[LINK] Off Topic - Canberra Times article
Tue, 20 Nov 2001 20:55:57 +1100
Apologies to anyone on the list who isn't interested in this thread.
Definitely off topic for Link, but encouraging that the revulsion
seems to be growing.
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A new fault line in the landscape
By Tony Kevin
THE RE-ELECTION of John Howard leaves many liberal-minded
Australians ashamed and fearful for our country's future.
What can they - whatever their political party preference, religious or
ethnic backgrounds - do in the bleak years ahead?
First, some necessary retrospective judgements. The Labor
Opposition, despite the undoubted decency and courage of Kim
Beazley, did not fight for the principle of our universal shared
humanity. In allowing Howard to set the national security terms of
this election, Labor succumbed to his exclusionist, racist-based
Labor's strategy was based on judgements that this was the only
way it could win. It is now clear this misread the electorate. In a
close contest, lack of an inspira tional ethical alternative to
Howardism bled off crucial votes of liberal-minded Australians to
the Greens and Democrats.
Howard used the power and prestige of his office to exploit anxiety
over international events. Growing evidence of his Government's
ruthless dishonesty made no difference, once Labor had
compromised its integrity.
A strategy that compromises ideals should not again be attempted
by a Labor party that aspires to govern Australia. The failure this
time damaged the party's moral credibility, and left many
supporters feeling soiled.
Australia's political landscape is changing. Left and Right are being
replaced by a new fault-line. Australians who believe this country
must co-exist in a global and regional community based on values
of compassion and mutual respect (mainly, the better educated
and more economically secure) were fractionated and outvoted by
a fearful and narrow-minded majority that responded to Howard's
The election campaign sent a harsh subliminal message to non-
English speaking background (NESB) Australians: ''You're lucky to
be here. Now shut up and assimilate. We'll decide who comes
here, and when.'' Our cowed migrant-origin groups, conscious of
their powerlessness, fell silent, hoping to save something for
themselves from the wreckage of multiculturalism.
Howard rode this ugly trend. He also shaped it. Two things are
clear. Our majoritarian Australian democracy is now, by
democratic mandate, illiberal. And many Australians are deeply
ashamed and worried about this.
They are ashamed because Australian voting majorities endorsed
leaders who have gloried in treating desperate and defenceless
fellow human beings with cold cruelty.
They are worried because they know that Howard's re-election will
damage Australia's prospects in an interdependent world. The
economic and security costs will come sooner than we think.
There will not be international sanctions against us - we don't matter
enough for that - but the work of 60 years of Australian diplomacy
has come to a virtual halt.
Our traditional friends in Europe, North America and the UN are
manifestly discomfited by our treatment of refugees. It is no
accident that the United States is largely silent on Australia's
military contribution to the war on terrorism.
In Asia, we are excluded from crucial regional cooperation
initiatives we helped to build. We have virtually zero influence on
Indonesia. People-smuggling negotiations will be unproductive, and
bilateral relations will continue to corrode. Alexander Downer has
In Afghanistan, we are helpless passengers in a military strategy
we cannot influence. The lives of 150 Australian SAS soldiers are
at profound risk under a force commitment that Howard decided
unilaterally and unnecessarily, without waiting to see if the US
needed or wanted us, and never democratically debated in
What are liberal-minded Australians to do now? I see three
Emigration: As in the bleak pre-Whitlam years, some whose career
qualifications allow them will leave Australia to work and live
teachers, doctors, business professionals, scientists, under the
twin pressures of economic slowdown and an illiberal moral
climate. A worsening brain drain will leave Australia to an
increasingly less educated, less liberal, more frightened and
exclusionist majority. Such emigrations have a way of becoming
Only evidence of a committed fightback strategy by liberal-minded
Australians will give hope of stemming serious losses of our most
talented young people.
Quietism: ''Internal emigration'' - cultivating one's private garden,
while waiting for a better society is a highly dangerous strategy.
There is no reason to hope that an electorally vindicated Howard
will now become a liberal-minded leader, or that he will hand over to
Costello (who hopefully might be) any time soon. Quietism is not
an option that this century's history recommen ds. If the bad is not
resisted, it can give way to worse.
Fightback: Resolute and united fightback by liberal-minded
Australians is the best strategy.
Let's be clear on the objectives: to return to a morally balanced
Australia that believes in fairness for all and genuine
multiculturalism at home, honorable policies towards Aboriginal
people, helping international efforts to make the world a better
place for all its people, and a border protection regime that
balances a need to maintain broad control over who comes here
with an active compassion for the victims of war and persecution.
Fightback in an increasingly illiberal society will carry personal
costs, as it did in apartheid South Africa and Communist Eastern
Europe. People who resist Howard's policies will be condemned as
undemocratic elitists, even ostracised as ''un-Australian''. (There
was a hint of this in his victory speech). Particularities of class,
religion or ethnicity may be exploited as pressure points to
intimidate d issenters.
Penalties for dissent are growing. Our armed forces have never
been so muzzled and misused. Already, refugees have died in
confrontations with our navy. How soon will an unsafe refugee boat,
pushed back under political orders, sink with major loss of life? Will
we know? What will we do if we find out?
Dissent against the war in Afghanistan will also test us. Those who
question the strategy or ethics of Australia's involvement in this war
will be labelled traitors.
Multiculturalism will die over the next three years, if not vigorously
defended. Howard's wedge policies have forced Australia's ethnic
communities to battle each other for the meagre 12,000 places in
the refugee, family reunion and special humanitarian category. Will
NESB Australians finally find the collective courage and wisdom to
tell the new Government that, in a country where millions of
Australians are of post-World War II migrant origin, this ungenerous
quota is too low to meet legitimate human needs in each of these
subcategories? Or will they continue to cower in weak fractionated
minorities at the bottom of Howard's ethnic hierarchy, hoping for
particular favours if they behave well?
If not resisted, Howard's security obsessions and exclusionist
prejudices will draw Australia back to what it used to be: a race-
based stratified society in which NESB people were at best
tolerated, at worst excluded and mistrusted. In such an ugly
society, no ethnic or religious minority could feel secure. Tragic
and unfair as is Australian Muslims' present plight, this is
potentially about all of us.
The churches will need to expand their efforts to show solidarity
with disenfranchised and excluded groups. (And where is the moral
leadership of our Governor-General?) Many of Australia's
intellectuals kept silent in recent months, for fear of undermining
Labor's election strategy. Now it is time to stand up and shout for a
decent society. Expect large demonstrations, mass petitions,
activism in cultural and aca demic contexts. The new Government
must be publicly shamed using democratic methods, if boundaries
are to be set on inhumanity.
Business, trade union, rural and conservationist organisations - key
interest groups that understand that isolationism and exclusionism
are not realistic options for Australia - will need to fight harder for
more responsible policies on refugees, population and the
Our political parties have special responsibilities now.
Will liberal-minded Liberals have the courage and vision to resist in
the party room Howard's exclusionist policies, before these policies
further damage Australia?
The challenge for Labor is even greater. There must be a sincere re-
think of the fundamentals of Labor's platform. If I am right that the
fault-line in Australian politics is rapidly becoming compassionate
internationalism versus selfish exclusionism, Labor cannot try
again to blur this choice with glib semantics. The voters will see
If Lab or is to win back or hold government based on uniting the
votes of decent-minded Australians, it will need to consider
seriously a strong electoral coalition (ie, a popular front) with the
Democrats and the Greens, which together gained 10 per cent of
the vote. Work on this historic choice cannot be delayed. With its
percentage voter support badly weakened by its moral weakness
on the refugees issue, Labor can no longer seek to marginalise
these parties. It must work with them, to reunite Australians of
moral conscience. (Or, we will see a DLP-type scenario revisited).
Only a strong anti-Howard social and political coalition, including
all the elements I have mentioned above, can begin to educate and
persuade the Australian electorate away from Howard's illiberal,
socially divisive policies.
Tony Kevin is Visiting Fellow, Research School of Pacific and
Australian National University, and a former Australian Ambassador
to Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Cambodia.<?xml:
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The Canberra Times, 20 November 2001
David Boxall | The more I learn
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