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    Margo Kingston's Not Happy, John!

Margo Kingston's Not Happy, John!

On June 24, 2004 I went to the Melbourne launch - at the Readings bookshop on Lygon Street, Carlton - of Margo Kingston's summary of Howard's Australia, or, if you like, of Australia's 'shrinking democracy' and 'Howard's manipulation of the Australian electorate' by systematically undermining of parliamentary institutions, government accountability and openness.

It's all brought together in Not Happy John!, an exquisite account of events surrounding the visit of Dubya to Australia's Parliament House, the interjections of Bob Brown and Kerry Nettle as an expression of free speech, the events of the following day around the visit of the Chinese leader Hu Jintao - as well as several other significant points during the last term of John Howard.

Margo was there herself, flanked by Anthony Loewenstein and 'Robbo', or Jack Robinson, both of them co-writers of the book with a chapter each. It was delightful to meet them in a packed Readings bookshop, and I went on my way with good memories - but the launch at Gleebooks in Sydney has created a true storm in the teacup of the Howard administration. Retired judge Tony Fitzgerald, QC in launching the book delivered a good speech and attracted the ire of Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone.

Below is some of the media coverage of Tony Fitzgerald's speech and the ensuing attempt to debunk his words.

Tony Fitzgerald: Howard a "radical"

Sydney Morning Herald
Web Diary
By Margo Kingston
June 29, 2004

This is the full text of Justice Tony Fitzgerald's speech launching my book 'Not happy John! Defending our democracy', at Gleebooks in Sydney on June 22. Michelle Grattan reported on the speech today (below on this page) at Fitzgerald berates both sides of politics.

In a speech last year, the author Norman Mailer described democracy as "a state of grace that is attained only by those countries which have a host of individuals not only ready to enjoy freedom but to undergo the heavy labor of maintaining it". Not Happy John! is Margo Kingston's admirable contribution to the "heavy labor" of maintaining democracy in Australia.

As the title hints, Margo has focused her analysis on the behaviour of the current Commonwealth government, especially the Prime Minister. In the words of the publisher: "Not Happy, John! is a gutsy, anecdotal book with a deadly serious purpose: to lay bare the insidious ways in which John Howard's government has profoundly undermined our freedoms and our rights. She doesn't care whether you vote Liberal or Labor, Greens or One Nation. She isn't interested in the old, outworn left - right rhetoric. What she's passionate about is the urgent need for us to reassert the core civic values of a humane, egalitarian, liberal democracy."

You will observe the force of Margo's argument when you read her book, as obviously you should. My brief remarks will be directed to the damage that mainstream politicians generally are doing to our democracy.

Australians generally accept that democracy is the best system of government, the market is the most efficient mechanism for economic activity and fair laws are the most powerful instrument for creating and maintaining a society that is free, rational and just. However, we are also collectively conscious that democracy is fragile, the market is amoral and law is an inadequate measure of responsibility. As former Chief Justice Warren of the United States Supreme Court explained:

"Law .... presupposes the existence of a broad area of human conduct controlled only by ethical norms."

Similarly, democracy in our tradition assumes that a broad range of political activity is controlled only by conventions of proper conduct. Especially because individual rights are not constitutionally guaranteed in this country, justice, equality and other fundamental community values in Australia are constantly vulnerable to the disregard of those conventions.

Since the sacking of the Whitlam Government in 1975, the major political parties seem to have largely abandoned the ethics of government. A spiteful, divisive contest now dominates the national conversation, and democracy struggles incessantly with populism. Mainstream political parties routinely shirk their duty of maintaining democracy in Australia.

This is nowhere more obvious than in what passes for political debate, in which it is regarded as not only legitimate but clever to mislead. Although effective democracy depends on the participation of informed citizens, modern political discourse is corrupted by pervasive deception. It is a measure of the deep cynicism in our party political system that many of the political class deride those who support the evolution of Australia as a fair, tolerant, compassionate society and a good world citizen as an un-Australian, "bleeding-heart" elite, and that the current government inaccurately describes itself as conservative and liberal.

It is neither.

It exhibits a radical disdain for both liberal thought and fundamental institutions and conventions. No institution is beyond stacking and no convention restrains the blatant advancement of ideology. The tit-for-tat attitude each side adopts means that the position will probably change little when the opposition gains power at some future time. A decline in standards will continue if we permit it.

Without ethical leadership, those of us who are comfortably insulated from the harsh realities of violence, disability, poverty and discrimination seem to have experienced a collective failure of imagination. Relentless change and perceptions of external threat make conformity and order attractive and incremental erosions of freedom tolerable to those who benefit from the status quo and are apprehensive of others who are different and therefore easily misunderstood.

Mainstream Australians remain unreconciled with Indigenous Australians and largely ignore their just claims.

Without any coherent justification, we are participating in a war in a distant country in which more than half the population are children, some of whom, inevitably, are being killed. In our own country, many live in poverty, children are hungry and homeless and other severely traumatized children are in detention in flagrant breach of the Convention on the Rights of the Child simply because they were brought here by their parents seeking a better life.

Politicians mesmerised by power seem to be unconcerned that, when leaders fail to set and follow ethical standards, public trust is damaged, community expectations diminish and social divisions expand. However, these matters are important to the rest of us. We are a community, not merely a collection of self-interested individuals. Justice, integrity and trust in fundamental institutions are essential social assets and social capital is as important as economic prosperity.

In order to perform our democratic function, we need, and are entitled to, the truth. Nothing is more important to the functioning of democracy than informed discussion and debate. Yet a universal aim of the power-hungry is to stifle dissent. Most of us are easily silenced, through a sense of futility if not personal concern.

Margo has the knowledge, energy and courage to stand up for her beliefs. Congratulations, Margo, for doing much more than your share of the "heavy labor" of maintaining Australia's democracy. It is a privilege to launch "Not Happy John!", to urge all to read it and to wish you and "Not Happy John!" every success.

***

POSTSCRIPT: in Tony's written speech but not delivered at the launch

There are currently 162 children in immigration detention in mainland Australia and on Nauru and Christmas Island.

The recently published report by the HREOC National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention (A Last Resort, 2004) attests that "Australian laws that require the mandatory immigration detention of children and the way these laws are administered by the Commonwealth, have resulted in numerous and repeated breaches of the Convention on the Rights of the Child".

Findings by the Inquiry confirm what those of us who have sustained contact with some of the children now released have known for some time, namely that "the traumatic nature of the detention experience has out-stripped any previous trauma that the children have had". It observed that:

"Children in detention exhibited symptoms including bed-wetting, sleep walking and night terrors. At the severe end of the spectrum, some children became mute, refused to eat and drink, made suicide attempts and began to self-harm, such as by cutting themselves."

With respect to some children the Inquiry found that:

"The Department of Immigration failed to implement the clear - and in some cases repeated - recommendations of State agencies and mental health experts that they be urgently transferred out of detention centres with their parents. This amounted to cruel,inhuman and degrading treatment."

Detention of children places extreme stress on their parents. Those we have come to know have expressed this to us. They felt responsible and guilty for bringing their children to Australia ,where instead of finding freedom and the new home they had promised their children, they were being held in "a prison".

As the Inquiry stated "being in detenion can severely undermine the ability of parents to care for their children". Their normal roles in the family are taken away from them. Often too the parents are severely traumatized by the experience of detention, which reduces their ability to parent their children.

Children in detention have witnessed extreme forms of violence, riots, suicide attempts and self harm. Some have been tear gassed and struck by batons during riots. The Inquiry found that "the Commonwealth had breached the Convention on the Rights of the Child by failing to take all appropriate measures to protect children in detention from physical and mental violence".

Other measures which I would describe as inhumane and dehumanizing include giving children ( and their parents) a number which they must wear at all times and by which they are known and called; not allowing parents to take any photos of their children.....so babies born in detention have no photos recording their growth and development, something most parents take for granted.

That a society which calls itself civilized continues to countenance the prolonged and indeterminate detention of children in conditions closely resembling those of a high security prison , shocks me profoundly. That this society is Australia, saddens and angers me more than I can say.

http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2004/06/29/1088392635123.html

Fitzgerald berates both sides of politics

The Age
By Michelle Grattan
June 29, 2004

Retired judge Tony Fitzgerald, QC, has launched a broadside at the main political parties, saying they have "largely abandoned the ethics of government", and practice "pervasive deception".

Mr Fitzgerald - recently appointed to investigate the leaking of a Victorian police report - said a "spiteful, divisive contest" now dominated the national conversation, and democracy "struggles incessantly with populism".

He reserved his sharpest criticism for the Government, but hit out at both sides of politics.

The Government inaccurately described itself as conservative and liberal, but was neither, he said.

"It exhibits a radical disdain for both liberal thought and fundamental institutions and conventions.

"No institution is beyond stacking, and no convention restrains the blatant advancement of ideology." But the "tit-for-tat attitude" each side adopted meant the position would probably change little when the Opposition gained power.

"A decline in standards will continue if we permit it," Mr Fitzgerald said when launching journalist Margo Kingston's book Not Happy, John! in Sydney last week.

He works now in mediation and arbitration, and in the 1980s became famous as head of the inquiry into corruption in Queensland.

Accusing the mainstream parties of routinely shirking their duty to democracy, he said that in what passed for political debate, it was seen as not only legitimate but clever to mislead.

"Although effective democracy depends on the participation of informed citizens, modern political discourse is corrupted by pervasive deception," he said.

Reflecting the deep cynicism of the party political system, "many of the political class deride those who support the evolution of Australia as a fair, tolerant, compassionate society, and a good world citizen as an un-Australian, bleeding-heart, elite."

He said that without ethical leadership, Australians insulted by the harsh realities of viol-ence, disability and poverty, had "experienced a collective failure of imagination". "Relentless change and perceptions of external threat make conformity and order attractive, and incremental erosions of freedom tolerable to those who benefit from the status quo and are apprehensive of others who are different and therefore easily misunderstood," he said.

"Mainstream Australians remain unreconciled with indigenous Australians, and largely ignore their just claims.

"Without any coherent justification, we are participating in a war in a distant country in which more that half the population are children, some of whom, inevitably, are being killed.

"In our own country, many live in poverty, children are hungry and homeless, and other severely traumatised children are in detention in flagrant breach of the convention on the rights of the child, simply because they were brought here by their parents seeking a better life."

Mr Fitzgerald said politicians mesmerised by power seemed unconcerned that, when leaders failed to set and follow ethical standards, public trust was damaged.

But this was important to the rest of us, he said.

http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2004/06/28/1088392600458.html

The corruption of democracy

The Age
June 29, 2004

Spite and deception dominate the political landscape and we are all the worse for it, says Tony Fitzgerald.

Democracy in our tradition assumes that a broad range of political activity is controlled only by conventions of proper conduct. Especially because individual rights are not constitutionally guaranteed in this country, justice, equality and other fundamental community values in Australia are constantly vulnerable to the disregard of those conventions.

Since the sacking of the Whitlam government in 1975, the major political parties seem to have largely abandoned the ethics of government. A spiteful, divisive contest now dominates the national conversation, and democracy struggles incessantly with populism. Mainstream political parties routinely shirk their duty of maintaining democracy in Australia.

This is nowhere more obvious than in what passes for political debate, in which it is regarded as not only legitimate but clever to mislead. Although effective democracy depends on the participation of informed citizens, modern political discourse is corrupted by pervasive deception.

It is a measure of the deep cynicism in our party political system that many of the political class deride those who support the evolution of Australia as a fair, tolerant, compassionate society and a good world citizen as an un-Australian, "bleeding-heart" elite, and that the current Government inaccurately describes itself as conservative and liberal. It is neither. It exhibits a radical disdain for both liberal thought and fundamental institutions and conventions. No institution is beyond stacking and no convention restrains the blatant advancement of ideology.

The tit-for-tat attitude each side adopts means that the position will probably change little when the Opposition gains power at some future time. A decline in standards will continue if we permit it.

Without ethical leadership, those of us who are comfortably insulated from the harsh realities of violence, disability, poverty and discrimination seem to have experienced a collective failure of imagination. Relentless change and perceptions of external threat make conformity and order attractive and incremental erosions of freedom tolerable to those who benefit from the status quo and are apprehensive of others who are different and therefore easily misunderstood.

Mainstream Australians remain unreconciled with indigenous Australians and largely ignore their just claims. Without any coherent justification, we are participating in a war in a distant country in which more than half the population are children, some of whom, inevitably, are being killed. In our own country, many live in poverty, children are hungry and homeless and other severely traumatised children are in detention in flagrant breach of the Convention on the Rights of the Child simply because they were brought here by their parents seeking a better life.

There are, according to recent figures, 162 children in immigration detention in mainland Australia and on Nauru and Christmas Island.

The recently published report by the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention (A Last Resort) confirms what those of us who have sustained contact with some of the children now released have known for some time, namely that "the traumatic nature of the detention experience has outstripped any previous trauma that the children have had".

It observed that "children in detention exhibited such symptoms as bed-wetting, sleepwalking and night terrors. At the severe end of the spectrum, some children became mute, refused to eat and drink, made suicide attempts and began to self-harm, such as by cutting themselves".

With respect to some children, the inquiry found that the Immigration Department "failed to implement the clear - and in some cases repeated - recommendations of state agencies and mental health experts that they be urgently transferred out of detention centres with their parents. This amounted to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment."

Other measures which I would describe as inhumane and dehumanising include giving children (and their parents) a number which they must wear at all times and by which they are known and called; and not allowing parents to take any photos of their children - so babies born in detention have no photos recording their development, something most parents take for granted.

Politicians mesmerised by power seem to be unconcerned that, when leaders fail to set and follow ethical standards, public trust is damaged, community expectations diminish and social divisions expand.

However, these matters are important to the rest of us. We are a community, not merely a collection of self-interested individuals. Justice, integrity and trust in fundamental institutions are essential social assets, and social capital is as important as economic prosperity.

In order to perform our democratic function, we need, and are entitled to, the truth. Nothing is more important to the functioning of democracy than informed discussion and debate. Yet a universal aim of the power-hungry is to stifle dissent. Most of us are easily silenced, through a sense of futility if not personal concern.

That a society which calls itself civilised continues to countenance the prolonged and indeterminate detention of children in conditions closely resembling those of a high-security prison, shocks me profoundly. That this society is Australia saddens and angers me more than I can say.

This is an edited version of Queen's counsel Tony Fitzgerald's written speech for the Sydney launch of journalist Margo Kingston's book Not Happy, John - Defending our Democracy (Penguin, 2004).

http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2004/06/28/1088392597768.html

Fitzgerald accused of 'invective and error'

The Age
By Michelle Grattan
July 2, 2004

Amanda Vanstone has accused former judge Tony Fitzgerald of peddling "meticulously packaged vitriol" with his claim that political parties have largely abandoned the ethics of government and practise "pervasive deception".

The Immigration Minister says Mr Fitzgerald has criticised spitefulness and deception in politics, but his article in Tuesday's Age "is itself laden with invective and error".

Writing in today's Age, Senator Vanstone challenged Mr Fitzgerald to run for Parliament if he felt so strongly about the decline of ethics in politics.

Senator Vanstone accused Mr Fitzgerald of making false and misleading statements about the treatment of asylum seekers in Australian detention centres.

Mr Fitzgerald said detainees were given a number by which they were known and called. He also alleged that parents were not allowed to photograph their children in detention centres.

But Senator Vanstone said while detainees were required to wear an ID card with a number, most were referred to by name. There were also generally no problems with parents photographing their families.

Disputing the claim that ethics had been abandoned, Senator Vanstone said that in her nearly 20 years in Parliament "I have seen an impressive extension of its capacity to keep a check on the executive".

http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2004/07/01/1088488094315.html

Misleading, Mr Fitzgerald? Not this Government

The Age
July 2, 2004

Democracy and dissent are alive and well in this country, writes Amanda Vanstone.

Tony Fitzgerald, QC ("The corruption of democracy", on Tuesday) accuses Australian governments of all persuasions of having abandoned ethics, of misleading the public by deception and of engaging in a spiteful, divisive contest.

Yet, when we look at his article we see he has asserted a number of things that are themselves false and, therefore, misleading. We look for balance and find it absent. We look for, if not goodwill, then at least an absence of spite - and we find meticulously packaged vitriol. Mr Fitzgerald clearly finds the role of self-appointed spokesman for "the rest of us" a comfortable one.

He asserts that in political debate it is regarded as "not only legitimate but clever to mislead" and takes this as evidence that mainstream parties have "shirk(ed) their duty of maintaining democracy".

I disagree. Strongly. Deliberately misleading is neither legitimate nor clever. I do not know anyone who thinks it is. I can only assume Mr Fitzgerald makes the mistake of judging the exception to be the rule. Clearly he also gives no credit to the checks and balances within our system including, for example, Senate committees.

Nonetheless, given his laudable preference for the truth ("in order to perform our democratic function, we need, and are entitled to, the truth"), I am at a loss to understand and was surprised to read two claims in particular.

The first is his description of an alleged policy whereby children and their parents in detention centres are given "a number, which they must wear at all times, and by which they are known and called". If this were true it would be inhumane and dehumanising, as Mr Fitzgerald asserts. It isn't true.

Detainees do have an ID card, which they are required to wear. It contains their name, a photograph and a number. People are referred to by their name. In fact, the Immigration Detention Standards refer to the need to recognise the individuality of detainees. Numbers may occasionally be used, for example to distinguish between two people with a similar name. I have no doubt that a few years ago, when something like 4000 people were arriving each year unannounced, without visas and many without identification, a numbering system would have been needed and used.

Second, he asserts that parents are not allowed to take photographs of their babies and children. This is simply not the case. Cameras are available in immigration detention centres and there are no problems with parents photographing their family. That is not to say there would not be isolated incidents where particular families could not take particular photos at particular times.

Presumably Mr Fitzgerald is misleading the community on these matters because he is ill informed. He could have easily checked the facts.

Similarly he boldly claims that mainstream Australia ignores the just claims of indigenous Australians. In the eight months I have been Minister for Indigenous Affairs, I have met nothing in the community and among my colleagues other than a strong desire to improve the lives of indigenous Australians.

Liberal and Labor governments around Australia are working together on this very important goal. We can be proud of the fact that the proportion of indigenous children staying on to year 12 has increased from 29 per cent to 39 per cent since 1996. The number of indigenous students undertaking bachelor or higher degree courses has risen by 36 per cent at the same time. This financial year, the Howard Government will spend 39 per cent more in real terms than the Keating government did in its last year. There is, nonetheless, a lot more to be done.

I just mention these points because none of that balance is obvious from Mr Fitzgerald's comments.

I feel sorry for Mr Fitzgerald that he sees an abandonment of ethics of government over the past 30 years. That's a damning indictment of the Australians who elect those governments. In the nearly 20 years I have been in Parliament, I have seen an impressive extension of its capacity to keep a check on the executive. This work goes on day after day, often with people from different political persuasions working together. It is the stuff of Parliament that will never make the front page.

I am at a loss to explain Mr Fitzgerald's complaint about divisive debates. Politics is the great conversation of life. As an astute judge once said, "the voice of dissent is the bell of freedom". Differing views of their nature are divisive. A contest for government has a winner and a loser. This is not rocket science.

Mr Fitzgerald rightly identifies that the public debate is occasionally, and I think regrettably, spiteful. I have been the beneficiary of loads of that in my time. What seems inconsistent is an article that proposes to oppose spitefulness and deception, but is itself laden with invective and error.

Modern democracy is, to quote Abraham Lincoln, government of the people, by the people, for the people. And to paraphrase Winston Churchill, it is the worst possible political system, except for all the others.

There is no doubt Mr Fitzgerald has some strong political views. There is an election this year. Mr Fitzgerald may wish to nominate for a seat in Parliament so he may put his personal policies directly to the people for their judgement on polling day.

Senator Amanda Vanstone is Minister for Immigration and Indigenous Affairs.

http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2004/07/01/1088488090024.html

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