Interview: Trading in Principle
Unions: While We Were Away
Politics: Follow the Leader
Bad Boss: Safety Recidivist Fingered
Economics: Casualisation Shrouded In Myths
History: Worker Control Harco Style
Review: Other Side Of The Harbour
All The Way With FTA?
State Of Confusion
Give Them A Medal
Dog Whistlers, Spin Doctor and Us
Truth in public discourse is critical in a democratic society. Truth has been discounted in the public debate about both boat people and Iraq.
In excising islands, we have shrunk Australia both legally and morally. In Iraq, George Bush and John Howard have achieved the seemingly impossible. They have fuelled terrorism and made a psychopath like Saddam Hussein a patriot to millions of people around the world.
Throughout the community, there is a nagging sense that not only our leaders but also our institutions are failing us.
Our major institutions are controlled by insiders who have lost real contact with their own constituencies. I illustrate with reference to the ALP, but the same general problem is true of the Liberal Party, public companies and churches.
Money has replaced membership as the driving force of political campaigns. In the USA it is called donocracy. In NSW the ALP is so successful in raising money from the corporate sector, particularly property developers, that it can largely ignore party members. Insiders with access to money rule the party, not members.
There were 195 delegates at the supreme policy making conference of the ALP in 2000 and 2002. Over 80% of the delegates at those two conferences were either Members of Parliament, staff of Members of Parliament, ALP officials, union officials or union staff. Over 80% were either on the public, party or union payroll. The 'rank and file' were largely excluded. No wonder party membership is falling, with less than 19,000 members voting recently to elect the President of the ALP. That is only about 140 members for each Federal electorate.
As a result of the declining membership and tight control by state party officials, successful candidates are not surprisingly insiders - staffers of politicians, friends or relatives of faction leaders. Gough Whitlam commented only last month, that it would now be difficult for him to get a start in politics because he was not a union official, a Labor staffer or a relative of an MP. Factions dominate and candidates are often chosen not on how they will perform in parliament or in the electorate, but on how they will vote factionally in the caucus. The best talent in the ALP Parliamentary Party is John Faulkner, but the NSW Right Faction won't even put him number one on their Senate ticket. Factional control is more important than winning government.
The ALP commissioned Bob Hawke and Neville Wran to investigate the ALP. They recommended that the rank and file directly elect a component of the national conference and that Federal MPs, their staff and party officials not be allowed to nominate for these positions. This proposal was rejected because the powerful insiders didn't want their power challenged. An historic regeneration opportunity was missed. The rank and file were given one crumb - the direct election of the President. They responded very clearly in choosing Carmen Lawrence ahead of factional nominees.
Unless the political parties broadly represent their voter constituencies, political cynicism and alienation will continue. While the major parties refuse to treat the community seriously and run away from public discussion, their natural constituencies remain disenfranchised. Those that are really enfranchised are the property developers and a handful of voters who are polled in the swinging electorates. Because the major parties are out of touch with their own constituencies, the debate on the big ticket issues runs into the sand - reconciliation, the republic, relations with Asia, climate change, salination and inequality.
This manipulation of political parties by insiders has been made more critical by manipulation of the truth on such issues as asylum seekers and Iraq. Protection of strangers is a central expression of the Christian faith. It is mentioned 36 times in the Old Testament 'You shall not molest or oppress an alien' (Exodus 22.20). Yet we tow 14 Kurds, secretly, back to Indonesia and implicitly acknowledge that the Indonesians will show more compassion and care for strangers than we will. Three cheers for Islam!
This bogus campaign against boat people ignores the 60,000 real illegals in this country, who legally entered Australia and stay illegally. Ministers seem to have a personal obsession with people-smugglers who bring people by boat, but little apparent concern about people-smugglers who bring women by air for prostitution.
We are told untruths time and time again about boat people. We are told they are a threat to Australia when the numbers are really miniscule compared with the millions that flood across borders in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Europe. We are incited to be fearful of boat people, yet the Department of Immigration's own web site (14/11/03) tells us that 'Historically the Australian examples of people smuggling which attract most media attention have been by boat. However, the majority of smuggling into Australia and other countries occurs by air.' I repeat 'by air'. In nine out of the last twelve years more unauthorised arrivals in Australia have been by air than by sea. Yet ministers and the media keep fraudulently harping only about boat people. The real target of ministers is not boat people or people smugglers. It is the Opposition.
We are told untruthfully that boat people are illegal, yet under the international convention on refugees, they are legally entitled to our protection at least until their claims are assessed. If they are found to be genuine refugees, we are legally obliged to find them safety, either in Australia or in a third country. If they are not genuine, we can then deport them as illegals.
We are also told untruthfully that boat arrivals jump the queue and the orderly process ahead of more deserving and needy refugees. In fact there is no carefully assessed list of those with 'superior claims', or those in 'greatest need'.
To assess those with superior claims presupposes that there is a queue with those in greatest need at the top of the queue. It doesn't happen that way. There are about 20 million refugees in the world seeking only 110,000 places. Only one refugee in 200 gets resettlement. In these circumstances, how could there be a queue or priority of need that means anything. It is a lottery.
With only one out of 200 refugees selected, we choose those refugees that are likely to settle best in Australia. Government priorities are set out in the 2002 Generic Guidelines B2 - Offshore Humanitarian Visas which is issued by the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs. The first priority is 'family ties with Australia', the second is 'other ties with Australia' and the third is 'having the potential to settle in Australia eg English language ability'. The facts are that we choose who will be the best settlers rather than priority of need. Migration officers will choose, for example, English-speaking professionals rather than illiterate women who have been abused. They apply migration-type tests.
The refugee program is in practice a quasi migration program.
The poor, unskilled, illiterate and non-English speaking refugees with no links to Australia and stuck in squalid camps may have superior claims to 'refugee status' but they are unlikely to be on our priority list. By any assessment, the Hazara people from Afghanistan would seem to have 'superior claims'. They have been a persecuted and disadvantaged minority in Afghanistan for centuries, even before the Taliban. But few are accepted as refugees. Why? Because most of them are at the bottom of our priority list. They have few family or other links to Australia and many are illiterate, do not speak English, and have few modern skills. The plight of the Hazaras explodes the myth about an orderly program with the most needy and persecuted being selected. Few Hazaras are ever likely to be selected offshore as refugees. Not surprisingly, they come unauthorised.
Just as with boat people, so with Iraq. No-one is held responsible for mistakes and untruths. Either the intelligence agencies failed in their duty concerning intelligence on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and those responsible should be disciplined, or Ministers were told the truth, ignored the advice, and should be held responsible. But accountability gets lost in a haze of dissembling and half truths. There is an implicit deal. The agencies won't embarrass the Prime Minister with inconvenient information, provided he doesn't hold them responsible for their failures. Having failed to enforce ministerial standards over a long period, the Prime Minister cannot enforce standards on his own security advisers.
This trail of untruth on Iraq pollutes public debate and imperils our security, as well as causing wide-spread death and destruction.
Ministers may salivate about each new security threat or photo opportunity with our troops, but their actions are imperilling our security.
So serious is the problem of untruthfulness in public discourse that it is worth stopping to consider how Commonwealth and State governments put a spin on the truth. As John Major, the former British Prime Minister put it 'spin is the pornography of politics. It perverts. It is deceit licensed by the government.'
With more floating voters and reduced differences between the parties, style and presentation is much more important. Continual opinion polling also sucks the oxygen out of open debate. Why debate an issue, we are told, if the public has already made up its mind. If Malcolm Fraser had read only opinion polls, we would never have taken over 100,000 Indo-Chinese refugees, including 4,000 boat people.
In an information rich age, information is power. So with the control of news flow, particularly in time of war, comes power to manipulate the debate.
In spinning, many of the following techniques are employed.
'ensure that those who would tell ministers what they do not want to know don't have access; provide "deniability" by ensuring that ministers can profess ignorance of information which becomes politically inconvenient to know (like children overboard) ... and browbeat and intimidate public servants to ensure that public service performance accords with political objectives.'
Some parts of the media have become part of the political system. Journalists are insiders along with ministers, particularly in a fish bowl like Parliament House, Canberra. That is why the best political commentators are Canberra outsiders. They have not been caught in the spinners web.
But in addition to spinning there is also another technique, the Government has adopted. It is called 'dog whistling', putting out different messages in different registers, so that a message, often of fear or prejudice, will be heard by a targeted group. Let me give you some examples.
The whole technique of dog-whistling is to send a message, but at the same time to wash one's hands of responsibility.
Clearly the number of spinners or ministerial advisers must be reduced. Their anonymity must be challenged with their names published and their roles fully disclosed.
They must be accountable to the parliament. At present ministers are accountable but not their advisers. As the former Secretary of the Department of Defence, Paul Barrett, put it 'numerous military and civilian people claim to have told Reith's office and told Howard's advisers that "no children were thrown overboard", but the ministers all say "nobody told me".' Barrett added quite correctly 'either you regard the ministers staff as indivisible from the minister and therefore the minister has been told, or if the staff is a separate group of people they ought to be accountable to parliamentary committees'. For good governance and integrity of public debate, this issue needs urgent attention.
More important than any of this is the fostering of a culture of openness, professionalism and indeed, some courage, by senior public servants. Very few of us lie in our public roles. The much easier course is to stay silent. I fear that for the sake of influence and access, some senior officials in recent times have decided to stay silent. They have succumbed, not to partisanship, but to the detailed political micro-management of the public service by the Prime Minister. Sometimes staying silent may be the prudent and sensible thing to do. But it is a concern when remaining silent becomes a habit.
Freeing our political parties of factionalism and insider control, and truthfulness and transparency in public discourse requires leadership. Historically, we have found that with good leadership, we do respond in decency and fairness to the 'better angels of our nature'.
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