STUART REES ‘Australia’s Authoritarian Future? CPAC & The High Court’

In early August, two events cast a shadow over Australia’s democracy. The US Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) met in Sydney to fight to ‘protect the future.’ The High Court ruled that the government may restrict the right of public servants to express political views, and in this way supported the sacking of a public servant for anonymously criticising her employer the Department of Immigration.

Speakers at the CPAC meeting included Fox News commentators, members of the US National Rifle Association, former PM Tony Abbot, One Nation politician Mark Latham and Britain’s Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage. The participants arrived in the wake of mass shootings in Texas and Ohio and following President Trump’s demand that Congress women of colour go back to where they came from. Farage had been invited in response to his English nationalism, racism and opposition to the EU.

Although advertised as fighting for Australia’s future, the conservatives’ only agreed target concerned a common enemy, a mirage-like ghost called ‘socialism’.

Apart from universal health insurance, contemporary Australia offers no policies which could be dubbed even mildly socialist. Yet opposition to this imagined devil prompted CPAC praise for free markets and for their families’ values, a repeat of the Thatcher dictum that greed is good, there is no such thing as society and no alternative to this way of thinking.

In the absence of proposals about policies, the CPAC ‘political warriors’ resorted to derision as their key to good journalism and to their ‘fight on’ objectives. Farage called former PM Malcolm Turnbull ‘a snake’, Raheem Kassam, notorious for tweeting that ‘Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon should have her legs taped so that she can’t reproduce’, said Senator Christina Keneally was ‘a bigot’, and Fox News’ Jeanine Piro’s description of Hillary Clinton as ‘that hag’ prompted cries of ‘send her back.’

The CPAC speakers offered white, mostly Christian, top down versions of freedom for ‘real people’ in a future where where they would judge anyone who opposed them. Their support for Trump-like populism seems inevitable. The High Court might have expressed completely different values, but instead interpreted freedom of speech with either/or perspectives on rules to ensure that state wrongdoings stay secret.

As the anonymous LaLegale, the brave, now sacked Immigration staff member Michaela Banerji had criticised immigration policies and the treatment of detainees. The justices appeared not to know, or ignored such policies, which continue in the Department of Home Affairs, successor to Immigration.

Deliberations in Home Affairs are invisible, staff are inaccessible and fearful, certainly not allowed to heed alternative voices such as Ms Banerjee’s. Staff fear is understandable given that the intimidating Secretary of Home Affairs Mike Pezzullo regards himself as accuser, judge, jury and executioner. In common with CPAC leaders he seems to enjoy judging others, is certain that anyone who leaks information should be jailed. Notions of due process and justice not evident.

Even if it was not intentional, the High Court’s ruling reinforces the idea that stifling criticism is the way to maintain government control. Nadine Flood, national secretary of the Commonwealth and Public Service Union says, ‘People working in Commonwealth agencies should be allowed normal rights as citizens rather than facing Orwellian censorship because of where they work.’ Allan Anforth, Banerji’s lawyer, commented on the High Court’s ruling, ‘This is a really naive decision in terms of the political realities of what exists in the community.’

‘What exists’ is authoritarianism to discourage freedom of speech and to encourage journalists to collude with government policies. Emily Howie from the Human Rights Law Centre, says, ‘It has become dangerous to expose government wrongdoing, even when it is in the public interests to do so.’

The AFP has raided ABC offices and the home of a News Corp journalist. Courts face a queue of whistle blowers waiting to test what the law knows about justice.

Witness K and barrister Bernard Collaery are being prosecuted for exposing Australian government deceit in bugging Timor-Leste government offices in order to gain commercial advantage in negotiations about oil and gas revenue from the Timor Sea. Former military lawyer David McBride is being prosecuted for reporting alleged unlawful Australian forces’ killings in Afghanistan. Richard Boyle, former Australian Tax Office employee faces criminal charges for blowing the whistle on the ATO’s alleged abusive, unfair debt collection practices.

As Wikileaks journalist and publisher, Australian citizen Julian Assange revealed secrets about murder and mayhem in US wars. He is held in a top security British prison, faces extradition to the US and the prospect of 175 years in prison. US politicians have made frenzied demands that Assange be exterminated by any means, numerous espionage charges have been concocted against him but Australian major party leaders have said nothing. Their cowardly silence suggests loyalty to the White House, indifference to social justice and to civil liberties.

Reluctance to even reflect on notions of social justice are instructive. In her recent book, ‘How To Lose A Country’, the brilliant Turkish novelist Ece Temelkuran writes, ‘ When social justice is ignored to devastating effect, that is when democracy starts to smell funny….like rotting onions.’

Central control, deference to UK and US governments remain Australian policy imperatives. The US creation CPAC promoted their version of freedom and the High Court’s ruling appeared to do nothing to challenge such views. In other prestigious high places, respect for universal human rights, let alone for policies to encourage inclusiveness, equality and solidarity are hard to find.

The CPAC hopes for return to a supposed utopian past did not question inequalities, racism, wars, violence to women, environmental destruction or the exploitation of Indigenous people.

The opposite of such policies is a future worth fighting for and might even be called socialist.

Stuart Rees, OAM, is Professor Emeritus, University of Sydney and inaugural recipient of the Jerusalem (Al Quds) Peace Prize.

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Stuart Rees OAM, human rights activist, poet, novelist, author of books on social justice. Recipient of the Jerusalem Peace Prize, Founder Director of the Sydney Peace Foundation.

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