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Dismay Over Democracy: Alternative Policies For 2017


Australia has sunk to many new lows in recent years. Professor Stuart Rees outlines some ideas for a kinder, fair go nation.

In the wake of Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, the prospect of right wing successes in European elections and, in Australia, the rudderless Turnbull government, social analysts insist that citizens have lost faith in democracy.

In response to public dismay about capitalism and democracy, plus major political parties’ fear of an angry populism, Professor John Hewson has argued that the status quo should be thrown out and replaced by a complete policy re-think. I wrote a re-think analysis and submitted it to the Sydney Morning Herald who replied that they would not publish me, their disinterest seeming to reflect the assumption of mainstream press that the public is seldom interested in serious analyses.

Nevertheless, here for another readership is the re-think. It requires a reversal of the market-oriented convention that tinkering with an economy must precede efforts to build a just society: economy first, society later. A reversal of that way of thinking begins by emphasizing commitments to human rights and to social justice as catalysts for a vibrant economy.


The Consequences of Injustice

Sir Michael Marmot’s 2016 Boyer Lectures stressed the social and financial costs of injustice as illustrated by the links between ill health and crime, by the negative effects of poverty on early child development and by the formula – the fewer the years of education, the higher the risks of early death.

His perspectives on inequalities produce two policy priorities: the need to promote equal educational opportunities, hence the value of Gonski-type funding; and the need to defend and extend Medicare, not least by paying belated attention to mental and dental services.

Sir Michael repeated his concern about the limited life expectancy of Aboriginal people, the country-wide rates of youth suicide and the obscene rates of incarceration of Indigenous citizens. Each of those outcomes expresses violence. It is a violence defined by evidence of physical force, but also by a stifling of individuals’ opportunities for development.

Elder Kingie Ross, pictured in his humpy in the remote Utopian outstation of Irrultja.
Elder Kingie Ross, pictured in his humpy in the remote Utopian outstation of Irrultja.

Australian politicians acknowledge the consequences of domestic violence and have supported the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the sexual abuse of children, but there’s little evidence of thinking of Australia as a non-violent culture. They could do so by investing in non-violent ways of crafting policies, yet highly expensive and counter-productive forms of control and punishment persist, as in the continued abuses of the rights of asylum seekers, limited support for refugees and the counter-productive war on drugs.


A More Socially Just Economy

Changing stereotyped views about taxation could influence the management of an economy and affect vision about a country’s social and cultural objectives. Yet politicians and certain media commentators seem to think it is suicidal to refer to taxes in other than negative terms.

A longer term, historical view shows progressive income taxation as a positive phenomenon, the way to build a rights-with-responsibilities obligation of citizenship, a means of confronting inequalities, a crucial building block of a civil society.

Over time, the argument about social justice as a catalyst for national economies can be demonstrated in Nordic countries whose commitment to strong economic growth has included investment in people, as in regulated working conditions and substantial welfare provision.

Using commitments to social justice as yardsticks to assess the merits of economic policies also raises questions about transparency and accountability for government expenditure. Although all aspects of government expenditure should be subject to scrutiny and in spite of governments’ neuroses about budget deficits, two large areas of expenditure are somehow protected.

JS Hakuryu leads (l-r) JS Asayuki, HMAS Ballarat, HMAS Adelaide, JS Umigiri and HMAS Success in formation on approach to Sydney Heads during Exercise NICHI GOU TRIDENT in April 2016. (IMAGE: LSIS Nina Fogliani, Australian Defence Force).
JS Hakuryu leads (l-r) JS Asayuki, HMAS Ballarat, HMAS Adelaide, JS Umigiri and HMAS Success in formation on approach to Sydney Heads during Exercise Nichi Gou Trident in April 2016. (IMAGE: LSIS Nina Fogliani, Australian Defence Force).

If militarism is regarded as the means of providing security, then $50 billion spent on 12 new submarines and an untold amount on unproven and hugely expensive joint strike fighters might be justified. But if citizens’ security is obtained by non-violent means – as in educational and job opportunities and the means of obtaining an affordable home – then expenditure on an arms race fired by the fascination with obtaining the latest weaponry, should be strictly limited.

An even less justifiable expenditure concerns the $1.4 billion a year spent on paying multi-national corporations to contain asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru. The death of that policy may be at hand, but the life-long human and financial costs to the hundreds of vulnerable people punished by Australian injustice also needs to be calculated.


Courage for Democracy

A new philosophical and political narrative requires the resuscitation of old ideals. In common with Michael Marmot, the French economist Thomas Piketty advocates the promotion of collective interests over private ones. He documents the destructive consequences of immense inequalities of wealth and he argues that betting everything on democracy is the way to regain control of capitalism.

Reviving faith in democracy will also require a view of Australia as an international citizen committed to supporting universal human rights in foreign and domestic policies. Such a commitment requires courage to stand up to the bully boys of international politics. In its sponsorship of the recent UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements as a flagrant violation of international law, New Zealand showed such courage but Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop followed the usual cowardly line by indicating that Australia would have voted against the resolution.

Taking the opportunities for Australia to re-craft its understanding of the meaning of international citizenship could start with increasing the current niggardly contributions to overseas aid. Advocacy of the human rights of oppressed peoples, such as Tibetans, West Papuans, Palestinians and the people of Western Sahara would have little financial costs but considerable social justice and political benefits.

This social justice, human rights perspective is non-violent, enhances a country’s self-respect and national identity. The old narrative says Australian is an egalitarian country characterized by mateship. The new narrative needs to implement those claims at home and on an international scale.

Sticks And Stones May Break Israel’s Bones, But It’s Words That Really Frighten


The ‘Democratic State of Israel’ has decided to go ‘full North Korea’ and threaten to not renew an Australian Jewish journalist’s press visa for… wait for it… asking a question at a media event. Chris Graham explains.

Living in a free and democratic society is a glorious thing. And then there’s living in Israel… which is neither free (particularly if you’re Palestinian) nor democratic (particularly if you’re Palestinian).

And it turns out, it’s sometimes not so free or democratic for journalists either… even Jewish ones.

Antony Loewenstein is a respected Australian journalist, and an occasional contributor to New Matilda. He’s currently living in East Jerusalem, the Israeli-occupied part of the Holy City, having just finished a stint in Sudan where he’s been reporting on the civil war.

The news overnight is that the Israeli Government Press Office is “leaning toward recommending that his work permit not be renewed due to suspected BDS activity”. Which is not the real reason at all.

Australian journalist Antony Loewenstein.
Australian journalist Antony Loewenstein.

Loewenstein is a public supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, but hasn’t actually said anything publicly on the issue since 2014. So what’s all the fuss about now?

Loewenstein’s actual ‘offense’ – committed last week – was to have had the temerity to turn up to a Foreign Press Association event (he’s a member), and behave like a journalist. And by journalist, I obviously don’t mean a ‘mainstream’ one.

Guest speaker at the event was Yair Lapid, leader of the second most powerful political party in the country, Yesh Atid, who is himself a former journalist.

Loewenstein asked: “You talked before about the idea that since Oslo, Israel has done little or nothing wrong but the truth is that 2017 is the 50th anniversary of the occupation, there are now 600,00 to 800,000 settlers, all of whom are regarded by international law as illegal. Is there not a deluded idea here that many Israeli politicians, including yourself, continue to believe that one can talk to the world about democracy, freedom and human rights while denying those things to millions of Palestinians and will there not come a time soon where you and other politicians will be treated like South African politicians during Apartheid?”

Lapid’s response was instructive.

“Well, it’s a good thing that in my opening comments I talked about the fact that we live in a post-truth-post-facts era because you gave us a perfect example. These are presumptions, these are not facts.”

Stop you right there Yair….

Israeli political leader Yair Lapid.
Israeli political leader Yair Lapid.

You did suggest in your speech that Israel had done little or nothing wrong since the Oslo Accord in 1993. Which is of course complete rubbish – it’s a matter of well-known public record that your country has been accused of numerous war crimes since then.

And as Loewenstein noted, 2017 is the 50th anniversary of the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

And there are now at least 600,000 settlers living on occupied Palestinian land, and all of them are regarded as ‘illegal’ under international law.

Talk of Israel as an ‘apartheid state’ is very much common place these days… indeed BDS – a growing international movement and what Israeli media and the government are pretending the fuss is really all about – is based on the sanctions imposed against South Africa in the mid 1980s.

So Lowenstein’s question was rich with facts. And how did Yair Lapid’s response fare?


“It’s a declared policy of Israel, that we need to go to the two state solution,” Lapid replied.

Here’s the newly re-minted Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, telling voters in the shadow of an election in March this year that if elected there will be no Palestinian state.

Lapid also responded: “The one who called Jews pigs and monkeys in school books are the Palestinians.” Here’s a study dispelling that old chestnut.

And Lapid also said this: “Israel is not an Apartheid country. Israel is a democracy.”

In fact no, the question of ‘Apartheid’ aside, Israel claims to be a ‘Jewish Democratic State’, which means it can’t be a democracy, because it advantages the rights of Jews over all others.

In any event, the morning after his question, Loewenstein was being hunted not by the Israeli Government, but by Israel’s Fourth Estate… ostensibly employed to ‘keep the bastards honest’. Because, you know, it’s Israel.

The day after the event, The Jerusalem Post led the charge, reporting about Loewenstein’s ‘hostile’ question.

It sparked this rant from a website called ‘Honest Reporting’, which attacks ‘journalist activists’… while pretending to be a news outlet when it’s really just a pro-Israel activist site.

Eventually, the Israeli Government responded… ‘exclusively’, of course, to the Jerusalem Post, a publication you might most accurately describe as ‘The Australian of the Middle East’.

You can read an honest summary of events from Ali Abunimah at the Electronic Intifada here.

And for one that’s likely to make you throw up your breakfast, here’s how Tim Blair from ever-sycophantic Daily Telegraph weighed in on the issue.

And here’s Australia’s J-Wire, pretending that Loewenstein is a BDS activist.


It takes considerable chutzpah to stand at an Israeli Government press conference and ask difficult questions, knowing full well it might attract the sort of attention usually reserved for Palestinians.

Loewenstein has that chutzpah in spades. Thus, the final word belongs to him, and his unintentionally ironic summing up of the problem with media not just in Israel, but around the world.

“Like in so many countries, most reporters rarely challenge establishment power; they’re afraid of losing access.”

Which is precisely what Loewenstein is now facing. And not just access to the Knesset and Israeli press conferences, but to an entire country which pretends to be a free and democratic society.

We’ll keep New Matilda readers posted on the outcome. And you can follow Loewenstein’s work, along with his response to this issue, here and here.

* Please feel free to comment on this article, but be warned: Keep it civil, of you’ll be banned from the site. And if you engage in Holocaust denial… also a ban coming your way.

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