Apparently Australians are “easily persuaded,” “habituated,” “desensitised,” and we “have only the patchiest record of becoming passionate about great abstractions.” The Australian government is “savage,” with “dark motives,” and we are all a bit obsessed with “security, morality, respectability [and] order.”
These are some of the comments in the latest Quarterly Essay, authored by Fairfax journalist David Marr.
It would be fair to say that the author is a critic of the Commonwealth government. He says we are “practical,” and means it as an insult.
I take a more optimistic view of Australia. I think Australia should be kept safe from the threat of terrorism, and should not be a soft touch for people smugglers. I do not consider that violent street protesters are fighting for the “great abstractions” in life. I think the police do a good job in the main.
Australia is one of the world’s oldest democracies. People have been voting and participating in public debates here for far longer than they have in most other countries. The amount of popular participation leading up to Federation, for example, was unprecedented (this includes participation by people who did not then have the vote).
I do not take the view that Australians should be derided as unthoughtful or unsophisticated. Frankly, I would seriously question whether the elites who do take that view are really in touch with the Australian community or only circulate in a cloistered mutual-appreciation society.
Many of the allegations in the Quarterly Essay are factually incorrect. Even simple matters, for example the allegations that there are no Commonwealth protections for journalists or whistleblowers, are off the mark. According to the Quarterly Essay, “Canberra has none of Washington’s provisions to protect whistleblowers who go to the press” and there are “no shield laws to protect journalists.”
In fact, there are protections.
Public servants who wish to make a disclosure may do so either within or outside their department. The Public Service Commissioner, the Merit Protection Commissioner and the Commonwealth Ombudsman are all independent bodies to whom public servants may make disclosures. It is against the law for them to be discriminated against or victimised for doing so.
Similarly, the Commonwealth now has shield laws to protect journalists. To say otherwise is just wrong. The author may have been confused about a recent case in which two journalists were prosecuted in Victoria; because of the Victorian law at the time, there was no protection. It would hardly be fair to blame the Commonwealth for the state of Victorian law.
The Quarterly Essay’s general thesis is that in comparison with previous administrations, the current Australian government is making information harder to obtain and bullies anyone who dares to disagree. Inaccuracies about journalists and whistleblowers are used in support of this thesis.
There is also an argument that the Commonwealth’s immigration policies are part of a broader campaign against journalists. The Christmas Island detention centre was established, apparently, “to keep the cost of investigating these stories very high. It’s a long way to send reporters.” The truth of course is that the Christmas Island detention centre sends a very strong message to people smugglers and their clients. The message is that there is no fast‑track to the mainland. There is no way to jump the queue.
The Quarterly Essay also attacks the Commonwealth’s sedition laws. Again, the complaint is that they are part of a broader anti‑journalist conspiracy. Sedition, it will be remembered, involves inciting resistance to lawful authority, and may include the overthrow of a constitutional order. It is particularly relevant in the fight against terrorism. Terrorists see our democratic freedoms and institutions as a source of weakness. I refuse to let that be the case. Our way of life needs to be protected.
The Quarterly Essay accuses the government of bullying journalists. I do not accept that assertion and would suggest that the Howard government has distinguished itself from Labor in this area. When former prime minister Paul Keating did some bullying of his own recently, Marr went on television to describe it as “marvellous … it was marvellous.”
There are legendary tales of the former prime minister ringing journalists to give them a less than favourable character assessment. Keating was also notorious for declining to attend question time. His predecessor, Bob Hawke, was renowned for his colourful response to critics, and there are allegations that the current opposition leader’s office regularly berates editors and has issued threats to reporters to not report stories. But the Quarterly Essay does not address these.
This is not to say the current government measures itself by the behaviour of the former Labor government. It does not. The former government had lost touch with the electorate by focusing on the “great abstractions” and ignoring the basics. The current government on the other hand, is derided for taking a more “practical” approach.
In his criticism of the general public’s lack of dissent, Marr seems to celebrate the violent protests around WTO discussions and the G20 meetings, while deriding the actions of police and governments.
Yet another area of contradiction comes with the decision-making process. When public servants or decision-makers come up with a result he likes, they “turn out to be far less spooked” than the government. At least, this was Marr’s take when a series of videos was not banned under classification laws. The reality was the decision-makers were simply applying classification law as they saw it, but when the government sought a review of that decision, for some reason that was an unacceptable act. Even Marr should acknowledge that governments, like the rest of the community, have the right to appeal where that mechanism exists. Where there is uncertainty or doubt, it is a responsible action to follow through.
The essay is riddled with hyperbole. In 2005 Australia apparently did away with habeas corpus, allowing “arrest without charge and detention without trial.” According to Marr “it was difficult to see what bedrock rights remained.” If Marr was indeed right, in the intervening period there should have been hundreds – no, thousands – of people locked up under this oppressive regime. The facts are that under strict controls, people suspected of having knowledge of terrorist events can be questioned and/or detained for defined (short) periods. Some of these activities need court endorsement or are supervised by judicial officers. There is little resemblance between Mr Marr’s hyperbole and reality.
The government welcomes strong debate. It is a cornerstone of our democracy. We should be challenged on our ideas and policies and they should be scrutinised by the electorate so judgment can be passed.
In the final analysis, there is no conspiracy. Papers like the Quarterly Essay are presented and critique the government, the High Court has recognised a freedom of political communication in the constitution, and voters have the final say.
Australia is a wonderful country. I think most people are happy enough to recognise that. Others should consider it.
Philip Ruddock is the Commonwealth attorney-general and a former minister for immigration and for multicultural and indigenous affairs.
This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 27, Reaction Time.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY