Filling the Void


It is a pleasure, but also a surprise, to be asked to speak at the launch of a new think tank: the Centre for Policy Development.

It is a particular pleasure because this think tank is one of those rarities: a place for consideration of that missing part of the spectrum the part, now called ‘the Left,’ but which sits modestly, not on the Right (where most other think tanks are) but covering a wider territory: genuinely liberal.

It is a lonely place these days.

It is interesting and alarming to consider just how far the dominant conversation has moved to the Right during the past 12 years. The so-called Liberal Party has made it clear that former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser is no longer a welcome member of the Party he once led, and I suspect that the Australian Labor Party would see him as a bit too far Left to be electorally useful.

I imagine that if Sir Robert Menzies were alive today he would be refused membership of the Party he founded and he would probably not wish to join it. He was, after all, a man of principle, a true liberal.

When it comes to policy development, no principle is so fundamental that it cannot be subverted or debased by John Howard. To add insult to injury, the betrayal of principle is dressed up in dishonest rhetoric so as to maintain the misleading appearance of the values the Liberal Party once stood for.

So, the indefinite detention of children is squared with family values by dressing it up as ‘border protection’; jail without trial and based on secret evidence is passed off as necessary to preserve ‘democracy’; the abandonment of an Australian citizen in Guantánamo Bay is fudged as a prelude to a ‘fair trial’ on a retrospective charge and hearsay evidence obtained by coercion.

Ministerial responsibility, one of the pillars of the Westminster system which Howard promised to honour, has disappeared without a trace, until its brief reappearance when practical politics required Ian Campbell to be sacrificedin an attempt to skewer Kevin Rudd for meeting Brian Burke.

Global warming was ignored, doubted or scorned until suddenly, six months ago, it snapped into policy focus as Howard deftly recognised the plain facts science had been proclaiming for a decade at least.

In place of policy founded on principle, we get platitudes larded with rhetoric. Remember Howard’s speech on the 50th anniversary of his fan magazine Quadrant? He again disparaged the ‘black armband view of history.’ Ignoring the plain facts uncovered by the HREOC report Bringing Them Home, he hides behind the notion that what has happened in the past is no part of this generation’s heritage or responsibility. This, from the man who increasingly exploits the tragedies of an earlier generation who died at Galipoli.

In the same speech he rejoiced in the ‘ideals of democratic freedom and liberty under law.’ This must have had a hollow sound to David Hicks as he languished in Guantánamo Bay, after being sold to our ally America by the Northern Alliance. Hicks was denied the rights accorded to criminal suspects, denied the rights of a prisoner of war, held for five years without charge, held in solitary confinement in a concrete box for most of his time, and denied access to lawyers for the first few years of his incarceration. During all this time, the Australian Government did nothing to secure his freedom, on the curious pretext that he had not broken the law.

The ‘ideals of democratic freedom and liberty under law’ must seem a remote prospect to those who are sentenced to two weeks’ preventative detention after a secret hearing which they are not allowed to attend. When arrested and taken into custody, the person concerned is not allowed to know the evidence which was used against them.

The ‘ideals of democratic freedom and liberty under law’ must have slipped Philip Ruddock’s mind when he ran the case of Ahmed al-Kateb who had come to Australia seeking asylum.

Julian Burnside speaking at the Centre for Policy Development launch.

The Migration Act says that a non-citizen without a visa must remain in detention until either they get a visa or are removed from Australia. al-Kateb was refused a visa and found conditions in detention so awful that, rather than appeal the decision, he asked to be removed from Australia. But he could not be removed because he is Stateless.

Rather than amend the Act to deal with an anomaly, Ruddock argued that al-Kateb innocent of any offence, not suspected of being a risk to Australian society could be held in detention for life. That the senior law officer of the Crown could consider making such an argument is a disgrace to the office he holds and a stain on the Government he serves. Not much ‘democratic freedom and liberty under law’ for al-Kateb.

The children who, broken and desperate in detention, tried to harm or kill themselves would not readily distinguish between the cruelty of the Taliban and the Liberal Party’s ‘family values.’

None of these things is good policy. None of these things conform to any of the ethical principles on which the Liberal Party was founded. None of these things provoked even a murmur of concern from the Labor Party.

The stinking hypocrites of the Right have been well served by their fawning acolytes in the press, and by an Opposition which only recently remembered how to oppose. The policy conversation was left to the margins: the activists who might occasionally get a letter to the editor published, the bloggers obsessively talking to each other in a closed circle, and a former Liberal Prime Minister who seems radicalised and transformed, but whose position on these same principles has remained unchanged for 30 years.

What is wrong with this picture? The scenery has shifted so far to the Right that nothing remains on the Left but a vacuum into which noble hearts are drawn and disappear. The vacuum of ideas of the Left means that there is no adequate conversation about the dominant ideas of the Right.

I do not mean to say that ideas from the Left are always correct far from it. But ideas which stand unchallenged are likely to be flawed. It is in the contest of ideas that we have the best prospect of reaching something like sound policy.

With the birth of the Centre for Policy Development, the conversation can begin. It will help fill the vacuum. It will provide a focus for discussion where principles can be discussed without embarrassment or hypocrisy. It might, just might, spark a discussion in which the poverty and dishonesty of Howard’s policy positions will come to be more widely recognised. The possibility is so important that the wager is worth it.

As a natural conservative in the Menzian tradition, I welcome the arrival of the Centre for Policy Development and declare it duly launched, with the hope that it will help Australia regain the good and valued things this country has lost.

This is an edited version of a speech delivered at the launch of the Centre for Policy Development   in Sydney, 23 May 2007.

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