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Is this what Democracy in Australia looks like, ask protesters at the Baxter detention centre during Easter 2005

Threats to Democracy

Insiders, spin-doctors and dog-whistlers

"The events surrounding asylum seekers and Iraq have seen truth discounted and humanity badly served for political advantage. In excising islands, we have shrunk Australia both legally and morally. We are no longer a proud nation 'girt by sea'. We are 'girt' by a migration exclusion zone."

"With our help, the Iraq war is turning out to be a catastrophic political and diplomatic defeat for the coalition of the willing. The war has been disastrous for the war against terrorism."

"The war shredded the world coalition against terrorism and made the Middle East even more of a magnet for terrorists. George Bush and John Howard achieved the seemingly impossible. They fuelled terrorism and made a psychopath like Saddam Hussein a patriot to millions of people around the world."

John Menadue, Threats to Democracy
Insiders, spin-doctors and dog-whistlers

Speech delivered at the
Effective Living Centre Public Forum
Adelaide, 27 November 2003, 7.30pm

John Menadue has a distinguished career of public service. He was once head of the Prime Minister and Cabinet Department under Gough Whitlam, ran the Immigration and Ethnic Affairs Department under Malcolm Fraser and has also been our ambassador in Tokyo and the chief of Qantas.

Three years ago, I spoke to the Wesley College Foundation in Sydney on the subject 'Whose Democracy - Theirs or Ours'. I would like to revisit that subject, but with some updating. Further I would like particularly tonight to focus on the importance of truth in a democratic society. The events surrounding asylum seekers and Iraq have seen truth discounted and humanity badly served for political advantage. In excising islands, we have shrunk Australia both legally and morally. We are no longer a proud nation 'girt by sea'. We are 'girt' by a migration exclusion zone.

With our help, the Iraq war is turning out to be a catastrophic political and diplomatic defeat for the coalition of the willing. The war has been disastrous for the war against terrorism. The war shredded the world coalition against terrorism and made the Middle East even more of a magnet for terrorists. George Bush and John Howard achieved the seemingly impossible. They fuelled terrorism and made a psychopath like Saddam Hussein a patriot to millions of people around the world.

On both asylum seekers and Iraq, there is a long trail of untruth.

Democracy has been a long time in gestation from the Greeks onwards. Its extension and acceptance has become the pre-eminent political event of the second half of the 20th Century. Even President Hu Jintao, the Head of the Chinese Communist Party extolled democracy on his recent visit. President George Bush only a few weeks ago described his 'vision of a US led global democratic revolution'. Democracy has become the universal value and compelling ideology of our time.

As a student at the University of Adelaide 50 years ago, I believed that the major problems we faced were constitutional - in particular, the split of Commonwealth and State powers, which make national leadership difficult. Today however I am certain that there are serious 'democratic deficits' in our major institutions. There is a pervasive sense in the community of powerlessness and disillusionment with our political parties. The performance of our parliaments are regarded at best as highly partisan and at worst quite childish. Our business institutions are probably the most unreconstructed and feudal of all.

Despite the alienation, I am optimistic because as institutions break down, we renovate or build others. My optimism also stems from apparently contradictory evidence that whilst there are clear signs of decline in the reputation of politicians, Professor Murray Goote (Macquarie University) points out, the evidence from scores of opinion polls that voters are not disinterested in the political process as such. They clearly have a continuing interest in politics and want to participate. They are interested in political campaigns. They do care 'a good deal' about who wins an election. But at the same time, they are fleeing the political parties.

The consequences for the political parties are clear. The memberships of the ALP and the Liberal Party have declined from about 300,000 after WWII. It is interesting that less than 19,000 voted last month to elect the new President of the ALP. No-one will admit how bad party membership numbers are. What is surprising with such small memberships is that there isn't more branch stacking. It is kid stuff to rig a pre-selection when only 100 or so people vote. You may have heard the rumour that the reason why the Federal Government took so long to resolve the future of the 50,000 sheep on the Comor Express, was that they thought they might have to divert them to vote in the Liberal party pre-selection in Wentworth in Sydney. The Labor Party has also made an art form of branch stacking amongst some ethnic communities.

Money has replaced membership as the driving force of political campaigns. In the USA it is called donocracy. In NSW the state office of the ALP is so successful in raising money from the corporate sector, and particularly property developers that it can largely ignore party members, except for manning of polling booths on election day. An expensive advertising blitz will do the job. Money is more important than membership.

Corporate donations are a major threat to our political and democratic system, whether it be State Governments fawning before property developers, the Prime Minister providing ethanol subsidies to a party donor, or the Immigration Minister using his visa clientele to tap into ethnic money.

Every survey on the rating of politicians shows them at the bottom of the list with journalists, car salesmen and real estate agents. In the republic referendum of 2000, the principal argument of the Monarchists was 'don't trust politicians'.

A 2000 survey by Grey Advertising and Sweeney Research, revealed that only 20% of people trust big companies. The least trusted were banks, advertising agencies and petrol, insurance and media companies.

In 1950, 44% claimed to attend church at least monthly. It is now about 20% and still falling. But I don't think we are less religious or less searching on the big questions of life.

Union membership is now down from over 50% in the 1950s to about 25% of the workforce. But most people still believe that unions have an important role to perform.

This breakdown in confidence and trust in institutions is not because we do not want to participate in institutions in our community. People continue to volunteer for a great number of good causes that interest them. A million Australians turned out to oppose the war in Iraq. The republic referendum was lost because of a quite strong view by many Australians that they wanted to be directly involved in choosing the future president.

As some institutions are found wanting, we seek community in new forms - sporting clubs, computer clubs, spirituality groups, reading groups or investment clubs. We want to belong.

People of my age are inclined to pine for the good old days. But there never was any such thing as a golden age. There were as many wild men in Sydney at the turn of the century as there are now. Cynical numbers men who will 'do what it takes' are not new. Every age has its problems and every age has a need for regeneration.

I don't think the present alienation from institutions in Australia has occurred so much because institutions have changed. The problem is they haven't changed enough. The ground has moved beneath them as we have become better informed and want to participate but the institutions have not responded. Women particularly feel excluded.

Invariably institutions are controlled by insiders who have lost real contact with their own constituencies. Let me illustrate that by reference to the ALP. I choose this for illustrative purposes. The same general problem is true of the Liberal Party - and public companies - and churches. They ignore their rank and file.

There were 195 delegates at the supreme policy making conference of the ALP in 2000. The same delegates attended the special rules conference again in 2002. Over 80% of the delegates at those 2 conferences were either Members of Parliament, staff of Members of Parliament, ALP officials, union officials or union staff. It was clearly a conference of insiders for insiders. Over 80% were either on the public, party or union payroll. The 'rank and file' were all but excluded.

As a result of the declining membership and tight control by state party officials, successful candidates are not surprisingly insiders - staffers of politicians, friends or relatives of faction leaders. In a democratic party like the ALP, an heredity peerage is developing with sons following fathers into parliament. Gough Whitlam commented only last month, that it would now be difficult for him to get a start in politics because he was not a union official, a Labor staffer or a relative of an MP. Factions dominate and some candidates are chosen not on how they will perform in parliament or in the electorate, but on the basis of how they will vote factionally in the caucus.

The ALP commissioned Bob Hawke and Neville Wran to investigate how the ALP should change its structure and rules and particularly branch stacking. They reported that many party members felt that the party no longer responds adequately, that the national conference was a stage-managed affair run by factional leaders, was devoid of real policy debate and was inaccessible to the rank and file.

Hawke and Wran recommended that the rank and file directly elect a component of the national conference and that Federal MPs, their staff and party officials not be allowed to nominate for these positions. If accepted, this proposal would have begun to break down the power of the insiders who strangle the party. It was rejected because the powerful insiders thumbed their noses at the rank and file. An historic regeneration opportunity was missed. The rank and file were given one crumb - the direct election of the President. They have now responded very clearly in choosing Carmen Lawrence ahead of factional nominees.

Unless the political parties broadly represent their voter constituencies, political cynicism and alienation will continue. While the major parties refuse to treat the community seriously and run away from public discussion, their natural constituencies remain disenfranchised. Those that are really enfranchised are the property developers and a handful of aspirational voters who are polled in the swinging electorates. Because the major parties are out of touch with their own constituencies, the debate on the big ticket issues runs into the sand - reconciliation, the republic, relations with Asia, climate change, salination, and asylum seekers.

Parliaments are also in need of reform. The Cabinet and party machines increasingly dominate parliament. The public is crying out for parliamentary renovation. Particular reforms should include 4 year fixed term Federal Parliaments to discourage excessive and almost continual electioneering; a genuinely independent speaker to encourage a more inclusive, open and a less adversarial House of Representatives; more conscience votes by MPs with less party discipline on non-core issues so that democracy is valued as much as party discipline; and an improved House of Representatives committee system. The major party that is credible on parliamentary reform will reap a large electoral dividend.

In addition to this institutional failure, a major 'democratic deficit' in recent years - from Tampa to Melville Island - has been the lack of honesty and transparency in public discourse. The outgoing president of the Uniting Church, Professor James Haire, in June this year, spoke of democracy in Australia as 'under fearful attack'. On Iraq it was truth thrown overboard again. I think we underestimate how nasty and dishonest politics has become.

The manipulation of truth on these two major issues - asylum seekers and Iraq - is not a passing or trivial matter. It involves the lives of thousands of asylum seekers put at risk for political advantage. It goes to the heart of our Judeo Christian tradition of caring for the outsider. The Jews knew what it was like to be strangers in Egypt. That is why Jewish law places care of 'strangers' ahead even of observance of the Sabbath and dietary laws. 'You shall not molest or oppress an alien, for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt' (Exodus 22:20). It is the key obligation of the Old Testament. It is mentioned in various forms 36 times. Mary, Joseph and Jesus were indeed fortunate that Egypt did not have a migration exclusion zone. Protection of the alien and the stranger is a central expression of the Christian faith. Yet we tow 14 Kurds, secretly, back to Indonesia and implicitly acknowledge that the Indonesians will show more compassion and care for the stranger than we will. Three cheers for Islam! How do we let this happen in a country like Australia where our greatest success story is that we are a country of migrants, successfully accommodating newcomers for over 200 years. There never was a threat from Iraq or Afghanistan asylum seekers and over 90% of them have now been accepted as genuine refugees. Like the school bully, we attack some of the most vulnerable people on earth.

The misleading over Iraq involves the death and injury of probably 50,000 Iraqis and others in the name of a revolutionary doctrine of a first-resort pre-emptive strike and based not on credible and truthful information, but the manipulation of information to justify a pre-determined objective. We were told for weeks by the Prime Minister that the Government had not made a decision to commit Australian troops when in fact it is clear that a deal with George Bush had been made. What a dreadful Pandora's box Iraq has turned out to be. George Bush and John Howard can't say they weren't warned.

In the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964, the Johnston administration lied as a pretext to escalate the war into North Vietnam. And again, we were lied to about weapons of mass destruction as the pretext to launch the war in Iraq. As the war goes badly, our leaders invent new reasons why we went to war in the first place.

No-one is held accountable for the mistakes and untruths over Iraq. Either the intelligence agencies failed in their duty and those responsible should be disciplined, or Ministers were told the truth, ignored the advice, and should be held responsible. But accountability gets lost in a haze of dissembling and half truths. There is an implicit deal. The agencies won't embarrass the Prime Minister with inconvenient information, provided he doesn't hold them responsible for their failures. Having failed to enforce ministerial standards over a long period, the Prime Minister cannot enforce standards on his own security advisers.

This trail of untruth on Iraq pollutes public debate and confronts us with serious consequences.

Ministers may salivate about each new security threat or photo opportunity with our troops, but their actions are imperilling our security.

We are reaping an awful harvest through the sowing of untruth.

So serious is the problem of untruthfulness in public discourse that it is worth stopping to consider how avoiding real debate and putting a spin on the truth, or spin-doctoring, occurs. It has become a pernicious part of modern public life. Or, as John Major, the former British Prime Minister put it 'spin is the pornography of politics. It perverts. It is deceit licensed by the government.'

Some parts of the media have become part of the political system. In health, the debate is overwhelmingly between insiders - doctors and ministers. In politics it is the same. Journalists are the insiders with Ministers, particularly in a fish bowl like Parliament House, Canberra. That is why the best political commentators are outsiders like Robert Manne and Mike Steketee. They have not been caught in the spinners web. That is also why in my view the best Australian newspaper is the Financial Review. It uses many outside columnists. Canberra is best observed from outside. 'The mountain is always seen best from the plain.'

But in addition to spinning, the Government has also adopted another technique. It is called 'dog whistling', putting out quite different messages in different registers, so that a message, often of fear, will be heard by a targeted group. It is the antithesis of open and honest public discourse. Let me give you some examples.

The whole technique of dog-whistling is to be unaccountable, to wash one's hands of responsibility. Put out a subliminal story, confident that there are media commentators, particularly on talk-back radio, who will make the necessary connections and push the fear along. It is essential as the late US journalist H L Mencken put it 'the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed'. We are fed a diet of endless fear and endless insecurity.

How can the unvarnished truth be protected, particularly when we have an Opposition asleep at the wheel? Or as I saw it pithily described recently 'The Liberal Government is scary and Labor is scared.'

Clearly the number of spinners or ministerial advisers must be reduced. The Neil Committee on Standards in Public Life in the UK recommended that the number of ministerial advisers in the UK be limited and their powers restricted. The government ignored the report. The anonymity of ministerial advisers must be challenged with their names published and their roles fully disclosed. Hopefully journalists would name more of their sources, but it would be a difficult ask for they would fear that they won't get stories if the source is named. What would help the independence of journalists confronted the information monopoly of governments would be for them to have more research support.

Ministerial advisers must also be either accountable to the parliament or to their minister. At present ministers are accountable but not their advisers. As the former Secretary of the Department of Defence, Paul Barrett, put it 'numerous military and civilian people claim to have told Reith's office and told Howard's advisers that "no children were thrown overboard", but the ministers all say "no-body told me".' Barrett added quite correctly 'either you regard the ministers staff as indivisible from the minister and therefore the minister has been told, or if the staff is a separate group of people they ought to be accountable to parliamentary committees'. For good governance and integrity of public debate, this issue needs urgent attention, not just by federal ministers, but by state ministers also.

More important than any of this is the fostering of a culture of openness, professionalism and indeed, some courage, by senior public servants. Very few of us are tempted to lie in our public roles. The much easier course is to stay silent. I fear that for the sake of influence and access, some senior officials in recent times have decided to stay silent. They have succumbed, not to partisanship, but to the detailed political micro-management of the public service by the Prime Minister. Sometimes staying silent may be the prudent and sensible thing to do. But it is a concern when remaining silent becomes a habit.

No people have been put under greater scrutiny in recent years than the Department of Defence and intelligence agencies, from Tampa onwards. Some senior officers have been found wanting. Yet in reading David Marr's and Marion Wilkinson's depressing book 'Dark Victory' about Tampa and children overboard, I found grounds for optimism that we can work our way out of this dark and nasty period in Australian public life. I am reminded of the old proverb 'but for hope, our hearts would break'. My confidence is in the good sense and humanity of the Australian people to make the necessary corrections when truth and decency are under challenge.

The Commander of HMAS Adelaide, Captain Banks, was towing the Olong with 223 asylum seekers... Banks was under pressure to stop the tow and sail the Adelaide to the Gulf to relieve US warships. He towed as long as he could until the Olong finally began to sink. Marr and Wilkinson record the heroism and decency of the Adelaide crew:

"minutes later, the bow of the Olong was under water. Banks ordered the tow line cut and launched the life rafts as men women and children began jumping for their lives into the sea.

From the second deck of the Adelaide, Able Seaman Laura Whittle saw a mother struggling in the choppy water with her young child. Without even waiting to put on her life jacket, Whittle dived twelve metres into the sea to haul the frightened pair to a life raft. Nearby, her mate, Leading Cook Jason (Dogs) Barker, was swimming out to a terrified father and child.

It was a miraculous rescue. In just thirty minutes, the Australian sailors had everyone in life rafts... They were all alive." (p.191)

"Max Moore-Wilton was not happy with the news" (p.191)

"The Defence Chief was furious." (p.192)

"On the upper deck of the Adelaide, the exhausted asylum seekers, many dressed in navy surplus, huddled under a makeshift shelter. The crew had rigged up toilets and were handing out sleeping bags along with words of comfort. They found a navy towel to wrap up the three-week old baby, while his mother, dressed in a pair of navy combat overalls, fed him from a bottle. The childred were hugged by the fretting sailors. In the few hours since the rescue, Banks had seen a surprising change in his ship's company. Many of whom he thought were 'white Australia' types were some of the most compassionate and humane towards the survivors. As he told his sailors, "These people are indeed human beings first, [and] whilst we could not understand their plight, we had to treat them as refugees." (p.192)

Marr and Wilkinson commented "In the end, their commander followed his judgement and gave the orders to rescue just in time. Two hundred and twenty-three people were alive because of their efforts. They were heroes." (p 192)

They were heroes and that is what makes me confident - the innate decency of the Australian people. We have always been cautious about newcomers. The Germans in this state were victimised and finally embraced as great citizens. We did the same to Jews who came to Australia after the second world war. We were very sceptical about 'Balts' and more recently about Indochinese newcomers. History shows us that in our casualness and easygoing acceptance, we can overcome the ideological and philosophical barriers that are often put in our way. Truth and human decency assert themselves in the end.

Renewal of our institutions and revival of truthfulness and transparency in public discourse does require leadership at all levels. With that leadership, we have seen in our history that the community responds in decency and fairness. We do respond to the 'better angels of our nature'.

Behind this renewal of our democratic institutions and restoring honesty to public discourse, I suggest there is something even more essential; the value and conventions that we need to hold in common. Keeping promises, fairness, respect for others, openness, integrity, trust and importantly, truthfulness, are the glue that hold us together. A democratic and free society will remain free only if the virtues necessary for freedom are alive in our community. Democracy cannot be separated from public morality, particularly when we are fed on a daily diet of fear. The democratic project and institutions within it must be informed by what is right and true. Every society needs a moral compass.

Moral behaviour it seems to me is in the end how our words and actions enhance human dignity and human flourishing. Robust and well-functioning institutions, truthful public discourse and inspired leadership are important means to that end.

John Menadue