New Dogs and Old Tricks


If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Prime Minister John Howard should be pleased with Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd. As Howard anticipates his place in history, he no doubt hopes to ensure a smooth transition of leadership to maintain his legacy. In which case, he should be growing (daily) more content that a Rudd Labor Government would be as diligent as a Costello Coalition Government in replicating the Howard style.

In disciplining the ALP’s Foreign Affairs spokesperson Robert McClelland for his stance against capital punishment, Rudd displayed two pieces of Howardesque political cunning. First, he let McClelland attract the criticism when he attacked the Howard Government for inconsistency in failing to object to Indonesia’s use of the death penalty. But by then distancing himself from McClelland’s argument, Rudd immediately positioned himself as a ‘populist.’

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Secondly, by saying  that terrorists should ‘rot in jail’ and be ‘carried out in a pine box,’ Rudd did not quite say that Labor supported executions but sent coded messages to various audiences a ‘dog whistle’ approach that’s been attributed to Howard on numerous occasions. In this way, Rudd invited support from the most immoderate quarters while choosing words that would enable him to deny doing so, if ever confronted by rational critics.

Rudd needs now only to demonstrate mastery of the ‘wedge’ to graduate from the Howard School of Political Cunning, with honours.

But amid these tactical manoeuvres, it’s important not to forget what the whole kerfuffle was about in the first place. McClelland’s criticism of the Government’s behaviour is supported by an international policy think tank and academic experts. When the Howard Government appeals to foreign governments about Australian nationals condemned overseas, it argues that Australia opposes capital punishment in principle that is, in all circumstances.

In the case of the Bali bombers however, the Government did not simply refuse to appeal against the sentences, it stated that the bombers were getting what they deserve. Such a stance undermines any in-principle opposition, and the practical result will be that future appeals on behalf of condemned Australians will ring hollow and be less successful.

Regardless of any pragmatic motives for opposing capital punishment, there remain convincing in-principle arguments against its use. First, it is barbaric in operation and cannot be administered justly. Secondly, no group of people has the right to kill. Thirdly, executions have negative effects for society as a whole capital punishment sanctions extreme violence. Fourthly, capital punishment does not work as a deterrent or it would never be used more than once. Fifthly, it is usually imposed on people who do not belong to the influential elite in a society.

In the face of such arguments, abolition owes nothing to misplaced compassion for people convicted of terrible crimes but promotes a common sense desire for everyone to live with integrity.

While some countries retain the death penalty, the tide is turning  against capital punishment and Australians should be proud of our rejection of this cruel and degrading process. Despite our well established respect for cultural differences, matters of basic human rights arise prior to membership of any community. And if advocating the continuation of a life brings Australia into disrepute with States that claim the right to kill, it will earn us the respect elsewhere.

High profile executions, such Saddam Hussein’s, tempt some observers to believe that capital punishment might be acceptable, sometimes. Some politicians think that strutting the world stage places them in a special category in which ‘tough decisions’ must be taken but almost always, such decisions are tough for others, not for themselves. These pseudo-statesmen should make it clear that if they oppose capital punishment because it is wrong, then they must commit themselves to opposing this evil at all times and everywhere.

The Government’s intransigence in the Bali bombers’ case suggests an almost God-like certainty. There is no halfway house on capital punishment. If we approve the death penalty in some cases, then we effectively grant the right to all other States to execute as they see fit.

While sensitivity is required around the anniversary of the Bali outrages, the Government’s strident exploitation of Labor’s divisions is hardly sensitive.

Talk of ‘rotting’ and ‘pine boxes’ is actually the language of terrorism, and if we so enthusiastically adopt their language, terrorists are on the way to victory. The Government frequently tells us that it is important to be careful about the messages our actions might send to terrorists. Refusing to discuss the pros and cons of capital punishment during October is allowing terrorists to set our political agenda. That is hardly a good message to send.

When both major parties adopt an unprincipled and impractical stance on this issue, it is all the more important that others speak up.

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