What will be the effect of Howard’s proposed anti-terrorism measures on writers and artists? What will be the effect, for example, of removing our certainty that we can create works critical of the Howard Government’s actions in the War on Terror, or works that humanise people the Government wants us to see as despicable? What will be the effect on journalists who report unwelcome facts? How worried should all Australians be about potential restrictions on the way we tell stories in this country?
Realistically, at first little would happen. A certain guilty commonsense suggests that the Howard Government would use this legislation to chase down sheikhs they disagree with and to harass Arab and Muslim youth.
Thanks to Bill Leak
We guess that application of these laws will be political and discretionary. In other words, put bluntly, we all know that any application of these laws will at first be culture-specific and racist. But when I am seditious, which I suspect I will be often, I will have the unpleasant knowledge that I will be speaking because a government chooses to allow it, not because I have a right to.
I rang a literary agent to ask her views, and found her deeply disturbed by the proposed laws and all their implications. She was adamant that she would never reject a novel because of potentially seditious content. And, until publishers get shaky, she would seek publication for it in Australia. She was refreshingly feisty too. She said that we should all have in place codes by which we can let people know that we have been detained without actually saying it.
I rang and asked one of Australia’s smaller publishers. He said that he thought publishers would not be on the frontline in the way journalists might be. He suggested that, as a publisher and citizen, he found these laws profoundly objectionable.
But as we discussed it, he said thoughtfully that even the costs of seeking legal advice on a particular book might be off-putting to some publishers, let alone getting advice that they were exposed to a potential lawsuit. He said that book publishing should be a clearing house for ideas and then trailed off.
He sounded depressed.
I rang one of the bigger publishers and spoke to one of their commissioning editors. She was quite fierce about her company’s commitment to Australia’s cultural and intellectual life. She said, ‘put it this way let’s see how many seditious books we can get out in the next 12 months.’
She also thought that good books would come out of this, that it might be a wake-up call to many sleeping thinkers in the country. She sounded as though, at least for a while, her company would be prepared to pit itself against the Government on this one. But if litigation became a real possibility, she said that they would have to help authors find less overt ways of communicating important ideas or dissent.
I asked a journalist. She said there was consternation among her colleagues, but that the spirit on the floor was that journalists must keep reporting the truth and the facts regardless. And she said that younger journalists even thought that these were exciting times that there was a challenge to meet.
She believed too that the laws would not affect many people at first, but that journalists would be affected before other writers or private individuals. She wondered what would happen the first time the Australian Federal Police demanded a journalist reveal a source under the new laws, and how many journalists would go to prison. Then we got talking about the highly seditious play she is writing on the side.
Freedom of Speech
Freedom of speech is the key freedom it is the means by which all other breaches of individual rights and abuses of power are made manifest and fought over. Freedom of speech is the test of a free society, the test that a society sees itself capable of full and open debate, and full exposure to facts. Freedom of speech is the marker of a social and intellectual fabric that is diverse enough and strong enough to cope with divisive and destructive opinions of individuals or groups.
Everyone should be very worried about the longterm survival of basic rights in a society when a government begins to seek secrecy, and to control what you can know and say about its actions. Everyone should leap up and dissent at the first sign that the government might like the power to silence individual opinion and to muzzle the media. If this legislation goes through, it will affect every single one of us.
Once a book the Government really dislikes is published and the first publisher is charged, self-censorship will begin and mainstream publishing of dissenting voices will slowly cease.
And what about journalists whose job it is to research and tell a story so that people can imagine a complex rather than pre-packaged world? How many journalists will risk the costs of trial and the inconvenience to their already partisan employers? What will Australian society be like when the only story you ever see or hear in the media is the one the government of the day would like you to imagine?
And after the first attack on Australian soil? The government of the day will be empowered by this vague legislation to do a great deal to any dissenting individual it cares to target. The racism and culture-hatred won’t go away: quite the reverse, but we will have more and more difficulty talking about it.
The proposed anti-terror legislation will throw away the civil society we once had, a society in which injustice could be properly debated and questioned. The proposed legislation will not only inevitably lead to profound injustice, it also introduces measures that curb our ability to challenge these injustices.
The Public Imagination
What is the role of art in a time of crisis?
For a while longer, we will get published, we will get exhibited, and we will get audiences. The time is coming when we will have to use allegory, satire, humour, metaphor, and stage illegal performances. The time is coming. But now, the time is here for artists, musicians, writers, film makers, dramaturges and playwrights to express what we are becoming.
Art is powerless to stop us going to war. But it can bear witness. It is the job of art to bear witness.
Art in a time of crisis is about invoking the capacity to think and feel beyond ourselves, and to imagine the lives of others. Art is about keeping alive some part of the public imagination.
The curtailment of freedom of speech and the control of media is the curtailment of public imagination. More and more Australians will cease to recognise some Australians as human. Once exiled from our imagination, what are young Arab Australians to become? Put another way, if we continue to ratchet up the alienation young Arab and Muslim Australians feel, what will be the consequences? Where will they go to find themselves as Australians, their role in Australian history? Exile from the common imagination is the most terrible thing to happen to a group of human beings and has irreparable consequences. We should know that from history.
Artists must use all the imagination they have to wake people from this poisonous tragic fantasy. We are far enough gone that such awakening is deeply painful.
Australia is unreconciled, at war with ourselves, suspicious of all and willing our own blindness, our own destruction.
Who are we? What are we becoming? What have we become? These core questions will drive thinkers, artists and writers to sedition for a long time to come.
Dr Eva Sallis is a writer and the President of Australians Against Rac
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.