QUARTERLY ESSAY 26 His Master's Voice



Julian Burnside

David Marr’s essay was at once dazzling and depressing. By bringing together a list of events, principally from the past five months, he gives tangible shape to an uneasy feeling – the feeling that some very basic principles are being dismantled before our eyes; the feeling that John Howard’s rhetoric is an elaborate set of stage props which have kept most of us distracted and calm while the theatre burns around us.

Howard has stifled and channelled the public debate to such an extent that the boy who speaks of the Emperor’s new clothes will not be heard by many, and those who do hear will turn away in denial or despair. Marr’s snapshot of the recent life of Australia is almost too distressing to read. Its calm look at what is going on, and how those events are tolerated, ignored or not noticed, tells several powerful stories.

First, that we are losing (if we have not already lost) some basic features of what used to be valued in this country. Those who hold dissenting views are vilified or marginalised, while the crooners in the press fan-club are lionised. The War on Terror leads us to invade Iraq, thus increasing the risk of a terrorist attack, but at the same time democratic freedoms are dismantled in order to reduce the risk again. A peace activist is bundled out of the country for reasons which cannot be revealed – perhaps because Howard wanted to be seen as a war prime minister and talk of peace is somehow offensive or subversive. ASIO and the Australian Federal Police are given unimaginably vast powers, but somehow their bungling does not inspire a sense of greater safety. In short, all that matters is the way it is sold to us, the spin. Drawing on the lessons of history, Howard knows that the key to power is to make sure your message is the only one noticed by the average punter. No matter that the message is a lie to conceal earlier lies; what matters is that it is the dominant message. Provided others cannot be heard or will not be believed if they tell the truth, you can get away with murder.

The second thing we are losing is that deep primal concern about a fair go. Its content has been leached away until all that remains is comforting words of self-justification. We pay lip-service to the idea, and persuade ourselves that uttering the mantra is as good as achieving the thing itself. Superficially, the sudden reversal of public opinion about David Hicks looked like a triumph for the spirit of human rights and a fair go. But of course it wasn’t. Much more likely most Australians had written Hicks off as a dangerous fool who deserved about five years for what he did (or might have done, and who cares which?). With five years up, it was time to bring him home. No visible public sentiment about the colossal unfairness of the trial he was about to undergo; no general protest when Ruddock announced that he thought it would be a fair trial, despite the use of coerced evidence and hearsay. And not a squeak about the fact that the fair-go kids – Howard, Ruddock and Downer – had abandoned Hicks to his fate over the previous five years. And even now, no public alarm that Mamdouh Habib was rendered to Egypt for “enhanced interrogation” for the benefit of America and with the knowledge of the Australian government. Where was our capacity for courage when these things were revealed to us? 

Would Australians of the 1930s or the 1960s have tolerated a government so careless of one of its sons, whatever his faults? Would past generations of Australians have tolerated the barefaced lying, which is now so much Howard’s trademark that occasional truth seems an accidental embarrassment?

We do not trust Howard or his government. Trust went years ago. A range of lapses, from the GST to the exposure of the children overboard fable, made sure of that. Then the lies that took us into Iraq stripped away even the possibility of trusting him. But when did we lose the capacity to be outraged by it all? That’s the great loss. When did the majority of Australians settle back into their modest homes of increasingly astronomical price and decide that we can’t stop him lying to us, we can’t stop the hypocrisy, so who cares?

Because Marr’s essay is principally concerned with the past five months, it does not reach back to Al-Kateb’s case – that scar on the legal landscape of this country. Al-Kateb had come to Australia as a boat person. He applied for asylum and waited out his time in Woomera. His claim to asylum was rejected. Rather than stay longer in detention during an appeal, he asked to be removed from Australia. The Migration Act provides that a non-citizen without a visa must be detained until he gets a visa or is removed from Australia. Al-Kateb waited a long time in Woomera: removing him was complicated by the fact that he is stateless, and there was no country which could be forced to take him back. The anomaly faced by Al-Kateb and two or three others could have been fixed by a simple amendment of the Migration Act. Instead, the Howard government argued all the way to the High Court that Al-Kateb – innocent of any offence, not posing any threat to the community – could be held in detention for the rest of his life. On 6 August 2004, the High Court held, by a majority of 4 to 3, that the government was correct.

The wickedness of the argument still takes the breath away. It is still a shock to recall that the government was willing to contend for such a result. Al-Kateb’s case ought to be branded on the conscience of every Australian. 6 August should be declared a National Day of Remembrance, when we recall that a government once argued for the lifetime detention of an innocent man, simply because he asked for help and we couldn’t force someone else to take him off our hands. But Australians do not know about Al-Kateb’s case, because the media largely ignored it. None of the Howard cheer-squad – Andrew Bolt, Piers Akerman, Miranda Devine, Janet Albrechtsen – expressed even mild dismay that the government could contend for such a result. Between them they have a reach into most Australian homes. But so muted was their response to Al-Kateb (if they responded at all) that the wickedness of the government’s position remains, effectively, hidden. They are condemned by their silence. And they think, like Howard, that we don’t need a Bill of Rights because we have the majestic protections of the common law. Try telling that to Mr Al-Kateb.

It breaks the heart and tests the spirit to see the reckless cruelty of this government, and the way its image has been polished and propped up by the Howard fan-club in the media. Patronage and preference are valuable and flattering assets. It takes Spartan honesty to resist them, and Howard’s collaborators in the press are not made of such stern stuff. David Marr, and a few others, have the wisdom to see what is going on, and the honesty to report it. If Australia ever comes to its senses again, Marr will be among the heroes while Howard’s media acolytes will be consigned to the footnotes.


Julian Burnside QC is the president of Liberty Victoria.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 26, His Master's Voice. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 27, Reaction Time.


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