Democracy Diminished


Australia today is not the country I represented, mostly with pride and always with dedication, for some 40 years. I am by nature an optimist but in the twilight of my life it has been a cause of disappointment that this country of such great potential can still risk becoming a land of fading promise.

Australians can be proud of the generous and compassionate response last year to the disastrous tsunami and the Indonesian and Pakistani earthquakes. Also the economy finished 2005 on a strong note. Importantly, we secured attendance at the first East Asian summit in Kuala Lumpur after signing, belatedly and somewhat ungraciously, the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. Unlike the United States and Britain our armed forces have avoided serious casualties in Iraq. But none of this should permit complacency as 2006 unfolds.

Thanks to Alan Moir

On the negative side of the ledger we have seen Australian democracy diminished by government hubris and arrogance, opposition weakness and a curious public detachment and apathy. Our national self-respect has also been eroded by our excessively deferential attitude to the Bush Administration’s foreign and security policy, especially in Iraq. The revelations about the Australian Wheat Board’s dealings with Iraq under Saddam and the Government’s links with the Board make its proper opposition to corruption and its demands for good governance, especially in the South Pacific, sound hollow. Moreover, truth in Government has yet to be restored.

‘Our nation’s standing abroad has never been higher,’ John Howard stated in his New Year message. Australia is quite widely regarded overseas as a tolerant, generous and egalitarian society. The strength of our economy lends some credibility to Howard’s boast. It is also true of the attitudes of the Bush Administration and the Blair and Koizumi Governments but those three leaders will shortly pass into history.

If, however, we are so well respected in the wider international community, how is that we have been unable to gain election to the UN Security Council for more than 20 years now? I suspect it is because there is a darker underside to our image. I travelled extensively in 2005 and I observed how our standing has been undermined in much of the international community and some important countries in our own region.

Our international standing risks further damage from a recrudescence of those atavistic currents of racism and intolerance, which we have inherited from our past. Given the history of the White Australia policy and the colonial dispossession of the Aboriginal population, opposition to racism and intolerance requires strong and continuous political leadership, rather than any hint of opportunistic, politically motivated tolerance of such prejudices. Multiculturalism, which is irreversible, should be promoted by the Coalition Government; not simply tolerated.

The Iraq war that, leaving aside human casualties, is now anticipated to cost up to an obscene 2 trillion US dollars remains an albatross around the necks of the invaders. The rationalisation for invading Iraq, which changed from removing weapons of mass destruction that Iraq did not possess, to liberating the people from Saddam’s dictatorship and now to ‘stay the course,’ has some ethical force but it does not equate to a justification for such a destructive and costly conflict.

Even a benign outcome in Iraq – in the event it can be achieved – will still need to be set by future historians against the catastrophic consequences of the war for Iraq’s civilian population, its devastated infrastructure, the marked increase in global terrorist activities and the increased opposition it has generated globally towards our alliance partners. With our participation in the Iraq war the Howard Government has also reinforced the image of an Australia moving back to the so-called anglosphere, rather than focussing more on its future in its own neighbourhood.

The main issue now is how best to stabilise the post-invasion situation in Iraq. In the hope, however, that the Government will learn lessons that will enable it to avoid such errors of political and strategic judgement in the future, it remains important to analyse the reasons that lead several democracies, including Australia, to invade.

Shortly after Condoleezza Rice became Secretary of State she said, ‘the time for diplomacy is now.’ She was wrong. The time for diplomacy was several years before she recognised its importance as a result of the drastic drop internationally and even in the United States in the popularity and prestige of President Bush. It would have been prudent for the Howard Government to have anticipated such possibilities and, in 2001, counselled Washington against, rather than encouraged, the invasion of Iraq.

As Socrates noted in ancient Greece – the cradle of democracy – a misled majority may support undesirable policies. The activities of ‘spin doctors’ in Washington, London and Canberra and what the New York Times has described, in relation to Iraq, as a ‘culture of cover-up’ have sought to obscure the real situation and to tranquillise public opinion. They have in the process undermined truth in government, which should be the lifeblood of democracy.

A good example of this was when John Howard said in Washington on 19 July that the London bombings had ‘nothing to do with Iraq.’ These were not random explosions that might just as easily have occurred in Ottawa, Auckland or Oslo. They were a specific attack on the Blair Government for its wholehearted support for President Bush’s policies and his decision to join the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Howard’s ‘spin’ was designed to obscure from the Australian people the fact that his policies had increased the risk of a terrorist attack here and that they had placed Australia in a similar situation to the United Kingdom.

Thanks to Bill Leak

Obscuring the truth, discrediting individuals who do not agree with particular policies, and what has been called anti-intellectualism (as if well educated thinking people who do not support some government policies are out of touch with the realities), the myth that the Prime Minister is the sole repository of wise judgements and sound decision-making, combined with a largely compliant public service and a strangely apathetic wider community are the main elements that threaten the health of Australian democracy.

Our civil liberties are also being undermined in the name of protecting us from terrorism, through the inflation of the ‘terrorist crisis’ and the excessive political exploitation of the fears the Government itself has generated. It is ironic that the draconian laws against terrorism enacted by Howard in December are, in large measure, the outcome of the Government’s own policies, especially our participation in the invasion of Iraq. Even the previous Liberal Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, was moved to state on 29 November, in a major speech at Melbourne University, that the Party of which he had been a member for 50 years had become unrecognisable to him and was now ‘a party of fear and reaction.’

The images of police dog squads and horse patrols on Sydney beaches, of the stopping of cars, the frisking of passengers and the confiscation of mobile phones were widely seen as racist and they suggested an unprecedented intru
sion on personal liberties that shocked friends overseas, even in New York. Mr Howard has said there is ‘no underlying racism in this country.’ The truth is that there are currents of racism, which our political leaders should have recognised much earlier and acted decisively to resist.

Regard for the rights of Australian citizens has also been eroded. I do not know whether David Hicks is guilty or innocent. But it is damaging to this country’s reputation that an Australian citizen has been rotting in Guantánamo Bay since January 2002. It has taken his American Army lawyer to argue that he cannot receive a fair trial before an American military commission and a British judge to note that the detention and proposed trial of Hicks is ‘contrary to the rule of law.’ The treatment of Vivian Alvarez, an Australian citizen who was deported, despite her injuries, to the Philippines, has also undermined the Government’s credibility in protecting its citizens’ rights. Again, a detached wider community does not seem to care too much about the principles involved in such cases.

For Australia to achieve its full and great potential our political leaders and persons of influence in the community must promote actively and more effectively the consolidation of a just, fair, tolerant, multi-ethnic society, untarnished by racism or political dishonesty in which our democratic liberties, the rule of law and the rights of our citizens will be protected and not weakened.

They should also progress the establishment of a distinctive Australian Republic with its own Head of State with which all Australians – not just some of those of Anglo-Celtic background – can identify. Finally, our leaders should work for an Australia which is obsequious towards no country and which is naturally focussed on – and constructively engaged with – the countries of its own region.

This is an edited version of a piece that appeared in two different versions in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, on Saturday 21 January.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.