David Marr: Careful, he might hear you
John Howard has the loudest voice in Australia. He has cowed his critics, muffled the press, intimidated the ABC, gagged scientists, silenced NGOs, censored the arts, prosecuted leakers, criminalised protest and curtailed parliamentary scrutiny.
Though touted as a contest of values, this has been a party-political assault on Australia's liberal culture. In the name of "balance" the Liberal Party has muscled its way into the intellectual life of the country.
And this has happened because we let it happen. Once again, Howard has shown his superb grasp of Australia as it really is. In His Master's Voice, David Marr investigates both a decade of suppression and the strange willingness of Australians to watch, with such little angst, their liberties drift away. [Source]
Careful, he might hear you
Under John Howard's terms, freedom of speech doesn't include any expression of dissent, writes David Marr
Sydney Morning Herald June 2, 2007
This is an edited extract from Quarterly Essay 26: His Master's Voice (Black Inc, $14.95).
AT THE heart of democracy is a contest of conversations. The tone of a democracy is set by the dialogue between a nation and its leaders. For the past decade, Australia has had a prime minister almost superhumanly reluctant to engage in frank debate. Of course, debate ploughs on in Australia. Hansard is fatter than ever. The Prime Minister is always at the microphone. But after being belittled for most of his political career, John Howard came to power determined public debate would be conducted on his terms. These are subtle, bizarre and at times brutal.
Since 1996, Howard has cowed his critics, muffled the press, intimidated the ABC, gagged scientists, silenced non-government organisations, neutered Canberra's mandarins, curtailed parliamentary scrutiny, censored the arts, banned books, criminalised protest and prosecuted whistleblowers.
This is not as Howard advertised himself on arrival. Then he spoke proudly of his party's tradition of defending individual liberty and the rule of law. He still does. He painted his victory as a repudiation of "stultifying political correctness" that left Australians able "to speak a little more freely and a little more openly about what they feel". The ravings of Pauline Hanson he represented as a triumph of free speech over stifling orthodoxy. And after Aboriginal protesters burnt the flag on Australia Day last year, he rejected calls for their prosecution. "Much in all as I despise what they did, I do not believe that it should be a criminal offence," he told Neil Mitchell of Radio 3AW. "I do hold to the old Voltairean principle that I disagree with what he says but I will defend to the death his right to say it, and I see that kind of thing as just an expression, however offensive to the majority of the community, an expression of political opinion."
The Old Voltairean has fallen a bit short. He leads a Government notably uncomfortable with freewheeling debate. Uncomfortable is too kind a description: the dislike is profound. For a decade now, public debate has been bullied and starved as if this were an ordinary function of government. It's important not to exaggerate the result. Suppression is not systematic. There are no gulags for dissidents under Howard. We reserve them for refugees. The occasional victories liberty wins in Canberra are illuminating. There are limits. But Howard's Government has been the most unscrupulous corrupter of public debate in Australia since the Cold War's worst days back in the 1950s.
We haven't been hoodwinked. Each step along the way has been reported, perhaps not as thoroughly and passionately as it should have been, but we're not dealing in dark secrets here. We've known what's going on. If we cared, we didn't care enough to stop it. Boredom, indifference and fear have played a part in this. So does something about ourselves we rarely face: Australians trust authority. Not love, perhaps, but trust. It's bred in the bone. We call ourselves larrikins, but we leave our leaders to get on with it. Even the leaders we mock.
We've watched Howard spin, block, prevaricate, sidestep, confound and just keep talking come what may through any crisis. Words grind out of him unstoppably. He has a genius for ambiguity we've almost come to applaud, and most of the time he keeps himself just this side of deceit. But he also lies without shame. Howard invented the breakable or non-core promise; the first was to maintain ABC funding five years before those children weren't thrown overboard. The truth is we've known he was a liar from the start.
Howard can admit error, but it is extremely rare. Apologies are almost unknown. More than any law, any failure of the Opposition or individual act of bastardry over the past decade, what's done most to gag democracy in this country is the sense that debating John Howard is futile.
One response has been to turn away and wait for him to disappear, in the belief that Australia will once again be what we remember it was: free, open, principled, fearless, fair etc. It wasn't. Most of what troubles us now about the state of public discourse began under Labor. Many of us complaining now did not complain loudly enough back then as Paul Keating bullied the press, the public service and the Parliament. But Howard has come to dominate the country in ways Keating never could. To the task of projecting his voice across Australia, he brought all the ruthless professionalism that marks his Government. Perhaps the man has now exhausted his welcome, but even when the Howard years are long gone, we will be left confronting the damage done and the difficult question of how we let this happen.
We roll with the insults, threats and suppression because we have come to expect Howard's Government to behave like this. We're habituated. Christian warriors fighting sex on the screen demand film censors serve brief terms for fear exposure to all that filth will "desensitise" them. After a decade, Australia is desensitised to John Howard. So why doesn't Labor rally the nation to fight Canberra's bullying in the name of free speech? Because the party's heart isn't in it and Australians have only the patchiest record of becoming passionate about great abstractions, even the greatest of them, liberty.
We've never fought to be free. Vinegar Hill was a convict break-out easily and brutally suppressed. The officers who overthrew Bligh spouted liberty to trade in rum. Shorn of the colour, Eureka was a bunch of miners who didn't want to pay tax. The great issue that drove self-government for the colonies was seizing control of land. We were as much a part of the British Empire after Federation as we were before. And each step away from Britain had to be forced on Australia until the great Mother of the nation finally turned her back on us and walked into Europe. Australia surprised itself by refusing to accept Menzies' tyrannical plans to ban the Communist Party. But only just. Referendums opposed by any of the big parties always lose, and usually heavily. Liberty was preserved in 1951 by 50,000 votes in a nation of millions. The barricades have rarely been manned since.
We aren't the larrikins of our imagination. Australians are an orderly people who obey authority. We grumble instead of challenging it. We despise politicians. Belittling them as a class is a cover for our own passivity. We elect leaders much as we hire electricians: we may whinge about the job and haggle over the bill, but essentially we leave them to get on with their work. The historian John Hirst writes:
"Australians think of themselves as anti-authority. It is not true. Australians are suspicious of persons in authority, but towards impersonal authority they are very obedient. This is a country which for a long time closed its pubs at 6pm and which pioneered the compulsory wearing of seatbelts in cars. Its people since 1924 have accepted the compulsion to vote. Its anti-smoking legislation is so tough that smoking is prohibited in its largest sporting stadium, the Melbourne Cricket Ground, though it is open to the skies."
Many puzzles of this subtle country can be solved by remembering how British we remain. It's structural. We have voted to keep the Crown. Our courts are British down to the horsehair wigs. The ethic of government is shifting from Westminster to Washington, but the framework remains British. We have a British suspicion of open information. Freedom-of-information legislation hasn't challenged an instinct for secrecy deep within government, justice and business. We were together in the rearguard of democracies opposing guarantees of citizens' rights, particularly American notions of free speech. With Britain now absorbed reluctantly into Europe's human rights regime, Australia remains the last Western democracy without any national bill of rights. Polls tell us we'd like to have one, but we're not particularly concerned. It's another struggle for liberty we're not busting to fight.
David Malouf has a wonderful notion that Australia and America were made such different places by the English we carried in our baggage. To America, settlers took a language of high abstraction:
"Passionately evangelical and utopian, deeply imbued with the religious fanaticism and radical violence of the time, this was the language of the Diggers, Levellers, English Separatists and other religious dissenters of the early 17th century who left England to found a new society that would be free, as they saw it, of authoritarian government by Church and Crown."
By the time Australia was colonised, the language had changed. What came with the First Fleet was the English of the Enlightenment: "Sober, unemphatic, good-humoured; a very sociable and moderate language; modern in a way that even we would recognise, and supremely rational and down to earth."
That could almost be John Howard's portrait of himself: the leader uncomfortable with high principle who prefers to deal in practical solutions. Over the last decade, "practical" has become a key Howard word used to stop debate in its tracks. Try to explore the principles behind his politics, and more often than not his talk turns to practical options, initiatives, outcomes, consequences, points of view, guidance, solutions, partnerships and so on. Perhaps the most famous phrase he's uttered in office is "practical reconciliation"; his cover for shredding the notion that white Australia had particular moral obligations to Aborigines.
Ask him why asylum seekers who arrive by plane aren't also thrown into detention and he replies: "The practical circumstances are different." Ask why he hasn't signed Kyoto and he replies: "What we need to do is embrace practical measures."
Australians find this deeply attractive. As Malouf recognised, we don't live in a country and we don't use a language that revels in abstractions. Liberty and freedom are not subjects of continuing public debate. We hear nothing like the great arias sung by American politicians in praise of fundamental freedoms.
John Howard is, in his own eyes, a champion of liberty leading a nation whose commitment to freedom is "on a par with or better than the other great democracies of the globe". In the innocent days before September 11, he fought for the freedom of small businesses to sack; the freedom of parents to send their kids to private schools; the freedom of stevedores to employ non-union labour; the freedom of unionists to vote against strikes; the freedom of students not to join university unions. The preamble he and the poet Les Murray drafted for the constitution in 1999 guaranteed nothing while declaring Australians "free to be proud of their country and heritage, free to realise themselves as individuals, and free to pursue their hopes and ideals".
Despite reiterated claims over the years that Australia and America are at one in their commitment to freedom, Howard remains a resolute opponent of the document that guarantees that liberty in the United States. Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union prove his point that even the most "beautifully written" bills of rights can fail utterly. Even trying is dangerous. "I believe that if you try and institute a bill of rights, you run the danger of limiting, rather than expanding, freedoms," he told ABC radio in Melbourne. "All you'll do is open up yet another avenue for lawyers to make a lot of money being human rights specialists and practitioners." But the three institutions Howard claims guarantee liberty in this country are three he has worked to curtail almost from the day he took office: parliament, the courts and "a strong free press".
On paper, no country's prime minister could be more devoted to press freedom. Howard declares he's an "uncompromising supporter" of the cause and opposed to "any kind of censorship". He says he believes that "if you have a strong, free, on occasion rambunctious ... press which is willing to have a go and is not in any way intimidated by the political process, then you are far more likely to have a strong, robust, virile democracy than with a bill of rights".
Yet under Howard, the press has found itself misled, intimidated and starved of information. On coming to power, Howard set about making sure the tactics he had used so brilliantly to claw down his rivals would not be turned against his Government. There would be minimal tolerance for dissent within the party, the Government and the bureaucracy. The great leaker would stop the leaks. Senior bureaucrats who survived the purge of the first weeks were instructed to report all calls by journalists to the Prime Minister's press office. Stories were doled out as rewards. More than ever under Howard, the press would win access through favourable coverage. The new communications minister, Richard Alston, was soon lashing the ABC over budgets and bias. Journalists were locked out of stories, particularly those involving the military and refugees, in ways Americans would find inconceivable.
On Australia Day 2002, the Woomera detention centre was in turmoil, with inmates on hunger strikes, rioting and sewing their lips. A large number of press stood about in the desert that night watching. When ABC journalist Natalie Larkins questioned a police direction to fall back 200 metres from the camp perimeter, she was arrested. Other journalists and photographers were threatened with arrest if they did not move.
Sydney's Daily Telegraph condemned the police operation as "the latest and lowest example of Canberra's censorship. This pattern emerged during last year's federal election campaign ... the scenes at Woomera on Saturday night would not have been out of place in the countries from which the asylum seekers have fled". But the Prime Minister mocked the idea that these scenes contradicted his sweeping support for media liberty.
"I'm concerned the press have total freedom in this country and people who pretend that because of what happened in Woomera yesterday that there's some restriction on press freedom, there's some attempt being made by the Government to cover up what is occurring in detention centres, I mean that is just ridiculous."
By this time, the twin towers had come down and Howard was wrestling with a new kind of rhetoric both tough and reassuring. "We should never sacrifice basic civil liberties in pursuit of terrorists," he told Australian journalists gathered in Washington in June 2002. "Equally, we should never squirm from enacting new and strong laws simply because they may unreasonably offend some people." He promised he would never overturn "fundamental" or "generic" rights, but it was never clear which rights these were. Once habeas corpus went in 2005, it was difficult to see what bedrock rights remained. As each piece of security legislation fell into place, Howard would claim: "We think we've got the balance right."
ATTEMPTS to understand how he weighed the scales proved futile. Instead of explaining himself, Howard pleads for sympathy as he tries to resolve, in these difficult times, the "eternal dilemma" between security and freedom. "We are a society that respects the right of people and encourages people to exercise their freedoms to the full. And free societies always find striking that balance difficult. But that doesn't absolve us of the obligation to defend the freedoms that make us different."
The result has been a steady attack on the liberty of the media that meant Australia plunged to 35th place, behind many former Soviet Bloc countries, in the latest press freedom index compiled by Reporters Without Borders. A dozen senior journalists in the Canberra press gallery confirmed the slide when they spoke to Helen Ester for the collection of essays Silencing Dissent. Ester wrote: "The interviews highlighted issues such as control and surveillance, and paint a picture of cumulative deterioration in sources of political news and information, describing new layers of disempowerment, frustration and disinformation. Most of the interviewees noted that the Howard Government had ushered in a decade of unprecedented executive control over political communication."
The Paris watchdog, the Canberra press gallery, the Australian branch of the Commonwealth Press Union and the journalists' union, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, all concur: the Government is squeezing public debate. As evidence, they most frequently cite four cases:
Governments have claimed since the beginning of time that the last thing they're doing is censoring. There's always some explanation for information withheld: security, morality, respectability, order, fair play, care for the vulnerable, the rights of business, the rights of government.
It's the same list of excuses used all over the world. But for a supposedly larrikin people, Australians are easily persuaded and oddly blind to the violations of principle these excuses cover. In the new political correctness of the Howard years, Australians are never racists and Australia is always free.
Commentators fill opinion pages arguing the opposite. More ink than ever has been spent in the past few years defending the nation's liberties. The recent slew of reports, books and articles on the state of freedom in this country is evidence of growing discontent. There's never a night when some decent bunch isn't gathered somewhere discussing the bill of rights we have to have.
But the steady constriction of public debate under Howard has aroused no deep concern in Australia. Only the little parties will touch the issue. Labor's indifference is colossal.
We've accepted this as we've accepted so much in the past decade - not with enthusiasm, but with resigned forbearance. Isn't it just what governments do?