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David Marr - the Overland Lecture 2004
". . . I'm interested in something more difficult to pin down: the media's faltering confidence in its own purpose. After nearly a decade of sustained bullying from government-this goes back to the Keating years-the media is in a quandary, has lost its edge. Not everyone, not everywhere. But it has happened. What I am exploring here is how that loss of confidence has come to shape public debate . . ."
David Marr, ABC's Media Watch presenter, is an award-winning journalist and author of a number of books. The second edition of Dark Victory, written with Marian Wilkinson, has just been released by Allen & Unwin. Join David Marr and Overland for the Third Overland Public Lecture for 2004, and launch of Overland 176.

The shape of the argument

by David Marr
September 2004

We were at it again the other night: a bunch of journalists, old friends and colleagues, eating, drinking and thrashing out the problems of the country. Over the years we've argued our way through the rise and fall of half a dozen governments, the collapse of the House of Fairfax and the passing of three or four regimes at the ABC. We've been at it through booms and busts. The ideological sharp edges have all been rubbed away. There are no Pollyannas left. None of us expects too much would change if the government changed in late 2004.

Around the table the other night, I was struck by the gap that's grown between the stories we're telling each other and the stories we're telling the public; between our talk and our work. Journalists spend their lives swapping stories that never see the light of day. But I'm talking about something else: the gap that's opened up between our take on these times and the pallid version presented in the media.

Much of the time the newspapers and networks we work for seem to be reporting another country and another government - like our own, but not the Australia and the Howard government it's our business to know. Creating this gap between private and public argument has been a major achievement of the Howard years.

Newspapers and television have not been censored or bludgeoned. This is not Singapore: the government is not wielding defamation laws against its critics. Yet the media is rattled. Some of the reasons for this are as old as the hills. The conservative instincts of proprietors are as strong as ever and they know they'll make more money under Coalition governments. That's simply a fact of life. But reporting is also more difficult now. Canberra doesn't leak in the way it once did. The cabinet and the party room are superbly disciplined. Bureaucrats are nervous. Leaks happen, but these days the government leaks to favoured journalists who give the public sneak previews of government policy.

It's a tactic that keeps journalists friendly, too. And the spin out of Howard's Canberra is brutally clever. I'm interested in something more difficult to pin down: the media's faltering confidence in its own purpose. After nearly a decade of sustained bullying from government - this goes back into the Keating years - the media is in a quandary, has lost its edge. Not everyone, not everywhere. But it has happened. What I am exploring here is how that loss of confidence has come to shape public debate.

I've been addicted to newspapers most of my life. But I've never read so much, watched so much and listened to so much as I have since joining the Media Watch team three years ago. What I have to say about the drift of public debate in John Howard's Australia - the way we argue and what we argue about - comes from this recent immersion in the media after spending twenty-five years moving backwards and forwards between books, broadcasting, editing and writing. I can only offer impressions. These things can't be proved. The conclusions I draw are inevitably personal and coloured by my own politics. But that's the only way any of us can make sense of the country and the times in which we live.

* * * * * *

In the summer of 1997 I flew down to Tasmania to interview Brian Harradine. No other interview I have ever done has stuck in my head like this. In those days, Harradine's Senate vote could make or break legislation and the only colour in that remarkably bare office on the Hobart waterfront was a wall of red Senate Hansards. I remember him sitting in the corner like a grasshopper in grey daks and the strange indirection of his conversation. I should go bushwalking, he told me. Head north and get some perspective on things by walking the Blue Tiers.

He lost me for a while as he rambled through the forests, deflecting my questions about his life, his politics and his faith. Then we got to Hitler.

I'd come to Hobart because I was hacking away at a story - lonely back then - about the resurrection of religion in secular politics. As the nation's leading backroom Catholic warrior, Harradine was shaping the national debate on drugs, sex, film, overseas aid, new technology and the law, shaping it in strange ways according to Christian doctrine. The fact that he was pursuing the Vatican's agenda in the Australian Senate courtesy of the votes of about 32,000 Tasmanians, struck me as an affront to democracy.

"You remember how Hitler came to power?"

Harradine didn't give a fig for the maxim that once you start citing Hitler you've lost your argument. "Hitler came to power by popular vote."

I'm ashamed to say when I wrote this interview up for The Sydney Morning Herald I made fun of the Senator's shaky grasp of late Weimar politics. Any schoolkid knows Hitler never won a free election but it was unfair of me not to acknowledge Harradine's point: that Hitler was popular. Despite the thugs and violence he could not have done what he did without popular backing.

Euthanasia had brought us to this point in the interview. I'd brought along a copy of the Hobart Mercury showing 54.3 percent of Tasmanians wanted euthanasia legalised. That made no difference to Harradine's absolute opposition. He asked: "Should we take account of public opinion polls when we're dealing with fundamental issues such as this?"

What's nagged me ever since is the memory of this strange, unsympathetic man talking life, death and opinion polls. He told me most Australians want the death penalty restored. "Does that make capital punishment right?"

But surely we'd all given up on hanging long ago? Later I checked his figures and found he was right. Name a horrible crime - and it doesn't have to be the Bali bombing - and most Australians reckon the guilty should swing.

That's a fact, an important fact. But does popular backing make it right? Make it good? Or make any moral difference at all? Harradine hasn't swayed me on condoms, censorship, stem-cell research or Lesbian motherhood but I've come to see the question he raised in his bleak office in early 1997 - do we settle big issues of principle according to opinion polls? - as the question of the Howard years.

Harradine's challenge takes people like me places we don't want to go. I work to shape opinion. For a long time I believed that winning over the majority - even if way down the track - was what it was all about. But that's na´ve. It's also an idea Howard has turned brilliantly against his critics. Of all the gambits used to bully public debate in Howard's Australia, the most effective has been this false model of democracy as a perpetual popularity contest.

That was Tampa. Turning back refugee boats was always going to be popular. Howard wasn't struck by some fresh insight the night he ordered that Norwegian freighter to take - to Indonesia or anywhere -those four hundred or so shipwrecked asylum seekers. Australians had wanted that to happen for a long time. Any politician who could read an opinion poll had known since the first boats arrived in the late 1970s that there's a big constituency hungry to see them turned away.

For a time after the fall of Saigon everyone on board those boats was automatically designated a refugee. The exodus was being managed by Jimmy Carter's United States with humanitarian skill and supported by Malcolm Fraser's government with unprecedented sympathy. But polls taken in Australia in those years showed hostility to boat people was profound. Less than 10 per cent of those polled thought Vietnamese boat people who reached Australia should be allowed to stay. Thirty per cent said all of them should be turned back - all of them - and that figure stands even higher at 35 per cent today.

Pauline Hanson was speaking for a great slab of the electorate when she proposed One Nation's solution:

"We go out, we meet them, we fill them up with fuel, fill them up with food, give them medical supplies and we say, 'Go that way'."

So why did it take Canberra so long to take up this sure-fire vote winner? My guess is that good people in politics and the bureaucracy were simply appalled at the prospect of violating Australia's obligations to vulnerable people, to the refugee conventions, to the UN, to world shipping, to the international rules of sea rescue and to our own Migration Act.

John Howard's genius was to understand that whatever impact turning the boats away would have on the way the world saw Australia, none of these violated principles would have much traction at home. They could be swept aside by the overwhelming popularity of taking tough action against boat people.

Howard is a master of this brand of raw democracy. One reason Marian Wilkinson and I wrote Dark Victory was to try to come to grips with this.

The popularity of Howard's strategy was both a starting point for the project and a theme of the book. Even so, we were routinely accused of not acknowledging the support enjoyed by the blockade and the Pacific Solution. Pointing to the many passages in the book where this is analysed didn't get us far. The point being made by our critics was that raw popularity meant there really wasn't much point grappling with the difficult issues of principle raised by the fate of these people. Popularity was enough.

It gets worse. Both sides of politics - Labor and Coalition - claim whatever galvanised Australia in the Tampa crisis can't be called racism because it was so pervasive, so popular. Manipulating race for electoral advantage is a hallmark of Howard's government but he insists on the right to cut down Native Title and turn back boats filled with Moslem refugees without this being named for what it is,

"without being accused of prejudice or bigotry, without being knocked off course by ... phoney charges of racism".

And the press, itself scared of facing the xenophobia of this country, lets Howard get away with it. It's textbook political correctness: the demand that Australia's pervasive racism be shown democratic respect by leaving it unnamed.

Media proprietors read the same opinion polls as politicians. The same focus groups are telling newspapers what they want to read and political parties who they'll vote for. The popularity of what Howard did in the Tampa crisis explains, in part, the widespread failure of the media to grasp what was really going on here and cover these events the way they deserved.

There were honourable exceptions to this failure - I particularly exempt The Australian and the ABC - but to be working inside a newspaper as this shameful episode in the country's history unfolded is to know the power of the media's willed indifference to issues of pure principle when these collide with overwhelming popular support.

These principles were, of course, debated freely on op. ed. pages, on talkback radio and on television. But the media was too rattled to organise its reporting of these rapidly moving events around a worldly, sceptical view of what the Howard government was really up to. The language of the government - 'border protection' - was not contested but became the language of reporting. The fundamental principles being ignored by Canberra were treated by the media as moot points. Reporting was not organised around the plain violations of due government process going on day after day. Howard and his ministers were continuously offered the benefit of the doubt. Shock was domesticated. Awe went missing. The result was called balance but it was, in fact, poor reporting because the media was missing the story.

This continued long after the 2001 poll. How could there be so little interest in the evidence presented to the Certain Maritime Incident enquiry? So little curiosity about what happened to the sailors and asylum seekers caught up in the naval blockade of the boats? How so little protest from the media - virtually none - at finding itself banned from Operation Relex and from Australia's gulag on Nauru? So little curiosity to examine why, after going to such extreme lengths to keep these Afghan and Iraqi refugees out of the country, Australia was forced in mid-2003 to begin bringing them ashore?

I can tell you the answer there. It's because the rest of the world - apart from New Zealand - told Australia to fuck off. It's a big story with a humiliating payout for the Howard government. It's barely rated a mention in the media.

What is going on here? Blaming it all on media proprietors being too sympathetic to the government is too easy. It's not enough - though true - to argue that Australians don't want to know how the outcome they so welcome has been achieved.

The gross failures of reporting since the Tampa have been driven by the knowledge that Canberra's radical course was hugely popular. The media was not the only institution to fail in the face of this popularity. The courts, the bureaucracy, the opposition and the media were all rattled.

The rest of the world - apart from New Zealand - told Australia to fuck off. It's a big story with a humiliating payout for the Howard government. It's barely rated a mention in the media.

* * * * * *

By the time I moved from ABC Radio National to The Sydney Morning Herald in 1996, Labor had met the fate it deserved and Howard's people were taunting their critics with the trademark line: "Don't you know Paul Keating lost the elections?"

Mocking the democratic credentials of journalists in this way worked particularly well in those early years, tipping journalists onto the back foot, undercutting their confidence, introducing a note of apology into public debates. And though Keating is a distant memory in 2004, we still hear from time to time this one-size-fits-all rebuke of Howard's critics: "Don't they know Paul Keating lost the elections?".

Like nicknames and urban myths, abuse needs a grain of truth to stick. Many critics made the mistake of treating the new government as an aberration, an interruption to the normal course of politics which would soon resume. They underestimated the new man and the new government. Howard would prove to be the most professional political operator Canberra had seen for forty or fifty years.

And he would show himself to be a new kind of prime minister, the first for a long time who came to office with no talk, however vague, of changing Australia for the better. Except for a bit of a hiccup in the McMahon years, every prime minister from Menzies to Keating told us some sort of national self-improvement was in the wind.

In an odd way, this notion led us to avoid looking Australia in the face. If we were already heading somewhere else - becoming more open, more tolerant, more reconciled to Indigenous Australians, more attuned to Asia, more in love with the arts, a great independent republic in the south etc - then we didn't have to bother looking too closely at Australia as it really was. We could wait for change to arrive.

But Howard came with a different message.

Of course he had plans for economic change but that was just about that. He wasn't planning to take us anywhere. He left us with no choice but to take a long, hard look at Australia as it really is.

John Howard is the confrontation with Australia many Australians have been waiting to have.

But to return to that trademark taunt: "Don't they know Paul Keating lost the elections?". What's the message here? That the people have done more than elect a new government, they've changed the shape of public debate. People who keep banging on about issues that mattered under the old government - the republic, reconciliation-will be ridiculed as irrelevant, out of touch, members of some self-appointed elite. And if we persist in arguing minority views, we'll be accused of suffering from 'moral vanity'.

Brian Harradine has never been troubled by this accusation. Nor should the press. But this tabloid thuggery has been astonishingly successful in sapping the confidence - and wasting the time - of Howard's critics in the press. Of course, the rhetoric is not original. It's all imported from the United States, part of the arsenal of the Republican Party.

But you would imagine those dishing out this abusive rhetoric would remember where they've heard such demands before, demands that the intelligentsia submit to the will of the people. Doesn't it remind them of Eastern Europe before the Wall came down? The same savage tabloid hacks who - quite rightly - make heroes of Soviet dissenters, vilify Howard's critics for failing to see him through the eyes of the people. And they're unembarrassed - perhaps unaware - of the grim echoes of their own abuse.

Another very John Howard idea lurks in the Keating's-been-defeated taunt: the idea that criticism of government is by nature partisan, that critics can never really escape the party divide.

This is one detail in a bigger, bleaker picture. Out from Canberra over the past seven years has spread a stultifying image of public life as a contest between government and opposition. I've never been so aware of loyalty - party loyalty - mattering so much in Australia.

A great deal has been written about the impact of this on the public service, on government appointments and the freedom of NGOs to speak their minds. But the notion that press criticism is also inescapably partisan - if you're against us you must be for them - has worked to muffle debate across the media, particularly in the beleaguered ABC.

* * * * * *

Maurice Newman - stockbroker, chancellor of Macquarie University and ABC board member - was visiting Canberra in March this year. At Parliament House he bumped into a former advisor to Richard Alston and they fell to talking. Newman returned to Sydney very keen about an idea Alston was pushing in his time as Minister for Communications: the continuous monitoring of the ABC for political bias. Newman sold the idea to the ABC board almost without debate and since Budget night in May, Rehame has been running a stopwatch over the ABC's political coverage and trying to assess whether it's "favourable, neutral or unfavourable to the political parties and/or candidates being reported".

When a new detergent is launched, outfits like Rehame monitor how effectively advertising dollars are spent. It's not a subtle business. Truth and fairness aren't at issue. Pay a small fortune to Rehame and a team of bright kids wearing headphones and pushing buttons can say how often 'Easy Squeeze' is discussed on air and if these mentions are favourable, neutral or unfavourable. The reach and balance of advertising messages can be measured quite objectively. But such analysis cannot - simply cannot - make sense of the media's response to a product as complex as politics.

To begin with, balance and bias are not the same.

Bias is about fairness. These monitors can't assess the fairness of the ABC's reports - or Channel 9's for that matter. They can't tell if criticism of a minister is fair or unfair, shrewd or partial. They're in no position to check the accuracy of stories or judge if a viewpoint deserves the attention it's getting.

They don't look at what's missing in a story. They can't know what stories should - but never do - get to air. These are hard questions even for old timers in the press gallery to answer. Kids pressing buttons marked Favourable, Neutral and Unfavourable aren't even in the paddock.

The best the ABC can expect from the current monitoring is to be able to tell fairly accurately how much attention has been given to the government and opposition since May - and a rough assessment of its tone. This isn't useless by any means. Over the years, exercises of this kind show the ABC's political reporting has indeed been 'balanced' in the attention it's given to government and opposition.

Rehame will no doubt report much the same after the 2004 elections. Such results demolish John Howard's fundamentalist view that ABC news and current affairs comes from the far side of a partisan divide, spruiking for Labor.

So why worry about this latest exercise? Why kick up a fuss about the ghost of Richard Alston working through Maurice Newman to set up a de facto regime of continuous monitoring? Because it is not measuring fairness, professional excellence and good judgement. When a government deserves a drubbing, concern for Rehame's kind of mechanical balance - a balance of favourable and unfavourable mentions - always skews reporting in that government's favour.

And John Howard's government has deserved a terrible drubbing this year as report after report has attacked the honesty and competence of the politicians who took Australia into the Iraq War. To come through that with Rehame showing the ABC's reporting was 'balanced' pro and con, would look to me like a triumph for bullying.

Bullying is the word. Richard Alston claimed to speak for the public when he sent the managing director of the ABC, Russell Balding, a dossier of complaints of bias about AM's reporting of the first weeks of the Iraq war. He told Balding he had received "a number of complaints of biased and in particular anti-American coverage by the ABC, particularly the AM program".

This was strange, because the ABC itself had received very few complaints about its coverage. Very few. So Media Watch decided to use the Freedom of Information Act to find how many citizens had complained to the minister and what they were complaining about.

We expected a mountain of paper, but all Alston's people could rake together were nine complaints received in the months between the invasion of Iraq and the minister flagging his attack on the ABC: nine complaints from the public and none of them even mentioned AM.

There was a tenth that did get stuck into AM and its presenter Linda Mottram, but this came not from a member of the public but the Federal Director of the Liberal Party, Brian Loughnane. In truth, this whole attack on the ABC was generated inside Alston's office and the Liberal party. It was made with essentially no popular backing.

But Alston was entirely unembarrassed by these revelations on Media Watch. After the ABC's complaints executive Murray Green and the ABC's Independent Complaints Review Tribunal both overwhelmingly rejected his complaints of bias, Alston took them to the Australian Broadcasting Authority. This whole attack on the ABC was generated inside Alston's office and the Liberal Party with essentially no popular backing.

* * * * * *

And how was the war going in Iraq? Not so well.

The combined impact of ministerial bullying, 'continuous monitoring', fear of budget cuts and interference from some members of the board is threatening the ABC's ability to do its work. Public support is overwhelming. Ratings are better than ever. But the hostility of the Howard government is unabated.

And the ABC is only marginally more popular with Labor. There are men and women going grey in the ABC's service who remember when Paul Keating came to loathe the national broadcaster, just as John Howard does today, for promoting the Other Side.

Of course, journalism is suffused with politics. It couldn't be any other way. But the true divide that gets on Howard's goat is not partisan, is not some inherent bias against the Coalition. It's the natural divide between reporters and reported, between the values of government and those of journalism, between what Blair identified as "the difference between leadership and commentary".

And sitting around the Cabinet table in Canberra since before John Howard's time are suburban backwoodsmen on both sides of politics who wonder, as they read the clips, why they should pay hundreds of millions of dollars a year for the ABC to do this to them.

* * * * * *

I'd led a quiet life until I went to Media Watch. Then I discovered I was a notorious Lefty. This amused my friends and surprised me. Most of the time, the label was applied as abuse, the counter-attack of choice for those we exposed on Media Watch.

After taking many swings at the Herald Sun's Andrew Bolt over the past couple of years, it was no surprise to read him calling Media Watch "the ABC TV show which Left-winger David Marr uses to attack personal and political foes". The old tectonic struggle between Left and Right still shapes public debate in this country - less often as a great contest of values, more often as abuse.

A twist of history makes this peculiarly Australian. Conservative hard heads have imported for their own use the wedge tactics of the Republicans, the divisive politics of 'the family' and the patriotic rhetoric of George W. Bush's America.

But they can't make hay as they do over there by abusing their opponents as 'liberals'. Bob Menzies gave that name to his new political party in the Second World War and all these years down the track it's just too confusing to tell people to despise liberals and vote Liberal. So in Australia, these warriors of public debate are stuck with the old-fashioned and rather overblown language of Left bashing.

Sidestepping tough arguments by smearing your opponents' politics is the oldest trick in the book. But few have mastered it as brilliantly as John Howard.

When 'children overboard' blew up in his face again in August, he didn't hesitate: lumping his critics together in the Labor camp and going their motives. "They've never accepted the legitimacy of my Government, they resented the fact that I won the last election, they felt they were robbed...And subsequently they've invented this incredible conspiracy story that was all about children overboard." It was pure, desperate Howard.

But slagging off the Left and its motives has particular - and puzzling - potency. How can this be in a country which again and again shows its indifference to great contests of principle; a country where you have to struggle to remember the last time the Left had decisive influence on national politics?

Four commentators known for wielding the Left word as a weapon, often savagely, are Andrew Bolt of the Herald Sun, Piers Akerman of The Telegraph, Tim Blair of The Bulletin and Gerard Henderson of the Sydney Institute. I emailed all four:

"I'm trying to pin down what commentators mean by 'Left' these they identify a Lefty in Australia in 2004."

I had the idea - perverse I admit - of using this Overland anniversary to record what the Left had come to mean, not for the Left itself but for the Left's detractors - a guide to the use of the word as a weapon.

They came to the party. But only on one point did all four agree: the Left they demonise is anti-American. Forget Marx and Engels, the core complaint against the Australian Left today is disloyalty to the United States. That in turn entails for most of them the Left being anti the Iraq war, reluctant to tackle Arab extremists, hostile to Israel and pro-UN.

On the home front, opposition to private schools is high on the list of Left vices, along with scepticism about Christianity and an indulgent attitude to homosexuals, boat people and the ABC.

But thereafter these four lists diverge, often wildly. So here they are, published in Overland as a ready reference for those who may need to know sometime soon what it means to be called a Lefty by Akerman, Blair, Bolt and Henderson.

For that ancient warrior of Murdoch's tabloids, Piers Akerman, the Left are John Howard's opponents:

"those who support the admission of undocumented refugees, who are anti-US, pro legalisation of drugs, pro social engineering, opposed to private schools, opposed to parliamentary prayer, support gay marriage, wish to re-regulate the industrial sector, those who fail to see the Iraq conflict as part of the war on terrorism, those opposed to the existence of the state of Israel, those who refuse to support measures aimed at Islamo-fascists."

Those on Tim Blair's Left:

"Greens, Dems, the ABC, and the Carmen wing of the ALP" - are chauvinists, republicans and by nature intolerant. His Left "opposes commercial media (except Fairfax), wealth that doesn't grow at the same rate for everybody, lack of media diversity (except at the ABC), media deregulation (except censorship), doing anything that makes Australia a terrorist target (except supporting East Timorese independence), liberation of oppressed peoples by any means other than impossible global consensus, inaccurate commentary (except from John Pilger and Michael Moore), scientific advances in agriculture, and an increasingly pleasant, warmer globe. But what is the Left for? Aside from broad, rarely-defined motherhood notions like 'democracy', 'greater accountability', and 'justice', it's hard to tell. A Lefty friend supported the return of South Sydney to the NRL; maybe that's it."

Andrew Bolt's Left is a New Age creature in flight from "the responsibilities and terrors of freedom and into the 'securities' of tribalism". The result is a society breaking up into self-regarding little communities.

"So we are divided into First Australians, and given distinct rights on the basis of race. Or we're hived off into a political class called 'women', and given a special bureaucracy to deal with our common claims against the rest. Or we're funded to remain forever Greek, or offered special seats in Parliament because we're Maori. We're given UN recognition if we're of some Aboriginal race and hold out against integrating with more advanced civilisations. We're excused terrorism as Arabs that would never be tolerated among Anglo Saxons. We gloat in our anti-Americanism, and form communities of sexualities."

Bolt accuses the Left of inventing its own gods:

"Nature gods. Tree spirits. Water sprites. Gaia."

He calls these faiths demeaning and incompatible with reason - unlike Christianity.

"For that reason, the Left now is not just an enemy of humanism, reason and freedom, but of Christianity, too."

That's a mighty indictment and a very individual view of Christianity. But Bolt is right to raise the issue of faith. It keeps creeping into this argument.

What caught my eye in a recent assault on the national broadcaster by Gerard Henderson - this one in late June - was his attack on what he called the "leftist orthodoxy" of the ABC. Here was an image of the Left as a bunch of people bound by an old and accepted creed. My immediate thought was: well what is this dogma Henderson's readers are supposed to know all about? What Henderson came up with was both more intelligent and more flexible than a Nicean creed of the Left. This was not abuse but analysis; not a binding set of beliefs but an ideal list of nine points Henderson believes most- but not all - on the Left would share. Here are the points in full:

  • A belief in the desirability of wide scale government intervention (funded by taxation) in the domestic economy - in such areas as education, health, welfare and the environment. Along with a corresponding scepticism about private solutions in such areas as education, health, welfare and the environment. In other words, a view that the public sector is good in itself and that the private sector is, at best, a dubious exercise.

  • A belief that governments should not interfere in the realms of private morality - covering such areas as abortion, censorship, same-sex relationships etc.

  • A scepticism about Western religious beliefs - in particular traditional Christian churches and the emerging fundamentalist Christianity.

  • An unwillingness to support the use of military force abroad - along with a disdain for patriotism at home. An ambiguity towards, or outright opposition to, the Australian-American Alliance-along with concern about Israel's role in world affairs.

  • An abiding sense of shame and guilt for the past acts of Western nations in their colonial manifestations - a commitment to reconciliation with native peoples.

  • A belief in the sanctity of international solutions to international problems - comprising a commitment to the United Nations, despite its evident inefficiency and virtual impotency.

  • Opposition to the globalisation process of economic reform - including a resentment to such international organisations as the World Trade Organisation, World Bank, International Monetary Fund. A preference for international aid over the reform of the political systems and domestic economies of third world nations.

  • A tendency to be alienated from elected mainstream political leaders (whether conservative or social democrat) and a conviction that the modern democratic system is inhabited by politicians who lie by habit.

  • A tradition of moral compromise - leading to a belief that democracies are not much better than dictatorships in the way they operate. In other words, moral equivalence.

Henderson's list gets a bit ragged towards the end. Who beyond a few remnant Stalinists believes these days that democracies and dictatorships are morally much the same? But it's a notion that might spook a few people.

On all four lists are ideas capable of sparking fears in the community. But not great fears. The lists don't come near explaining how effectively denunciation of the Left shapes public debate in Australia: rattling the media, sabotaging big public contests of principle this country is so reluctant to face. What is the spectre behind the abuse?

I went back to all four combatants and asked: is it really about money? The Left is never going to seize the assets of the rich, but the Left has plans and they're expensive. They cost a lot of other people's money. Is this where the fear comes in?

The idea drew a blank with all four of these anti-Left warriors. But I would put my money on money.

No-one fears these days that the Left is going to break up the estates and nationalise the means of production. But the contest of Left v. Right remains potent because it's still about the public purse v. private purse; wages v. dividends; regulation v. profits; public spending v. tax cuts. What's worse, the Left challenges the prerogatives of money, and the prerogatives of a government intent on turning Australia into a moneymaking machine. The problem with 'Lefty' journalists - particularly at the ABC - is that they don't give money its due. They keep raising issues like equity, lawfulness, candour, dignity - issues that don't have much to do with money or can stand in the way of moneymaking.

It's bias again. The fear that such people might get their hands on the levers is reason enough to demonise the Left - especially now, in these miraculously prosperous times.

My father died a very Australian death three years ago. He was a beach fisherman and body surfer. Melanoma got him. A few days after the funeral, one of my mother's neighbours remarked: "I'm sure he left you comfortable."

Not till she told me this - rather unkindly, for she was a snob about language - did I finally twig to the meaning of Howard's line about us all becoming 'relaxed and comfortable'. It's a rather Sandy Stone use of the word that survives among Howard's battlers: "Not rich but comfortable."

Bullying politicians, rampant populism, nervous journalists, conservative media, subterranean Left v. Right struggles - shape public argument in Australia today.

But one last intangible needs to be thrown into this mix: prosperity. Despite everything, John Howard has been trusted for so long because this country is enjoying the longest uninterrupted run of good fortune any of us can remember. Not for everyone. Not everywhere. But most of us have never been so comfortable. Howard is running the great popularity contest of democracy and nearly all of us are in line for a prize. Measured only by money, these are very good times. And there is a visceral - entirely human - wish to keep it that way.

So it is a time to hold back. We don't want the media rocking the boat. We want no distracting rows, no dissent, no great public arguments. We just want to keep going. While it lasts.

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