John Pilger: Howard whips up pro-war paranoia



Strange days in Australia. "Paranoia in the lucky country", say the headlines in Sydney, "Terror threat grips a nation". The government led by Prime Minister John Howard has issued full-page advertisements calling on Australians to protect their "friendly, decent society" from terrorists within by spying on each other.

More than 1000 people have used a hotline "to report things", causing grief to Muslim Australians. Asked if he thought it better that Muslim women made themselves "less conspicuous at this time" by not wearing distinctive headdress, Howard replied: "Obviously."

Howard's is the only government in the world willing and eager to join US President George Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair's assault on Iraq, a faraway country that buys Australia's primary produce and with whom Australians have no quarrel.

For those Australians yet to succumb to the amnesia of the times, this is all very familiar, evoking a melancholy history of obsequious service to great power: from the Boxer Rebellion in China to the Boer War, to the disaster at Gallipoli, and the wars in Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf.

Some years ago, I interviewed an Australian warrant officer who had served on a CIA-run assassination team in Vietnam, and ruefully recalled to me the words of his US commander. "We really like using you guys", said the American. "It's like this: the British have the gurkhas; we've got the Australians."

In denying the truth of this humiliating role, and mythologising the war fodder of its youth, imperial Australian elites have kept the public in what a former deputy prime minister once called "the mushroom club". "Like mushrooms", he explained, "they are kept in the dark and fed bullshit".

A vivid example of this is Australia's current role in the "war on terror". Recently, the head of the SAS announced that his heroic troops had "helped break the back of al Qaeda" in Afghanistan. This amazing victory, unknown to the rest of the world, was reported without a hint of irony, let alone the truth of what Australian troops actually did in Afghanistan — kill tribespeople without knowing who they were.

Mushroom Club citations have been handed out. An Australian pilot beams from the news pages with his American Bronze Star, awarded for flying Black Hawk helicopter gunships "in combat". Untold numbers of innocent Afghan villagers were killed by these gunship attacks; but that is beside the point.

The gormless television news begins with "heart-warming" scenes of Australian sailors being welcomed home from the Gulf, where they are "playing a leading role in the international community enforcing the sanctions against Saddam". There is no mention of the human cost to their fellow human beings, not a word about the latest, shocking UN "State of the World's Children" report which notes that child mortality in Iraq has tripled since sanctions were imposed.

Unheard and unheeded by the rest of the world, Howard is our mouse that roars. Almost anything that falls from the lips of George Bush or US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld is repeated by him.

When Bush announced that America would attack any country as "pre-emptive" action against "those harbouring terrorists", Howard chimed in and threatened Australia's Asian neighbours with attack, demolishing what was left of Australia's diplomatic reputation in its region. None of this almost comical warmongering is reflected in the public mood, as far as I can detect. The task of humiliating England's cricketers has been far more important. Moreover, half the population oppose Australian involvement in an attack on Iraq.

Following the Bali atrocity in October, in which many young Australians died, what was striking was the public's restraint and mood of reflection; a number of relatives of the dead have since called on Howard not to use the murder of their loved ones to justify joining an unprovoked attack on another country.

In contrast, "paranoia" and "threat" are daily media fare. A Mushroom Club "exclusive" in a Murdoch tabloid, the Herald Sun, claims that "terrorists train in forests in secret camps" near Melbourne. Australia has the most narrowly based and tightly controlled press in the western world. Seventy per cent of capital-city newspapers are owned or dominated by Rupert Murdoch; in Adelaide he controls everything, including the printing presses. The only national daily, the Australian, is owned by Murdoch. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, directly funded from Canberra, is routinely intimidated. Much of the rest is Murdochism by another name.

This is demeaning for Australian democracy, but never more so than now, when the fabrication of a war atmosphere here surpasses any absurdity spun by British home secretary Jack Straw. The foreign editor of the Australian, Greg Sheridan, is not untypical. Sheridan earned a formidable reputation as an apologist for the genocidal Suharto regime in Indonesia, mocking the Australian parliament's study which revealed that 200,000 East Timorese had died under Suharto's brutality.

Now a crusader for Bush, Sheridan's work is beyond parody. "Travelling recently in south-east Asia", he wrote, "I was struck by how often, in the offices of Islamist activists and fellow-travellers, I saw the works of Noam Chomsky, and somewhat less often our own John Pilger [who] provide the Islamists with much of their interpretive narrative of the west."

On other forms of "terror", closer to home, the hysteria is different. Imprisoned behind razor wire in some of the most hostile terrain on earth, in what, by any definition, are concentration camps, are refugees who have committed no crime. Many are from Iraq and Afghanistan, the countries to which Howard is prepared to send troops "in the cause of freedom". The racism is self-evident.

The conservative former prime minister Malcolm Fraser has described these camps as "hell-holes". The Catholic Commission for Justice, Development and Peace has described conditions in the camps as "institutional child abuse".

When the head of the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, Louis Joinet, was finally allowed to visit Woomera and other camps, he said he had not seen a more gross abuse of human rights in more than 40 inspections of mandatory facilities around the world. The minister responsible for the camps, Philip Ruddock, once boasted to me that Aboriginal infant mortality was "only" three times that of white children.

The Howard government opposes the protocol designed to strengthen the UN Convention Against Torture. Alexander Downer, the foreign minister, unwittingly explained why. He said he did not like the idea of UN officials from the Committee Against Torture arriving unannounced to inspect its refugee detention camps.

Racism is never far from the surface in Australian politics. Howard promoted a "One Australia" movement in the 1980s, the precursor of Pauline Hanson's campaign, with its veiled white-supremacist message.

Howard is now lauded in the media for his "political skills". Having waged a war of attrition against Aboriginal people, denying them universal land rights and incurring a shaming judgement of racism from the UN committee on discrimination, Australian government policy is clearly directed at exploiting the "threat" of non-European refugees — when, by any measure, there is no threat. Some 4000 asylum seekers arrive illegally by boat in Australia every year, one of the lowest figures in the world.

During the last election campaign, in October 2001, it has since been revealed that Howard and his ministers lied about refugees throwing their children into the sea. His re-election was credited to this "tough stand". While he was telling his favoured radio talkback bigots why it was kind to be tough, a leaking boat on its way to Australia took 353 people to their deaths — including 150 children. Known only as the SIEV-X, it was overloaded with Iraqi refugees and in waters near Australia.

An inquiry by the Australian Senate last March disclosed that the Australian navy had extensive prior knowledge that the SIEV-X was in a perilous state.

It is questionable whether the navy let the ship sink, but what is clear is that Australia's defence forces have become immersed in corrupt, callous and racist policy designed to keep the Howard government in power. Navy personnel have been ordered to act as jailers; and prior to their accredited heroics in Afghanistan, Australian SAS troops were sent into action against a Norwegian ship whose captain had rescued asylum-seekers from drowning in Australian waters.

A handful of tenacious journalists have told these stories for as long as they can, but a consensual silence inevitably descends on what George Orwell called "smelly little orthodoxies". The price Australians are paying for this silence and compliance is not immediately obvious in these midsummer days. But Australian social democracy, which was achieved by the struggle of the ordinary people of my parents' and grandparents' generations, is being subverted if not dismantled.

A "free trade" treaty with the United States is being negotiated, mostly in secret, giving the US a version of the one-sided North American Free Trade Agreement and de facto legal control over everything from Australia's quarantine laws and the pricing of drugs to the spread of genetically modified food and the content of Australian television. There is virtually no public discussion about this surrender of sovereignty.

And as the Bush gang destroys America's Bill of Rights, so the Howard gang follows suit with, as Scott Burchill of Deakin University in Melbourne wrote, "confected wars against imaginary or exaggerated threats [as] an effective tool of social conformity and a powerful antidote to political dissent". In a land plentiful with academics, Burchill is one of a handful who have dared speak out.

As for the federal Labor opposition, its mostly invisible leader, Simon Crean, has commended the CIA's assassination of "terrorist suspects". With no public scrutiny, the Labor government of New South Wales is enacting legislation that gives its police force totalitarian powers in the "war on terror".

The great American sage Mark Twain loved Australia. He described it as "a place where the ordinary man is king, or thinks he is". In The Mysterious Stranger, published in 1916, Twain also wrote about "statesmen [who] invent cheap lies, putting the blame upon the nation that is attacked, and every man will be glad of these conscience-soothing falsities . . . and will thank God for the better sleep he enjoys after this process of grotesque self-deception".

From Green Left Weekly, February 5, 2003.
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