The end of wedge politics?

August 3, 2007

When it emerged that Kafeel Ahmed, one of the men implicated in the June 30 botched terrorist attack in Glasgow, had a second cousin working in the Gold Coast Hospital in Queensland, it must have seemed to the Howard government that its election worries were over. Racism, xenophobia and the manufactured threat of terrorism have served Howard well in previous elections. However this time it backfired, with more public anxiety about the frame-up of Dr Mohamed Haneef than about supposed terrorists in our midst.

Haneef was held for 26 days in solitary confinement. The first 12 of these were without having been charged with any crime; most of the remainder were despite having been granted bail. Throughout his detention, government ministers and their stooges in the media and police force made all sorts of allegations against him — from prior knowledge of the June 30 attempted terrorist attacks in Britain to plotting to blow up a Gold Coast skyscraper. The fact that, at the time of his arrest, Haneef was attempting to fly to Bangalore, where his wife had just given birth to their first child, was also held up as being suspicious.

However, the mud did not stick. The only thing that struck most Australians as suspicious was that draconian "anti-terror" and immigration laws allowed someone to be imprisoned by government decree in contradiction to the decisions of a court. With the only evidence against Haneef being that when he left Britain for Australia he gave his SIM card to his relative Sabeel Ahmed (Kafeel Ahmed's brother), he was eventually released.

Since Haneef flew to Bangalore on July 29, continued attempts to smear him have failed. Immigration minister Kevin Andrews' assertion that Haneef's departure following his release "heightened suspicions" was risible. Leaving aside the fact that it was the same journey he had been attempting to make at the time of his arrest, it was Andrews himself who revoked Haneef's working visa, which is what allowed his continuing imprisonment after his release. Without this visa, Haneef was unable to return to his job and was in danger of being locked up in immigration detention at Andrews' whim.

The public release of a few out-of-context sentences from an English translation of an internet conversation in Urdu between Haneef and his brother Shuaib only raised suspicions about how the police obtained the transcript and why the government refuses to release it in full. An undated, anonymous dossier, purportedly from the Indian police, that was given to an SBS journalist on August 1 did allow for a 24-hour media frenzy alleging Haneef was linked with al Qaeda, but by August 3 Indian police had refuted the authenticity of that document.

The flimsiness of the case against Haneef and the injustice of his treatment are not unusual. The accusations against 13 men being held under "anti-terror" laws in Barwon prison in Victoria, and those against the nine men in Goulburn prison in NSW, are as nebulous as those against Haneef, perhaps more so.

They are not accused of planning any specific terrorist act but of giving support to a terrorist organisation. In both cases, the terrorist organisation is themselves. The Barwon 13 are also accused of possession of a "thing" (whatever that means). In 2006, Faheem Khalid Lodhi was sentenced to 20 years' jail after being convicted of plotting to blow up Sydney's electricity grid on evidence as secret as that used by Andrews to revoke Haneef's visa.

Seeing through the lies

What is different about the Haneef case is that fewer Australians are willing to believe the government's lies. In 2001, when the federal government subjected refugees, under no suspicion of any terrorist links, to racist vilification cruder than anything thrown at Haneef, it helped the Coalition win the next election. Six years later there are signs that this "wedge politics" is no longer working, and not only in relation to the Haneef case.

When Howard recently sent the police and army into Northern Territory Indigenous communities, only 25% of Australians, according to a Galaxy poll, accepted the government's claim that it was motivated by concern about violence and child abuse. There are very good reasons not to accept this claim.

For a start, the report into child abuse that the government used to justify its move specifically identified non-Indigenous men in positions of authority as the major perpetrators of sexual abuse of Aboriginal children. Yet Howard's takeover will enhance these men's power.

When one considers that sexual and physical abuse were routine in the Dickensian institutions to which many of the stolen generations were taken, and also a common experience of stolen children given to non-Indigenous families, a threat to again steal Aboriginal children in order to "solve" child abuse is grotesque. Just as grotesque is that only days after the police officer who beat Mulrunji Domadgee to death walked free from a Queensland court, police from all over Australia were sent into Indigenous communities, allegedly to save these communities from violence!

Furthermore, the Coalition government's sudden concern about the "dysfunctionality" of Indigenous communities came after 11 years of systematically de-funding those communities, whose infrastructure in health, education, housing, employment and other basic services was already worse than in most Third World countries. The Howard government's banning of Indigenous language education from NT schools increased Aboriginal disadvantage. The one "service" that Aboriginal communities have not been deprived of since colonisation is policing.

If all this was not enough reason to be sceptical about the government's claims, there's the fact that this "emergency rescue package" includes taking away land rights and opening Aboriginal land to mining corporations.

Public protest matters

That fewer Australians are willing to go along with the Howard government's racist lies reflects the fact that protest and resistance does change public opinion. The spontaneous uprisings of Indigenous people in Redfern and Palm Island in 2004, in response to killings by police, put the issue on the agenda. Likewise, while in 2001 only a minority of Australians supported the rights of refugees, this minority's willingness to raise their voices in the street, together with the protests of refugees locked up in the immigration jails, has led to a majority now being opposed to the mandatory detention of refugees.

The role of mass action is also clear in relation to the "anti-terror" laws. Civil rights lawyer Lex Lasry and anti-civil liberties Murdoch journalist Piers Ackerman have both drawn a link between the movement to get David Hicks out of Guantanamo Bay, which organised thousands-strong protest rallies in 2006, and public scepticism about the Haneef case.

Howard's attacks are increasingly directed at wider layers of society. On August 1, the government announced new police powers that include the right of police to surreptitiously enter and bug premises without a warrant and immunity for police to commit crimes in order to advance investigations. While these new powers are being justified in terms of the alleged terrorist threat, they will, in fact, be applicable in any investigation of a suspected crime that carries a potential sentence of 10 years or longer.

The government's Work Choices laws are another case in point. Union members may be a minority, leading the government to use its tried-and-tested methods of stereotyping and demonisation to try to whip up public fear about monstrous "union thugs", but the majority of Australians have jobs and those not in unions are most adversely affected by Work Choices. Indeed, many workers are seeing the need for unions for the first time.

The experience of losing protection from unfair dismissal, the right to strike and holiday entitlements, and facing the downward pressure on wages exerted by individual contracts, undermines the credibility of the government's propaganda around the industrial relations laws and that which attacks minorities.

The exposure of the lies used to justify the war in Iraq has had a similar effect. Moreover, after 11 years of staunch greenhouse denial, Howard's sudden recognition of climate change, while offering the dubious panacea of nuclear power, has not enhanced his credibility.

But the dynamics of wedge politics also need to be examined the other way round: why have so many people fallen for Howard's lies for so long?

Part of the reason is that racism and other prejudices are strongly entrenched in Australia, in particular against Aborigines. Moreover, the saturation fear propaganda since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US has affected the consciousness of the entire Western world.

No official opposition

However, a crucial factor in Howard's successful use of wedge politics is that, while there has been opposition in the street, the official, parliamentary opposition has been missing.

This was clearly illustrated in the 2001 "Tampa election", when then-ALP leader Kim Beazley refused to challenge Howard's lies about refugees, giving them more credibility. Kevin Rudd has taken this "me too" approach to absurd extremes. He has given total support to Howard's racist NT land grab. Rudd likewise supported the persecution of Haneef, although when an increasingly pressured Andrews lashed out at him for not offering anything different, he began calling for an inquiry into the "bungling" of the case.

Despite opinion polls showing that it is Work Choices that will likely win Labor the next federal election, at the behest of corporate bosses, Rudd has backed down on every promise to reverse the laws. Most astoundingly, while he summarily expelled from the ALP trade unionists Dean Mighell and Joe McDonald for standing up for their members' rights, he was willing to forgive retiring Tasmanian ALP MP Harry Quick for hitting the campaign trail with Liberal candidate Vanessa Goodwin and federal workplace relations minister Joe Hockey.

Such is the public disillusionment with Howard that not even the ALP's "me too" politics seem able to save the Coalition. But a Rudd victory at the polls will not mark a major change of direction in Australian politics. For this to happen the real opposition, the struggles in the streets, in communities and workplaces, need to continue and intensify.

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