Are we really asleep?


Silencing Dissent

Edited by Clive Hamilton & Sarah Maddison

Allen & Unwin, 2007

279 pages, $24.95

Silencing Dissent is about how the Howard government is stifling public debate. It includes some startling examples from media commentators, academics and public servants about how this creeping censorship, and self-censorship, is playing out.

Clive Hamilton and Sarah Maddison argue that Australia has undergone a "conservative-populist counter-revolution" over the last 11 years. They cite the Howard government's abandonment of reconciliation and multiculturalism, its refusal to tackle climate change and its unlawful invasion of Iraq as critical examples of this disturbing trend.

Alongside this, they argue there's been an absence of public scrutiny, and of "spirited, honest and intelligent debate", something, they argue, is essential in any democracy. If democracy can be measured by the capacity for ordinary people to participate in public life beyond the ballot box, as they argue, you'd have to say that while the capacity is there, the political willingness is not.

No doubt this is due, at least in part, to the unwillingness of key social movement institutions — including the trade unions, which have traditionally played a big part in organising working people — to take political action around a variety of issues.

But the fact that the social movements are currently at a fairly low ebb, rising sporadically around issues such as IR and war, cannot be put down to a general lack of public concern. Opinion polls continue to show there's widespread concern with runaway greenhouse gases and climate change, the stripping of workers' rights and the endless and bloody wars in the Middle East. This concern hasn't translated into a mass, ongoing social movement with the political muscle to force some fundamental changes — the question is, what's preventing this? The fact that this question isn't addressed seems to be an oversight.

A critical factor in how dissent is being silenced, and a topic the authors only mention in passing, is the role played by the ALP in the political landscape of the last 11 years.

While Hamilton and Maddison note in the first chapter that a vigorous parliamentary opposition is important to any democracy and that the federal ALP has not been, they argue that this book is not the place to "detail the woes of the ALP, except to note that its internal politics, poor parliamentary performance and leadership, and the lack of policy activism have done little to challenge, probe or scrutinise Coalition Government decisions". And they move on — which leaves this reviewer, at least, a little frustrated.

Central to the problem of the Howard government being able to carry out its conservative agenda remains the problem of the lack of opposition, in parliament, but even more importantly outside of it — in communities and workplaces. Fundamentally, this comes down to the retreat over the last decade or so to narrow and increasingly bureaucratic trade unionism (although not all unions have done this), a major cause of Labor's backsliding.

This is an important part of any discussion about how Howard has gotten away with silencing dissent. But it is neglected in Hamilton and Maddison's otherwise useful book, which documents the steps the Coalition has taken to manufacture consent.

From the closure of various specialist university departments and centres (such as the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy at the Australian National University), the laws allowing ministers to more tightly control research funding (thereby restricting academic freedoms), the loss of academic authority, the dramatic decline in funding of scientific research, the political stacking of advisory bodies (such as on greenhouse gas emissions and the "task force" into nuclear power), directives to statutory bodies such as CSIRO not to release information it deems will cut across the government's own climate skeptic message, Silencing Dissent contains many examples of Canberra's cynical policy approach.

The attacks on NGOs, particularly those that have been critical of Howard's policies, is also described in some detail. The authors conclude that those still being funded, such as the World Wide Fund for Nature, are prepared to toe the line. Those which don't, such as the small radical Aid/Watch group based in Sydney, get their tax deductibility status withdrawn.

A chapter on the media by Helen Ester documents the increasing difficulties independent media outlets are having, as well as those which rely on government funds. She looks at how the government used the mainstream coverage of the build-up of opposition to the Iraq war as a way of pushing its own "political correctness" lie. The Coalition's idea of "balance" was to appoint Keith Windschuttle, an "historian" who disputes the fact that Europeans eliminated masses of Indigenous Australians when they colonised this country, to the ABC board.

Andrew Macintosch's chapter on statutory bodies covers the centralisation of power in Canberra, and particularly around the PM's office. He details how this has affected the operations and effectiveness of public bodies such as the ABC, the Australian Heritage Council, the Fair Pay Commission and the National Museum of Australia, among others, concluding that Howard's campaign to limit public agencies' independence by stacking them with conservative individuals has been "executed with precision and to excellent effect".

Andrew Wilkie describes the politicisation of the military and intelligence services, and the treatment meted out to whistleblowers, such as UN weapons' inspector Rod Barton, who cried foul about the reasons for going to war in Iraq.

Strangely, no treatment is given to the bipartisan support for the anti-democratic "anti-terror" laws that are having the dual effect of dividing communities along race and religious lines and silencing those of Muslim or Arabic background from speaking out.

My other main concern with Silencing Dissent is the implicit and underlying view that a large part of the Australian population has fallen asleep during the last decade.

The facts do not bear this out. There's ample evidence of ongoing critical thinking that has, and is still, leading to action: the Maritime Union of Australia dispute in 1998, the East Timor crisis in 1999, the protest against the World Economic Forum in 2000, opposition to the Iraq war, anti-Work Choices campaign, forest and uranium protests. These and many other social injustices have stirred people into action. Even Pauline Hanson brought millions into political debate and action — for and against her racist agenda.

While it's true that the movements of dissent have tended to be sporadic in the last decade, they indicate that it's inaccurate to say the problem is one of complacency. More than anything else, the finger has to be pointed at the failure of the old leadership of the social movements.

The challenge now is for the social movements to construct new leaderships that are prepared to organise independent popular struggles against the current bunch of neo-cons in Canberra, and any future ones. Organising mass political dissent — not a reliance on a handful of brave individuals who dare to speak out against any and all attempts to silence us — is critical to beating back the neoliberal orthodoxy.