Janet Albrechtsen and War


Back in January 2002, Janet Albrechtsen was interviewed for a position on ABC TV’s Media Watch. Apparently, the idea was to have a two-headed panel to give the program ‘balance.’ Albrechtsen bombed out.

Her explanation was that she was politically unpalatable to the ABC. She gave the following account of the interview:

Simon West, the ABC television executive who interviewed me, was astounded to hear I was a self-proclaimed conservative. Shifting uncomfortably in his chair, West probed a little further. Surely I was just economically conservative. Surely I was not socially conservative. Across-the-board conservative, I said. The interview was not going well.

Three years later, when she was appointed to the Board of the ABC, Albrechtsen claimed that it was this ‘across-the-board’ conservatism that was her distinctive contribution to the broadcaster.

Albrechtsen thinks that most Australians are, like her, conservative all the way across ¾ and are happy to be there. For example, in an article entitled ‘Howard’s Small-v Vision Works for the Down-home Voter’ published in The Australian on 13 October 2004, Albrechtsen argued that in the 2004 election, ‘Australians confirmed again, and in even larger numbers that we’re glad to be conservative.’

Conservatism for Albrechtsen means more than a collection of policies. It is a temperament one that she linked in her ‘Howard’s Small-v Vision’ article to ‘Burkean ideas of stability, continuity and prudent, rather than radical, reform.’ Among those she identified in another article (‘What’s Wrong with the Political Right,’ The Australian, 3 March 2004) as being of this conservative temperament were John Howard, John Stone, Malcolm Turnbull and Christopher Pearson although Pearson, in a piece for The Australian entitled ‘Fuddy-duddies See the Light’ (6 March 2004) felt troubled enough by Albrechtsen’s use of the term to chide her gently:

If her notion of conservatism is so impoverished that she expects to be taken seriously when she hails the chameleon Turnbull as a spiritual heir of Burke and Hume, how many of her readers are in the same boat?

For all Albrechtsen seemed to know or care, Burke and Hume might as well have been explorers of the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Perhaps Albrechtsen took Pearson’s chiding to heart, and swotted up on Edmund Burke, because she now gives Burke top billing in an article on climate change. But she still appears to know little about Burke.

So let me introduce Edmund Burke to her.

Burke is perhaps best known as the author of Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), a book that Albrechtsen argues led to Burke’s being decried as ‘a revolution skeptic. Or, even worse, a revolution denier. ‘ But Burke’s conservatism by no means committed him to across-the-board skepticism or denial of revolution.

Unfortunately, Reflections on the Revolution in France is usually now read in isolation from Burke’s other writings, such as his Letter to the Sheriffs of the City of Bristol. In 1777, when Burke published the Letter, he was writing against his own Government in such a way as to court accusations of sedition and treason criticising that Government’s conduct of the war in America and its suspension of the law of habeas corpus for those it first labelled ‘pirates’ (that is, the American independence fighters).

It’s difficult nowadays to grasp the seriousness of this charge of being a ‘pirate.’ Our image of a pirate is too influenced by Johnny Depp’s Cap’n Jack Sparrow and children’s games involving parrots, eye patches, wooden legs and maps marked with an ‘X.’ When the British Government called the American revolutionaries ‘pirates’ in 1777, it was not a game. The label of ‘pirate’ entailed the penalties of death, forfeiture of property and ‘corruption of blood.’

In those days, the term ‘pirate’ accomplished some of what the term ‘unlawful combatant’ does today. As Burke wrote in A Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol:

They are therefore to be detained in prison, under the criminal description of piracy, to a future trial and ignominious punishment, whenever circumstances shall make it convenient to execute vengeance on them, under the colour of that odious and infamous offence.

Burke opposed Britain’s war against the American revolutionaries just as strongly as he opposed the tactic of calling the rebels ‘pirates.’ He derided the war Party, saying he would be ashamed to be part of ‘the noisy multitude to halloo and hearten them into doubtful and dangerous courses.’ And his Letter clearly shows that he had nothing but contempt for those who drummed their Government to war:

A conscientious man would be cautious how he dealt in blood. He would feel some apprehension at being called to a tremendous account for engaging in so deep a play, without any sort of knowledge of the game. It is no excuse for presumptuous ignorance, that it is directed by insolent passion. The poorest being that crawls on earth contending to save itself from injustice and oppression, is an object respectable in the eyes of God and man. But I cannot conceive any existence under heaven, (which, in the depths of its wisdom, tolerates all sorts of things), that is more truly odious and disgusting, than an impotent, helpless creature, without civil wisdom or military skill, without a consciousness of any other qualification for power but his servility to it, bloated with pride and arrogance, calling for battles which he is not to fight, contending for a violent dominion which he can never exercise, and satisfied to be himself mean and miserable, in order to render others contemptible and wretched.

The ‘conservative’ Australian Government comprises many men and women without civil wisdom calling for battles that neither they nor their children are prepared to fight.

For Burke, the little drummer boys of the war Party were as ‘odious and disgusting’ in their blithe dealings in blood as the Government was. Albrechtsen has been beating the drum loudly to Australia’s war in Iraq since at least 2003 (‘Resolve and Resolutions on Our Side,’ The Australian, 19 March 2003). She scorns those who oppose the war as cowards and appeasers, referring in 2006 to ‘the folly of the Democrat œtuck-tail-and-run  policy’ (‘Iran Good News Not Hitting Target,’ The Australian, 28 June), and more recently to ‘Labor’s white flag cut and run policy.’ She has even accused religious leaders opposed to the war of being ‘caught in a fog of peace’ in their embrace of ‘a sweet-sounding appeasement policy’ (‘Parsons Should Give War a Chance,’ The Australian, 29 January 2003).

Burke thought that ranting like this was not an appropriate way to speak of the spilling of blood, where the death of even ‘the poorest being that crawls on earth contending to save itself from injustice and oppression’ was a matter only to be contempla
ted with sorrow.

The little drummer girl of Bronte, if she wants to be considered a conservative ‘across the board,’ should perhaps show a little more caution in how she deals in blood.

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.