It’s 2021 and Australia is again reflecting on monstrous abuses by men in power. For some of us, it brings back memories of villains past. And it makes us wonder when it’s going to change. Mike Dowson thinks it won’t. Not finally. Not until we tackle the whole rotten post-colonial system in which it thrives.
It was 1984, a year with an ominous ring to it. Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen had just bulldozed a road through the world’s oldest rainforest so some rich mates could profit from real estate.
I was discussing this with a local in a pub in Mackay. He thought Joh was a conman who gerrymandered his hold on office with support from criminals. A look of fond admiration crossed his face. “Ya gotta hand it to ‘im, eh?” I realised then he was a Joh supporter.
“Well,” I replied, “I don’t believe you had to, but that’s what you did.”
That was my last drink for the evening.
For many Queenslanders, Joh was not just their premier but a living icon. Conniving and ruthless, with no time for queers or boffins, Joh put uppity blacks and women back in their places and got on with converting precious ecosystems into playgrounds of vice and corruption. On our unreconstructed frontier, this qualified as pioneer spirit.
“Progress” my cane-farming Queensland relatives called it. Or, as Midnight Oil explained: “The rich get richer, the poor get the picture”.
Joh’s ‘march on Canberra’ was thwarted but I wonder if he hasn’t succeeded from beyond the grave.
Look at our environmental problems, our towns in crisis, and our disappearing industries; look at the statistics for domestic violence, problem gambling, ice addiction and Indigenous incarceration; look at the litany of scandals in banking, aged care, defence and government grants.
Look at our PM’s responses: his sneering, swaggering off-handedness; the smug banalities he offers; his contempt for the science community, our most trusted institutions like the ABC, and our international obligations. Look at his enduring popularity. Then tell me the whole country hasn’t finally become the Moonlight State.
And now we have alleged rapists and serial abusers in parliament. Naturally, there are cover-ups; and fresh generations of women marching, appalled they still need to, sharing stories of abuse which could only come from any time in history.
How do bad men keep getting away with it?
There’s an old saying that what we don’t know won’t hurt us. It sounds like something a perpetrator might say. But hiding the truth is only half the story. Spreading falsehood is the other half.
Acolytes of Edward Bernays, the patron saint of propaganda, recognise that when humans hear something enough its veracity becomes irrelevant; it starts to sound true anyway.
Joseph Goebbels drew extensively on Bernays’ work to seduce the German people to the Nazi program of tyranny and war. Employing the same techniques tobacco companies used to spread addiction, Goebbels demonstrated what Voltaire had asserted centuries earlier: those who can make us believe absurdities can make us commit atrocities.
This was Orwell’s 1984 nightmare. We are influenced by the people around us. Today they include the talking heads we see on TV and online. So in large societies, open and authoritarian alike, when media proprietorship is highly concentrated, the opinions we hear and even the subjects we consider are curated for us on behalf of a few powerful people.
As Noam Chomsky observed, it’s not that all people in public life are liars. Many of them mean what they say. But they’ve been selected by the hierarchies which run the platforms. They wouldn’t be in a position to tell us anything if they didn’t agree with the dominant narrative. Only when an issue touches them personally will the more prominent among them risk careers to break ranks.
It isn’t hard then for media barons and their well-heeled clients to do much of our thinking for us. Their self-serving messages saturate our social fabric. When challenged they recruit us to defend their opinions as ‘freedom of speech’ while hounding dissenters out of the country. And they deflect adverse attention by pointing damning fingers at scapegoats.
The Nazis publicised a long list of ‘enemies of the German people’: Jews of course, but also communists, academics, artists, homosexuals and eventually anyone who opposed them; the fact they were also German people didn’t count anymore.
Our federal government has a long list too: asylum seekers, trade unions, Indigenous activists, feminists, environmentalists; coincidentally, they’re equally reviled in the Murdoch, Stokes and Costello media empires; the ABC, government funded and also on the list, is shy of defending them; paid bots and trolls attack them on social media; and to be safe from joining these ‘un-Australians’ it appears you need to be from the IPA, Hillsong, big business, the LNP party faithful or a marginal electorate.
But cosseting supporters and demonising opponents isn’t enough. The rest of us need something to believe in. For Weimar Germans it was a thousand-year Reich. For contemporary Australians, it’s a suburban block.
The Price of Freedom
In the national psyche, real estate has supplanted nearly everything else: industry, commerce, the arts, the environment; nothing feels so important. As the government dismantles our public services and privatises the economy, our security, income, retirement, and access to aged care increasingly depend on how much we own. And the kind of job aspirants need to remit the requisite eye-watering debt is becoming so rare and precious that losing one is terrifying.
Imagine how much fear it takes to silence a whole hierarchy of people including ‘security’ personnel about an alleged rape. Imagine the pressure an abused woman must feel to submit to secrecy for years. How did Brittany Higgins explain it? She said she didn’t want to lose her job.
This is bigger than the ‘Canberra bubble’. Entitled boys may get to be ‘larrikins’, but acquiescence to unjust rule is the national norm. It isn’t new however; it arrived with the First Fleet.
Land of Opportunity
If there were free people in Australia in 1788 it was those who were here already. Arriving Europeans were prisoners and their gaolers.
Unlike their Indigenous sisters, most British women were virtual chattels of their menfolk. Fortune hunter husbands brought some here; trivial crimes of subsistence consigned others; all were intended for male recreation and breeding stock; every seamen aboard the Lady Juliana fathered a child on the journey. But once here, new opportunities emerged.
Wherever Europeans conquered native lands, lower caste settlers, emancipists and women were useful as colonists, for which service they could elevate their status. And the reagents for this human alchemy were land and labour.
Waves of immigrants followed suit. I grew up among Greeks and Italians who left intergenerational poverty in their homelands to become landlords in Australia. But another divergence from the British caste system occurred here. Among the convicts were political prisoners, and in remote and unruly exile, their revolutionary ideas encouraged rebellions, strikes and suffragettes. They envisioned a society where every citizen did better, not just those with power or great ambition. The children of the immigrant families I knew became surgeons, engineers, and architects through public education.
These two impulses remain in our cultural inheritance: self-advancement, which enshrined work and property; and collective endowment, which bestowed generous employment laws and public services.
But the old caste system didn’t disappear. Our imported ruling class and our new breed of social climber protected their privileges for their heirs; in patriarchal private schools, religious congregations, old boys’ networks, political parties, ‘think-tanks’, and by taking over our media. And as their power increased, they began to dismantle the social democracy the rebels and reformers had inspired.
The Howard era reshaped the productive symbiosis of the post-war boom into a battleground. And egalitarian Australia was its casualty.
Today our lucrative finance, insurance and real estate sector, whose flagship brand shares its name with the greatest of our colonial autocrats, herds us away from truly free enterprises into artificially scarce parcels of property harnessed to lifelong treadmills by onerous debt. It’s a new kind of pastoral Australia, on the ‘golden soil’ of wealth bequeathed by our defunct unionised industries, with modern Australians as the livestock, and our heartless social services yapping at our heels.
We’re not prepared to face the future; we’re trying to shelter from it. And it’s made us spineless. We know what injustice is. We know people are being harmed. But we’ve learned to look the other way.
The writer Caitlin Johnstone likens our relationship with our governments to that between a victim and an abuser. Why does she stay with him? Because her abuser systematically wore away her confidence and self-esteem while pretending to care for her.
Inequality, Complicity and Captive Institutions
This is why we have so much homelessness and child poverty; so many shuttered storefronts and unemployed youth; why the reef is dying, the inland rivers are drying up and koalas are threatened with extinction. It’s why women are still routinely harassed, abused and denied justice. The people we depend on to fix these things aren’t interested. They’re not working for us; they’re working around us.
It’s not as simple as the 1% screwing the 99%. Some advantages must trickle-down, lest the Emperor lose his new clothes. But as wages stagnate, markets boom, and pork gets barrelled, they land mostly on the 10% with significant investment income and the 30% with debt-free assets inflating in value. And that trickle depends on an upward flood from the poorest half.
Politicians exchange perks for donations and votes. The rich get richer with support from grateful underlings. And captive media make sure the poor get the wrong picture, blaming themselves or other disadvantaged groups for their misfortune.
Hence those with a share of the spoils profess that climate change is a conspiracy, or homelessness is a ‘lifestyle choice’, or there’s a good job for anyone who wants one, while the statistics they ignore scream otherwise. This is like saying “she asked for it”. Its purpose is to help us feel exonerated walking past a crime.
If we need to ‘balance’ anything against damage to the ‘economy’ it’s the rampant cult of rent-seeking which has replaced it; not the pandemic; not climate disruption; not our forests, soils or water. If by the ‘economy’ we mean the livelihoods of ordinary people, these aren’t conflicting priorities. Your brain isn’t in conflict with your liver because they both draw on your blood supply. They work in harmony or not at all. The person telling you otherwise is a bloodsucking vampire who craves it for himself.
No-one minds if someone becomes rich by making everyone better off. But when one group becomes richer by impoverishing others or destroying our natural heritage, society has become catabolic: it’s devouring itself. When the poor have nothing left to spend, only today’s ‘winners’ and their heirs will have anything for the rich to pillage. But that isn’t the worst of it.
The Divided Society
Privilege seems to act on the human constitution like Dr Jekyll’s potion; even a little imbues innate superiority and insensitivity to the suffering of others. This is why our ancestors discouraged individuals from owning or knowing too much. It’s like a drug. It creates an illusion of invulnerability. Once habituated we’ll do anything to get more.
When we’re privileged, we no longer care so much about fairness or even competence; we care about our privileges, even if they derive from nothing more profound than being white or male. In business, government and the media, we will tend to elect, appoint, hire and promote people who help us do that, people with fewer scruples and less concern for the common good. And they will resist the rigorous oversight which protects the character of our institutions.
When our wealth is unearned, the poverty around us looks like a threat. It makes us fearful. And fear makes us cruel. We justify locking up refugees, damaged kids and Indigenous people, persecuting whistle-blowers and cracking down on welfare recipients to protect ‘our way of life’. But once we accept such treatment for some, it can be extended to anyone.
Distressed multitudes soon surround our gated communities. When monsters appear we may feel attracted. Perhaps they can ‘get things done’. We don’t look too closely at their methods. We never imagine we could find ourselves on the list of ‘undesirables’. And we don’t realise it’s all happened before.
In the late 19th Century, after successive resource booms, two colonies – Australia and Argentina – were among the wealthiest per capita countries. A century later ours was a thriving social democracy while the latter was an impoverished dictatorship. What did Argentina get so wrong?
They did what we’re doing.
Final Boarding Call
If your goal is to remove corrosive misogyny from federal politics, I applaud you. But that’s not enough. How useful is improving an elite workplace if much of the country remains a haven for rapists? And how much do we gain by simply refurbishing the red right hand of oligarchy?
Fewer sex crimes won’t save the women killed by their partners every week when they can’t find safety. And keeping them alive and unmolested is paltry if they end up starving and homeless. These dispiriting trends won’t reverse while our ‘economy’ is configured to exploit the many to enrich the few.
Abuses multiply in our system because the system itself is abusive. It perpetuates mistreatment of women as well as Indigenous and less affluent Australians because it’s an exploitative hierarchical network stacked with well-connected but toxically acculturated white men. It’s their attitudes, not wealth, which ‘trickle down’ through our media and executive functions like policing and welfare into our streets, homes and workplaces. And those are stock-in-trade for our current federal government.
We must demand more than some daggy dad or whatever action figure the oligarchy appoints next. These changing personas conceal a shared devotion to money and power.
Many, including some women, who have assets or are busy acquiring them believe they’ll be looked after; life isn’t fair, they reason, so take what’s on offer, and to hell with everybody else. But it isn’t true.
No-one will be looked after in the future these dreadful vassals propose. There’ll be neither care nor compassion in it because they don’t have any. That’s how they made it to the top; selected for their willingness to put might above right. Their hell is for everyone but the few with a seat at the party fundraiser.
So don’t be satisfied with some heads on poles outside the parliament or more female faces within it. Don’t stop until no-one in the country is denied the security and opportunity afforded to the most privileged. Entitlements are safe only when they’re shared. If anyone is marginalised, we’re all at risk.
Don’t ever stop. The lovers of money and power work hard for their rewards. So we must stand firm for justice and integrity.
In 1975, Gough Whitlam asked Australians to maintain their rage at the dismissal of their elected government by the agent of a foreign power. But they did not. The media made sure they didn’t. Come election day, Australians voted for the co-authors of the dismissal because they had been assured that was the safest bet.
And when you look at our swashbuckling PM, as his government prepares to dismantle what’s left of Whitlam’s legacy once the propaganda machine has them safely reinstalled, do you say to yourself: “Ya gotta hand it to ‘im, eh?”
Because I don’t think we do.
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