Is dissent being silenced in Australia?

[Post restored from National Library archive]

If Clive Hamilton and Sarah Maddison are to be believed, the chapters of their edited collection Silencing Dissent: How the Australian government is controlling public opinion and stifling debate

paint a picture of Australian democracy in serious jeopardy….The longer term picture is even more worrying: authoritarianism can only flourish where democracy has been eroded.

As with the critics of political correctness claiming through the mass media that they were being censored by feminazis etc, this book suffers from a self-refuting quality – how silenced can be dissenters be if their book is released by a leading publisher and has lengthy extracts published in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald?

And it is bad timing when a book claiming there is an ???overall strategy of silencing critics??? through ???personal vilification of experts who do not share the government???s views??? appears in the bookshops the same day as The Australian has on its front page a picture of a beaming John Howard congratulating Tim Flannery, a long-term critic of the government???s climate change policies, on becoming Australian of the Year. Flannery promised to keep up the criticism.

What to do with examples like these is the problem this book never resolves, and indeed barely realises that it has – how much weight to give the evidence that supports their hypothesis compared to the evidence that does not. For every instance they report where the Howard government may have been too heavy-handed there are countless counter-examples where things have gone according to text book democratic theory. Why take deviations from good practice as representing the underlying character of the government, rather than what routinely goes on most of the time? Aren’t we seeing here the difference between a journalistic and social science view of the world, with the former focusing on novelty and breaches of norms, and the latter focusing on identifying averages and distinguishing them from outliers?

I’m quite prepared to believe, as the book argues, that people like Senators Eric Abetz or Bill Heffernan sometimes over-step the mark in their criticism of the government???s opponents. Buy why focus on those two? Most Liberal MPs – including the PM – almost always refrain from trips to the gutter. ‘Vilification??? should be discouraged as unhelpful to debate, but who seriously believes that it can ever be eliminated – or that ???democracy??? is threatened by it? Most people with a public profile accept that some personal abuse is inevitable, and that they should just let it pass. Howard is the most criticised individual in Australia of the last decade, but clearly he does not let it get to him. Thin-skinned lefties could learn that from him, if nothing else.

In his chapter on universities, Stuart Macintyre recounts, under the heading ???restricting academic freedom???, the story of former Education Minister Brendan Nelson rejecting several Australian Research Council grants he did not like. My own view is that Nelson made the wrong call on this, but the fact remains that most ARC grants pass through the Minister???s office without comment and the universities still get block research funding which they spend on anything they like – including attacks on the Howard government.

In the chapter on NGOs – a summary of survey research which The Australia Institute published more than two years ago – most government-funded NGOs felt that their funding affected their capacity to comment on government policy. But the original survey paints a more complex picture: 58% said that their organisation’s key messages were ‘often critical’ of the government, most thought that over the last five and ten years they had been more successful in getting their message across, and only a fifth had any formal controls on what they could say. So most of them are engaged in public debate, including commentary critical of the government. Also, the chapter fails to give any examples of NGOs that had their funding cut in circumstances where their criticism of government was clearly a major factor (though I can think of at least one example of a de-funded body that provided no useful service and was only a critic).

In looking at how systems function, the rule counts for more than the exceptions. Contrary to what Maddison argues in her chapter, Western democracies are ‘robust’, because though there are always some ad hoc departures from democratic norms there are no significant groups that reject the fundamental principles of democracy. So while at any given time there are things that could be done better, the basic institutions work – people can have their say, can organise politically, can run for office, and can vote in elections. When they lose elections, governments vacate office without question. Nobody worries that the military might intervene.

The book, in its focus on government or government-funded institutions, misses the distinction between ’silencing’ someone (ie actually prohibiting them from expressing their views) and merely not funding them to criticise the government. It should be a vital distinction, and it has only lost some of its significance because government funding is so pervasive. As the liberal right has argued all along, even if there is not a ‘road to serfdom’ there is at least a tension between a big state and a free society. But for the left-wing contributors to this book, it is hard for them to accept that the things they support, big government and ‘dissent’, may not be fully compatible with each other.

Silencing Dissent also overlooks the positive things that have happened for public debate in the Howard years – mostly relating to the internet. This is the most important democratisation of knowledge ever. Lots of information, including very large quantities of government information, that was once difficult and expensive to acquire can now be located quickly and downloaded for free. Numerous political groups use the web to organise themselves. Just about any opinion can be found on the web, with attempts at censorship largely doomed to failure. This is is the easiest time in Australian history to ‘dissent’ – and all the more so if you sensibly refuse to take any government money.

Though Maddison and Hamilton dismiss the ‘cabal’ of Howard-government supporters associated with Quadrant, the IPA and the CIS who they think will ‘disparage the editors and contributors to this book as hysterical Howard haters’, the CIS’s rejection of government money has given it the freedom to publish hundreds of thousands of words critical of the government without fear of retribution. Unlike lefties in NGOs and universities, we haven’t sold our souls to the state.