openly lie about, obfuscate and defame the ABC has grave consequences for free speech in Australia, and also restricts the freedoms inherent in a proper free press. Attacking the ABC for airing a variety of opinions is unjustified. Actively seeking to prevent such freedom of speech is criminal. In the words of ABC Managing Director Mark Scott – himself channeling Churchill and the French philosopher, Voltaire – “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it”.