Has public debate been corrupted?

If book buyers have a limit on how many ‘Howard’s suppressing free speech’ books they’ll add to their shelves, it’s a pity Clive Hamilton and Sarah Maddison’s Silencing Dissent reached the bookshops before David Marr’s His Master’s Voice: The Corruption of Public Debate Under Howard.

They cover similar ground (indeed, some of the same ground, with Marr citing the earlier book) and ultimately have similar problems, but Marr’s book is much the better of the two: whatever his faults, he writes well; and he retains a sense of perspective lacking in Hamilton and Maddison.

According to its editors, Silencing Dissent:

paint[s] 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.

But according to Marr:

For a decade now, public debate has been bullied and starved as if this was an ordinary function of government. It’s important not to exaggerate the result. Suppression is not systematic. … There are limits.

But, as with Silencing Dissent, it’s not clear that all the examples really tell us much about the state of public debate in Australia. Take the decision of the Classification Review Board to ban Philip Nitschke’s suicide manual, The Peaceful Pill Handbook. Though I would not go so far as Amazon and suggest that this book might be suitable for a wedding registry, I think that Australians like Americans should be able to buy this book. But banning it isn’t a threat to ‘public debate’, any more than banning violent or degrading pornography is a threat to debate. It’s a different issue.

Nor are some apparently heavy-handed arrests of G20 demonstrators really about free speech or the right to protest. They were accused of violence against police, and this was the cops protecting their own. On balance, Australian police are a force for free debate in this country, in their attempts to protect those engaged in political discussion from thuggish protestors like those who turned up to the G20 demonstration.

Though sometimes more borderline, the 120 (Marr’s figure) leak inquiries of the Howard government are also not necessarily of free speech concern. For government (as with any organisation) to work it has to have some level of confidence in its officials, and that means penalties for those who breach the confidence placed in them. I’d probably support whistleblower protection for those disclosing illegal activity, but not for those who merely disagree with government policy. If public servants feel uncomfortable implementing government policy they should resign.

Like Silencing Dissent, Marr complains that government Ministers tried to discredit industrial relations academic David Peetz with claims that he was a ‘trade union choir boy’ and a terrorist sympathiser. Unlike Silencing Dissent, Marr tells us that Peetz did in fact sing in a trade union choir and wrote some rather strange poetry about 9/11. Sure, the government responded to academic research with cheap point scoring. It shouldn’t happen in an academic seminar room. I try not to let it happen on this blog. But politics is a rough-and-tumble world, and when you get involved – and Peetz having spent years involved with the labour movement could hardly be naive about this – you have to expect this kind of stuff and respond as best you can. Howard has been ‘demonised’ just about 24/7 since he came to office. I’m sure he doesn’t like it, but he knows it goes with the job and doesn’t let it put him off.

There are points in Marr’s essay that I agree with. While not likely to have much practical impact on most people, anti-terrorism legislation leans too far towards restricting speech, as does a proposal to widen the range of books that can be ‘refused classification’. The media management imposed by all governments these days makes it harder to report what is going on. Legal protection of journalists who refuse to disclose sources – mooted but not pursued by the government – is worth considering.

But to say that things could be better is not to say that debate has been corrupted in any fundamental way. There is robust debate in this country, and on many issues the government has clearly failed to win over the public. Indeed, on so many that its longevity can probably now be measured in months rather than years. Marr isn’t hopeful that Labor will be much better, but nor is it likely to be much worse. Public debate always has room for improvement, but it is not under any threat.

20 thoughts on “Has public debate been corrupted?

  1. Interesting how Marr sees Howard as the problem. If he is then the opposition has certainly learnt a few things off him, particularly Julia Chavez (aka Gillard).

    Ms. Chavez recently threatened business they would get hurt if they engaged in IR debates.

    Even more chilling was her wrongful outing of a couple who own a motel in Goulburn thereby ensuring that “civilian causalities” are no longer considered out of bounds in political war. They received death threats, abusive calls and booking cancellations.

    I wonder if David Marr will include these in his updated version of the book.

    Howard is surely responsible for all this.


  2. Nothing that the conservative side of politics has done in the way of corrupting public debate compares with (or is it “to”) the leftwing treatment of economic rationalism and the classical liberal agenda, the bias of ABC news editorials and the demonisation of John Howard.


  3. “Off-topic, but I’m finding The Age a lot more left-wing than the ABC these days. What’s going on?”

    One has a policy in favour of balance (the ABC), and the other does not. With The Age, I think it is only the opinion page that is more left wing, and even then the problem is not that it is left but that so many of the articles published are of a very low quality.


  4. Well, I made the mistake of buying the Age last Saturday for movie sessions. The Insight section included left-wing articles by David Marr, James Button & Jo Chandler, Juliette Hughes, Shaun Carney, Tim Costello and Tracee Hutchison. The front section had the alarmist St Kilda flooding article by Liz Minchin, the usual stuff from Tim Colebatch and an anti-Work Choices article by Dewi Cook, just to name the articles I noticed. It’s far more left-wing than when I made the decision many years ago to stop buying it.


  5. Rajat, you don’t see a problem with the endless government cheerleading in “The Australian”, but “The Age” is some sort of affront to your sensibilities?

    Our media outlets are supposed to be independent of, and suitably critical of governments (the old fourth estate ideal). I’d agree the Age has descended in the quality of it’s opinion articles into populism quite regularly, but I find News Ltds. uncritical stance far more troubling – especially where it escapes the opinion pages where it should be and pollutes the “news”.

    However, I wouldn’t worry. I read Gerard Henderson and Piers Akerman quite regularly and never caught conservatism, I’m sure it’s impossible to catch leftism by reading the Age. It’s also useful to read opposing opinions regularly – how do you know you’re right if you only bolster your thought patterns with the thoughts of like-minded people? That’s a recipe for group think.


  6. David, I think the Oz’s journalism is a lot better on average and it has much better balance in its opinion pages, even if you don’t agree with its editorials. I get enough left-wing listening to Jon Faine on my walk into work in the mornings when I have no realistic alternative. Of course, there’s no point reading left-wing for the sake of it – what you want is something intelligent and the Age seldom offers that these days.


  7. I haven’t read Marr’s book, although have read a recent article of his on this theme. I think he’s broadly correct, but to me the bigger problem is not so much silencing or suppressing dissent (although there is a fair bit of that suing various levers like funding and patronage), as the corruption of information flows. This isn’t unique to Howard or the Libs – it applies as much at state level with people like Bob Carr, Mike Rann and perhaps to a slightly lesser extent Peter Beattie. Mountains of spin and armies of PR flacks churning out selective and misleading material and shallow photo ops, while obscuring basic information.

    Of course, the mainstream media mostly go along with this, as by and large they are about entertainment rather than information, and prefer to report on politics (which requires very little solid information) rather than policy, so I don’t think they’re in much of a position to complain. They could very easily stop reporting the flim flam and vaudeville, but they don’t.

    But then, I’m not sure the general public minds this too much either, so one could say they’re basically being given what they want – which in a free society is hard to complain too much about.


  8. From Andrew Bolt (Aw, Diddums
    “TRUTH is, though, a single car crash could wipe out almost every true conservative media figure in the land, which is why Alan Jones, Janet Albrechtsen, Piers Akerman and I always travel in separate vehicles, leaving lots of braking room.”

    The ABC has been re-balanced, The Age descended into populism and his major complaint is that conservative politics don’t have total hegemony over the media? Is there a conservative who agrees with him?

    I read the David Marr extract in the SMH on the weekend and didn’t really find the slam dunk the headline suggested might be in there – he didn’t have much time for the abuse of freedom of information that, along with the anti-terror laws, are the real problem I see with current governments.


  9. Wasn’t there something a few years ago about a Howard minister vetting the ARC grants and disallowing ones he didn’t like? …. that would send a message to academics not to offend the government.

    Library budgets have generally not kept up with inflation and a lot of journal subs have been cancelled.

    And I’m not sure about this: “If public servants feel uncomfortable implementing government policy they should resign”. Public servants certainly shouldn’t try to run their own political agenda, but hopefully the public service is still a vital resource of knowledge and experience, and public servants should seek to use that knowledge and experience to influence any government policy that has been formulated without much of either.


  10. Nice attempt at derailing the thread Rajat. Someone show that man how to set up his own blog. Your consideration of an issue is not complete once you have slapped a label onto it.

    Public debate is corrupted when people have no access to information that enable us to make decisions that would help us deal with the world in which we live. David Marr is right to protest this, even though he is not above bullying/starving his opponents in debate. As you might expect it is his assumptions that let him down.

    Firstly, investigative journalism is dead. Why champion the cause of those who won’t take up the case?

    It’s true that government has cut off access to sources of information other than that provided officially by government. It’s also true that the current Federal government is not the only government which has done this. If you want to do a story on education, for example, you could go to your decrepid local school and interview parents and teachers – this would produce a furious response from the State Education Department’s media unit and possibly the minister’s office, which would feed you some pabulum and rubbery stats, and bully you into running whatever story they put to you.

    Today, “investigative journalism” means checking the fax machine to see whether the minister’s office has sent out a press release. Journalists aren’t curious about how announcements relate to results, which makes for flights of fancy and gossip.

    Secondly, it depends on what you mean by “dissent”. Public protests might have been frightening in 1789, but today they are lame and shift official policy not one bit. Preventing a small bunch comprising both thugs and dilettantes from unfurling banners and chanting “whaddawewant whendawewannit” can be justified on the grounds of taste rather than fending off threats to the King’s peace. They are an absolute waste of time and engaging in them is an exercise in self-indulgence, not free expression.

    For something to be regarded as “corrupted” implies that there was once a time when public debate was pure. I’d be fascinated to know when such a period was. Voltaire’s defence of the right to say something disagreeable was no more realistic than any of the lines from John Lennon’s Imagine.


  11. JC might want to check his facts … the ‘wrongful outing’ that he refers to was done by journalists, not Gillard.

    Andrew whether or not David Peetz was ‘naive’ is beside the point. His professional integrity was impugned on the grounds that his research findings had sometimes been used by trade unions and he had agreed to give evidence about them. Any early career researcher would have got a very clear message: don’t publish findings that could be used by the government’s critics unless you are prepared to cop the same treatment as Peetz. That seems a pretty obvious attempt to stifle dissent to me.

    It’s also beside the point to draw a parallel between academics and politicians, unless you’re suggesting that all research is political and academics should therefore be prepared to engage in partisan public debate. I’d welcome it myself but I think most of my colleagues would be a bit stunned to learn that was part of their job description.


  12. I reckon JWH will remain in office while the Marr / Maddison / Hamilton etc critique continues in its current vein. Such idiots have so little in common with the political centre that HoWard knows he’s on the right track when they are getting stuck into him. The interesting thing about these critiques is their shrill attempts to uncover conspiracies and deliberate actions that ultimately fail because of the lack of hard evidence. Thats why they never manage the slam dunk- there is usually an allegation and a suspicion presented, no facts, an attempt to connect a whole series of possibly unrealted events and then a conclusion.


  13. Rafe apparently has completely forgotten the demonisation of Keating.
    What is this Both Keating here and Clinton in the US copped more claptrap from the ‘right’ yet they whinge and whinge about the current state of affairs.

    For all of his faults Keating did nothing when Access assisted the Liberals with fightback.
    Access helped out the ALP in 2001 and what happened.
    They no longer do political work.

    That’s glass jaw Costello and Howard at work


  14. No problem wih The AGE being left wing. As far as i’m concerned they can kneel at Lenin’s tomb for all I care. I stopped reading The Age a long time ago as it has essentially become a low quality rag. The thing people are missing is they are prefectly in their rights to continue as a boring low quality rag as long as it is a privately owned company.

    It’s a bit rich marr complaining about not being heard when he once gave a speech supporting left of centre advocacy journalism.

    He seems to have forgotten his ABC time and how he simply followed a left wing line 100% of the time. Forgive me if go for the bucket when I read his missive.

    Ken, check you own facts pal. The journalists were fed the story by Julia Chavez.


  15. Mr Paxton is right about access. Also Ross Garnaut, or anyone else that may have done some work for the ALP. That said, a lot of Garnaut’s work over the last twenty years hasn’t been covered in glory: his restructuring of wool industry authorities turned out a disaster (so the Nats wouldn’t want to touch him), and the don quixote approach to free trade.


  16. Wasn’t there something a few years ago about a Howard minister vetting the ARC grants and disallowing ones he didn’t like? …. that would send a message to academics not to offend the government.

    The minister is required to sign off on all the ARC grants. Unless we’re happy for that to be a mere formality (i.e. just a rubber stamp) then, by definition, the minister has the right to refuse to sign any grant.


  17. Andrew: Regarding your comment on not reading about censorship of Hansard, this was of a speech related to suicide, and electronic distribution was prevented. See QE26 2006 p19 (and a couple of pages before and after).


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