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.