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How the Australian Government Is Controlling Public Opinion and Stifling Debate
By Clive Hamilton, Sarah Maddison
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2007 Clive Hamilton and Sarah Maddison
All rights reserved.
Dissent in Australia
Clive Hamilton and Sarah Maddison
A decade is a long time to be in government. Any government in power for so long will leave an indelible mark on the society it governs, changing the culture, identity, values and direction of the nation. These changes may not be permanent — another change in government can set a different course for the nation, articulating new values that will reshape national identity once more. Yet these changes should not happen without public debate. For those in the community who disagree with government policy, there is some comfort in the knowledge that at the very least they can publicly express their dissenting opinions through the recognised institutions of democracy. This capacity for public debate and dissent ensures that governments must continue to publicly justify their decisions, a hallmark of any democracy.
But what happens when these democratic institutions are themselves eroded by government? What are the costs when a government tries to ensure that its values are the only values heard in public debate? What are the consequences for a nation whose citizenry is denied essential information that would allow them to develop an informed opinion about controversial policies?
In 2004 the editors of this volume collaborated (with Richard Denniss) on the Australia Institute discussion paper, 'Silencing Dissent: Non-government Organisations and Australian Democracy'. The paper documented the experiences of around 300 non-government organisations that expressed strong views about the way in which governments, particularly the Howard Government, subdued their often-critical voices. They reported tactics including bullying, harassment, intimidation, public denigration and the threatened withdrawal of funding. Sometimes these threats came directly from ministers or ministers' offices. The report was grim reading, raising worrying questions about the health of Australian democracy. Although largely ignored by the press, the message in 'Silencing Dissent' spread like wildfire around the NGO community.
This book takes the next step in documenting how the Howard Government has been progressively dismantling the democratic processes that create the capacity for public debate and accommodate dissenting opinion. The book argues that the apparently unconnected phenomena of attacks on non-government organisations, the politicisation of the public service, the stacking of statutory authorities, increasing restrictions on academic freedom and control over universities, the gagging or manipulation of some sections of the media, and the politicisation of the military and intelligence services form a pattern that poses a grave threat to the state of democracy in Australia. The mass of material in this book reflects a systematic strategy by the government to mute opposition to government policy and control public opinion.
The tactics used to silence critics are diverse, including the withdrawal or threat of withdrawal of government funding, threats to destroy the financial viability of dissenting organisations, appointment of party functionaries or friends to key positions, strict interpretation of laws governing release of information, and the targeting of individuals. The methods are often highly personal, with individuals and organisations singled out for intimidation, vilification and slander.
Based on the evidence set out in this book, we take the view that the Howard Government has systematically targeted independent, critical and dissenting voices. We are not suggesting that there is any sort of written strategy or unit designed to coordinate this silencing process. We are arguing that the Howard Government is pervaded by an intolerant and anti-democratic sentiment, one that is at times given an ideological justification, which reflects a belief that it has a right to behave in whatever way it deems appropriate.
Attacks on individuals
Personal attacks have always been part of the rough and tumble of Australian politics, but in recent years there seems to have been a shift in the use of this tactic. Instead of the target being fellow politicians (for whom it comes with the territory), individual citizens have been targeted with the apparent aim of driving them out of the public domain. This tactic seems to have been employed with increasing frequency by members of the Coalition Government in Canberra, often under the protection of parliamentary privilege in order to avoid being sued for defamation. The targets are most likely to be individual experts who are critical of controversial government policy.
Certain members of the government seem to have been allocated an 'attack dog' role. In recent years the job seems to have fallen mainly to Tasmanian Liberal Senator Eric Abetz, who was special minister of state from January 2001 until he was promoted to the ministry in January 2006. Abetz has often been assisted by Queensland Liberal Senator George Brandis. In a range of forums, but most notably in Senate committees, critics of the government have found themselves subject to blistering personal attacks by Abetz, who deploys his staff to uncover aspects of their past that can be used to denigrate them.
This tactic was used by Abetz in an attempt to silence academic experts who were critical of the government's controversial changes to industrial relations laws. In 2005 he referred in the Senate to Professor David Peetz, a professor of industrial relations at Griffith University, as a 'trade union choirboy' who engages in moral equivocation over terrorism. Understandably, Peetz felt compelled to respond to the assault on his character, writing:
While I am deeply concerned by these attempts to portray me as an extremist and terrorist sympathiser, I will not be dissuaded from speaking on industrial relations matters in public. However, my deeper concern is for the impact that such attempts at character assassination have on discouraging informed debate in Australia today.
Abetz also attempted to tarnish the credibility and independence of another industrial relations expert, Professor Barbara Pocock, then an associate professor at the University of Adelaide, by accusing her of keeping secret her alleged links to the trade union movement. In responding, Pocock exposed the tactic of referring to financial support from one source (in this case trade unions) while failing to mention that she had received more funds from businesses and government. In her defence, incorporated in Hansard, she noted:
... Senator Abetz's attempts to malign my reputation were made a short time after I represented, with others, the shared grave concerns of 151 Australian academic experts about the Government's Work Choices Bill ... At that appearance, Hansard records that Senator Murray [Australian Democrats] suggested that questions from Government Senators about sources of funding for my research were 'McCarthyist stuff' ... I hope that it will not affect other researchers, whose work should be considered on its merits, not sullied by factually inaccurate personal attacks made under privilege in our parliaments.
In 2005 Senator Abetz made a detailed submission to the Senate inquiry into government advertising in which he attempted to traduce several witnesses who had appeared to give evidence before the committee. He accused them variously of being 'a partisan', 'a hard-core pro-Labor ideologue', 'not worthy of an undergraduate', of demonstrating 'wilful partisan bias', and of being motivated not by the public interest but 'boosting their own careers and damaging the Howard Government'. For good measure, he accused the Clerk of the Senate of 'culpable ignorance' and of making an 'unsupported, scurrilous, slanderous, and totally false allegation'.
In its report, the Senate Finance and Public Administration Committee, with a majority of non-government senators, expressed grave concerns about Senator Abetz's denigration of witnesses before it.
... the Committee is disappointed and perturbed at the personal attacks against other witnesses to the inquiry ... These attacks were unwarranted, often factually wrong, and ran the risk of bringing the Committee process itself into disrepute.
The committee then detailed the factual errors made by Abetz against various witnesses. It noted that Senate inquiries are utterly dependent on the citizens who volunteer their time and energy to prepare submissions and appear to give evidence.
Quite apart from the abuse of the Committee's processes involved in peddling falsehoods disguised as evidence, the Committee is concerned about whether Senator Abetz's widely publicised attacks on the integrity of witnesses may serve to inhibit ordinary Australians from participating in the Senate's inquiries in future.
The Senate Committee was right to be concerned, for the deterrence of witnesses is precisely the intent of the government's enforcer. Personal vilification of experts who do not share the government's view appears to be part of an overall strategy of silencing critics. No matter how secure a person feels within themselves, being subjected to the sort of personal criticisms in which Abetz specialises is confronting, wounding and hurtful to both the victim and their families. Anyone subjected to such an attack would think twice before criticising the Howard Government again. In such an environment it takes a personal act of courage to expose oneself in this way. Aware of this, the Senate Committee felt it should counter Abetz's tactic in an attempt to protect the future of public participation in the work of the parliament.
The Committee records, in the strongest possible terms, its abhorrence of the bullying and personal vilification by Senator Abetz and one of his staff of those who contributed to this Senate inquiry ... there is no excuse for engaging in personal attacks on witnesses. It is even more reprehensible when conducted by a Minister of the Crown. Such attacks add nothing to the debate, reflect badly on the Cabinet and would seem designed to avoid serious engagement with the issues under scrutiny.
Undeterred, Senator Abetz — who in 2005 declared that 'for some years I have been carefully examining what the government might do to strengthen our democratic system' — has proved willing to launch verbal attacks on organisations as well as individuals. In addition to those one might expect the government to criticise, Abetz has even threatened the RSPCA for campaigning against live sheep exports. As the ALP had a policy of giving exporters five years to improve animal welfare standards in the live export trade, according to Abetz the RSPCA was 'effectively campaigning in favour of the ALP' and against the government. Abetz said he was considering measures to increase the 'accountability' of organisations like the RSPCA, especially whether such organisations should benefit from tax deductibility for donations. Removing tax deductibility would destroy much of the RSPCA's financial base. It would be surprising if this threat did not give the RSPCA pause for thought and perhaps to change its campaigning strategy so that it could not be construed as being in any way critical of the Howard Government.
Another to have experienced the sort of individual vilification practised by Abetz is the High Court jurist, Justice Michael Kirby, but his persecution came at the hands of another government hard-man. The first indication that Justice Kirby was being singled out came in 2002 when 'Howard Government supporters' briefed members of the press gallery on the fact that Kirby and his male partner had been together before homosexuality was legalised in New South Wales in the mid-1980s. The only possible reason for this appalling breach of personal boundaries was to besmirch the reputation of one of Australia's leading jurists, who at times had expressed views at variance with those of the government, in the hope that this would persuade him to retire from the bench. When this failed, the government seemed to decide that more forceful tactics were required.
On 12 March 2002, Senator Bill Heffernan, a farmer from Junee and a close ally of the Prime Minister, gave an incendiary speech in the Senate in which he alleged that Justice Kirby had had sex with rent boys from Sydney and Wollongong and that he had 'regularly trawled for rough trade at the Darlinghurst Wall' using a Commonwealth-provided vehicle. The evidence of this crime, claimed Heffernan, lay in a docket he had received that described the judge being picked up from the basement of the Law Courts and taken home via Darlinghurst, then a later trip where a young male was retrieved from the judge's home and returned to Darlinghurst.
Despite fierce criticism from the opposition, the Prime Minister stood by Heffernan, claiming that the senator had not abused parliamentary privilege and indicating that he would make his mind up on the issue after the allegations had been investigated. Howard even acknowledged that he had discussed this matter with Heffernan prior to the speech and, in a move clearly intended to add fuel to the scandal, he tabled a letter from Hef-fernan that suggested Justice Kirby had only avoided prosecution because of a technicality. The Attorney-General, whose role is to defend the judiciary from outside attacks, refused pleas from the legal profession to come to the aid of Justice Kirby.
This affair only came to an end when it was revealed that the documents on which Heffernan based his allegations had been forged. Heffernan was subsequently demoted from his position as Cabinet Secretary, and he apologised to Kirby and the Senate for his actions. Yet the damage had been done to Justice Kirby's reputation and a signal had been sent far and wide that any senior figure who crossed the government could expect to be publicly attacked.
Eroding Australian democracy
The egregious behaviour displayed by Senators Abetz and Heffer-nan are just two examples of what appears to be a broader government strategy. Over the past ten years the Coalition Government has progressively extended its authority with the apparent intent of stifling dissent and limiting the capacity for citizens to consider alternative points of view. This worrying trend has been observed by people such as the then head of the Human Rights Council of Australia, Eric Sidoti, who expressed his concern that the 'white-anting, and in some cases dismantling, of our key institutions weakens our democracy and may ultimately see more autocratic structures imposed upon us'. Sidoti also observed that it is not really clear whether this strategy is being pursued with a clear intent or is the result of more general tendencies inherent to the Coalition Government.
What we are really not sure about is whether this emerging authoritarianism is witting or unwitting; whether it has emerged as an unintended consequence of a particular inclination to the way government should operate which is about narrowly defined economic efficiencies and effectiveness; or whether it is actually the desired outcome of a Government so utterly convinced in the correctness of its own view of the world that it prizes the acquisition and exercise of power to impose that worldview above all else and to the exclusion of any alternative worldview.
Australian political scientist James Walter has argued that the trend has primarily been the result of a particular leadership style displayed by Prime Minister John Howard. Walter writes that leaders like Howard, whom he describes as 'the compulsives', tend to be,
... hard working ... controlling and moralistic ... given to work and worry, inclined to dominate through moralistic rhetoric, externalising anger and hostility onto selected enemies, prone to rigid world views, refusing compromise or surrender as an admission of weakness, insisting on realism and decisive action.
For these leaders, society must be 'defended against dissent', and to achieve this 'there is ready resort to manipulation'. These leaders might ask, 'if you are in the right, what does it matter what methods are used?'
Readers can judge for themselves whether the erosion of democratic institutions described in this book is the accidental result of a particular leadership style or part of a more insidious attempt to reshape Australian democracy. The underlying message holds true regardless of intent, and speaks to the heart of our understanding of Australian society and democracy: Are we a country that values public participation and debate, or have we instead chosen a path where the only legitimate democratic participation by Australian citizens is through their three-yearly trip to the ballot box?
There is little doubt that some in the government's close cabal of supporters will use their positions of influence in the media to disparage the editors and contributors to this book as hysterical 'Howard haters'. While comment from those who are critical in a genuine effort to further political debate is to be welcomed, it is less valuable when criticism is intended merely to defend a powerful elite. Readers will notice that a handful of names crop up throughout this book: an inner circle of ideological warriors comprised of Andrew Bolt, Paddy McGuinness, Miranda Devine, Janet Albrechtsen and Piers Ackerman, and others such as Imre Salusinszky, Keith Windschuttle, Christopher Pearson and Gerard Henderson. These media commentators are mostly associated with Quadrant, a right-wing magazine, and the neo-conservative think tanks the Centre for Independent Studies and the Institute of Public Affairs. Together with talkback radio host Alan Jones they form a sort of syndicate of right-wing commentators who receive favour from the Howard Government not only because they share a similar ideological position but because they are vituperative and unrelenting critics of anything vaguely to the left of a centre that, over the last two decades, has shifted a long way to the right.
Excerpted from Silencing Dissent by Clive Hamilton, Sarah Maddison. Copyright © 2007 Clive Hamilton and Sarah Maddison. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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