Speaking out loud for the silenced

Jul 30, 2019

Scott M. has a new group of faves. It used to be that “hard working Australians” were top of his pops, along with those who benefit from the hard work of others through tax, negative gearing,“canny investments” and superannuation perks. They are still cherished and protected but even closer to Mr Morrison’s heart are “Quiet Australians”: people who feel no need to speak up, protest, argue, or even point to facts when there are issues harming not the quiet Australians but the silenced ones.

Silence is, in fact, the even more preferred mode of Morrison’s super-powerful offsider, Home Affairs chieftain, Peter Dutton. His passion for silence and for silencing – of activists including doctors, of whistleblowers, of any journalists unwilling to be tamed and especially of refugees – is widely known. This renders him far less accountable than he ought to be in a democracy. But are our democratic values – including transparency and human rights protections – anyway flourishing?

Just this week Hugo Clement, a French journalist, appeared on the ABC’s 7.30 Report saying, “I thought Australia was a democratic country.” His inference is clear: not if you have come from France to inspect bleaching in the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef, and to film a handful of protestors at the Adani mining site – and then get arrested. M. Clement and his three colleagues were handcuffed by Queensland’s finest, herded into vans, kept in a cell for seven hours, and released on bail until September. I thought Australia was a democratic country.

If you’ve a jot of humour left when looking at #Auspol – as it’s called in the informative Twitter world – you will notice the irony that the political parties supporting “free speech” and an unimpeded “right to be bigots” are growing in their enthusiasm to shut down dissension and dissenters. In fact, “free” has become a highly compromised word also in the unseemly scramble for “religious freedoms” that I can’t recognise as either religious or freeing.

There are many ways in which “quiet” and “silencing” are enforced in the public and media domains and creep into our private as well as collective consciousness. Not least is the sidelining and aggressive trivialising of any commentary or analysis overtly critical of LNP policies and conduct, no matter how soberly written and factually based. When large swathes of Australia have access only to media driven by commercial interests (not your interests or mine, and certainly not the welfare of the disadvantaged or the planet), this is serious. We’re the only common law nation without a constitutional or legislative bill of rights to protect us. We are also the sole colonised nation without a national treaty with First Peoples. There are also key public bodies where speaking up ought to be central. Yet under previous Liberal leadership, too-noisy Gillian Triggs was replaced as Human Rights Commissioner by Edward Santow; at the Race Discrimination Commission noisy Tim Soutphommasane was replaced by the exceptionally quiet Chin Tan.

In October 2018, SBS News reported that, “In his final months in the role, Mr Soutphommasane spoke out against some sections of the media using racism as part of their business model.” Tim S. is still speaking out. And needs to. Racism is also central to the LNP’s vote-winning political model. And if you doubt me, then consider just three matters:
1) The latest misrepresenting and silencing of the eloquent, entirely just Uluru Statement of the Heart. What kind of behaviour is this in the absence of a Treaty and in the presence of measurable, profound disadvantage across every aspect of Indigenous life, including life-expectancy, the incarceration of children as young as 10, the casual racist stereotyping that has to be experienced and seen to be believed?
2) The continuing, worsening impoverishment and marginalisation of those barely surviving on the margins where, again, Indigenous Australians are massively over-represented.
3) Peter Dutton’s visceral, indefensible pillorying of those who arrived by boat, seeking asylum, SIX YEARS AGO. To a person, they are brown or black and mostly Muslim. And if you could convince me that the Australian public would accept the egregious inhumanity of their treatment if those women and men indefinitely detained were white and “Christian”, then I’d fall to my knees with gratitude and hope. (I’d similarly fall on my knees…etc…if you could explain to me how or why we permit vast profits to be made by corporations and individuals from abject human misery both off- and on-shore.)

“Quiet Australians” are of course not quiet when it comes to their own rights. Those rights, preferences and entitlements are loudly celebrated when in concert with those of the Government and the ubiquitous Murdoch media, SkyNews (especially after 6pm), and commercial media such as Channel Nine’s Today show. They now have Pauline Hanson – a woman who’s built a career on race baiting – appearing fortnightly with a fee going to “her favourite charity”. (Hint: not GetUp.) Channel Nine, chaired currently by former Liberal Treasurer Peter Costello, now also owns the former Fairfax newspapers,including the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

The extreme concentration of media ownership/media control in Australia is a very real impediment to the diversity of views essential to a functioning democracy. John Menadue has written about that here; so have I and others. That need for diversity and non-conformity makes it not just important but vital that we support and pay attention to any independent media that refuses silence. This week in Crikey, for example, David Hardaker and Chris Woods reported that, “Asylum seekers are entering the country by plane in massive numbers – and the system can’t keep up.” Abdul Rizvi, who writes here on P&I also, is reported as noting that, “The visa system, and by implication our borders, have never been so out of control.” Yet Dutton “justifies” squandering billions – and trashing our standing as an ethical nation – by painting those on Manus and Nauru as unparalleled “risks” to our national security, fighting to prevent doctors from adequately treating them, fighting to prevent resettlement in New Zealand, casting suffering human beings as pawns in a vile ideological “game” – nothing more. Should we acquiesce? Or should we dissent – resolutely and together? My hopes are with the latter.

You can find Rev Dr Stephanie Dowrick on Twitter @stephaniedowric or on her public FB page https://www.facebook.com/StephanieDowrick/

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