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.

25 thoughts on “Is dissent being silenced in Australia?

  1. Clever post. The contradictions you cite show your case well.

    I still think the uncivilised left are more authoritarian in silencing their critics than John Howard and the Liberal Party. Its as you’ve said early – the left feel morally outraged by the right but the conservative side of politics sees the left as morons who put their emotions where their brains should be. And why should you feel threatened by them?

    I don’t see much repression of opposition to the war in Iraq or the government’s policies on climate change. On the latter too the opposition is influencing policy.

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  2. Excellent post. The dissapointing thing (or, at least, one disappointing thing) about books like this is that they make it harder for those who come later with serious research to get a hearing. I would not be surprised if there were examples of ‘pressure’ being placed on NGO’s to refrain from criticism – and I would think that it is much more likely that this would occur at a State level than the federal level), but that this pressure would be much more subtle than outright threats or withdrawl of funding… it would be interesting to see some in depth research as to whether officers of NGO’s adopt or refrain from adopting particular discourses because they are under a *mistaken* immpression that this might make a difference…

    At any rate, I would have to concur with the statement that the left is much more repressive in its response to ideas it doesn’t like… I am reminded of the furore surrounding Mirko Bagaric’s article in the San Francisco Law Journal last year, which forced him to stand down from the RRT…

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  3. John Howard seldom indulges in vilification of his critics (the Quadrant speech in which they were alleged to have grown fangs being a notable exception). This may well be because he doesn

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  4. Chris – Nobody disputes that there are plenty of frank expressions of views in Australian politics (and indeed Silencing Dissent ‘vilifies’ the Howard government for allegedly opposing democracy). The question here is whether it is a threat to democracy or not – I would say not at all, and especially not when those perpetrating the attacks have as their weapon a newspaper column, and not violence or imprisonment.

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  5. Agreed. I can’t see democracy disappearing in Australia any time soon. It could be argued that extreme vilification of certain ideas can endanger democracy’s capacity to act as a self correction mechanism as distinct from democracy it’s self, but Australia is nowhere near that point (and inspite of the impression given by some of John Howards bellyaching about political correctness hasn’t been for a very long time, if ever).

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  6. A visit to any bookshop in the land will reveal shelves groaning with tomes critical of the government and all it’s works.

    The notion that dissent is being actively suppressed is, frankly, ludicrous.

    Chris, Akerman is a known-quantity partisan polemicist whose entirely peripheral alignment to any sort of evidence base is well-established. He now has to contend with a daily trail of blog comments attaching to his opinion pieces, which frequently – and energetically – make this very point.

    What Anderson and Maddison really resent is that their ideas – and the ideas of like minded compatriots – are not taken up as policy initiatives. This is actually quite different to being “suppressed.”

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  7. “The notion that dissent is being actively suppressed is, frankly, ludicrous.”

    Given that the state is generally defined in political sociology as the people who have an effective monopoly on the means of violence, I am surprised you have the gaul to say that.

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  8. Frankly Parkos, I wonder that you have the gall to misspell words like that. I confess to not understanding anything else you have said here.

    Back to Andrew

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  9. whoops – name missing

    should have read

    “… and following on from Sinclair I really find these commentariat whinges by Hamilton et al to be quite laughable.

    …”

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  10. Yes, great post Andrew. I agree with both you and Geoff – what these people are upset about is that their organisations don’t get the (public) funding they want and their ideas are not taken up in policy. That IS democracy in action!

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  11. I agree it is an excellent post.

    One minor thing: you might want to change the first appearance of “latter” to “former” in the last sentence of the fourth paragraph.

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  12. Since the introduction of Howar’d ‘Sedition Laws’, we have witnessed a great attack on Australia’s freedoms where people threw them away like old food scraps.

    No more do you see journalists asking members of the Howard government hard hitting questions for they fear time in prison – the cowards. In America, journo’s wear these imprisonments as a badge of honour while we Aussie’s cower like rabbits chased by the fox.

    Looks like we Australian’s need to lose all of our civil liberties before we appreciate them. The trendy left can not complain for it is they who layed the first brick of this yellowing brick wall.

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  13. Andrew Norton chooses the “Australian of the Year” – Tim Flannery selection as an example of the Howard government’s benign attitude to dissent. What a laugh! While every reputable environmental scientist in the country agrees that climate change is real, and action must be taken, Tim Flannery is the ONLY ONE who is in favour of nuclear power as a solution. Ian Lowe, Ian Jim Peacock and others, who are better qualified in this area of science, (and who are not celebrity seekers like Flannery) spell out the reasons why nuclear power is not a solution, and in fact is dangerous to the environment.
    The choice of Flannery is just another piece of Howard PR for his pro-uranium campaign.
    The way that the Howard government deals with NGO’s is an obvious example of its methods of stifling dissent by manipulating the funding to NGOs

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  14. Procrustes, gaul was my intention, and I am a retired professor from the language department, more MacQuarie in blood than the MacQuarie dictionary. Therefore what I spell goes in the land downunda.

    You have failed to adequately deal with the definition of state which is generally accepted by sociologists at Cambridge and across Europe. The state is always involved in the suppression of dissent through violence, it’s other facets being variable.

    Next…

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  15. Christina, and many environmental scientists around the world support nuclear power obtained from the fission of uranium (eg Lovelock). These things are not so straightforward.

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  16. I suspect that most activist political groups would like to stifle dissent but lack the means, whereas governments have the means (to a degree) but generally resist the inclination to do it. There may be some exceptions where individual ministers blur the distinction between their political and executive functions and from my experience this was certainly the case under the Hawke/Keating Governments. I’m sure the Howard Government isn’t immune either but to call it ‘silencing’ dissent is over the top.

    There are also instances of governments restricting access to information which have the effect of making dissent more difficult because of a shortage of relevant data. One example is the collection of regulations that prevent access to the content of Australian Workplace Agreements, thereby ensuring that public discussion depends on anecdotes and assertions instead of methodical research.

    What is much more concerning is governments drowning out dissent with media manipulation and paid advertising. When this happens it’s not a matter of actively suppressing dissent but of manufacturing such a lot of noise somewhere else that dissenting voices aren’t heard. I believe that kind of opinion-management has become more prevalent over the last 20 years, again with both sides of politics being equally culpable.

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  17. In the long run hyperbole tends to harm a case rather help it, and this book is a good example. Not that hyperbole is limited to the left (the “threat” from Iraq, anyone?).

    And Ken’s right – the government spends a lot of its time agenda-setting. It tries to move the goalposts rather than actively preventing critics’ goalkicks. Though just the same, Andrew, if you take any paid consultancies from this lot make sure the story you publicly tell is the one the government wants told.

    Also, just because things like the Hicks case are not the norm doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get angry about them.

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  18. SILENCING DISSENT – Book Review

    “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. In John Howard’s Australia in 2007, by contributing to the book – each Silencing Dissent contributor is a radical dissident…”

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  19. Dr Colin Keay, a retired professor of Physics at U. of Newcastle, has spent a lot of time and money dealing with the anti-nuclear propaganda of people like Christina Macpherson. He has not attracted great media attention. Yet no-one is claiming that he is being “silenced” or “oppressed”.

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  20. I read your review, Allan. Big on rhetoric, vague and unsubstantiated accusations.

    When whining lefties write about the crushing of dissent in Australia, I think of people like Armando Valaderes, who suffered torture in Cubas gulag system.

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  21. Sacha, in the same vein as Earth, can I just point out that the reelection of the Howard government is all the proof you need that dissent is being stifled — if it wasn’t how could the electorate be hoodwinked into voting for them, despite their dissent stifling ways?

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