Thursday, June 21, 2007

Australia - almost a year on and 'the corruption of public debate under Howard'

My return to Australia in July 2006 was part of the rationale for starting this blog. Now almost a year on David Marr has expressed, far more articulately then me, how under John Howard (and his predecessors) public debate has been corrupted in this country. The nature of this corruption has become apparent to me since my return. Its most insidious form is the creation of a climate by government - in all its forms - in which self censorship is readily applied. Australia is a highly bureaucratic country in which Government patronage pervades all aspects of life. Despite the numbers and levels of governments (local, state and national) Australia suffers a democracy deficit. It was with these thoughts that last Thursday I went to hear David Marr in conversation with Terry Lane about his Quarterly Essay entitled: 'His Master's Voice. The Corruption of Public Debate under Howard'. I had heard that his essay was the most widely sought article at the recent Sydney writer's festival.

I do not intend to summarise the arguments here - I recommend it for anyone, whether Australian or British or wherever - because it has themes relevant to all democracies. Some of the highlights for me were:
  • 'At the heart of democracy is a contest of conversations. The tone of a democracy is set by the dialogue between nation and its leaders. For the last decade, Australia has had a prime minister who thinks it beneath him to admit mistakes' (p. 3);
  • 'Peter Hartcher wrote of Howard putting himself "beyond political resolve into a realm of almost superhuman recalcitrance"' (p. 3);
  • 'Since 1996, Howard has cowed scientists, silenced non-government organisations, neutered Canberra's mandarins, curtailed parliamentary scrutiny, censored the arts, banned books, criminalised protest and prosecuted whistleblowers........Howard's government has been the most unscrupulous corrupter of public debate in Australia since the Cold War's worst days back in the 1950s' (p. 4)
  • 'We've watched Howard spin, block, prevaricate, sidestep, confound and just keep talking come what may through any crisis. Words grind out of him unstoppably. he has a genius for ambiguity we've almost come to applaud, and most of the time he keeps himself just this side of deceit. But he also lies without shame.' (p. 5)
  • 'More than any law, any failure of the opposition or individual act of bastardry over the last decade, what's done most to gag democracy in this country is the sense that John Howard is futile.' (p.5)
  • 'Even today Australian's remain subjects more than citizens' (p. 26)
  • 'Over the last decade "practical" has become the key Howard word used to stop debate in its tracks' (p.27)
  • [the] 'steady attack on the liberty of the press saw Australia plunge to thirty-fifth place, behind many former Soviet Bloc countries, in the latest Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters sans Frontieres' (p. 31)
  • 'the steady constriction of public debate under Howard has aroused no deep concern in Australia. Only the little parties will touch the issue. Labor's indifference is colossal. We've accepted this as we've accepted so much in the last decade: not with enthusiasm, but with resigned forbearance. Isn't it just what governments do?' (p. 33)
  • 'The defining mood of the Howard years is an uneasy fear of each other, the fear that we're growing apart, that we're not engaged in the same enterprise of being Australian' (p.46)
  • 'Abuse of those who challenge mainstream ideas is routine in Howard's Australia' (p.47)
  • Analysts call this "dog whistling", as if Howard invented it. Old-times recognise a man who speaks out of both sides of his mouth' (p. 49)
  • [Attorney General] 'Ruddock is one of the most fascinating figures Australian politics has thrown up for decades. He is a blank page in a dark suit' (p.62)
  • 'How perfectly it sums up the Old Voltairean who's sat atop public debate in this country for the last decade, that he sets the dogs on his critics, prosecutes bureaucrats, intimidates NGOs, rounds up street protesters, bans books, censors the phone lines, turns hardline Christian doctrine into law, undermines Freedom of Information, hides anti-terrorism operations behind punitive press laws and leaves dissenters exposed to sedition charges - but defends the prerogatives of racist rant, even when it edges over the line into violence'. (p. 68)
As someone who has lived through Blair in the UK some of the lines above seem uncannily apt for him as well. I held a party at our home when Blair was first elected (something not very common in the UK where voting is on a Thursday) and I plan to throw one here when, at last, he departs at the end of the month.

The hall at Melbourne Uni was packed for David Marr's conversation and despite the large number of Howard haters present Marr was balanced, acknowledging that previous federal Labor Governments and some current State Labor governments had invented the tactics that Howard has so successfully refined. Had I managed to get my questions in I would have asked how, if at all, any of his (and my own) concerns spoke to the voters in the 16 seats that have to fall to Labor if government is to change? I would also have cautioned him about how open to misinterpretation and misuse, by those who do not know its origins, is the phrase 'speaking truth to power'.

Marr cites from Patrick White's famous essay 'A Prodigal Son' :

'Bitterly I had to admit, no. In all directions stretched the great Australian Emptiness, in which the mind is the least of possessions, in which the rich man is the important man, in which the schoolmaster and the journalist rule what intellectual roost there is, in which beautiful youths and girls stare at life through blind blue eyes, in which human teeth fall like autumn leaves, the buttocks of cars grow hourly glassier, food means cake and steak, muscles prevail, and the march of the material ugliness does not raise a quiver from the average nerves. It was the exaltation of the average that made me panic most...'

At this stage White's observations and Marr's reinterpretation of them speak to my experience. But my inquiry continues and I hope for better things!