The missing great debate


Despite the focus of election commentary on the politics of electoral bribes – that’s tax cuts for the middle class – something more sinister is going on. In the days before the Jakarta bombing, two of the Howard government’s most senior and uncompromising ministers, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and Attorney-General Philip Ruddock, expressed an interest in the welfare of two Australian prisoners at the US-run Guantanamo Bay facility.

David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib have languished in Guantanamo Bay for three years, and Mr Hicks is now facing a military court for alleged terrorist activities in Afghanistan. Mr Habib’s case is listed for trial but no date has yet been set.

On September 5, Mr Ruddock and Mr Downer issued a joint Media Statement in which they noted that ‘following our observations of the preliminary hearing [for Hicks], it appears that some improvements are required to ensure that understandings on procedural fairness are met’.

‘In order to ensure that both Mr Hicks and (fellow suspect Mamdouh) Habib receive a fair trial, the Australian Government reached an understanding with the United States that affirmed a number of significant safeguards including the presumption of innocence, the right to silence, the right to defence counsel (including an Australian legal consultant) and a guarantee that indictees would not face the death penalty’, Mr Ruddock said.

Not wanting to be outdone by Mr Ruddock’s new found fondness for civil liberties, Mr Downer said: ‘It is important that Mr Hicks and Mr Habib face trial as quickly as possible, consistent with a fair trial’.

According to a report in the Australian on September 6, Mr Downer ‘said Australia had expressed its concerns about delays in the trial process’.

The Howard Government’s advocacy on behalf of two of its citizens would be admirable but for the fact that it is completely hollow. Mr Hicks and Mr Habib are convenient pawns for the Howard government to move around its campaign chessboard, as it seeks to shore up Mr Downer’s Adelaide Hills seat of Mayo and help counter the suddenly liberal Peter King in Sydney’s eastern suburbs electorate of Wentworth (more on him later).

You can bet your bottom dollar that if Mr Howard’s government is returned on October 9 then the fate of David Hicks and Mamdou Habib will be left to their American captors, with barely an ongoing whimper from the Australian government.

That this will be the case is manifestly clear when one examines the previous rhetoric and actions of the two ministers responsible for their fate “ Mr Downer and Mr Ruddock.

On November 27 last year Mr Downer was reported by as being convinced of the fairness of the US military tribunal system. He also apparently judged Mr Hicks and Mr Habib guilty, even though no court had heard a skerrick of evidence against either man:

‘We can go through this process with the Americans, which we think is a fair process, or we can have these people brought back to Australia and set free because we don’t have a basis, given when they did their training with al-Qaeda, of charging them for that training. I don’t know how people in Australia would feel having people who trained with al-Qaeda going to the cinema and in the shopping centres… sitting next to them’, said the Foreign Minister.

So much for the presumption of innocent until proven guilty beyond all reasonable doubt! But did the nation’s chief law officer, Attorney-General Philip Ruddock, berate his Cabinet colleague for offending such a basic right “ not on your life!

Mr Ruddock, like Mr Downer, has up until now, been very happy to play along with the American ‘kangaroo court’.

The sad reality is that the September 5 Ruddock/Downer human rights offensive is designed for no higher purpose to save the latter’s political skin.

Mr Downer’s well heeled electorate in the rolling Adelaide Hills contains many educated, higher income, socially liberal voters who don’t like the excess of the ‘war on terror’ and the Howard government’s serial human rights abuses. With an independent candidate like Brian Deegan – an Adelaide magistrate and father of Bali victim Josh Deegan – running against him, Mr Downer needed to be seen to soften up. What better way to do it than to advocate on behalf of Mr Hicks and Mr Mamdou.

Over in Sydney, the clever Mr King is tapping into the same liberal sentiment in Wentworth. He is campaigning on Hicks and Habib’s behalf and for asylum seekers. The Liberals’ star candidate, Malcolm Turnbull, is in trouble as a consequence.

Mr King, it should be pointed out, is guilty of the same sin as Mr Downer. In his three years as the federal Liberal MP for Wentworth he has done little to protect human rights. Unlike some of his colleagues like Adelaide MP Trish Worth, Perth MP Judi Moylan and Melbourne MP Petro Georgiou, to date Mr King has been happy to march behind the Ruddock-Downer cheer squad.

There is nothing more debasing for a liberal democracy than for politicians to use the plight of individuals whose human rights are in jeopardy for their own political gain.

Yet the media in this country seems much more interested in budget surpluses and tax cuts. There is something seriously amiss here.

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