Conservative Correctness


Thanks to Sharyn Raggett.

Remember ‘political correctness’?

In 1996, the Howard Government came to power with a powerful story to tell. Feminists, multiculturalists, sympathisers with the Aboriginal cause, gays, and other members of the radical Left, so the story went, had stormed the cultural barricades. They had infiltrated every major institution, from the media (especially the Fairfax press and the ABC) to universities, to the High Court, casting a censorious pall over debate that inhibited even the way ordinary people spoke to each other.

There was a new McCarthyism abroad, Howard said. People were afraid to say what they thought.

Behind the headlines, the reality was somewhat more prosaic. After the 1996 election, society’s seats of power were still being warmed by the usual suspects: media proprietors, business leaders, radio talkback hosts, government ministers. But the ‘PC’ story stuck, helping to render silent again groups that, through the 1980s and 1990s, had begun to find their voice.

The ‘PC’ story was good politics. It helped catapult the Coalition into power on the back of popular resentment about the Keating Government’s pandering to minority causes.

But as the ‘PC’ scare faded from the headlines after the election, new and much more concrete forms of censorship began to stifle free speech in Australia.

The recent controversy over the attempt to censor Channel Nine’s ‘worm’ during the debate between John Howard and Kevin Rudd when the Channel Nine video feed of the debate was pulled by the National Press Club and a replacement feed from the ABC was also pulled, leaving Nine to rely on a Sky News feed, is just the most recent in a long series of incidents, stretching back to the beginning of the Government’s 11-year term, which shows a deep hostility to information and comment when it remains beyond the Government’s control.

Almost from the moment of its election in 1996, the Howard Government mounted a sustained, ideologically-motivated campaign to marginalise its perceived foes and cut potentially damaging stories off at the source. Whereas ‘political correctness’ was largely notional, these new forms of ‘conservative correctness’, as it might be called, go right to the top.

Over 11 years in office, the Howard Government has worked assiduously behind the scenes to stamp out criticism, silence voices of dissent, and muzzle and neuter organisations and institutions that show the slightest tendency to depart from its preferred line or to inform the public about many of its activities, all this as part of what can only be understood as a concerted attempt to remake the culture in its image.

Along the way, NGOs have been defunded, journalists nobbled, whistleblowers prosecuted, boards stacked, courts compromised, and organisations that protect due democratic process wound down or disbanded.

A pattern began to emerge even by the end of the Government’s first year in office. In 1997 an angry Prime Minister requested changes to a eulogy that Patrick Dodson, known as the father of Aboriginal reconciliation, planned to give at the State memorial service for HC ‘Nugget’ Coombs, former Governor of the Reserve Bank, advisor to Prime Ministers since John Curtin, and champion of the Aboriginal cause. Coombs had died on the same day that the Howard Government proposed a raft of amendments to its anti-Wik Native Title legislation that were designed to appease hard-line opposition from National Party Senators who were threatening to cross the floor and vote against the Government position.

The reason for Howard’s anxiety became obvious when Dodson took the podium at St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, on 14 November and launched a blistering attack on the Government’s (then short) record. Dodson asked what Coombs would have thought of the way the country, after years of pushing forwards on Indigenous issues, ‘appears to be going backwards. Nugget Coombs would grieve,’ Dodson said, ‘to learn that at the end of the Australian century he did so much to define, Indigenous Australians are going to be denied the right to negotiate over land that was stolen from them and which even now they are willing to share.’ (‘Eulogy for HC "Nuggett" Coombs,’ Arena Magazine, Dec-Jan 1997–98)

Through this, the Prime Minister sat stony-faced while sections of the 800-strong congregation applauded.

The eulogy Dodson delivered was in fact a toned-down version, modified in conjunction with Church officials and relatives of Coombs following a request from the Prime Minister’s office. But as striking as the push to modify Dodson’s address was, it was just one among a long line of attempts to douse potential sources of dissent that began from the moment Howard came to power. Every year since has seen new attempts to damp down potential sources of criticism.

In 1996, in its first week in office, the Howard Government sacked 6 of 18 public service Departmental Secretaries, and a month later replaced the Head of the Prime Minister’s Department with a hand-picked appointee. The senior bureaucrats who kept their jobs were instructed that all calls from journalists be reported direct to the PM’s office.

In 1997, reports emerged of Government attempts to suppress a Commonwealth Advisory Council news release that criticised its ’10 Point Plan’ on the Wik Native Title dispute, on environmental grounds. The following month, there was another story about the then-Attorney-General Daryl Williams attempts to gag criticism of the ’10 Point Plan’ by the Law Reform Commission.

In 1998, the Federal Government slashed the budget of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission by 40 per cent and refused to appoint an Indigenous social justice commissioner and a disability commissioner on the expiration of the incumbents’ terms.

Against promises made in 1996 by Senator Richard Alston that they would not politicise the ABC Board, on election, the Howard Government cut ABC funding by $55 million and undertook a national review that many saw as retaliation against a climate of ‘political correctness’ and unnecessary focus on issues such as multiculturalism, reconciliation, anti-discrimination and environmentalism by the ABC. In 1998, Alston appointed Liberal Party insider Michael Kroger to the Board. Kroger was known to have told the then-ABC Managing Director, Brian Johns, that he thought ABC hiring practices were pro-Left.

Throughout 1998, the Government stepped up its attacks on the ABC, with Alston accusing it of bias in its television coverage of the waterfront dispute. Despite an independent report clearing the ABC, Alston later insisted it needed to improve its balance and the way it handled complaints, suggesting that the Board needed to adopt a more pro-active ‘top down’ approach to these problems.

In June 1998, the ABC cut material satirising the Government’s approach to issues such as Medicare, Wik, and the waterfront dispute, from a TV comedy wrap up of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.

In the lead-up to the 1998 Federal election, Kroger, Alston and Lynton Crosby, then-Federal Director of the Liberal Party, mounted a sustained daily attack on the ABC and its supposed bias sending a barrage of letters of complaint.

In 1999, when the highly-respected Social Policy Research Centre (SPRC) at the University of New South Wales, found that the Government’s management of the welfare system had disadvantaged thousands of families, the SPRC’s government contract previously renewed every five years for almost 20 years was put up for open tender, despite the strong endorsement of the Centre by an independent review.

In 2001, shortly before that year’s Federal election, the Navy chief, Vice-Admiral David Shackleton, who had flatly contradicted Government claims that children had been thrown into the sea in the ‘Children Overboard’ affair, was forced to recant and sign a statement saying that he had in no way contradicted the Defence Minister, Peter Reith, and confirming that the Minister had been advised by the Defence Department that children had been thrown into the sea by asylum seekers.

Between 2001 and 2006, during Navy Operations RELEX I and II, which were designed to keep asylum seekers from reaching Australian territory, the Government moved to prevent any image or coverage that might humanise asylum seekers from reaching the public. In 2001 then-Defence Minister Peter Reith took personal control of all information to the public, sidelining the Navy; and all military officers were banned from media contact without clearance from the Minister. During operations, sailors were forbidden from sending emails to their family, a stricture not imposed even in war conditions.

Even before this time, the media was forcibly prevented from access to boats carrying asylum seekers, such as the Tampa, and were even barred from Defence seminars and conferences except by special clearance. Despite the estimated billion dollar plus cost to tax-payers of the Government’s ‘Pacific Solution’, the media were also banned from accessing asylum-seeker detention centres in Papua New Guinea, Nauru and Christmas Island.

In 2001, an Australia Institute survey  of social science academics found that 17 per cent had been prevented from publishing politically contentious results, and 49 per cent were reluctant to criticise Government grant bodies for fear of losing support.

In 2002, after 300 hunger-striking asylum seekers in the Woomera Detention Centre in South Australia rioted then sewed their lips together, police kept journalists and photographers outside a 200-metre exclusion zone from the detention centre’s perimeter, on threat of arrest. ABC TV reporter Natalie Larkins was arrested and charged with trespassing when she attempted to report on the story. The Daily Telegraph described these events as ‘the latest and lowest example of Canberra’s censorship that would not have been out of place in the countries from which the asylum seekers have fled’.

That year, in part because of Government assaults on journalistic freedom, Australia slid down the Reporters Without Borders international rankings of press freedom to a position below all OECD countries and a number of Eastern bloc nations.

Also in 2002, fearing Government retaliation, ABC Radio JJJ declined to playlist ‘I’m Sorry’, a cut-up of John Howard’s words by Simon Hunt (aka Little Johnny), who had earlier gained fame as Pauline Pantsdown with ‘I Don’t Like It,’ a cut-up of Pauline Hanson media grabs.

In 2002, the Government gagged three key figures, all of them ministerial staffers from the Prime Minister’s and the Defence Minister’s offices, to prevent them from appearing before a Senate inquiry into the Children Overboard affair. And then, working through the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, the Government fought to suppress CSIRO research that found that increasing population levels in Australia raised questions of environmental sustainability. Finally published in expurgated form after a media exposé of its suppression, the report was undermined by misinformation about its contents pre-released to the media by the Department. CSIRO management, who were negotiating their funding with the Government at the time, then attempted to suppress publication of a peer-reviewed academic paper by the researchers that responded to the media reports.

In 2003, Dr Graeme Pearman, head of atmospheric science at the CSIRO for a decade and a world expert on global warming, was made redundant along with several scientists working on his team. While a divisional head at the CSIRO, Pearson had publicly advocated emission reduction targets. After he left the organisation, he revealed that CSIRO scientists had been gagged by the Government to prevent them speaking out about climate change, and that he had been censored around half a dozen times in the year before he was forced out.

In 2003, the Government entered into a $50,000 contract with the Institute of Public Affairs (itself a non-profit organisation), to conduct an ‘audit’ of NGOs such as the Red Cross, Save the Children, the Wilderness Society, World Vision, Oxfam, the RSPCA, and the Brotherhood of St Lawrence, with a view to depriving them of their tax-exempt status if they engaged in ‘political advocacy’ on behalf of the underprivileged. Research by the Australia Institute showed that most of the NGOs singled out for attack had been critical of Government policies, especially on humanitarian and environmental issues.

A 2004 survey of 750 NGOs with an advocacy role, conducted by the Australia Institute found that, of the 290 NGOs that responded, most were afraid that, even though the Government hadn’t delivered on threats to revoke their tax-exempt status, ‘many NGOs remain concerned that there will be a crackdown on their charitable status should they continue to engage in advocacy work.’ Three quarters of the survey’s respondents (74 per cent), agreed with the statement that ‘NGOs are being pressured to amend their public statements to bring them in line with current government policy.’ 90 per cent agreed that ‘dissenting organisations and individuals risk having their government funding cut.’

In 2004, following the Madrid terrorist bombings, Australian Federal Police (AFP) Chief Mick Keelty was forced by the Prime Minister and other Ministers to back down and ‘clarify’ remarks he had made about the increased possibility of terrorist attacks in Australia as a result of our involvement in the Iraq War, because they contradicted remarks made by the Prime Minister.

That year, the AFP raided the offices of the National Indigenous Times (a home office at the house of its editor, Chris Graham), searching for leaked Cabinet submissions relating to Government plans to dismantle the peak Indigenous body ATSIC. While charges were never laid in this case, it was the 113th investigation into public service leaks since 1997 and by 2005, 120 had taken place as part of a campaign, according to senior press gallery figures, to intimidate public servants into silence. As Graham said, ‘It works. Many of my regular contacts are too scared to call.’

Graham was speaking in a climate where public servants are not only increasingly afraid to leak information that is in the public interest, but also to provide background briefings for journalists. Under new rules, all approaches from journalists to public servants are to be referred to the relevant Government press secretary and vetted. Yet, as veteran commentator Laurie Oakes has said, ‘it is the threat of leaks that keeps politicians honest.’

After gaining a Senate majority in 2004, the Government increasingly used its power to ‘gag’ and ‘guillotine’ Bills thereby dramatically reducing the time available for debate on such matters as WorkChoices. It also restricted the time allowed the Opposition to ask questions in Parliament, overturning a longstanding tradition giving both Parties equal time.

In 2004 and 2005, then-Education Minister Brendan Nelson personally intervened to veto three, then seven, applications for Australian Research Council funding, following complaints about their validity by Herald-Sun columnist Andrew Bolt.

In 2005, the Federal Government withdrew A$65,000 in AusAID funding from Forum Tau Matan, an East Timorese NGO, following criticism  by the Forum of Australia’s bullying tactics during negotiations on the maritime boundary between East Timor and Australia. AusAID later confirmed that the funding cut and protests were linked.

In 2005, two Herald-Sun journalists, Michael Harvey and Gerard McManus, were pursued by the AFP and prosecuted after they published a true story, based on a leak, about how the Government intended to deny war veterans $500 million in benefits.

In 2005, several months after publication of Axis of Deceit, a book about the non-existence of WMDs in Iraq by whistleblower Andrew Wilkie, officials claiming to be from the Attorney-General’s Department raided the offices of the book’s publisher, Black Inc, as well as the homes of Wilkie’s brother and sister, that of the journalist Carmel Travers (who had been emailed a draft copy of Wilkie’s manuscript), and the university office of the person who commissioned the book, the academic Robert Manne.

Travers later described to SBS Dateline how the officials spent all day trawling for information and smashed computer hard-drives with hammers in what they called an act of ‘cleansing’ that they performed regularly (‘We do this every day’) , and that they’d carried out perhaps ’70, 72 or 73 times’. They spent a week at the Black Inc offices. All those who had their hard-drives smashed were asked to sign a confidentiality agreement preventing them from discussing what had happened, which would have opened the way for charges under the National Security Act and the possibility of five years in jail. As Wilkie later said,  

I think a lot of it was just theatre meant to put pressure on people, almost to bully them. I think it was intended to send a very clear signal to the media, to the publishing industry, to me, that they needed to be very, very careful about criticising the Government. I think the Government’s behaviour was intended very clearly to send a signal to my former colleagues that, you know, you don’t cross them, you don’t resign, you don’t speak out.

In 2005, the Government abolished habeas corpus, the right to question imprisonment without trial, as part of the Australian Anti-terrorism Bill 2005. Among other things, the legislation stipulates that should a child be imprisoned under the Act, their parent, if informed of the child’s imprisonment, is not permitted to tell any other adult, including another parent. The Bill is one of 10 different pieces of ‘anti-terrorism’ legislation introduced by the Howard Government since 2002, that impose successively greater restrictions on freedom of speech.

In 2005, the Government first threatened staff with legal action, then removed core funding from the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, after it was commissioned by Oxfam to produce a report on the likely effects of Government changes to Aboriginal land rights.

In 2005, Attorney-General Phillip Ruddock flagged changes to limit the power of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, which gives citizens redress to challenge government decisions that affect them, adjudicating on such things as workers compensation payments, child support and anti-discrimination cases, social security payments, and freedom of information cases.

In late 2005, following a visit to Indonesia by Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, the Government withdrew $18,000 in sponsorship from the Jakarta International Film Festival when it was discovered that the program included the Curtis Levy documentary The President v David Hicks.

In 2005, when it was discovered that the AWB had paid $300 million in kickbacks to Saddam Hussein’s Government in Iraq, despite UN sanctions being in place, the Prime Minister ordered public servants to not give evidence about the Government’s involvement to a subsequent Senate inquiry, a move later condemned as unlawful.

In 2006, after receiving a phone call from the Prime Minister’s office, an internet service provider shut down the satirical website

When the Office of the Employment Advocate (OEA), which operates under the auspices of the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations, released figures in March 2006 that showed that WorkChoices was having a detrimental effect, with everyone in a survey sample having lost at least one Award condition, the OEA released a statement that disowned its own findings.

In 2006, the Government moved to curtail the power of the Senate committee system, following discomfiting enquiries into matters such as the sinking of SIEV X, the Children Overboard affair, high Government spending on advertising, and the use of torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

In 2007, when the academic David Peetz released  to the media a detailed study of the negative effects of WorkChoices on wages that showed that wages were falling, he found himself the subject of a Government ‘dirt sheet’ that the journalist David Marr revealed was produced from within Employment and Workplace Relations Minister Joe Hockey’s office. Hockey then used parliamentary privilege to read into Hansard a list of allegations against Peetz.

Marr has also described how in 2007, when People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) went on 60 Minutes as part of a campaign against mulesing (the process by which live skin is cut away from sheep hindquarters to prevent maggot infestation), conservative identity and former Howard Minister Ian McLachlan, who is Chairman of Australian Wool Innovations, organised to PETA’s their spokesperson served with a writ on air. The Treasurer Peter Costello later foreshadowed legislation to prevent lobbyists advocating ethical boycotts.

In 2007, in an unprecedented show of co-operation, representatives from News Limited, Fairfax Media, SBS, the ABC, Free TV Australia, Austereo, AAP, and Sky News, came together to form the Right to Know  campaign, to protest against diminishing media freedom. Concerns included the effect of sedition laws on journalism, increasing attacks on whistleblowers, the illegality of reporting on people detained without charge, the increasing use of suppression orders by courts, and the watering down of freedom of information laws.

In 2007, as part of an ongoing Government crackdown, the whistleblower Allan Kessing was found guilty of leaking documents to the media that showed dramatic weaknesses in security at Australian airports, despite the fact that the documents resulted in a revision of security procedures.

In 2007, in the lead-up to the Federal election and shortly after the publication of academic research that showed that low-skilled workers had seen falls in wages following the introduction of WorkChoices, the Government moved to prevent academics from being able to access information about workplace contracts, even if this meant that policy-makers were themselves ‘flying blind.’

This determination to micromanage debate goes to the heart of the Howard Government itself. As Howard’s biographers Wayne Errington and Peter Van Onselen have shown, the activities of all Ministers is micromanaged from the PM’s office with Ministers often having a prime ministerial advisor appointed to their office to keep watch over them.

Of the new public service appointments made since the early 2000s, 520 are political appointees who work as communications and media officers and as private advisers to Ministers and other Government staff. They have no direct accountability to Parliament and operate outside normal public service rules of conduct, despite being paid through the public purse. Many of these new appointees have direct Party ties and are employed to compile ‘dirt files’ (such as the one on Peetz) and to vet and control information to ensure that Ministers are protected from knowing facts that may prove embarrassing, and so to present a façade of ‘plausible deniability’ under media questioning on controversial issues.

This obsession with information control extends far beyond the usual political meddling that most governments engage in. Another target of the Howard Government’s culture war against possible dissent has been statutory bodies and semi-government organisations.

Where possible, it has reached behind closed doors to wield influence directly.

Through the life of this Government, organisations such as the Office of Film and Literature Classification, the Australian Heritage Commission, the Reserve Bank, the ABC, the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, the ARC, Tourism Australia, the Wheat Export Authority, SBS, the Australia Council, the Australian Landcare Council, the CSIRO, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, and the Australian National Council on Drugs, have experienced a flood of Howard-appointed conservatives or ex-Coalition MPs, onto their boards.

For example, since 1998 the board of the ABC has been swamped with Coalition insiders such as Michael Kroger, harsh critic of supposed ABC bias and close political ally of Peter Costello; former Federal Liberal MP Ross McLean; Judith Sloan, a conservative economist with links to the CIS and the HR Nicholls Society; Leith Boully, a former Young Country Liberal Party member; and Maurice Newman, reportedly a ‘close confidant’ of the Prime Minister. Other appointments have included conservative anthropologist, greenhouse sceptic and ex-News-Ltd columnist Ron Brunton, best known for his work attempting to debunk the claims of the ‘Stolen Generations’ of Aboriginal children; News Ltd columnist and staunch-ABC-critic Janet Albrechtsen; CIS director Steven Skala; conservative QC John Gallagher; and Keith Windschuttle, a regular contributor to and now editor of the conservative journal Quadrant, best known for his view that few Aborigines were massacred in the white settlement of Australia.

Along the way, the Government has blocked senior appointments of reputable experts to organisations such as the Centre for Democratic Institutions at the Australian National University, and the Australian Institute of Family Studies apparently on political grounds.

Other organisations deemed not to be presenting a Government-authorised view of the world have seen senior people purged. For example, after a controversy about its depiction of Australian frontier history and the massacre of Aborigines and the plight of the Stolen Generations, the Government failed to renew Dawn Casey’s contract as Director of The National Museum of Australia for longer than a year despite the fact that she had earlier won plaudits from the Museum Council for her work.

Similarly, charities critical of the effects of the Government’s agenda on the disadvantaged have been defunded. These include the Australian Youth Policy and Action Coalition, National Shelter, the Australian Pensioners’ and Superannuants’ Federation, and the Association of Civilian Widows. Other organisations, such as the Bureau of Population and Immigration Research, regarded as a ‘hotbed of multiculturalism’, and the peak Aboriginal body, ATSIC, have been abolished altogether.

Spurred on by the 2003 Uhrig Report, which recommended in the name of ‘accountability’ that Ministers take direct control of statutory bodies apart from those that ran businesses or could demonstrate exceptional grounds for remaining independent, the Government has also downgraded a number of organisations to bring them under closer control. One casualty was the Australian Heritage Commission, which lost its statutory powers to protect places on the Register of the National Estate when it was transformed into the Australian Heritage Council, a Government advisory body that advises on a new National Heritage List, to which places are added entirely at ministerial behest, and which is strongly weighted in favour of post-White-settlement historic sites to the neglect of places of environmental or Indigenous significance.

Another casualty was the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC), which had its role significantly downgraded as part of the WorkChoices agenda. Whereas the AIRC formerly conducted itself in a transparent manner, with procedures a matter of public record, the new provisions require it to operate in private conferences, and prohibit the listing or discussion of cases, or mentioning the names of parties.

Many AIRC powers were transferred to a new Fair Pay Commission, the Board of which consisted of ‘five social and economic conservatives’ who, as the Sydney Morning Herald journalist Adele Horin wrote, ‘will make pay decisions for those at the bottom’.

The courts have been another target, especially the High Court, which bore the brunt of accusations of ‘judicial activism’ in the early 1990s after it adjudicated on the Mabo and Wik cases in favour of Aborigines. The object, wind-assisted by sections of the media, was to reduce the Court’s role from any form of innovative and independent interpretation to become little more than an administrative rubber stamp for an ascendant government. Of the six High Court judicial appointments made by the Howard Government since it came to office, the overwhelming majority are conservatives, some with close Government ties. As the journalist Jack Waterford has said,

By any account, the High Court is less of a check and balance, and less likely to hold Government power to account, than at any time in its history.

The Federal Court, too, has been a target of Government ire and meddling, especially following the Tampa incident, after which, it has been prevented from reviewing decisions made by the Refugee Review Tribunal or the Minister on the fate of asylum seekers — moves that represented a fundamental attack on the doctrine of separation of powers.

Taken together with the politicisation of the military during Operations RELEX I and II, the politicisation of the public service and of statutory bodies, and the strictures on debate posed by anti-terror laws, this meddling points to a contempt for democratic conventions that goes far beyond any of the Howard Government’s scare stories about so-called ‘political correctness’.

One of the great mythologies of Australian conservative commentary is that there’s a mystical bond between John Howard and the Australian people. The overweening need, on the part of the Government, to control information and avoid scrutiny suggests the opposite: a fear of ordinary Australian people and a contempt for their right to know what the government they elected is doing.

Throughout its 11 years in office, the Howard Government has consistently asked the people for its trust. Yet there is little evidence that any trust is returned. The people with whom Howard is supposed to have a connection are, in fact, the enemy, to be kept in the dark. They seem to be the last people that the Government wants to let see how it operates.

‘Conservative correctness’ hasn’t silenced the Government’s critics. As Peter Costello reportedly quipped to Cabinet after the PM arrived livid, following a savaging on ABC radio, ‘How can we complain about the ABC, when we appointed all the Board members?’ But the failure of the Government to totally stamp out dissent doesn’t justify the distortions of due process and meddling that have become its hallmark, and that stand in stark contrast to the free speech rhetoric on which it was first elected.

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