The subversion of Australian Democracy
Below is the text of a talk on the new terror laws, given by Tony Kevin at a Sydney Greens meeting, Mori Gallery, Cockle Bay, Darling Harbour, on 17 November 2005. Other speakers were Federal Greens Senator Kerry Nettle, and Keysar Trad.
IMAGE: Thanks to The Australian and Bill Leak cartoons
First, last weekend's Sun-Herald front page: a photo feature on the transfer by police convoy from Liverpool Hospital to Long Bay Jail of one of the accused terrorism suspects, shot in the neck several days ago in an alleged shoot-out with NSW police. The convoy was described thus:
A huge security operation involving more than 100 police officers - a heavily armoured police Bearcat [a six-tonne armour-plated vehicle] took the centre of a convoy of 10 marked and unmarked police cars and a police mini-van. Two four-wheel-drives carrying heavily armed special operations officers travelled immediately in front of and behind the ambulance carrying the injured. Two [anti-terrorist] helicopters, one with surveillance cameras, trailed the procession from the air.
All this to move one wounded man from hospital to jail. What on earth did the security authorities fear - a raid by armed supporters to free the man on his way through Sydney's western suburbs? Or was this simply an aggressive display of power? Who knows?
A second image, from Saturday's Sydney Morning Herald's front page: a full colour court drawing of an accused terrorism suspect in court, wearing a Guantanamo Bay - style orange jumpsuit, shackled at the arms and legs with chains attached to his waist, heavy security at his side. Why on earth the orange jumpsuit, with all its unsavoury associations of American tortures and gross violations of human rights? Why the shackles and chains?
Media reports tell of accused terrorism suspects being held in maximum-security solitary confinement for 20 hours in 24, shackled and chained whenever briefly let out of their cells. Arrested Australian citizens accused of having committed murders are not treated in this extreme way. It is quite horrible.
In all cases heard so far, bail has been refused. This is how 18 men, all born in Australia or citizens of Australia, will spend the next few months of their lives, possibly as much as a year or more, before their cases are heard in court.
Geoffrey Barker in Monday's Australian Financial Review ["A test of our integrity"] had this to say:
Given the importance of due process and of procedural fairness, perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Friday's court proceedings were the claims by senior lawyers of restricted access to their clients and of degrading imprisonment regimes.
"There seems little doubt that these legal proceedings will be seen nationally and internationally as a test of the integrity and fairness of the legal system, as well as of the willingness of Australians to withhold condemnation of people who are yet to be proved guilty of any crime".
I go further than Geoff Barker. I think that our criminal justice system, our media, and much of our public, have already prejudged these men's guilt and are treating them accordingly. As Crikey rightly commented on 14 November:
By the useful literary device of adding occasional disclaimer words like 'alleged' or 'accused' or 'plotters,' journalists seem quite untroubled about describing events, intentions and conspiracies which, in almost any other pre-trial situation, would land them on a serious contempt of court charge. But in the current climate of terrorism-induced fear and loathing, the media seems to be saying: why bother with all the old conventions, when the public seems to have accepted what the country's most senior politicians have told them - that these men were 'planning a terrorist attack in Australia' and were foiled from perpetrating a 'catastrophic act of terrorism'?
We are told that these plans to commit terrorist acts were allegedly exposed as a result of a Muslim informant. John Howard has warned the Muslim communities of their obligations to be alert for and to report any suspect behaviour from within their own ranks - to act as extensions of the police force. The reverse logic is also clear - if any future terrorist act takes place that was not prevented by prior reporting from within the Muslim communities, the communities may be held accountable for this failure.
We are now living in weird and cruel times in Australia. What brought us to this pass?
I lay the blame squarely on John Howard: on his reckless, unnecessary and provocative foreign policy and national security actions. I believe that Howard, more than anyone else, is responsible for the nightmare that our society now inhabits - for the militarised police state that is insidiously creeping in and taking over our lives. For fascism is almost with us now. The experience of 20th century fascism in Europe reminds us of the apparent normality of life, for most people most of the time, under the fascist regimes before they went to war. Outside the minority communities being scapegoated, life under the German and Italian fascists was pretty much like life under John Howard.
Howard's step-by-step desensitisation of Australians to our traditional democratic values is being aided by powerful media organisations that have lost sight of their duty to speak truth to the people and to power. And by ambitious men and women who lead public service and national security organisations, and are similarly negligent of their public duty to offer fearless advice on the rule of law and on the social consequences of government policies and actions that transgress the rule of law. And the desperately opportunistic federal Opposition leader must share the blame too, for his cowardly me-tooism on all national security issues.
In our media-saturated democracy, the power of a Prime Minister to reshape public perceptions of reality is enormous. It takes courage to say our emperor wears no clothes - a courage most of us now lack. We have let Howard manufacture the false reality much of our country now inhabits. We have not resisted him enough, and now it is almost too late. We are perhaps already past the point of no return on the road to a police state here - a road that began in 1996, and proceeded by small steps.
Before last week's arrests, I said this at a civil rights rally in Canberra:
John Howard and Kim Beazley are agents provocateurs - agents of provocation. Everything they have said since the London bombings these past six months is calculated to distress, to humiliate, to threaten, and to destabilize Australia's vulnerable Islamic communities.
Howard has been the greatest subverter of our democracy, and the greatest agent of provocation in our vulnerable multicultural society.
Howard and Beazley have goaded our Muslim minority communities to a point where a misguided few might be tempted to acts of desperate resistance. I believe both these politicians actually want an Islamist terrorist event to happen here, because that would retrospectively validate the damage they have already done to our civil liberties, by their provocative foreign policies, their fomenting of community fears and straining of intercommunal harmony, by their creation of feelings of exclusion and insecurity in our Muslim communities.
The huge overkill of the recent arrests: - the whipped-up public hysteria, the police-media collusion in the public provocation and humiliation of arrested people and their suffering families - are taking on the dimensions of a pogrom.
Take Beazley's hateful proposal - never disavowed - to lock down Muslim neighbourhoods in times of emergency - to create enforced ghettoes. Take Bishop's and Panopoloulos's cruel attacks on teenage Muslim girls who exercise their right to wear headscarves to school. These politicians are taunting vulnerable communities already under great pressure. They should be ashamed of themselves. They are not.
Even some of our better news commentators have caught the virus. Take these words in last Saturday's Sydney Morning Herald - "Worlds Apart", from journalist Peter Hartcher:
The clash of civilisations seems more real than ever after this week's events around the globe. Nine years after Osama bin Laden issued his declaration of war against the West, and four years after his successful strike on US soil, the global jihad this week arrived in Australia.
Hartcher, who certainly knows better, is here endorsing Howard's false narrative of Australia as an innocent victim of aggressive jihadist terrorism, which has finally reached our shores.
There is not a word here about Australia's accountability for this. But the fact is that we are not innocent victims. Australia's military participation in the hugely destructive US-led occupation of Iraq is central to our new vulnerability to terrorism. Our media are helping Howard hide this truth from us.
It is nonsense to claim, as Howard does, that already in 1999, our help to the people of East Timor had aroused Al Qaeda's anger. Yes, there were passing references to Australia in early Bin Laden speeches, but these would have been forgotten footnotes in history, were it not for our becoming a significant US military ally in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The Australian people knew instinctively this would be a turning point, which is why a million of us marched to try and stop it. We failed, because Howard could not care less about democracy. To him, we were just "the mob".
Howard points to the fact that the first Bali bombings in October 2002 preceded the Iraq invasion. But it was publicly known since early 2002 that Howard was itching to take Australian troops into war in Iraq. It was an open secret in Canberra by mid-2002 that senior ADF officers were already in the US working with US Central Command drafting invasion plans involving our soldiers.
I have said in the past that the Australian Government's peculiar negligence in 2002, in not passing on to Australian holidaymakers in Bali well-founded intelligence warnings of possible terror attacks in places frequented by Westerners in Indonesia like Bali, might have been more than negligence. There might have been an element of deliberate risk-taking - a view that if such a terrible event were to occur, it would bring home to the Australian public, as nothing else could, the reality of the jihadists' ill will towards Australia. There continue to be disturbing reports that have never been properly investigated, that staffs of Australian embassies in Southeast Asia were warned confidentially, the day before the Bali bombings, to avoid going to public places where Westerners gathered.
In March 2003, the prominent role our SAS played in the invasion of Western Iraq put Australia squarely in Al Qaeda's sights as an enemy.
At every step of the way, John Howard's political rhetoric has played the clash of civilizations drum, affirming Australia's loyalty to the Bush administration's hostility to the Arab world's aspirations to regain control of their own history and oil resources. Howard's decision to make Australia part of the US-led invasion of Iraq is the main reason why those 18 Australians are in the dock now, and why Australia's vulnerable Muslim communities wait in fear for what may come next.
A former national security policy colleague of mine, Hugh White, takes issue with this perspective. He suggested in a recent Sydney Morning Herald newspaper article (at With a terrorist threat out in the open, it is time to confront the causes, 9 November 2005) that a large number of Muslims in Australia, and around the world, believe that Western global culture is to some extent hostile to their religion and values, and that "it is from this large pool of those who feel alienated by reason of their faith and culture that the few who might contemplate terrorism are drawn". White suggests that the only long-term solution to this problem is to find ways to correct what he calls "that mistaken impression" of a hostile West.
I reminded Hugh White of the weight of evidence that the power structure of the Western World and many of its popular beliefs and values are indeed hostile to the Muslim faith and culture. For example, the huge death and injury toll in Iraq since 2003, the agony of the occupied Palestinian territories, Afghanistan, Lebanon in past years, Chechnya, Bosnia in 1992-1995. At a particular level of humiliation and abuse, the detentions, renditions and tortures of innocent Muslim people picked up at random in Iraq and elsewhere, and cruelly abused by orders of the state in places like Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and other secret prisons. The war crime that was the vengeful destruction by coalition forces of the city of Fallujah in October-November 2004, the deaths of thousands of civilians and the rendering of 200,000 people homeless. And at home, evidence of anti-Muslim prejudice throughout our Western societies, from the highest academic level (Huntington's Clash of Cultures - is this book the Mein Kampf of our time?) down through insidious anti-Islamic messages in media commentary and in some Christian fundamentalist churches, and to the sleaziness of the renewed Bishop - Panopoulos attacks on Muslim schoolgirls, and the sectarian undermining of Ed Husic's election campaign in Sydney.
I suggested to Hugh White there was a lot more here than "mistaken impressions" of Western hostility to Islamic religion and values, and that part of the solution must be a serious effort to address the legitimate grievances of Muslims. He responded reasonably, suggesting that with relatively minor changes in policy or emphasis, one could reduce the appearance of hostility, at least as far as 'moderate' Islam is concerned.
I respect Hugh White's willingness to engage in such a debate with me. But I fear that the forthcoming sedition laws will make such exchanges - which are essential to a free society - even less likely. I was not at all reassured by Philip Ruddock's defence of the proposed sedition laws in Monday's Sydney Morning Herald, (at There is no threat to freedom of speech, Philip Ruddock, 14 November)
Ruddock wrote that if people who express disaffection against a government should "urge or assist the use of violence and taking lives", the Government would call on the full force of the sedition law. As I interpret his words, it would be for the authorities to decide whether a person's writings that were robustly critical of government policies or actions had "assisted" the use of violence and taking lives.
It would be no defence on a disaffected critic's part to say that he had not "urged" violence. If the Attorney-General were satisfied that a person's writings had "assisted" another person to carry out a terrorist action, "good faith" on the writer's part, however defined, would be no defence.
What would be my defence under the proposed sedition laws, or the defence of prominent writers like Robert Fisk, Paul McGeough, John Pilger, John Le Carre, Alan Ramsay, Geoffrey Barker, Mike Carlton, Phillip Adams or whoever, if some terrorism suspect were to say that what had finally resolved her to attempt an act of terrorism was something she had read written by one of these writers?
It will be a fine line for an Attorney-General to draw between my kind of no-holds-barred criticism of the policies and actions of our government in the national security area and, to quote Mr Ruddock's own words:
...activity which goes beyond criticising, but encourages the use of force or violence or other unlawful means to achieve a particular outcome.
The sedition laws, claims Ruddock, are "designed to protect the community from those who would abuse our democratic values and threaten our harmonious and tolerant society".
From my perspective, that definition should include John Howard, Kim Beazley, Brendan Nelson, Bronwyn Bishop and Sophie Panopoulos, all of whom have recently expressed noxious views that abuse our democratic values and threaten our harmonious and tolerant society. But that is not a view I would expect the present Attorney - General to hold. And I actually respect the right of those persons to express their noxious views, so long as I and others have equal freedom to rebut them.
These are all inevitably subjective judgements. My view of what is "good faith" political criticism of my government's present policies and actions may be a long way from the Attorney-General's view. But under the new sedition laws, the Attorney-General's view could put me in jail.
I would not be alone there. The Attorney-General's view could catch many, and inhibit many more from the democratic expression of their views.
In summary, I cannot accept that my right of free speech should be constrained under these sedition laws, at a time when our country is not at war with any other state. The analogy Mr Ruddock has used, that in practice our right of free speech is constrained, e.g., by defamation laws, is an analogy I reject - because the right to criticise the conduct of one's government is an absolutely vital core value in our democracy, that cannot be compromised by any claimed emergency, short of a formally declared war against another nation.
I have written publicly on Webdiary, in Green Left Weekly, on my own website www.tonykevin.com and in a recent submission to the Senate enquiry, that if these sedition laws are passed I will consciously defy them by continuing to speak and write as I do. And if I have to go to jail for that, so be it.
If we give this right away in peacetime we become a full police state. I am not going to allow the so-called "War on Terror" - which I believe has come into existence mainly as a result of John Howard's grievous misjudgements in the areas of foreign affairs and national security - to take away this core value. As Mr Howard himself often says, the so-called "War on Terror" may continue for years. I do not want my society to pay this price. At the end of the day, we would have lost what we sought to defend.
I hope these sedition laws will be thrown out. Here I put my main hope in the brave band of "small-l liberals" in the Coalition backbench, and in the party branches, to put enough pressure on Howard to make him concede. I do not trust the Labor Party executive's integrity on this. I fear that in the end Kim Beazley and the majority of State Premiers will agree to whatever comes out of the present Senate Committee process, as judged by the government.
On the control orders and preventative detention proposed laws, I cannot add to the voices of wise opposition from Malcolm Fraser, Jon Stanhope, and so many of Australia's leading lawyers and jurists. If under Australia's present laws, our authorities can degrade accused terrorism suspects in manacles and chains and orange jumpsuits, and if they can wash their hands of David Hicks' rights to a fair trial, goodness knows what they could do to preventively detained persons and to their families under the proposed laws.
Under the new laws, it is possible that while we sit down to our Christmas dinners, Australian terrorism suspects will have been secretly rendered to offshore preventative detention on Christmas Island, effectively beyond reasonable defence lawyer access and the protections of Australian law. The new detention centre there is nearly ready for them now.
I fear things are going to get a lot worse here before they begin to get better. Having just gotten over our public madness against alleged illegal immigrants, we are now embarking on a new bout of public madness against alleged terrorists. The first victims will be Australian Muslims. I grieve and pray for them in their anxiety and suffering, but we are all ultimately vulnerable under these laws.
I want to conclude with some quotes that seem to me to say important things about the present crisis in our society.
How do you compare the politics and the passions of your era [with] today, [with] modern Australia?
I believe there's been a change in the nature of politics worldwide, and a change in the nature of much of Australia. We're much less master of our own destiny than we used to be. I believe Australia has become, or been led to be, a fearful nation. I am really enormously concerned at recent laws that have been introduced, and I suspect that, in 50 years' time, this will be regarded as a watershed in Australian democracy, in Australian freedom.
It will be regarded not as a time when we took an important step to liberation and to the preservation of the basic liberties, which we thought we could all take for granted, [but as] a time when we took a very significant step back to a darker past. I believe that's what this particular period will be remembered for.
Geoffrey Barker commented on the present crisis in a similar vein a few weeks ago: ("PM marginalizes dissenters", Australian Financial Review, 17 October, unlinked):
A bleak and alien political, economic and social landscape is emerging for 21st century Australia as the Howard government moves to pass its latest counter-terrorism, industrial relations, welfare and other legislation.
Viewed as a unified agenda, the measures suggest the coalition wants to substantially alter the relationship between citizens and the state, to create a more controlled and compliant population, and to marginalize political, economic and social dissent.
John Le Carre [David Cornwell], recently expressed on BBC Radio 4 this view on the coalition invasion of Iraq and what has flowed from that decision:
To me there's no bigger sin that a politician can commit than allowing his country to go to war under false pretences ... Actually, I believe the sin was greater than simply taking us to war. It destroyed our relationship with the Middle East and with South-East Asia, and it took us on a flight of fantasy about our relationship with the US. Those are terrible sins.
Le Carre concluded: ...I think it is becoming not just a social but a patriotic duty, to attest to the sh*t that we are being subjected to.
That neatly sums up my view of my obligations to my country Australia, because we are being subjected to even more sh*t here. Our social and patriotic duty requires us to rebut it vigorously - even if we risk going to jail for doing so.
To conclude on a positive note: Polish dissident Adam Michnik wrote from political imprisonment under the late Communist regime in Poland in the 1980s: (in "Letters from Prison and other Essays")
Start doing the things you think should be done, and start being what you think society should become. Do you believe in free speech? Then speak freely. Do you love the truth? Then tell it. Do you believe in an open society? Then act in the open. Do you believe in a decent and humane society? Then behave decently and humanely.
It seems to me that in the Australia that is now taking shape, we can find no better guide than Michnik to decent public action. And if some of us have to go to prison for it, as he had to, then so be it. It may take that extremity to shock fellow Australians into understanding what is really happening here.