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Silencing Dissent uncovers the tactics used by John Howard and his colleagues to undermine dissenting and independent opinion. The victims are charities, academics, researchers, journalists, judges, public sector organisations, even parliament itself. Deeply disturbing, Silencing Dissent raises serious questions about the state of democracy in Australia.
Foreword by Robert Manne
Over the past decade Australia has undergone a profound transformation, a kind of conservative-populist counter-revolution. The Howard Government has abandoned both the quest for reconciliation and the idea of multiculturalism. It has closed our borders to all those seeking refuge here by boat, by the use of military force. It has adopted a foreign policy of a more uncritically pro-American kind than was seen even in the era of Menzies. As part of that policy, alongside the Americans and the British, it has drawn Australia into the unlawful invasion of Iraq, which has predictably seen that country descend into the bloody chaos of sectarian civil war. It has turned its back on the first stage of the international fight against global warming, by refusing to sign the Kyoto Protocol. It has allowed the erosion of vital principles of our system of government—like the independence of the public service and the idea of ministerial responsibility.
What has been puzzling about this process is the absence of powerful scrutiny of the drift of the nation, of a spirited, honest and intelligent debate. While Australia has been transformed, large parts of the nation have seemed to be asleep. In a book I edited in 2005, Do Not Disturb: Is the media failing Australia?, one possible answer to this puzzle was suggested—the melancholy condition of the mainstream political media. In Silencing Dissent an even more alarming answer is provided—namely, that since its election in 1996, the Howard Government and its faithful followers in the parliament and the media have pursued a partly-instinctive and partly-conscious policy of systematically silencing significant political dissent.
It is at the heart of the argument of this book that there has been not one but many different ways in which this single objective has been pursued. Let me list some of the more important outlined here. In parliamentary inquiries government supporters have frequently showered expert witnesses of whom they disapprove with personal abuse. Scientists employed by government-funded agencies have been prohibited from communicating freely with the public on matters as serious as global warming. The independence of statutory authorities has been all but destroyed. The appointment of three of the country’s most strident cultural warriors to
the Board of the ABC was only the most conspicuous example of the Prime Minister’s conduct of a ‘long march’ through all of the culturally sensitive institutions of society. This process was deepened by a parallel trend—the use of government patronage and the taxation system to silence the voices of the non-government organisations, fully ninety per cent of whom now believe that they risk losing government funding if they freely speak their minds.
The government’s obsessive and unhealthy desire for control has extended well beyond suborning previously independent institutions and taming NGOs. When inquiries into catastrophic policy failures are judged to be unavoidable, it has either appointed trusted insiders not likely to embarrass the government (Iraq) or so framed the terms of reference that a politically embarrassing finding can be ruled out in advance (AWB). The same government desire to close down potential sources of dissent has recently affected its relations with the Senate. As soon as the government had the numbers, it made clear that the era of embarrassing independent Senate inquiries was over. Even its willingness to cooperate fully with the invaluable estimates hearings began to unwind. Long before, the desire to silence critical voices at the highest levels of the public service had also been made clear. To teach every public servant a salutary lesson, Admiral David Shackleton (over the children overboard affair) and the head of the federal police Mick Keelty (over Iraq), were openly humiliated for speaking truthfully but out of turn. Under Howard, even behind closed doors, public servants have been obliged to forget earlier lessons about the virtue of fearlessness, and to learn new ones about the importance of not offering unwanted advice. Inside the public service a spirit of stifling conformity and an atmosphere of general intimidation have come to prevail.
The health of a democracy relies on many different things: limited government; strong civil society; the independence of autonomous institutions; the encouragement of dissident opinion, wide-ranging debate. All these values are presently under threat. The Howard Government has become more intolerant of criticism and greedy for control the longer it has been in power.
The evidence presented in this volume offers the most compelling case yet about the increasingly authoritarian trajectory of the political culture during the Howard years. In addition, it offers vital clues about why opposition to the government’s counter-revolutionary transformation of the country, in so many different spheres of public life, has thus far proven to be so weak.
For both these reasons Silencing Dissent is a timely, disturbing and unnerving book.
Robert Manne, 5 November 2006
In the news
Reviewed by Michelle Grattan, The Age
February 23, 2007
John Howard promised more open government but his years in power have brought an unrelenting attempt to control information and views. Such promises might or might not be honoured by a Rudd government. They certainly weren’t by the Howard one. A few months after he won power, the new prime minister was celebrating that the “pall of censorship” had been lifted – people could speak out more freely without being labelled bigot or racist. If so, one curtain was soon replaced by another, and the new jibe was to label those you wanted to denigrate as from the “elites”. Read the full article on The Age website…
Days of mourning in a secret Australia
Published 19 February 2007
Of all the great Australian pastimes, silence is currently the most popular. This is largely due to a fear of speaking out, described in a rare book, Silencing Dissent, by Clive Hamilton and Sarah Maddison. The authors’ fellow Australian academics and writers say little if anything publicly that might upset the all-controlling Bushites of John Howard’s government and its inspectorate in the media. Trial by media of Australia’s domestic victims, be they Aboriginal or Muslim, is standard practice. Officially approved platitudes pass as news and commentary, along with weary stereotypes of much of humanity, from heroic Aussie cricketers to whingeing Poms and mad mullahs. Read the full article on the New Statesman website…
Sydney Morning Herald
By David Marr
When John Howard became prime minister, he made sure the tactics he used so brilliantly to claw down his rivals would never be turned against his government. The great leaker would stop the leaks. White-anting would end. There would be zero tolerance for dissent within the party, the government and the bureaucracy … In Silencing Dissent, the unnamed head of an anonymous non-government organisation catches the new message from Canberra perfectly: “We do not fund organisations to criticise us.” Ten years down the track, the editors of this fine collection of essays are taking stock. That the ground rules and language of public debate have changed enormously is not really in dispute. At issue is the extent of the damage done. Read the full article on the SMH website…
The Australian Book Review
Challenging the Government’s version of democracy requires broad discussion, writes Patrick Allington
3 February 2007
AN early election-year salvo, this book offers succour to “Howard haters”: editors Clive Hamilton and Sarah Maddison argue that during its decade in power, the federal Coalition has systematically dismantled democratic processes, stymied open and diverse debate and avoided making itself accountable to parliament or the community.
Dissenters, even of the non-threatening variety, have found themselves sidelined, intimidated or publicly attacked, including via parliamentary privilege. All of this, Maddison states, reflects not merely a government enforcing its particular version of democracy but amounts to a serious deterioration of Australia’s democratic health. Read the full book review on The Australian website…
Sydney Morning Herald
The repression of the bleeding hearts
27 January 2007
A decade is a long time to be in government. Any government in power for so long will leave an indelible mark on the society it governs, changing the culture, identity, values and direction of the nation. For those in the community who disagree with government policy, there is some comfort in the knowledge that at the very least they can publicly express their dissenting opinions through the recognised institutions of democracy. This capacity for public debate and dissent ensures that governments must continue to publicly justify their decisions – a hallmark of democracy. But what happens when these democratic institutions are themselves eroded by government. What are the costs when a government tries to ensure that its values are the only values heard in public debate? What are the consequences for a nation whose citizenry is denied essential information about controversial policies? Read the full article on the SMH website…
Metior (Murdoch University)
Silencing Dissent – Book Review by Allan Boyd
31 January 2007
Silencing Dissent is an appropriate book for an appropriate era. At a time of increasing cultural homogeneity, collective apathy and lack of community participation in Australia, this book examines how for over ten years, John Howard’s conservative Liberal-Coalition government has employed intimidation, deceit, obfuscation and conspiracy to silence and ridicule those who seek to dissent its policies. Silencing Dissent reveals how our Australian democratic institutions, both government and NGOs are being eroded. The very heart of public participation has defected – and this book shows how and why. Read the full book review.