Saturday, February 24, 2007

'Silencing Dissent' exemplifies more than systemic manipulation by the current government

A sobering, yet powerful event was held at the University of Melbourne on Monday 12th February sponsored by Readings Books. This was the Melbourne launch of 'Silencing Dissent' edited by Clive Hamilton (of the Australia Institute) and Sarah Maddison (University of NSW). Because of demand the venue was moved from Readings' Carlton book shop to a large lecture theatre on the Melbourne campus - a good move as the theatre was packed. Robert Manne, who wrote the forward of the book, chaired the evening; Stuart Macintyre (author of the chapter on Universities) and Clive Hamilton spoke.

To my mind this book is essential reading for anyone concerned about the state of early 21st century parliamentary democracy. The issues raised transcend the particular focus on the systemic manipulations by the Howard Government. In the Australian case the silencing of dissent is an emergent property of a set of interacting factors. The opening chapter gives a flavour:
* individual citizens have been targeted with the apparent aim of driving them out of the public domain (often using Parliamentary privilege);
* government funding is threatened or withdrawn;
* appointments of cronys to committees, boards etc;
* decisions of independent committees are overturned, or when they fail to acquiesce, abolished;
* politicization of the public service

Then there is the media, 'shock jocks' etc and of course self-censorship: Australia after all is a small place! A telling quote from the then Head of the Human Rights Council of Australia, Eric Sidoti is given:

'What we are really not sure about is whether this emerging authoritarianism is witting or unwitting; whether it has emerged as an unitended 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 actually 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' (p.10).

The arguments are compelling and disturbing more so because after listening to the talks and having read part of the book I was left feeling that many actions and consequences were similar to those I experienced in Britain under Blair. Perhaps David Marr in his SMH review of the book also sensed this when he said:

'Keep Silencing Dissent within reach, and you'll never be at a loss for the telling detail of reports repressed, parliamentary traditions ignored, talent overlooked, organisations brought to heel and whistleblowers punished. But the essays collected here don't really ask the deeper questions that might clarify why this particular government has pursued so successfully what Robert Manne calls "a partly-instinctive and partly-conscious policy of systematically silencing significant political dissent"'.

The situations in Britain and Australia have similarities and differences but the end result is a democracy deficit in both countries. In a later essay I will outline why some of this is structural, some ideological and why we are confronted by the prosepect of systemic failure of some of our most cherished democratic insitutions as we engage with a radically different climate-change world.

No comments: