As the basic freedoms of all Australians are whittled away, conservatives met to chant ‘send her back’. Stuart Rees reports.
Two events in early August cast a shadow over Australia’s supposed fair go, human rights respecting democracy. The American Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) held a meeting to fight to ‘protect the future’; and the High Court ruled that the federal government may restrict the right of public servants to express political views, thereby upholding a decision to sack a public servant for anonymously criticizing her employer, the Department of Immigration.
Speakers at the CPAC meeting included Fox News commentators, gun-owning enthusiasts from the US National Rifle Association, former PM Tony Abbot, One Nation state politician Mark Latham and Britain’s Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage. In Sydney in the wake of mass shooting in El Paso Texas and Dayton Ohio, the participants arrived following Trump rants about Congresswomen of the wrong colour going back to where they came from. Farage had been invited in the context of his support for English nationalism, racism and opposition to Europe.
Down With ‘Socialism’
Although advertised as fighting for Australia’s future, the conservatives’ future only emerged in comments concerning an agreed enemy, a mirage-like ghost called ‘socialism.’
Oh dear, unless universal health insurance represents that political philosophy, contemporary Australia offers no policies which could be called even mildly socialist. But opposition to this imagined socialist devil prompted CPAC reverence for free markets and family values, a repeat of the Thatcher dictum that greed is good, there’s no such thing as society and no alternative to this way of thinking.
In the absence of socially just policies, CPAC’s self-described ‘political warriors’ resorted to ad hominem arguments in which derision is central to journalism and key to their ‘fight on’ objectives. Farage called former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull ‘a snake’, Raheem Kassam, notorious for tweeting that Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon should have her legs taped shut so that she ‘can’t reproduce’, said Senator Christina Keneally was a ‘bigot’. Fox News commentator Jeanine Piro’s description of Hillary Clinton as ‘that hag’, prompted cries of ‘send her back’.
British royals did not escape Farage diatribes. A ‘foolishly, naively advised… Charlie Boy’ was the strange opponent of climate change, the late Queen Mother an overweight, smoking gin drinker.
The CPAC performers offered white, Christian, affluent versions of freedom for ‘real people’ where they would judge others and woe betide anyone who opposed them.
Conservatives’ support for Trump-like populism and policies is inevitable. The High Court might have highlighted a different set of values. Instead they interpreted freedom of speech with either/or perspectives on rules to ensure that state interests stay secret.
In the Highest Court
As the anonymous LaLegale on Twitter, the brave but sacked Immigration staff member, Michaela Banerji had criticized immigration policies and the treatment of immigration detainees. The justices appeared to not know, or deliberately ignored such policies, which continue in the conduct of the Department of Home Affairs, successor to Immigration.
Deliberations in Home Affairs are invisible, staff are fearful and inaccessible, apparently unable to heed alternative voices, such as Ms. Banerji’s.
Out of touch with a wider social context, decisions are made as though to stifle criticism is the way to maintain government control. Nadine Flood, national secretary of the Commonwealth and Public Service Union said, “People working in Commonwealth agencies should be allowed normal rights as citizens rather than facing Orwellian censorship because of where they work.” Allan Anforth, Banerji’s lawyer, commented on the High Court’s ruling, “This is a really naïve decision in terms of the political realities of what exists in the community.”
‘What exists’ is authoritarianism to stifle freedom of speech and to encourage journalists to collude with government policies, even applaud them. On the question of limits to freedom of speech, Emily Howie from the Human Rights Law Centre says, “It has become dangerous to expose governments’ wrongdoing, even when it’s in the public interest to do so.”
The AFP has raided the ABC offices and the home of a News Corp journalist. Courts face a queue of whistleblowers waiting to test what the law knows about justice.
Witness K and barrister Bernard Collaery are being prosecuted for exposing Australian government deceit in bugging Timore-Leste government offices in order to gain commercial advantage in negotiations about oil and gas revenue from the Timor Sea.
Based on the assumption that operations involving the Australian military are state secrets, former military lawyer David McBride is being prosecuted for exposing alleged unlawful killings in Afghanistan.
Richard Boyle, former Australian Tax Office employee faces excessive criminal charges for blowing the whistle on the ATO’s abusive, unfair debt collection practices. He faces a possible 161-year prison sentence.
As Wikileaks journalist and publisher, Australian citizen Julian Assange revealed secrets about murder and mayhem in US war. He is held in a top security British prison, faces extradition to the US and the prospect of 175 years in prison.
In response to US politicians’ frenzied demands for Assange to be exterminated by any means, and in response to carefully concocted Espionage charges against him, Federal politicians from the major parties have said nothing. Their cowardly silence suggests loyalty to the White House, indifference to social justice and to civil liberties.
In her latest book, ‘How To Lose A Country’, the brilliant Turkish novelist Ece Temelkuran writes, “When social justice is ignored to devastating effect, that is when democracy starts to smell funny…like rotting onions.”
Central control, deference to the UK government and to Uncle Sam remains an Australian policy imperative. The High Court did nothing to challenge the CPAC version of freedom, and in other prestigious places, respect for human rights, in particular for freedom of speech, is also becoming hard to find.
The CPAC contributors’ hope for return to a supposed utopian, white, Christian past, did not question inequalities, racism, wars, environmental destruction and the exploitation of Indigenous peoples.
The opposite of such polices is a future worth fighting for and might even be called socialist.
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