Dr Carmen Lawrence's Freilich Foundation lectures
Fear and Public Policy
Former WA Premier, past President for the ALP and the Federal member for Fremantle Dr Carmen Lawrence was the Fourth Freilich Foundation Eminent Lecturer in 2005 at The Herbert and Valmae Freilich Foundation.
Dr Lawrence generously supplied the lectures to us for publication - they are brought together in a series of four pages. Below are links to the other three lectures.
1 January 2007: The Gifts of Carmen Lawrence - The number of contributions from Carmen to the national debate, also but not only about Australia's treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, has kept growing, also on our website - this was the reason we constructed this page to bring all pages, all gifts from Dr Carmen Lawrence together.
8 November 2005: Fear and Public Policy: Dr Carmen Lawrence's 2005 Freilich Foundation lectures | Fear of Annihilation | - Just last week the Prime Minister and Premiers gathered to devise even more draconian laws following the London bombings, ostensibly to protect us from such threats, while insisting that the threat level has actually not increased since that time.
8 November 2005: Fear and Public Policy: Dr Carmen Lawrence's 2005 Freilich Foundation lectures | Fear of Crime | - The last twenty years have seen a sustained campaign on law and order, with the result that people now have wildly exaggerated, and fearful perceptions of the risks of assault, murder, child abuse and robbery.
8 November 2005: Fear and Public Policy: Dr Carmen Lawrence's 2005 Freilich Foundation lectures | Fear of the Other | - One of the reasons offered for adopting democracy as a system of government is people's desire to be protected from state-sponsored fear - fear of persecution and death, arbitrary theft of property and discrimination.
Lecture Four: Relaxed and Comfortable?
The Fourth Freilich Foundation Eminent Lecturer
It is not power that corrupts, but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it. - Aung San Suu Kyi (1991)
In this the final lecture, "Relaxed and comfortable?", I will attempt to chart the consequences of the exploitation of fear on the Australian body politic. As the title suggests, I will place this in the context of asking whether the objective Howard set himself as he approached government in 1996 has been realised.
In a Four Corners program in the lead up to the 1996 election, he said that his vision was "An Australian nation that feels comfortable and relaxed about three things: about their history, about their present and the future." I will suggest that although a superficial reading of contemporary Australia may suggest that we are satisfied with our circumstances, more penetrating analyses suggest otherwise. I believe that we are confronting fracture lines in our nation which leave many marginalised and far from comfortable or relaxed. In fact, they are highly anxious and distinctly uncomfortable.
I will argue that fear cannot be a foundation of moral and political argument and that the necessary antidote to the toxin of fear is a wholehearted embrace of the principles of freedom, equality and co-operation. Human betterment must again be the prime focus of politics; encouragement rather than coercion the prevailing national motivation.
I began the first lecture by suggesting that one of the reasons people embrace democracy as a system of government is because it is premised on non-violent power sharing as a replacement for arbitrary and despotic rule. Rejecting government by fear as inherently illegitimate, people have turned to democracy as a "fear-resolving" system.
Mature democracies systematically limit the scope and concentration of political power by a variety of means, including the establishment of arms-length institutions and laws which ensure basic freedoms and civil liberties. They also seek to disperse the exercise of power - in Australia's case through the separation of powers between the executive, the parliament and the judiciary and the constitutional establishment of a federation.
Traditionally our commitment to a muscular form of equality has meant that safeguards against exploitation and measures to equalise power relations were built into our industrial relations, tax and human services programs.
Despite these safeguards, it is clear that, even in established democracies, fear is used as a device to maintain and expand the power of governments and their supporters. Perhaps now more than ever in recent history, "political fear" is being employed in the pursuit of specific political goals and to legitimise the moral and political beliefs of those in power or those seeking to achieve it. It is a potent device for managing dissent and silencing those who seek a greater share of power and resources. A headline in yesterday's Australian succinctly captured the prevailing motif of the government's plans to radically alter the power relations in our workplaces - "Reasons to tremble as Howard starts up the steamroller."
In the series to date, I have focused on fear that derives from threats allegedly posed by largely "external" threats, on groups who are labelled as "others". A preoccupation with these big issues of "terrorism", "crime" and "invaders" may lead us to overlook the more mundane, but pervasive use of fear which arises directly from social, economic and political inequalities. In this case intimidation, sanctions and the threat of sanctions, are used to ensure that one group maintains or augments its power at the expense of another.
While these sanctions may not be spelled out in every case, it is usually made abundantly clear that failure to conform to a prescribed or expected pattern of behaviour will have negative repercussions, including humiliation and marginalisation. We're not necessarily talking about tactics which constitute gross violations of human rights; people will often conform as a result of petty tyranny and small coercions, often in ways that stifle criticism and circumscribe policy options. As Corey has pointed out, "It only takes a little bit of coercion to produce a great deal of fear."
This style of political fear has become the trade mark of the Howard government and it is used to protect the status quo - to ensure that those with power retain it and those without power can do little, if anything, to get it. Non-government and advocacy groups in Australia, for example, have been threatened with the loss of funding or tax-deductible status for donations to them unless they toe the government line. The Muslim community is being told to shape up or "clear out" and to ensure the teaching of "Australian values" in their schools or risk losing their funding. State governments have been threatened with the loss of significant revenue unless they agree to the Federal government's policy priorities and prescriptions. Expensive fear-based advertising campaigns have been devised to persuade Australians to support government policies.
Those who criticise Ministers publicly are routinely denied further access. And a great many Australians have been abused and humiliated - called "dole bludgers", "union thugs", "welfare cheats", "illegals"- or assigned to a class of non-persons if they dare disagree with the government, assigned a label which is meant to silence them or discredit their views. Their media cheer leaders happily propagate these insults, denigrating dissenters as "bleeding hearts" or members of the "chattering classes" or the "aboriginal industry". As Judith Brett notes in her recent Quarterly Essay with the same title as this lecture,
What Howard has done, time and again, is to represent the opinions of people he does not agree with as the self-interested views of a section and then dismiss them as of no account.
Fear and the disadvantaged
There is a clear catalogue of who's in and who's out of favour. And if you're out of favour, expect to be targeted with fear campaigns of one kind or another. Aboriginal people who seek to protect their rights and to argue for a greater share of power and resources are certainly "out". So are single parents, the unemployed and people with disabilities. Unions are definitely seen as enemies of the state as are arts practitioners. Teachers in government schools can expect ritual denigration from their own Ministers.
By way of example, Corroboree 2000 was an event designed to celebrate a decade of reconciliation; it was intended to be a great national occasion to begin the process of acknowledging and redressing past wrongs, and of building a future based on mutual respect and understanding.
Despite the fact that senior members of the Indigenous community had, with good reason, criticised the Howard government for its refusal to apologise for the stolen generations, for the Wik legislation which neutered native title and for refusing to acknowledge the unique position of Indigenous Australians dispossessed of their ownership of this land, many thought that the occasion would allow the government an opportunity to rethink their apparently hostile attitude to indigenous aspirations.
Having seen so many Australians open their hearts to the idea of reconciliation and take part in marches and celebrations around the country, many expected Howard to respond to the momentum for change and behave like a statesman. He couldn't do it, wouldn't do it - announcing a policy of so-called "practical reconciliation" as an excuse not to say sorry. And the people present on what could have been a moment of renewal, jeered and booed a mean spirited, graceless speech - as Australians do - and some turned their backs on him.
Howard has never forgotten. Remember his lectern thumping, red-faced hysterical rant? He certainly does. And in abolishing ATSIC and effectively calling a halt to the government's participation in the process of reconciliation he acted out a revenge drama by silencing those who dared criticise him. The Bill which abolished ATSIC should have carried a title that more accurately reflected its genesis - "Howard's Revenge". It's was crude payback for the humiliation the PM believes he suffered and an example to others who might dare stand up to the government.
These actions - by the man and the government - demonstrate, as Mick Dodson put it, "a deep-seated disrespect for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and our cultural rights and obligations". The Prime Minister has been obsessive in his repeated denigration of the "black armband" view of history. He shows an almost visceral reaction to any attempts to write a history inclusive of Indigenous stories and accurately depicting the grim, as well as the admirable and heroic, deeds of our settler forebears.
He couldn't apologise on behalf of the nation because he really doesn't see that there is anything for which to apologise. In fact, he caricatured the request for recognition and reparation from the "stolen generations" as an unreasonable attempt to make people like him feel "guilty" about our past. Mind you he has no trouble appropriating the courage of our war dead and feeling "proud" of their actions.
After a sustained campaign of vilification of indigenous organisations and their supporters mounted from the almost the first day of its election, the Howard government closed the chapter on what they call "a failed experiment". In announcing the government decision to abolish ATSIC and not to replace it, the Prime Minister claimed that:
We believe very strongly that the experiment in separate representation, elected representation for Indigenous people has failed.
The Prime Minister was never interested in an objective assessment of the "experiment" as he calls it. He had made his mind up a long time ago. When the Bill to establish ATSIC was introduced in 1989 he argued that the "legislation strikes at the heart of the unity of the Australian people" and would "divide Australian against Australian", a fearful prospect which he and other government members revisited again and again during the Native Title and Wik debates.
For this and because of their continuing disadvantage, Indigenous Australians certainly couldn't be described as relaxed or comfortable.
Nor are those who rely on pensions and benefits as a principal source of income - people without work, people with disabilities and sole parents, in particular. This government appears to begin with assumption that such people do not want to work and will not make the transition to work without the threat - and imposition- of penalties by the government. And the penalties have been ferocious, amounting in some cases to the complete loss of income for extended periods.
It is assumed that welfare recipients have a negative attitude to employment which is fostered by the "culture of dependency" that flourishes when people require financial assistance from government to survive. This is a perversion of the policy stance which flowed from Cass's 1986-89 review of the social security system 1 which stressed the importance of aiding and encouraging unemployed people to maintain their links with the labour force to prevent them than slipping into permanent welfare dependency.
The government seems intent on pushing a punitive agenda rather than one whose goal is to provide improved opportunities for those in receipt of financial assistance; they punish rather than encourage; frighten rather than enthuse. In the provision of social security, we have seen a steady shift away from a rights based system with entitlements dependent on limited eligibility criteria, to one where payments are conditional on individualised, quasi-contractual arrangements between the benefit recipient and the government. Breach the contract and you'll suffer.
This approach was first tried on the young unemployed under the banner of the "work for the dole" scheme. The language illustrates my point. It was supposed to turn passive recipients of unemployment benefits into active job seekers. Or else. We are soon to see sole parents and people with disabilities drawn into this net, with a whole new round of restrictions to be placed on their lives. What's more, their incomes will be severely cut as they are moved from pensions to the less generous New Start Allowance. As they are forced into work, punitive marginal tax rates will apply, rates which would lead to almighty roars of disapproval if they were applied to the wealthiest Australians.
Most people want to work, and sole parents and people with disabilities are no exception. However, the government seems incapable of understanding that even once a child goes to school, life for many sole parents remains grindingly difficult and, with the best will in the world, it is not always possible to find work which fits with the needs of the children. Research also shows that a significant minority of such parents suffer depression, anxiety or other mental health problems, many resulting from the violence which drove them from the family home in the first place. Targeted assistance and retraining have been shown to be very effective in helping sole parents back into the workforce. Threats and punishment are simply gratuitously destructive.
It is implied that this approach is necessary because people on benefits are not meeting their side of the implied contract with government and trying to get a job. They're not really trying.
One result of this policy shift is that more familiar notions of citizenship and working together for the common good are devalued. As Brennan argues:2
They are about re-constituting citizens as consumers whose primary interests are personal and private: government is reinvented but citizenship, together with policies that bind us together in common cause with one another, is circumvented.
Theoretically, it is in the nature of a contractual obligation that it is freely given and that the promises inherent in the contract are kept. It is questionable whether many (or any) of the contracts required by the government under the banner of "mutual obligation" have either of these characteristics. While the concept implies that those who enter into the arrangement do so freely as a matter of choice, the reality is that in most cases at least one of the parties does not have any choice at all. Most, for example, do not have any choice over whether or not to be unemployed, or disabled or single parents in the first place.
One obvious problem with such contracts, as with the government favoured workplace agreements, is that they are very unbalanced, with little real power residing with the individual in receipt of benefits. Failure, or perceived failure, to comply is punished in a peremptory and often arbitrary fashion, with appeal rights being steadily eroded. In reality, as Carney3 points out, "agreements are imposed by the more powerful state agent, backed by legislative authority to do so on pain of loss of benefit".
It is also clear that any failure by the Government - and there are many- to deliver its side of the bargain does not attract any penalty at all. There is often no public disclosure of these failures and no public outrage either. The recipients of benefits are amongst the most disadvantaged in every sense - including in access to the media. Indeed, they are more likely to be pilloried and further humiliated than assisted. One Minister called them "job snobs" and with his colleagues encourages the view that they deserve their fate, that they are "losers", the latter insulting Americanism gaining increasing currency in the Australian vocabulary.
I'm sure no one is opposed to the idea that recipients of taxpayers' funds have a responsibility to use those funds to the best advantage of themselves, their families and their communities. This should be true whether they are sole parents, farmers in receipt of agricultural subsidies or businesses given tax breaks for investment purposes. For unemployed people, this means providing for themselves and their families, looking for work and improving their education and skills to maximise employment opportunities.
The "mutual obligation" rhetoric is too easily twisted to make those on unemployment and other benefits appear to be responsible for failings in our system which are beyond their control. In my experience most people who are on benefits are not willing volunteers to that condition. Indeed it is often the cause of great distress from which they would prefer to escape as soon as possible. They are keen to take any genuine assistance and any opportunity that becomes available. Most would clearly prefer to earn more if they could.
Despite all the government's boasting, it is worth remembering that much of the growth in jobs has been in low paid part-time and casual work. Even those in work often find themselves in poverty and in receipt of supplementary benefits. As ACOSS put it, "social security benefits for low income and disadvantaged people are not causing dependency- they are keeping people alive".
Many of these mutual obligation contracts are also latently coercive and repressive; they depend on the fear of retribution for their (limited) effectiveness. As Carney argues, vulnerable citizens may have more to fear from the "coercive case manager than from the overzealous and rigid bureaucrat", especially if appeal rights are inadequate. In many of these contracts, the criteria are subjective and require professional judgment about who gains access to scarce program places.
A lot of the comment about increases in the number of people on disability support pensions reflects a failure to understand that many of these people are the victims of the restructuring and downsizing of industries which formerly employed blue collar workers. Their chances of employment are vanishingly small especially if they have, after years of labouring, illnesses and disabilities and few transferable skills.
Furthermore, anyone with a disability faces substantial barriers to employment. To be made to feel that they are dissembling or malingering, or just need to try a little harder to get a job, is a vicious and calculated insult. The Department for Family and Community Service's own survey in 1997 found that, in addition to the disability, factors inhibiting their return to employment included: the lack of suitable work, discrimination on the basis of age or disability, lack of suitable transport, lack of education and training courses, lack of skills and employer attitudes.
Rather than assisting in overcoming these problems, the Government has cut dedicated funds and programs to assist entry and re-entry of those with disabilities into suitable employment or community activities. Even recent increases tied to the shift to the New Start Allowance fall far short of what is required to re-train those who have been out of work for extended periods.
I think it is fair to say that Australia's welfare system- and the debate about it- is seriously unbalanced. There has been too much emphasis on the obligations of the recipients and their failings and not nearly enough emphasis on expanding opportunities, on encouragement and involvement of those needing financial assistance in the design and implementation of appropriate measures. Far too much emphasis on fear and punishment and not nearly enough on incentives. It's also counter-intuitive that bullying and punishing people will make them confident and independent job seekers.
Ours is already one of the most tightly targeted and conditional systems of social security in the world; access is far more restricted than the Minister responsible seems to understand; but the political benefits of bashing those on social security appear to be irresistible. Telling taxpayers that they are being exploited by an army of "bludgers" makes good copy for the tabloids, but is not a fair representation of the lives of those who are really battling in our "egalitarian paradise".
Blaming the victim, instead of looking for the reasons for growing inequality and associated social problems, will not only fail to solve the problem but betrays those who most need our intelligent commitment to policy. It also allows those who have a disproportionate share of the community's wealth to avoid confronting the reasons for that maldistribution and what should be done about it.
It is far easier for those who are, to use Galbraith's term, part of the "contented majority" to attribute continuing unemployment and poverty to individual shortcomings and a perverse refusal to pull their weight than to economic and social values and structures which inevitably result in so-called "social exclusion".
As we confront the radical changes to our working lives contained in the new industrial relations laws, it is worth reminding ourselves of the inherently stronger bargaining position of employers over workers, a relationship that is ripe for coercion in some workplaces. The differential in favour of employers has, in the past, been reduced by the intervention of unions in supporting workers in enterprise agreements and in setting the system of awards overseen by the independent Industrial Relations System.
The proposed legislation is aimed squarely at isolating employees, removing this support and forcing people on to individual contracts without union assistance and without the guarantee of minimum standards provided by a "no disadvantage" test. For those whose skills are in demand, this will probably not make much difference but for the already low paid, less skilled workers, it will almost certainly result in longer hours, lower wages and poorer conditions. Unfair dismissal without redress will be a real possibility for many workers. A significant number of provisions are aimed squarely at reducing union influence.
There has already been a decline in standard hours work and a rise in part-time hours and Australians work more ours than almost every other developed country. And there has been a rapid increase in the numbers in "casual employment" which is the most common form of employment amongst part-timers. Job security for many is already fairly precarious. Many people, predominantly women, in part-time and often casual jobs will testify that the jobs are, to say the least, less than ideal. Despite the fact that part-time work has often been touted as the ideal way of reconciling work and family responsibilities for women, there is a substantial downside to such employment.
The ILO makes an important distinction between voluntary and involuntary part-time employment - many people accept reduced hours because they cannot find full time employment, in which case it is a form of underemployment. Some women accept low paid part-time work which does not use their skills because it is the only work available which allows them sufficient flexibility to manage their family responsibilities as well. In other cases, women opt for part-time work because adequate and affordable child-care is simply not available.
Much part-time and casual work is not structured to meet the families' needs, but rather to suit the employer. Many people already report an increase in unsociable hours, split shifts and the like, adding to their problems rather than diminishing them. The proposed IR changes will only accelerate these trends.
As I said earlier, people have a strong desire to engage in paid work, but as John Kenneth Galbraith 4 has often pointed out, much work is repetitive and demeaning and the use of the word "work" by the "contented classes" to describe their highly paid, creative and self-fulfilling activities in the same breath as the low paid, oppressive chores of the working poor is a fraud of the first order. He argues that it is in fact the inherently boring and tedious nature of work which seems to many people precisely the reason that one is paid to do it. It is what you definitely would not do if you were not being paid.
Elizabeth Wynhausen's recent account5 of her experiences in what she called "the wrong end" of the job market reminds us that for many Australian women (and men) the work experience is anything but rewarding. Inspired by Barbara Ehrenreich's project documented in Nickel and Dimed, Wynhausen took a "self-funded sabbatical on the breadline".
Her starting point was an understanding that the view of society you get from newspapers "is as indistinct as the view of the street from the highest floor of a city building". She sought to experience first hand the other side of the miracle economy. Wynhausen takes us through half a dozen low paid, so-called "unskilled" jobs from working in the dining room of an exclusive Sydney club to packing eggs in rural NSW. She worked in a big retail chain, in a nursing home and cleaning offices. What struck her most, apart from the low pay, was that all the jobs had one thing in common - "I no sooner took them on, than I, like my fellow employees, seemed to be rendered invisible"; no longer consulted about schedules, or given explanations about the work to be done, treated with disrespect.
An atmosphere of intimidation and powerlessness pervaded most of the work environments; workers believed that if they stood up for themselves they would be sacked - and they were. Working hours and rosters were extended without consultation; agreed days off simply removed. The high turnover in many of the workplaces meant that there was little satisfying social contact between the workers. The egg-packing factory was "grim and rancorous" and as Wynhausen saw it, no one appeared to go home feeling they'd done a good day's work. When she asked one of the women if the people at the factory took pride in what they did, she was bluntly told - "you just do it", "like a robot".
The new IR regime will hit such people even harder. And for no discernible economic benefit. Seventeen of Australia's leading academic researchers in the field concluded that the proposed changes, while undermining people's rights at work and disadvantaging the groups already marginalised in Australian society would have "no direct impact on productivity." When conservative clerics join in the chorus of criticism, you can be certain that something is amiss.
Fear and Propaganda
It is not novel for governments to employ fear-inducing communications in public health messages designed to change behaviour which may otherwise be life threatening, for example smoking, unprotected sex and domestic violence. What is unusual is the extent to which this government has been prepared to use threat and fear as a basis for changing behaviour so that it is consistent with government ideology.
The massive advertising campaign designed to increase the take up of private health insurance, for example, was at that time without precedent. No government, so far as I know, had ever advertised a private product which could not, in any case, be afforded by the majority of the population, even with the costly rebate. Nor had I ever seen a government so deliberately undermine its own services -Medicare and the public hospital system.
In the first series of advertisements about private health, the government exploited people's fear of illness in systematically casting doubt on the efficacy of the public hospital system, portraying it as a shambolic mess which could adversely affect the quality of people's health care. Remember all those beds travelling down the roads; the byways crowded? Once you got private health insurance, you went through at speed. The message was very clear: the public health system is not good for your health; the public hospital system will let you down and, by the way, you can buy yourself a privileged place and jump the queue.
The second series compared the public system with the uncomfortable experience of being squeezed under a leaky bus shelter waiting for public transport in the heavy rain. The advertisements invited us to conclude that the only way to be rescued from this grimness was to take your little red and white umbrella and rush into the private hospital sector-the private medical sector-and be protected from the downpour; saved from the grimness of that bus shelter. So the citizens who could afford private care are rescued, while the rest suffer. There is also an implicit message that those who don't take up private health insurance are unworthy - accepting second best for the families. What kind of a message is that to deliver to the community? What kind of a use of taxpayers' funds is that?
Another calculated use of political fear emerged in the so-called "tax debate". The key message behind the plan to introduce the GST was that the taxation system was in a shambles and in desperate need of major reform. Anything less was described as irresponsible and damaging to the nation's wellbeing. When asked if they supported tax reform, who was going to say "no".
It was a vacuous question; in fact it is not a question at all. The real question should have been "do you support our policy?" In creating a slogan that everyone would endorse because it means nothing; in exploiting people's fear of economic security, the government successfully diverted attention from the fact that there were real losers from the GST.
You would all be familiar too with former Minister, Peter Reith's "construction" of reality before and during the waterfront dispute. He employed classic fear-based propaganda techniques: the first task was to try to humiliate and denigrate people who worked on the waterfront, creating the stereotype of the greedy wharfie by grossly exaggerating their rates of pay and conditions, misrepresenting productivity levels and engaging in continuous name calling and repetition of negative phrases (e.g. rorts) and simplistic slogans. The government began with the assumption- no doubt carefully tested in publicly funded opinion polling - that to simply mention wharfies to some Australians would cause them to run in fear.
Deliberate distortions and half truths about wharfies and their unions were repeated ad nauseam by Ministers, industry players and the National Farmers Federation. They exaggerated pay rates and conditions. They claimed that the average wage was between $70,000 and $100,000 for a 31 hour working week and that wharfies had 17 weeks off every year. At one stage, Reith claimed that "waterside workers get paid 17 weeks a year for work they don't do." Reith and Sharp described workers as "reverse Robin Hoods", as a privileged, selfish elite who engaged in "rorts" such as the "nick" and couldn't care less about the rest of the community or the national interest. The infamous claim about the accelerated crane rates in Fremantle so that the workers could head off to a "strip show" were repeated over and over again despite clear evidence that Reith's claims were simply not true.
Australian stevedoring performance was compared adversely with every other nation, even sneeringly with Mozambique and the Philippines. Workers were blamed for any deficiencies asserted. They were alleged to be costing the economy billions of dollars a year and to be denying others jobs. They were held responsible for "damaging Australia's reputation as a reliable supplier of goods". Reith constantly asserted that the Union was "holding the country to ransom, used bully boy tactics, had undue influence on work practices, and had a "stop-at-nothing approach". The ALP were named the "rorter's supporters." When the softening up was done, they locked the workers out and brought in the dogs.
It is important to ask whose purpose was being served here - apart from the Minister's. The goal was clearly to destroy any positive attitudes toward the maritime workers and their unions, to put the fear of god into anyone who supported collective action and to ensure that the workers were segregated and alone in bargaining with their employers. The Australian government devised and coordinated a deliberate campaign to debilitate the MUA and the union movement as a whole. The goal is not just to quell one union, but to make an example of it and to send a message to all the others that they should be very careful, or they might be next; what FBI chief Hoover called "pedagogy through prosecution"
The government's tactics were part of a long-standing propaganda war perpetrated largely by major corporations both here and elsewhere to portray unions as disruptive, greedy and harmful to the public interest as defined by the business community and its allies. By virtue of their strategic position, docks have long been the crucibles of workers' struggles in most countries, including Australia. You all know the history. The pathological zeal of the government for waterfront "reform" stemmed from this history and the failure of repeated attempts to destroy collective action and impose individually based work agreements. No matter how hard employers tried to destroy the union, it kept bouncing back. Since it was at the heart of the union movement, it was attacked - and defended- with considerable vigour.
Now we are witnessing the culmination of the campaign to transfer even more power from the workers to the employers and to neuter the unions.
Fear and Accountability
The culture of Canberra is, after ten years of the Howard government, dominated by a near uniform mindset. The media, the think tanks, the lobbyists, the public service all bend to the Coalition party line - or face the consequences. Even the Canberra gallery, once respected for its noisy independence, seems intimidated, as the Howard government wields pressure to exclude critics and neutralise any opposition. The ABC is under constant attack and investigation for "bias" and the government is pursuing two newspaper journalists who received (unofficial) leaks of government documents in the courts. Requests under the Freedom of Information legislation are routinely thwarted. There are now legislated restrictions on the media reporting the treatment of those held in detention under the anti-terrorist laws and the media have been denied access to the Immigration Detention Centres, except under supervision.
It's worth remembering that members of the fourth estate are just as likely to respond to fear as to peddle it. What often silences the media when they should speak out is fear. It's not fear of physical harm. That's not how it works in Canberra. For journalists and public servants it's a "smaller, more corrosive fear" - the lost status, the ridicule, the possibility of being left out of the loop, of losing your job. It's the fear of being sidelined, overlooked for promotion, denied access to the leaks and the big breaks.
They don't talk about it much, but there are journalists and newspapers who enjoy privileged access and others who have to scrabble for every last crumb of information. Insiders and outsiders; people lined up and categorised as enemies or supporters with "no room for hearing a range of points of view, grappling with complexity, acknowledging uncomfortable facts."6
In the United States, where there is much more analysis of news gathering and dissemination than in Australia, news executives transformed their networks and newspapers into little more than a megaphone for the Government's propaganda following the tragedy of September 11, 2001. Research by the Pew Institute revealed that network executives tailored their coverage post September 11 to avoid any appearance of criticising U.S. foreign policy fearing a conservative led backlash; that the "Patriotism Police" would hunt them down. As prominent U.S. journalist Michael Kinsey admitted,
As a writer and an editor, I have been censoring myself and others quite a bit since September 11, deciding not to publish things for reasons other than my own judgements of their merits: sometimes it is simple cowardice.
No Australian journalist has yet been so frank.
There are countless stories too of the intimidation of public servants in the Commonwealth government. The politicisation has become so pervasive that public servants anticipate government directives and protect Ministers from reasonable scrutiny. Ministerial accountability is regarded as a quaint, ancient relic of more naive times. Following the damning reports of Palmer and Comrie into the treatment of Cornelia Rau and Vivian Solon, both the responsible ministers refused to accept any responsibility at all on the grounds that they didn't know anything about the incidents investigated in the reports. This is a bizarre reading of the principle of Ministerial accountability which is that "for every act or neglect of his Department a minister must answer". Middle level public servants will take the rap for what was obviously the consequence of a relentless government campaign to demonise and expel "unlawful non-citizens".
Yet the culture within the department is clearly a response to government policy and culture. Returning from and early meeting with their new Minister, Ruddock, senior staff illustrated his expectations by exposing their wrists, saying "we've been branded!" Writing in Eureka Street7, a former DIMIA employee indicated that he was not surprised at what had happened, but that the Department "was not always the hard-bitten agent of the politics of race that the Palmer report implies". He says he witnessed the beginnings of its transformation in 1996 and knows that, had political intent been otherwise, the department would have been a very different place.
The day after the government was elected, the Secretary of the Department, Chris Conybeare, was sacked - a clear indication that things were about to change. An increasing number of negative stories and statements about immigration and refugees were sourced from the Minister's office. Mr Comrie's report makes it abundantly clear that DIMIA staff were increasingly fearful of appearing to take any account of the welfare of the people about whom they were making life and death decisions lest they be seen as resisting government intentions.
Throughout the public service, those who speak out can expect to have their reputations and competence questioned, as Andrew Wilkie discovered when he threw doubt on the accuracy of the government's public presentation of intelligence reports regarding Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction.
The government has even attempted to intimidate the Courts. Our system is supposed to be buttressed by independent legislative and judicial branches of government, each equipped with separate, balanced powers, each checking the other. Yet we have seen a sustained attack on the Courts over land rights and immigration decisions. These were so strident and damaging that the Court was moved to remind the government that "public confidence in the constitutional institutions of government is critical to the stability of our society." Serious and scurrilous attacks on the character and behaviour of Justice Michael Kirby by a close friend of the Prime Minister went unpunished by the government and successive Attorneys General have abandoned the mantle of champion of the courts.
The same official "headkicker" was assigned the role of softening up new Nationals Senator, Barnaby Joyce lest he exercise his promised independence and cross the floor of the Senate on legislation to approve the sale of Telstra. Not only are both houses of Parliament controlled by the Coalition (which removes one of the checks against unfettered concentration of power in the hands of the executive), but the government is obviously not afraid to use threats and intimidation against those who would thwart that majority.
Threats to State governments to achieve policy compliance are now routine and extend well beyond what is required for accountability. Without a referendum to redefine the allocation of powers and responsibilities between the states and the commonwealth, there has been a steady erosion of states' powers and increasing centralisation of government. For example, the Commonwealth made it a condition of the receipt of Auslink funding that the states sign up to a national code of practice in the building industry and threatened to withhold the funds if they did not sign. Similarly, the government threatened to withhold funding of grants to states and territories for vocational education unless they agreed to offer individual workplace agreements to TAFE teachers and to make publicly funded infrastructure available to private providers. The provision of funding to schools is even more prescriptive than in the past (there have always been some conditions) and amount to an attempted takeover of curriculum, assessment, reporting and pedagogy. The level of micro-management is without precedent, extending to the compulsory provision of flagpoles and prescriptions about how reading should be taught. Most of these impositions have been devised without any consultation with the states who are actually responsible for delivering the services. And they are clearly contrary to long cherished Liberal philosophy.
Whether we are, as a society more relaxed and comfortable about ourselves, our history and our future since the election of the Howard government, is impossible to say with any precision. But it's hard to ignore the high and rising rates of youth suicide, the record levels of personal debt, increasing depressive illness and the associated use of tranquillisers and antidepressants.
We are wealthier than we've ever been, but no more content. While we have more "stuff" than ever before and we are, in aggregate, three times richer than our grandparents, we are no happier8. The promises of the consumer society are simply not being met. The truth is that once people are above poverty levels of income, increases in personal wealth have almost no incremental benefit for happiness and wellbeing.
At the same time as our GDP continues to grow, poverty and homelessness are rising. While unemployment is down, the distribution of work is more unequal than ever. There are clearly many groups of Australians who feel marginalised and under siege. While the government claims to be bringing democracy to the Iraq, at home the spirit and the practice of genuine democracy are more threatened than at any time since Federation. Too much power is concentrated in too few hands.
And I believe much of this is the result of fear. It's fair to suggest that fear has become the dominant currency of modern public life. Politicians and media populists are already expert at the use of fear to exercise control and ratchet up their approval ratings. And we are accustomed to respond.
It seems that now, more than ever before, we are invited to feel insecure - worried about becoming victims of crime or disease, afraid of terrorist attacks and invasion by hoards of greedy strangers. Those who raise these fears hope that, by concocting and exaggerating threats to our survival, by pushing the panic button, they can control us. The imminent "threat" from so-called "weapons of mass destruction" was exaggerated and spun to convince the community that their very lives were in jeopardy.
We're encouraged to believe "it's them or us". Such fear is functional. It is needed to justify such policies and distract from policy failures.
And it's clear that fear always serves the real elites - as opposed to those concocted by the conservative commentators; the privileged who throughout history have claimed to be uniquely positioned to identify the "dangers" from which they must protect us - witches, Jews, blacks, Muslims, communists, terrorists, illegals. Fear sells and it gets people elected.
Those in a high state of impotent anxiety are likely to feel overwhelmed and withdraw into their private worlds; less likely to work with their fellow citizens for the common good.
It is fear's repressive consequences, not just the personal suffering it inflicts, which makes it a toxic force to be resisted. We need an answering vision of justice and optimism; to strive for a life with less fear. Whether it's the petty coercions of daily encounters or the life threatening horrors, it's time to stop jumping at shadows and to repudiate those who try to use fear to keep us under control.
1. Cass, B (1988) Income Support for the Unemployed in Australia: Towards a More Active System. Australian Government Publishing Service.
2. Brennan, D. (1996) Reinventing government, in A. Farrar & J. Inglis, eds, Keeping it Together: State and Civil Society in Australia, Sydney: Pluto, p 15.
3. Carney, T Contractualism, citizenship and the 'New Welfare', Polemic, 7(3), 114-119, p 116.
4.Galbraith, J.K. (1992) The Culture of Contentment. Penguin, Harmondsworth
5.Wynhausen, E (2005) Dirt Cheap: Life at the Wrong End of the Job Market. Sydney: Pan McMillan.
6. Judith Brett (2005), op cit, p 42.
7.Tom Davis Why I quit the department. http://www.eurekastreet.com.au/articles/0509davis.html
8. Eckersley, R. (2000) The mixed blessings of material progress: diminishing returns in the pursuit of happiness. Journal of Happiness Studies, vol. 1, no.3, pp 267-92.