Intolerance, Terrorism and Fear


Foreshadowing his approach to the next election, Prime Minister John Howard asked rhetorically on 3 October, ‘which side of politics will be better equipped to maintain the prosperity we undoubtedly have?’

But, important as a sound economy is, Australian citizens need to address a range of other issues beyond material comfort. And the task of government is not simply to stay there for as long as possible. Political leaders who think mainly of the next election were called apparatchiks in the former Soviet Union. Statesmanship, however, requires a leader to look ahead to a better Australia for the next generation. Sadly, we have too many politicians and too few statesmen.


Our democracy is not functioning as it should. It is affected by hubris, the arrogance that comes from 10 years in power, the politics of fear nurtured by the so-called ‘war on terror’ and latent racism. The Government also suffers from a lack patience and humility.

As I know from personal experience, the present Government tends to treat its critics even those who have served it in the past as enemies rather than as useful channels to community opinion. Democracy is not served if the public service is unwilling to warn the government when it believes an objective or a priority may be unwise or unlikely to succeed. Because of the growth of a culture of conformity and cover-up, there is a tendency now for public servants to take refuge in the implementation of decided policies, rather than question those that are clearly failing.

Throughout my career I have argued that a key to an effective foreign and security policy is continuous review. The Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, adopting a phrase I often used well before 1996, has said foreign policy should be ‘judged by outcomes.’ Well, what are the outcomes of some of his and Howard’s policies and their impact on Australia?

In a decent country human rights should be an important part of foreign policy. In 2006 our established ideals of decency, fairness, tolerance, justice and truth in government are under challenge.

What has gone wrong? At the root of a series of related problems, which have arisen since 2000, lies the Howard Government’s decision to link its foreign and security policies too closely to those of the Bush Administration. The aim of foreign and defence policy is to make Australia secure. Ironically, some of our policies have placed Australians at greater risk.

The Bush Administration wanted to change the world to reshape it in its own political, economic and moral self-image. The blueprint for this was The Project for a New American Century, launched in Washington DC in 1997. I understand Australian officials did not take much notice of this ‘project’ at the time because it was seen as the work of a small conservative group of opposition Republicans. But with the election of George W Bush this group, known as the neo-cons, became an influential force advocating a messianic internationalism and realpolitik rooted in America’s interests but not necessarily Australia’s.

At that time, the Australian Government had decided ‘to get with the strength’ and link Australia’s interests even more closely with the United States. Unfortunately for Howard and Downer the neo-con dream of a new era of American supremacy in which American ideas and ideals would prevail, imposed by force, if necessary has progressively faded in the face of the realities of a war gone predictably and disastrously awry in Iraq.

As the disaster in Iraq unfolds it is tempting to say, ‘I told you so.’ But it is too serious for that and I derive no pleasure from being correct in my judgement more than four years ago when I argued strongly against Australian involvement in the planned invasion of Iraq.

Having made the catastrophic blunder of invading, the US and its major allies, including the UK and Australia, are now trapped in a self-inflicted dilemma. To withdraw precipitously could lead to even greater chaos in Iraq. To attempt to ‘stay the course’ and ‘finish the job’ will only continue the bloodshed, energise terrorists including in our own region and further erode America’s international standing. As the New York Times noted in an editorial on 11 April 2004, staying the course can be ‘noble when the course is right,’ but when the course is wrong ‘perseverance for the sake of perseverance is foolish.’

The starting point now must be to acknowledge the original and present errors and to decide on the most appropriate exit strategy from the appalling situation in Iraq.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

Turning to the issue of truth in government, I believe that those elected to the Australian Parliament have an obligation to speak the truth. Those who mislead the people and who feed them a diet of ‘spin’ and cover-up, both tarnish their own integrity and dishonour the institution.

There are a number of examples of the dissembling I have in mind. One was when Howard said in July last year that the London bombings had ‘nothing to do with Iraq.’ These were not random explosions which might have occurred in Auckland or Oslo. They were a specific attack on the Blair Government for its support of Bush’s policies especially, the decision to invade Iraq. Howard’s ‘spin’ was intended to obscure from the Australian people the truth that his policies had increased not decreased the risk of a terrorist attack in Australia.

Another example of political dissembling was at the time of the riots in Cronulla when Howard said, there is ‘no underlying racism in this country.’ We all know that there are currents of racism in Australia, which our political leaders should recognise and take the lead in resisting.

A problem for all democracies is the compulsion to justify even mistaken policies rather than admitting errors for fear of loosing electoral support. In modern times, hired public relations advisors are often paid to mislead the public about the real outcomes of government policy. Bush Administration spin-doctors, for example, now call body bags ‘transfer tubes,’ and unavoidable policy adjustments are now described as ‘the construction of new realities.’ In a democracy, disinformation so evident in the ‘children overboard’ affair should never be used as a tool by government if public trust is to be restored.

Our civil liberties are also being undermined in the name of protecting us from terrorism, through the inflation of the terrorist threat and excessive political exploitation of fears, which the Government has itself generated. It is ironic that the draconic laws against terrorism are, in part, the outcome of the Government’s own policies, especially our involvement in Iraq.

Howard argues that acts of terrorism such as the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington and the Bali bombings in 2002 preceded the invasion of Iraq, ‘proving’ that we had to fight terrorism before the invasion of Iraq. No one disputes this, but it ignores two essential facts. Firstly, the invasion of Iraq and its continuing occupation have raised Australia’s profile as a terrorist target. And, secondly, the occupation has massively accelerated terrorist activities in Iraq and elsewhere. (On recent visits to Indonesia, Ministers there have made it clear to me that one of their main reasons for their opposing the invasion of Iraq was that it could assist Islamic extremists, not only in Indonesia but elsewhere in South East Asia.)

Despite the leaked and damning American NIC est
imate, the revelations in Bob Woodward’s book, State of Denial, Tony Blair’s and even Henry Kissinger’s recent admissions, Howard still seems unable to bring himself to admit the obvious that the Iraq War has been a disaster which has substantially increased the terrorist threat he said it would reduce. Moreover, it has assisted Iran in its objective of becoming a major influence in the Middle East, a development the United States had sought to prevent including by its support for Saddam Hussein in the mid 1980s.

The terrorist crisis has been exaggerated. Terrorists will never be able to destroy Western civilisation, as has been suggested. The real threat to our civilisation comes from the use of fear to justify restrictions on our liberty. The Government maintains that we are at war and must therefore make sacrifices, although nobody has yet been killed in Australia by a Jihadist terrorist. Despite Howard’s ‘Quadrant speech’ the action of terrorists, including Islamic extremists, cannot logically be compared with the threat of Communism during the Cold War.

It is for a new generation of forward looking men and women to carry the torch for the consolidation of a fair, tolerant, just, multi-ethnic Australian democracy. We still live in a country of great potential. So, sustain your interest and determination to make Australia a more decent, less afraid, less mean, less narrow-minded, more generous and a more compassionate society.

Dedicated individuals and institutions can make a difference and influence even stubborn governments over time.

This is an edited version of The University of Newcastle Human Rights Social Justice Lecture delivered b y Richard Woolcott at the University of Newcastle on 19 October 2006

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.