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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

creeping authoritarianism? « Previous | |Next »
June 26, 2007

Two events indicate the disturbing trend of squeezing free speech. On Friday the former public servant Allan Kessing copped a nine-month suspended jail sentence for his crime of leaking reports to a newspaper about the chaotic state of security at Sydney Airport. A latter investigation--after the whistleblowing--- justified Kessing's concerns. So much for shielding whistle blowers protecting the public interest.

Yesterday two journalists joined Kessing in the ranks of the criminal class when Chief Judge Michael Rozenes, in Victoria's County Court, ordered convictions be recorded against Melbourne Herald Sun staffers Michael Harvey and Gerard McManus, and fined them $7000 each.Their story revealed the Government had opted to accept just five of 65 recommendations on ways to improve benefits for war veterans, thereby saving about $500 million. They refused to reveal their sources.

Couple the prosecuted whistleblowers and journalists with academics bullied, the military silenced, the neutering of Canberra's mandarins, the curtailing of parliamentary scrutiny, and the failure of freedom of information laws, which the High Court last year confirmed gives federal ministers virtually a free hand to withhold documents from the public.

The inference? The Howard Government is squeezing public debate in the name of security, and it shows little tolerance for dissent within the party, the government and the bureaucracy. Silencing dissent is the informed judgement. Or the corruption of public debate

What we have in the public sphere is the tendency of the traditionally elite conservative political forces to mobilise a concept of “popular opinion” through the construction of “latte left elites”, the articulation of a populist rightism in the news media , a rejection of liberal views of the media (that is to say, concerns about objectivity, truth and so on) and "pomo-bashing" of the culture wars, that says the left is morally deficient or repugnant and that it “represents an attempt to usher in a new kind of "left-wing totalitarianism (Marx) via the unlocked back doors of democracies.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 8:59 AM | | Comments (16)


The thing that struck me about Marr's essay (as described in a blogpost and summarized in the Labor eHerald review) was that while the extent of suppression by Howard was greater than I thought, Marr was perhaps more scathing about the way the Australian public didn't care.

Quoting Marr as to why nothing is done (by the ALP):

Because the party’s heart isn’t in it and Australians have only the patchiest record of becoming passionate about great abstractions - even the greatest of them, liberty.

So, the "creeping authoritarianism" that worries both of us will keep getting worse (and accelerate until "creeping" is an inadequate description) until the public gives a damn - although what might cause that to happen is currently beyond me.

Any ideas, short of compulsory secondary-school courses in political philosophy (which will never happen)?

I see that you are the author of the review of Quarterly Essay 26--- David Marr's His Master’s Voice - The corruption of public debate under Howard in the ALP's national online magazine. The central thesis is:

a lazy, brutal assertion of power at the expense of public debate. Instead of allowing us to make up our own minds, the [Howard] government resorted to insult, threats and suppression.

The interesting bit is your next paragraph:
David Marr also offers an insightful review of the differences between the attitudes to freedoms and rights between the US and Australian republic, and correlates this with the form and content of the language of settlers and the English parliamentarians at the time.

Care to elaborate or do I have to buy QE26? You say in another point that Marr says:
“We roll with it because we have come to expect his government to behave like this. We’re habituated. So why doesn’t Labor rally the nation to fight Canberra’s bullying in the name of free speech? Because the party’s heart isn’t in it and Australians have only the patchiest record of becoming passionate about great abstractions - even the greatest of them, liberty.”

Maybe we have traded market freedom off for political freedom.

styling australia a democracy, and yourself a citizen, allows participation in modern political society only so long as participation is merely talk. when action is involved, the reality of power being held by parliament reveals itself very quickly. oz is a "clayton's" democracy, with impotent "clayton's" citizens.

this post reveals some of the typical symptoms of faux democracy: ignorant and uninvolved populace, political gang rule, inadequate legal system, impotent intelligentsia rightly dismissed as chatterati by both power holders and populace. all that's missing is military coups. this is a consequence of the british policy of keeping the army too small to exercise direct control, itself a reaction to parliament's struggle with cromwell.

Much sympathy for Bath's comments and this was reinforced when somewhere on teev caught rant of Shergold, who took over from Moore-Wilton, concerning enthusiastic hunting down like cattle of people like Keesing who iregard as a hero, even if he didn't"leak" as he says he didn't.
I remember years ago a columnist's argument against Keatings economics which talked of the public put in a cooking pot where the temperature only increases slowly, so that by the time it realised it was cooking it would be too late.
This has happened in Australia as to civil rights/liberties for the last fifteen years or so in our country. The attack has become ever more overt, even blatant, but no one senses anything amiss because they are sensitised by years of abuse of democracy ( Webb Dock, Truth Overboard, the "terrorism" fantasy, "sedition", DIMIA excesses, FOI, Commercial-in-confidence ) to the extent that they no longer see what's happening.
A healthy society would recoil in horror at Nungagate and the fantastical response to it, recognising the extent nature and danger of the intrusive-ness precedent set.
But not in our time; not by this brainwashed People.

You asked for an expansion of:

form and content of the language of settlers and the English parliamentarians at the time

(I'm not using Marr's examples, but I think I'm following a similar line).

The US was formed in the heyday of the Enlightenment, when people were excited about the abstract, got into political philosophy, read their Cicero, and Jefferson, Gibbon and Edmund Burke were in full flight.

In contrast, 100 years or so later, English rhetoric was not so excited about such ideas, and was concentrating on more practical matters (and how JWH loves the term "practical"). Perhaps the literate few at Eureka were interested in abstract freedoms, but even then, the bulk were just interested in the cost of the licence fees.

I think Marr is also alluding to a difference in the quality of education among the middle-and-upper classes at the time of the US revolution versus Federation.

The differences in early European immigration might also (and Marr doesn't get into this) relate to the different levels of "religiosity" in the two countries, even though the likes of Jefferson were definitely secular.

The differences between education levels of the bulk of Euro immigrants might explain a cultures that have led to a divergence of Oz and Kiwi policies on abstract ideas (e.g. militarism v pacifism, lock-refos-up v put refugees out in the community). That's a debate for another day, but it does put a caveat on his ideas about the language of "mother country" politicians of the day affecting the future culture of a colony.

I caught the clip of Peter Shergold too---at the Canberra Press Gallery on the 7.30 Report.

I was taken back by the barely suppressed violence in the voice of authoritarianism, when he remarked that public servants under no circumstances could judge the public interest and act as whistleblower:

Public servants do not have a moral responsibility to act on their own judgement of the public interest when they assess the Government has got it wrong.

Marr's response was direct and telling:
The rules of secrecy have been policed as they have never been before in Australia in peace time. There is a squad, the Australian Federal Police. They work tens of thousands of hours chasing down leaks to the press. That's their work. They prosecute. People are supposed to go to jail for telling the public things the public needs to know.

Power has been pretty much more centralised than ever under John Howard as Prime Minister, and in terms of top public servant appointments than in the past and all contacts with the media to be managed through the Minister's office .

Will a technocratic Rudd ALP be any different?

a quote from an interview on the 7.30 Report with Andrew Podger, a former Health Department Secretary and Public Service Commissioner to highlight the lack of information available to citizens.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Well, you say precisely this was in your speech when you retired as Public Service Commissioner, and you say in relation to the points we've made and children overboard, quote, "I remain uneasy also about public servants trying to hide their legal authority and responsibility and to refuse to hear requests for asylum they would have had to consider. And about senior public servants and military officers continuing to maintain in the parliament the possibility children were thrown overboard many weeks after Air Marshall Huston's advice was given and known to be given," and that was advice they weren't thrown overboard.

ANDREW PODGER: I was particularly concerned in that last one, that in the Senate Estimates Committee - which was before the Senate set up their inquiry into a certain maritime incident - that there were still statements being made both by Defence and by senior Prime Minister and Cabinet officials purporting that there had been children thrown overboard or there might have been children thrown overboard when they knew the considered view of Defence was not so.

KERRY O'BRIEN: That's a serious, a serious element, isn't it? I mean, it's a serious issue if senior public servants from the Prime Minister's own department were still expressing views that they knew were wrong, after they knew they were wrong.

ANDREW PODGER: Well, I guess they were claiming that they still didn't know for sure, but it seemed to me that they were guided by a political concern rather than a public interest concern.

So we have senior bureaucrats telling lies to protect their political masters.

In response to al loomis who said:

this post reveals some of the typical symptoms of faux democracy: ... impotent intelligentsia rightly dismissed as chatterati by both power holders and populace

I've been gutted when working as public servant trying to work internally to blatant "irregularities" fixed, but the modern pubsvc (unlike 20 or so years ago), both state and fed, is no longer frank and fearless, as senior staff are appointed under contract conditions and become "yes men" or get the boot.

I even had a senator ask "what time next week suits you" when he was preparing for senate estimates, but the respondents ummmhed, aaahhed, delayed, and he was cut short before he could get anywhere.

"Castrated" was how he later described senate estimates.

It's nearly impossible to get things done from the inside, and leaking (even when there is clear public interest) gives massive grief, but at least a submission to senate inquiries is covered by parliamentary privileges, is kept on record, and (usually) published.

And one of my questions to senate committees did seem to get some action judging by a question from the AccessCard committee to the DSD a couple of days later.

So, I'm trying to keep an eye out for inquiries where I think I have something to offer, and if something comes up where I know some dirt that is relevant, you can bet I'll put it in.

See here for my idiot's guide to senate inquiries. If you want to be on my "honor roll", point me to your published submission by adding a comment to that page.

Mind you, even when nearly everyone objects (such as the Cluster Bomb inquiry, the executive does go on regardless - but at least it is demonstrable they acted against the public's wished.

At the moment I'm trying to collect my thoughts for the Citizenship Testing bill, so any ideas/slapdowns from readers of this blog are most welcome - only a few days to go before the window closes.

p.s. Keep an eye out for the Peace Commission bill coming up from the democrats.

My memory is that the political and moral philosophy of colonial Australia was the utilitarianism of JS Mill-- liberal but not democratic. The political fight against the squatters was for the broader based democracy of one person one vote that was part of the old Chartist agenda. The People's Charter was a radical democratic current in the nineteenth century.The Constitutions of 1856 in the Australian colonies were remarkably more democratic in their operation than anything prevailing in Britain at that time.

Manning Clark for instance has argued that come the late 19th century where Australia takes a second bite at democracy, there is a deepening and extending of democracy, an expansion of the democratic political culture, and the basis of a very vibrant democratic political culture.

The Federation debates up to 1901 about a federal nation-state were also politically sophisticated as we end up with an amalgam of the British and American systems. But the tone is conservative not democratic Something happened--the 1890s Depression?

So I am not sure that Marr is right about Australian being subjects rather than citizens. There is a lot of conservative scepticism, distrust and fear of what would happen when and if power shifted to the people more generally and a lot of grand generalizations about the character of the Australian people.

It is true that Australia in the 20th century has been slow to accept the freedom of political speech as a precondition for democracy --until the recent judgements of the activist High Court.

It is the Senate that needs strengthening against a dominant executive.


Totally agree that the Senate is underpowered.  Committee time has been strangled in recent years.

I'm not sure, but it's possible that the sophisticated debates about federalism were from people who would now be called "latte drinkers", while the "battlers" were possibly more jingoistic. After all, state governments had more independence than the 13 colonies of the US before the British were booted out.

Regardless of Marr's reasoning about cause, his assessment of Australians as apathetic about freedoms is borne out by observations that the redneck Aussie is much less inclined to go on about the political philosophy of "freedoms" and the size of government compared to his redneck-NRA-member cousin in the US.

Mind you, Marr might have a point: I don't hear kiwis don't going on about free-speech, freedom, et al: they seem more inclined to conciliate and get along in a utilitarian and fair manner.  I wonder if Waitangi (?spelling?) has anything to do with this?

I'd be interested in Marr's exploring his ideas with a compare-and-contrast exercise that included NZ, as well as Oz and US. Maybe in another edition of QE?

I'm quoting from this brief on Free Speech and the Constitution by Roy Jordan of the Parliamentary Library.

The Australian Constitution does not have any express provision relating to freedom of speech. In theory, therefore, the Commonwealth Parliament may restrict or censor speech through censorship legislation or other laws, as long as they are otherwise within constitutional power. The Constitution consists mainly of provisions relating to the structure of the Commonwealth Parliament, executive government and the federal judicial system.(6) There is no list of personal rights or freedoms which may be enforced in the courts. There are however some provisions relating to personal rights such as the right to trial by jury (section 80), and the right to freedom of religion (section 116).

Since 1992 decisions of the High Court have indicated that there are implied rights to free speech and communication on matters concerning politics and government, e.g. permitting political advertising during election campaigns.(7) This is known as the 'implied freedom of political communication'. Issues arising from these decisions include defining when communication is 'political' and when the freedom should prevail over competing public interests.\

In 1942 a Constitutional Convention held in Canberra recommended that the Constitution be amended to include a new section 116A preventing the Commonwealth or a State passing laws which curtailed freedom of speech or of the press.(9) The government did not accept this proposal and it was not included in the referendum on 19 August 1944, when other constitutional amendments were proposed.

The advantage of having such rights written into the Constitution is that they are 'entrenched' and cannot be amended or removed by any government without the overwhelming approval of the people voting at a referendum to amend the Constitution.(10) Rights contained in other legislation, such as the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, are not entrenched. They may be amended or repealed by any government with the consent of Parliament.

Gary: Agreed totally with the advantages of codification of freedoms, and that the Constitution is a pretty dry document that covers administrative procedures, but doesn't hint what benefit an administration is supposed to deliever to justify itself.

Even after the UK watered it down, the EU charter of fundamental freedoms does express what are the minimal benefits a citizen would gain from a polity having such a charter. I think you'd get something out of reading the PDF version or my one-page HTML version here.

Articles 10,11 and 12 are the usual freedom-of-speech provisions you want, but article 13 goes even further, specifying the freedoms of the arts and sciences (as a collective enterprise).

Further, Art 37 defines the right to a decent environment, Art 41 defines the right to a good administration (competent and with means of redress if you get stuffed around), while Art 49 defines the right to proportionality in the legal system, which implies reasonable protection for people like the Customs guy who made society better off and copped a sentence for his good efforts.

Taking out the weasel-out clauses added by the UK (as we don't have that problem here with our state's asserting the authority of nation states in the EU), I think you'd find the EU charter of fundamental rights something that, if implemented, would be somewhere where you'd be happy enough to live, and where many of your complaints about Oz would be unecessary (apart from fixing general apathy).

Seriously, what do you think of it? What would you take out/put in.

I must have a little chuckle at Art 14.2, although I agree with the restraint of freedom:

14.2 This right includes the possibility to receive free compulsory education.

A right to the possibility of compulsion?

BTW: Are you beginning to see where Marr's comments about the language might have some merit after sampling our uninspiring constitution?

it's nice that some people are a little worried. but it's depressing that the discussion is being carried on in newspeak. orwell was right, polluted language precludes substantive discussion.

there is wider divergence of opinion in the chinese politburo than there is between the australian labor and liberal parties. they could be called factions of 'the political party'. yet the word democracy is widely used in political chatter, as though the chatterers were citizens. they are not.

if ozzies wake up soon, write a constitution that begins: "we, the citizens..." and take control of their land from the bandit gangs that style themselves parties, perhaps they won't drift into '2084'- but on present form, i believe 1000 years of submission to their betters has bred democracy out of the british genome.

I've just bought David Marr's Quarterly Essay--His Masters Voice. I will read it on the plane to Brisbane early tomorrow morning.

I accept Marr's comments about the significance of the Conservatives use of language, their spin, bully boy paternalism, dislike of democracy and his attacks on honest freewheeling debate amongst citizens.

I don't agree with his cliched interpretation of Australia's political history--that we never fought for our freedoms, the barricades have never been manned, we love authority etc. etc There is a tradition of Australians being portrayed as politically apathetic, and that Australia doesn't have a history of radical activism or dissent. Marr works within in it.

I interpret Howard as a turn away from liberalism to an embrace of conservatism; one that increasingly distances itself from, and in opposition to, Australia's liberal and democratic heritage.

I'll mull over the EU material----I think that the High Court's implied rights approach to the Consitution is the best strategy for two reasons. One it counters the utilitarian economic tradition that has no time for rights, and two, it ensures that the Executive works within the boundaries of the Constitution.

It is then for citizens and newspapers to push those implied rights through contestation and have them ever more deeply entrenched in law through High Court judgements. Deepening democracy is a political war.

If the national Parliament has been captured by an increasingly authoritarian executive, then we turn to the other checks and balances in the federal system. I have a lot of respect for the Constitution, even if it 's conservative framing because of the issue of race means that there is little mention of democracy and citizenship.

I agree with that there is a: wider divergence of opinion in the chinese politburo than there is between the australian labor and liberal parties. they could be called factions of 'the political party'.

I also agree with that the word democracy is widely used in political chatter, as though the chatterers were citizens. they are not

The word citizen has faded from use with the shift to the market. The language of the market now rules. It is the indigenous people who talk a political language of rights and self determination and challenge political authority.

Constitutional reform is on the backburner and amendments will not pass because we have become a deeply divided people.

The Adelaide Festival of Ideas for 2007 is dedicated to Elliott Johnston AO, QC, LLB Adel, LLD.

The Hon John Doyle AC Chief Justice of South Australia wrote the dedication...

...'Anyone involved in the practice of the law knows that achieving justice for all under the law, and achieving equality for all before the law, is a task that will never be complete. It will always be something to be worked towards, despite periodic setbacks and disappointments.' ...

FACT: The Hon John Doyle refused leave to appeal a judgement where costs were awarded against a defendant when the amount concerned was many thousands of dollars below the cut-off point below which the Rules of Court clearly state the plaintiff should bear their own costs...

Additionally The Hon John Doyle revealed the defendant's new address to the plaintiff - perpetrator of domestic violence against her. 'periodic setbacks and disappointments' indeed

SA needs a Legal Review Commission. Not hypocritical lip service from those in a position of power.