Faultlines in Howard’s plan for absolute power

Last week, I set out a scenario under which John Howard would oversee a seismic shift in Australia’s democracy. We would become a corporatist state almost fully integrated into the United States economically and militarily, in partnership with a mainstream media tightly controlled by Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Packer (Howard’s roads to absolute power).

Howard’s dominant political position and his success in coopting traditional institutions which operate as checks on power – the public service and much of the mass media – and in suppressing dissent by defunding public interest groups, stifling free speech in universities and terrorising the ABC – makes this neo-liberal, neo-conservative dream plausible. But what are the weak points, and can it be countered?

There are several faultlines I can think of, apart from the unpredictable outcomes in Iraq and the possibility of a world recession. They are:

* a backlash from traditional Liberal voters,

* the politics of Telstra,

* the risks of Howard’s idea to gut the Senate blowing up in his face and

* the chance that non-Coalition parties, independents and our public interest groups could band together to defend Australian values and Australian democracy against the Howard onslaught.

Howard has many things going for him. The world is now so complicated and frightening that many people want to trust Howard – almost a ‘father figure’ – with their fate and get on with their lives to meet the increasing obligations he imposes on them, including funding their basic health care and education for their kids. They’re working longer, harder, and less securely – their lives are tightly managed and they want to relax with sport, entertainment and home renovation. Many have disconnected from their society as communities disintegrate, partly because few have the time to contribute to their local community and build local support systems. Many people, perhaps most, have lost faith in their democratic institutions – the law, media, the public service and business. Many salve their alienations and insecurities through downward envy and prejudice, a tendency happily exploited by Howard.

Faultline 1: Will true Liberals revolt?

As we saw from reader reaction last week, some of Howard’s traditional constituency, particularly small l Liberals, are uncomfortable with Howard’s agenda. As natural opponents of big government, they didn’t like his grab for state power and control with his original ASIO and anti-terrorism bills. They prefer a more independent foreign policy, and they’re growing increasingly concerned at the excesses of Howard’s refugee policy. They understand that his cross media proposals threaten our democratic right to know what’s going on. To true Liberals, Howard’s combination of small government in the economic sphere and extra large, highly intrusive government in the private, social sphere, is untenable. It’s also grating, because at the international level, where big business makes the big money and wields enormous power, Howard is a fan of international agreements to grease big business wheels. Yet on human and civil rights and environmental protection he walks away from our international obligations and slams them as a breach of national sovereignty. In other words, the place of the citizen in the state and the world is downgraded, even ignored, as we are told we exist to serve “the economy” and Howard busily dismantles our civil “society”.

I believe that some in the business world will also grow increasingly concerned. After all, if Packer and Murdoch control the mainstream media we’re talking an effective oligopoly. That means the pair could set advertising rates at high levels, hurting big and small business alike. The pair could also veto advertising which is not in their interests. Already in Sydney, professionals like lawyers and accountants have to decide whether they’re Packer or Murdoch people. An increase in their power compromises them further. (My analysis of the consequences for Australia if Howard’s cross media revolution gets up is at Closing the door on your right to know.)

An interesting piece in last week’s media supplement in The Australian revealed that stockbroker Roger Colman, of CCZ Equities, had advised independent Senator Shayne Murphy and One Nation’s Len Harris on Howard’s cross media revolution:

“In his role as a broker, Colman had previously advised financial institutions which media share prices would benefit from media reform. “I was arguing against the research I put out, and I was arguing in my capacity as a private citizen,” he says. “I did not want to be swamped by Kerry Packer.”

There’s now a gaping hole in our political market place – small l Liberals (and middle class Labor voters with similar values) have nowhere to go. Last year, the Democrats imploded after Meg Lees and her supporters sought to move the Democrats into the centre, with a policy of cooperating with the Coalition agenda in exchange for side deals on things like the environment and the ABC, while standing firm on core small l principles of a non-intrusive state and human and civil rights.

That cause was lost, but Lees now has a new party, the Australian Progressive Alliance, which is seeking to fill the gap. It’s a hopeless cause, one would think, without the attraction of a big name to get momentum and perhaps even a few breakaway Liberals from what’s left of the moderate strand of the Liberal Party.

There’s a wild interview with former opposition leader John Hewson in last week’s Bulletin magazine in which he strongly criticises John Howard’s agenda. Hewson is an economic dry with progressive views on foreign policy, the environment and human rights. He supports us signing the Kyoto protocol, opposed us invading Iraq without UN sanction and is a critic of our refugee policy. Maxine McKew, after hearing his rave over lunch, wrote:

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Is this the sound of a resurgent political ambition? Is John Hewson making another run? He doesn’t back away from the question. “I’ve had dozens of offers to go back. Wealthy people offering to fund me, either to go back or set up a new party. Every time there is a preselection in Wentworth (Hewson’s old seat in Sydney) there are people who want to know if I’ll run. But my view in life is you never go back.”

But to paraphrase what Al Gore’s mate Bill Clinton would say, it may depend on what ‘going back’ means.”

I’ve had quite a few conversations with Liberal moderate staffers and pollies over the years where the question a new, true Liberal Party came up. It’s probably not possible, for now at least, but Hewson’s musings indicate some alternatives.

Liberal aligned independents have the potential to do well in safe Liberal seats, as Ted Mack showed when he held North Sydney for years. Peter McDonald gave Tony Abbott a run for his money in his Sydney North Shore seat at the last election.

The vast majority of Liberal voters in safe Liberal seats would not dream of voting Labor, although a few of them are voting Green. I’d see promise in a well-funded, high powered group funding strong, respected, people in safe Liberal seats to stand as Liberal independents. They’d promise to support a Liberal government on supply, but to act in accordance with their conscience otherwise. They’d be loosely aligned, run joint advertising campaigns, and pool their supporter base. Someone like John Hewson or the renegade former NSW party president John Valder could endorse the group and campaign for them.

FAULTLINE 2: The Senate focus

But the real action would be in the Senate. Howard will publish his discussion paper on dumping the Senate’s veto power over the winter break (see Howard’s rubber-stamp democracy). Howard’s ploy is to trap Labor into supporting the idea because he’s nicked one of their traditional cornerstone issues. Labor won’t do it – can’t do it – though, because now Labor is the Party trying to preserve the status quo and the social contract, while Howard is the radical reformer.

The concerns of some Liberal voters about Howard’s direction could help mobilise a centre-right team in Senate races and an unprecedented focus on the Senate campaign at the next election on the theme of keeping John Howard accountable. A prominent person to head the ticket in each state and a well funded campaign could spell danger for Howard.

Faultline 3: Telstra danger (Disclosure: I own Telstra shares.)

Then there’s the Nationals. Webdiarist Denis Berrell is sanguine about my Howard scenario. “How is John Howard going to manage a majority in the House of Representatives after the National Party get wiped out at the next election after supporting the sale of Telstra?” he asks.

Let me tell you, some cynical political observers in Canberra think Howard’s Telstra play is actually designed to destroy the Nats, thus freeing him from the economic and cultural constraints they place on his agenda.

The Liberals still insist that the proceeds of a sale would retire debt, and won’t yet answer the obvious rejoinder – that Peter Costello announced after the last budget that our debt was now low enough, and that’s why he could give a tax cut. My guess is that Howard will attempt a 1996 type tactic at the next election. Back then, he announced that a Liberal government would sell one third of Telstra, with much of the proceeds to go to a Natural Heritage Trust. But it’s likely that Telstra shares won’t be anywhere near the right price to sell by the next election, so any such promises would be a bit never-never.

I reckon the Nationals are in appalling trouble over this issue. There are already two country independents in the Parliament – Bob Katter in North Queensland and Tony Windsor in country NSW, both of whom are strong opponents of Howard’s cross media laws and the sale of Telstra. Both have threatened to start a new Country Party or country alliance to capitalise on the National’s troubles. Like the small l liberal apprehension, country Australia is very suspicious of Howard’s big business agenda, and there’s no guarantee One Nation leaners will stick with him because of his hardline refugee policy. A new Country Party or country alliance would be well placed to tap into disaffection. Again, they could promise to back the Coalition on supply but keep them honest on other matters.

More broadly, the public’s attitude to selling Telstra could be a referendum on how it judges the success of privatisations so far, particularly in areas where very Australian believes he or she has a basic right to services. It’s called fairness. Tony Windsor’s line is potent – that government ownership means our elected representatives are truly accountable for performance, and that once Telstra is off the leash, anything goes. Little people, as always, will suffer, as they have post the Commonwealth bank and electricity privatisations. Why has the bush got a good deal on telecommunications services for the past few years? Because the government wants to sell. Why would ordinary citizens vote to lose cede yet more of their power in a democracy to private, unaccountable business in the game for money alone?

Faultline 4: Unholy alliances

Last night’s Four Corners program on the operation of the Tweed Shire council in northern NSW, Ocean views, is a classic micro view of the big picture, and of the emerging formation of unlikely alliances against the new values of money talks and only making money for big business matters. Big developers effectively bought the last council election, and it’s been let her rip ever since, with processes subverted, transparency in retreat, and a pristine coastline razed to the ground to prepare for million dollar views for the wealthy.

The “opposition” comprises Liberal/Green/Labor and National Party councillors. A new newspaper detailing the dirty tricks and developer misdeeds has just started in the Tweed, and the four opposition councillors proudly appear in the same full page advertisement as representatives of the local community insisting on having a say in determining what happens to their community. What do you want to preserve of your way of life? Do you have a right to help decide what your children will enjoy, or lose the enjoyment of? Local unholy alliances are made up of local people normally at loggerheads who realise that only they care about the public interest, and that the public interest requires them to work together to keep the playing field fair and the community in the game.

Could this local trend move up to the federal sphere? Mobilisation of disaffection across the political spectrum would upset Howard’s presently unassailable constituency mix. Medicare, education, Telstra, the Senate, and foreign policy – all have the potential to splinter the mix by creating unlikely partners in opposition. Just one example. Who would have thought that small l Liberal and Labor internationalism could align with One Nation nationalism against Howard? Yet they do when it comes to Howard’s planned free trade agreement and his subservience to US foreign policy demands. Neither constituency is at all happy that Howard is happy to see a secretive US military tribunal try David Hicks while US citizens captured in Afghanistan in the same circumstances enjoy the full protection of US law and its constitutional bill of rights. This is straight out double standards and Australian acquiescence to Australian citizens being second class world citizens. Many Liberals are also determined to protect and enhance our local culture, and not see it buried in foreign material if the Americans get their way in the free trade talks.

Often it’s about issues of process, of the means to the end. In the end, people under pressure – and they include Labor, Democrats, Greens, Liberal and One Nation voters – want a fair process and transparency in decision making. The key moment is when all of them realise that there’s an enormous force out there which threatens to swamp them all, and that their only chance to protect their right to have a say is to band together against the common enemy. For instance, the far right, the left and small l Liberals were as one on the evils of Howard’s ASIO and anti-terrorist bills. Imagine the power of that coalition if they worked together, rather than separately, on such campaigns. Similarly, all parties except the Coalition opposed Howard’s cross media bill, and his decision to follow the US into Iraq without UN sanction.

These sorts of issue or values specific alliances on particular issues would require a major mindshift from the players based on the recognition that fighting amongst each other while the Howard machine rolls over all of them is counterproductive. They might even need to agree to disagree on some fundamental issues while agreeing that the big political picture required the election of a Labor government in the short term, when they could resume battling it out between themselves.

This would be provided, of course, that Labor listened and learned, articulated the values which united opponents of Howard’s agenda, guaranteed to raise ethical standards in the public service, politics and business and to improve the accountability of all three.

Labor would also have to defend the Senate. If it did, an anti-Howard coalition might even work together on an intensive Senate election campaign, deciding preferences with a view to getting anyone BUT Coalition candidates up. As we know from Malcolm Mackerras in ‘Howard’s roads to absolute power’, Howard can expect a vote of 42 percent in the Senate at the next election, which would deliver him half the Senate seats, and the delightful prospect of needing to woo only one non-Coalition Senator to ram through its policy agenda.

To counter this, a disparate groups of political parties and interest groups would need to focus the public’s mind on the dangers of such dominance and convince Australians they need to curb Howard’s excesses with their Senate vote.

All this, of course, would require enormous effort and commitment from many Australians on the ground, who’d have to be willing to dedicate some of their precious spare time to establishing local networks and action groups. All the non-Coalition parties and movements would need to bulk up their grassroots membership and bypass the mainstream media in favour of traditional and direct information and grassroots political campaigns. The return of the town meeting, perhaps? Letter box drops, routinely. Local fundraising events. Guest speakers. Social events. All of it. The internet is the building block for such an ambitious undertaking. Websites would aim to attract activists across Australia who would then do the grassroots work.

These things can work, you know. There’s a bloke called Howard Dean who was considered a rank outsider in the US Democrats presidential race. He’s the only Democrats contender who’s been against the Iraqi war from the beginning, and through the internet he’s garnered more money for his campaign than any other candidate. He’s now a frontrunner! (See Salon).

During Hanson’s 1998 election campaign, I realised that Australia was divided by the fact that we couldn’t understand each other. The urge to preserve our democracy would require disparate Australians to drop their certainties and their prejudices against the prejudices of others and really talk to each other directly again in plain terms, taking joint responsibility for our legacy to future generations.

They’d need to look for what they had in common, rather than what divides them (Howard’s motto in reverse!) And they’d need to realise that whatever their differences, they had one thing in common – the determination to save and enhance our democracy against the forces which seek to diminish it and disempower the people.

In the late Labor government years, when the media was at its beck and call and many issues affecting ordinary Australians were not discussed or discussed in dehumanised terms, a red head from Ipswich broke through and a grassroots movement exploded into the public arena. Hansonites didn’t trust anything they read in the newspapers and began an internet site to spread their own information and reinforce their own beliefs. In a strange way, most of us who fear Howard’s agenda are now outsiders. We fear losing our voice, our say, in what our society is to be and what values it is to live by.

Howard’s media are even more dominant than were the Keating media elite. If the One Nation experience is anything to go by, disaffected Australians may again be ready to again bypass it to look elsewhere for their information and their world view.

If this is true, that old Australian trait of backing the underdog could come into play. Australians could become uncomfortable with John Howard’s rush to absolute power and, if Labor gets its act together, vote Labor to keep Howard on some sort of leash, or even toss him out.

Politics today is an exercise in feeling the earth move under your feet.

Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers: The view from outside

A speech at Parliament House, Victoria on World Refugee Day 2003, first published at Scatt

The universal declaration of human rights is the most widely accepted international convention in human history. Most countries in the world are parties to it. Article 14 of the universal declaration of human rights provides that every person has a right to seek asylum in any territory to which they can gain access. Despite that almost universally accepted norm, when a person arrives in Australia and seeks asylum, we lock them up. We lock them up indefinitely and in conditions of the utmost harshness.

The Migration Act provides for the detention of such people until they are either given a visa or removed from Australia. In practice, this means that human beings men, women and children innocent of any crime are locked up for months, and in many cases years.

They are held in conditions of shocking harshness. The United Nations Human Rights Commission has described conditions in Australia’s detention centres as “offensive to human dignity”. The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has described Australia’s detention centres as “worse than prisons” and observed “alarming levels of self-harm”. Furthermore, they have found that the detention of asylum seekers in Australia contravenes Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which bans arbitrary detention.

The Delegate of the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner who visited Woomera in 2002 described it as “a great human tragedy”. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have repeatedly criticised Australia’s policy of mandatory detention and the conditions in which people are held in detention.

In short, every responsible human rights organisation in the world has condemned Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers. Only the Australian government and the Australian public are untroubled by our treatment of innocent, traumatised people who seek our help.

The matter reached an extreme during the Tampa “crisis”. The rhetoric of the Federal Government at that time came to this: that Australia had a sovereign right to protect its borders; that it had a right to decide who came into Australia and the circumstances in which they would come; that the Captain of the Tampa was threatening to infringe Australia’s sovereign rights, and that the civilised nations of the world supported Australia’s firm but principled stand. That was the rhetoric which helped the Howard Government win the November 2001 election.

The truth, of course, was very different. The Captain of the Tampa followed the written and unwritten law of the sea: he rescued people in distress and took them to the nearest place of safety, Christmas Island. For his efforts, Captain Arne Rinnan received the highest civil honour in Norway; his ship received commendations from mercantile and shipping organisations around the world; all the companies who had cargo on Tampa congratulated Captain Rinnan for the stand he took, even though their cargo was delayed 10 days by the episode. Australia, for its part, threatened to prosecute Captain Rinnan as a people smuggler. The disparity between Australia’s self-perception and the view of others from outside could hardly have been greater.

As a sidenote, I was recently in London and was introduced by Geoffrey Robertson, Q.C. to a number of European lawyers. He introduced me as “the barrister who acted for the Tampa asylum seekers”. It took me a couple of minutes to recognise the significance of the fact that his introduction was immediately comprehensible to them: they all knew about the Tampa episode and the stain it made on Australia’s national image. In recent months, Australia’s human rights’ record has been criticised by the South African judiciary. Less than 30 years ago, most Australians would have been ashamed to think that South Africa would criticise our human rights’ record.

It is hard to understand how Australia has got itself to this position. Part of the difficulty is, I think, that we lack the imagination to understand the realities of our policy of mandatory detention; and we fail to understand why it is the people seek asylum in the first place. The prevailing view in Australia seems to be that asylum seekers come here to improve their economic circumstances, and that we put them in holiday camps for a short time whilst their claims are processed. Let us consider the reality.

In late 2000 a family fled Iran. They were members of a small quasi-Christian sect which has traditionally been regarded as “unclean” by the religious majority. Their lives have traditionally been marked by persecution in every conceivable aspect. The recent history of Jews in Germany and Poland is a sufficient reminder of what happens to groups who are regarded by the majority as “unclean”. The family’s flight was triggered by a terrible event, the details of which are too terrible to relate at a luncheon like this. They arrived in Australia after a terrifying voyage across the sea and were locked up in Woomera. The family comprised mother and father in their thirties, and two daughters aged 7 and 10.

In Woomera, month after month, their condition deteriorated. In particular, the 10 year old girl who ceased eating, stopped engaging in self-care activities, had trouble sleeping and began scratching herself constantly. The Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service of South Australia learnt of the family’s plight and went to examine them. They wrote a report which included the following passages:

“(She) does not eat her breakfast or other meals and throws her food in the bin. She was preoccupied constantly with death, saying ‘don’t bury me here in the camp, bury me back in Iran with grandfather and grandmother’.

(She) carried a cloth doll, the face of which she had coloured in blue pencil. When asked in the interview if she would like to draw a picture, she drew a picture of a bird in a cage with tears falling and a padlock on the door. She said she was the bird.

It is my professional opinion that to delay action on this matter will only result in further harm to (this child) and her family. The trauma and personal suffering already endured by them has been beyond the capacity of any human being and I foresee that this family will require intensive and ongoing therapy for some time to enable them to conciliate and recover.”

Despite the urgent recommendations in that report, the family were left where they were. A further report was sent and, after weeks of delay, the family was finally sent to the Maribyrnong Immigration Detention Centre: Melbourne’s own concentration camp. When the family was moved, the South Australian authorities urged that the 10 year old daughter needed daily clinical attention. Nevertheless, for another three weeks nothing happened: no-one saw the family, no-one paid attention to the obvious psychological and medical needs of the 10 year old. Not long afterwards, on a Sunday night whilst her parents and her sister were at dinner, she hanged herself.

She did not die. When she was taken down, she tried to swallow shampoo because she had seen adults kill themselves that way in Woomera.

The family remained in immigration detention for another year. At last, after they had appealed to the full Federal Court, they were finally granted protection visas. In the meantime, they had suffered under Australia’s detention system for more than two years, the entire family has been traumatised to an extent which is inconceivable for ordinary members of the Australian community and a 10 year old girl very nearly succeeded in ending her own life.

That is the reality of mandatory indefinite detention in Australia in the 21st Century. It is passing strange that a government which prides itself in family values still implements policies so harsh that they drive children to attempt suicide. Suicide amongst pre-pubescent children is almost unheard of except in Australia’s detention centres.

* * *

Just as we do not really understand what mandatory detention entails, neither do we understand fully why people come here in the first place. If we had even a glimmer of understanding of the conditions which drive people out of their homeland, we might be inclined to treat them more compassionately.

Let a single instance serve the purpose. Currently in Australia’s detention centres there are several hundred Iranians who desperately fear being returned to Iran. They have so far failed to make the Immigration Department understand the fate which awaits them should they be returned to Iran. One of them sent me a video tape which had been smuggled out of Iran. It is the most disturbing video tape I have ever seen or ever wish to see.

The tape is apparently an official recording: it contains an Iranian watermark in the bottom right-hand corner. Notwithstanding that, it is fairly poor quality handheld and a bit blurry at times. The scene is a largish room. On one side of the room stand two people who might be officials: they are holding sheets of paper from which they are reading out loud in a flat, bureaucratic manner. In the centre of the room stands a group of five or six people, huddled together, looking distressed. They may be members of a family, or possibly friends. On the opposite side of the room is a table. On the table lies a man, face up. He is being held by the shoulders.

Most of the time the camera is focussed on the officials: they are reading and reading and reading.

The camera swings to the family group who look very distressed and upset. Then it swings to the man on the table who attempts to sit up but is restrained and held down again, he looks increasingly disturbed and terrified.

The camera focuses again on the officials who continue reading at great length but flatly, bureaucratically, without interest. Just as the viewer begins to wonder where all this is leading, the camera swings around to the man on the table and then they remove his eyes with forceps.

* * *

In 2002 Australia, along with more than 80 other nations, acceded to the Rome statute by which the International Criminal Court was created. The court is the first permanent court every established with jurisdiction to try war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes of genocide regardless of the nationality of the perpetrators and regardless of the place where the offences occurred.

As part of the process of implementing the International Criminal Court regime, Australia has introduced into its own domestic law a series of offences which mirror precisely the offences over which the International Criminal Court has jurisdiction. So, for the first time since Federation, the Commonwealth of Australia now recognised genocide as a crime and now recognises various war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The Australian Criminal Code now recognises various acts as constituting crimes against humanity. Two of them are of particular significance in the present context. They are as follows:

268.12 Crime Against Humanity Imprisonment Or Other Severe Deprivation Of Physical Liberty

A person (the perpetrator) commits an offence if:

the perpetrator imprisons one or more persons or otherwise severely deprives one or more persons of physical liberty; and

the perpetrator’s conduct violates article 9, 14 or 15 of the Covenant; and

the perpetrator’s conduct is committed intentionally or knowingly as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against a civilian population.

Penalty: Imprisonment for 17 years.

Strict liability applies to paragraph (1)(b).

268.13 Crime against humanity torture

A person (the perpetrator) commits an offence if:

the perpetrator inflicts severe physical or mental pain or suffering upon one or more persons who are in the custody or under the control of the perpetrator; and

the pain or suffering does not arise only from, and is not inherent in or incidental to, lawful sanctions; and

the perpetrator’s conduct is committed intentionally or knowingly as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against a civilian population.

Penalty: Imprisonment for 25 years.”

(The Covenant referred to is the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the ICCPR.)

The elements of these offences are relatively simple. For the first, the elements are as follows:

The perpetrator imprisons one or more persons;

That conduct violates Article 9 of the ICCPR;

The conduct is committed knowingly as part of a systematic attack directed against a civilian population.

Australia’s system of mandatory, indefinite detention appears to satisfy each of the elements of that crime. Mr Ruddock and Mr Howard imprison asylum seekers. The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has found that the system violates Article 9 of the ICCPR. Their conduct is intentional, and is part of a systematic attack directed against those who arrive in Australia without papers and seek asylum. A representative of the International Criminal Court has expressed privately the view that asylum seekers as a group can readily be regarded as “a civilian population”.

The second of the offences begins with imprisonment in violation of 268.12 and has an added element that the perpetrator inflicts severe mental pain or suffering upon one or more of the persons in the custody of the perpetrator, and the pain or suffering doesn’t arise only from lawful sanctions.

There is abundant evidence of overwhelming mental suffering in Australia’s detention centres. Neither Mr Ruddock nor Mr Howard could rationally deny that they are aware of the suffering of the people they lock up.

A careful analysis of the criminal code therefore suggests that Mr Ruddock and Mr Howard are guilty of crimes against humanity by virtue of their imprisonment of asylum seekers. The prospect of their being prosecuted is remote, because the Federal Attorney-General has an effective veto on the laying of charges under these provisions. But whether they are charged with these offences or not may not matter. The important point is this: an increasing number of people are raising their voices against Australia’s system of mandatory indefinite detention of asylum seekers. They assert that the system is morally wrong. Unfortunately, the debate generally stalls when the protagonists are unable to agree about moral norms.

The argument against mandatory detention takes on a new complexion when it is seen that the system very likely amounts to a crime against humanity. Those who support mandatory detention on whatever grounds appeal to them may find it harder to justify the fact that our Government is engaged in crimes against humanity judged not only by the standards of the international community but by the standards of our own legislation.

Howard agenda worries liberals, too


Image by George Hirst, editor of the Magnetic Times newspaper in North Queensland.

As a supporter of J. Howard on many issues, in particular his U.S. alliance in foreign policy and a free, deregulated Australian economy, I thought you might find it interesting that not all conservative voters support his proposed changes to the Senate, ASIO legislation and Cross Media Laws.

It is true that Australians are more vulnerable than U.S. citizens because of our lack of a Bill of Rights. I would certainly feel much more comfortable if we had our own Bill of Rights with respect to ASIO’s new powers, not because of your fears with regards to Mr. Howard’s government, but any future government of radical persuasions.

With regards to his proposed changes to the Senate and Cross media Laws, I firmly believe that the best traditions of our democracy support the rule of the majority but also that minority voices are heard and have influence. The sustainability of our democracy and its principle strength is that it allows many voices to be heard and represented. Whilst the Senate can be obstructionist and frustrating, it is through the Senate and its diverse representative powers that our federated democracy exists.

Similiarly, an informed debate through a diverse media base provides the lifeblood of civil society and although many of the views expressed by the ‘left’ in the media, in my humble opinion, are ill-informed and misdirected it is necessary that they are heard.

Whilst it will be a difficult decision, if our Prime Minister persisted with more of these changes, in particular to the Senate, I might have to change my vote.

Margo: Hi Daniel. You know, I consider myself a small l liberal – it’s a shock to feel so far left! I wonder, though, how many voters like you there are in marginal seats? Perhaps most small ls are in safe Liberal or inner city safe Labor seats?

Daniel: Thank you for taking the time to respond. I would not not know if I fit any political category, being in step with Howard on foreign policy yet opposed on many domestic policies. Having voted for Howard consistently since 1996, for many Australians like me leadership is a key basis for choice of parties. Without going into the intricacies of why Labor does not resonate with me, let me put it this way. Howard vs. Crean – Howard. Howard vs Beazley – Howard. Howard vs Latham – Latham would be a strong chance of changing my mind, Howard vs. a woman – 50/50 – as I would like to see Australia with a female PM.

Mark Latham’s biggest strength is that you have a fair idea where he stands on most things – and whilst I do not agree with many things he says, he does make me feel that the job would not overwhelm him.

Any woman would stand a chance against Howard merely because it would highlight the differences between the two parties, if only symbolically. Labor’s key problem is highlighting the difference between the two parties – Latham would do it by force of personality and a female leader would symbolise going forward in a compelling way.

All that being said – it does require Howard to be too radical in his changes coupled with a strong alternative to get a naturally conservative voter like myself and many other ‘joes’ out there to change their mind.

Keep up the controversy because I love reading views that are well thought out even though I strongly disagree with them.

I’m in Bradfield, a very safe Liberal seat.

Margo: Bradfield, eh? As I recall Brendan Nelson fought long and hard against Howard’s proposal to abolish cross media laws in 1997 (keeping foreign limits) so Packer could get Fairfax. Jamie said on A Current Affairhe “wants Fairfax for Christmas”. Not a word from Brendan now, though.

Howard worries liberals, too


Image by George Hirst, editor of the Magnetic Times newspaper in North Queensland.

G’Day. Thanks for all your contributions on media ownership and Howard’s agenda this week – they’ve got me thinking about where to from here. I’ll write on Monday about the risks Howard faces with his plan to entrench the neo-liberal global vision in Australia with the help of a media controlled by Australia’s two most powerful men.

Then there’s the question of how Labor and all Australians determined to save our democracy could counter it. I’ve got a few thoughts on that too. Fingers crossed for Mark Latham. Please don’t blow it Mark – Australia needs you.

The Murdoch push for media domination is facing strong bipartisan opposition in the United States and has just been held back in the United Kingdom, too. I’ve published the latest Guardian article on Tony Blair’s partial backdown at the end of this entry. Thanks to Webdiarist David Goldstein for the link. A comparison of the public debate on this matter in the US and the UK with the almost complete lack of it in Australia shows how dangerously concentrated our media ownership already is.

I’m off tomorrow. Here’s your latest comments on our topic this week – I’ll start with an exchange between Daniel Moye and I today.

Daniel Moye in Roseville, NSW

As a supporter of J. Howard on many issues, in particular his U.S. alliance in foreign policy and a free, deregulated Australian economy, I thought you might find it interesting that not all conservative voters support his proposed changes to the Senate, ASIO legislation and Cross Media Laws.

It is true that Australians are more vulnerable than U.S. citizens because of our lack of a Bill of Rights. I would certainly feel much more comfortable if we had our own Bill of Rights with respect to ASIO’s new powers, not because of your fears with regards to Mr. Howard’s government, but any future government of radical persuasions.

With regards to his proposed changes to the Senate and Cross media Laws, I firmly believe that the best traditions of our democracy support the rule of the majority but also that minority voices are heard and have influence. The sustainability of our democracy and its principle strength is that it allows many voices to be heard and represented. Whilst the Senate can be obstructionist and frustrating, it is through the Senate and its diverse representative powers that our federated democracy exists.

Similiarly, an informed debate through a diverse media base provides the lifeblood of civil society and although many of the views expressed by the ‘left’ in the media, in my humble opinion, are ill-informed and misdirected it is necessary that they are heard.

Whilst it will be a difficult decision, if our Prime Minister persisted with more of these changes, in particular to the Senate, I might have to change my vote.

I replied:

Hi Daniel. You know, I consider myself a small l liberal – it’s a shock to feel so far left! I wonder, though, how many voters like you there are in marginal seats? Perhaps most small ls are in safe Liberal or inner city safe Labor seats?

Daniel replied:

Thank you for taking the time to respond. I would not not know if I fit any political category, being in step with Howard on foreign policy yet opposed on many domestic policies. Having voted for Howard consistently since 1996, for many Australians like me leadership is a key basis for choice of parties. Without going into the intricacies of why Labor does not resonate with me, let me put it this way. Howard vs. Crean – Howard. Howard vs Beazley – Howard. Howard vs Latham – Latham would be a strong chance of changing my mind, Howard vs. a woman – 50/50 – as I would like to see Australia with a female PM.

Mark Latham’s biggest strength is that you have a fair idea where he stands on most things – and whilst I do not agree with many things he says, he does make me feel that the job would not overwhelm him.

Any woman would stand a chance against Howard merely because it would highlight the differences between the two parties, if only symbolically. Labor’s key problem is highlighting the difference between the two parties – Latham would do it by force of personality and a female leader would symbolise going forward in a compelling way.

All that being said – it does require Howard to be too radical in his changes coupled with a strong alternative to get a naturally conservative voter like myself and many other ‘joes’ out there to change their mind.

Keep up the controversy because I love reading views that are well thought out even though I strongly disagree with them.

I’m in Bradfield, a very safe Liberal seat.

I replied:

Bradfield, eh? As I recall Brendan Nelson fought long and hard against Howard’s proposal to abolish cross media laws in 1997 (keeping foreign limits) so Packer could get Fairfax. Jamie said on A Current Affair he “wants Fairfax for Christmas”. Not a word from Brendan now, though.


Andrea Hamann in the United Arab Emirates

I am living in a country where government is divided up amongst wealthy ruling families. Democracy is slowly developing in its own strange way, but it is not the democracy we have celebrated in Australia. Not by a long shot.

As my colleagues keep reminding me, this isn’t my country and I don’t have any rights, even as a resident. I have the right to leave and that is about it. There is no right to protest, to question what the government is doing and certainly not to vote, even if you’ve lived here with your family for 20 years. By the same token, the leader of this country in his wisdom is transitioning this country from a nomadic bedouin culture to the brave new world of the 21st century in a time frame of 50 years, and more or less peacefully.

In Germany there are still archaic laws left over from wartime about always carrying your I.D around with you, an officially issued ‘PASS’ and you have to ‘anmeld’ – register where you live, and should you move house you have to ‘abmeld’ (deregister). And yet Germany is one of the most democratic countries in existence, next to France that is.

And then I hear about Australia and recent threats to our till now reasonably healthy democracy – where you can walk down Swanston St in a demo’ if you don’t want Jabiluka to be mined, and you don’t have a form of I.D until you get your drivers licence. Even then you are not obliged to carry it with you.

I don’t want to begin to imagine an Australia that looks like an American, or even German version of democracy, and certainly not a one party or family rule. Here’s to our Democracy and lets hope like hell it doesn’t get threatened any further.


Marcus Faulstone

While it may be all to easy to dismiss the concerns you have raised in Howard’s roads to absolute power and the succeeding Webdiary entries as being alarmist, if not paranoiac, you have made some very serious points which should not be so easily brushed aside.

The concatenation you describe – of government policy, neoconservative ideology and a concentration of media ownership – should be of concern to all Australians who value accountable and responsible governance and openess of public discourse. We have before us the very real possibility of an indefinate ‘mediocracy’, and even those who find this an unlikely scenario must concede that it is one to be avoided at any cost.

Interestingly, much of the debate in Webdiary has focused at the point of corporations and media production. What of media consumption? On one hand, it is insulting to suggest that the vast majority of Australians simply consume media output, almost as the passive recipients of an injection. But public discourse can’t but be deformed any time an issue of public relevance is glossed over, is absent from, or simply delivered as per press release, by our media outlets. The ‘children overboard’ saga is a case in point.

Your Webdiary provides an interesting example of an alternative, more discursive form of media consumption to those provided by the mass media heavyweights of concern in your article. Weblogs abound online, encouraging a plurality of opinion and a domain for even the most impotent to express themselves. It is all too easy to leap from this observation to the hyperbolic enthusiasm of some cybertheorists for a utopian digital democracy, but this does highlight the possibilty of a more decentralised pattern of media production and consumption in the distant future.

It is interesting then that the Howard government has already put a cap on how much data a consumer may download, such that after this limit the transmission is defined as constituting broadcasting. I can’t recollect whether that occured through an act or regulation, or even the details, but it still certainly evidences a fear that the internet could encroach upon the traditional consumption of broadcasting.

Further, it could again be seen as another instance of the Howard governent acting in the interests of media players, and doing so against the interests of Australians and the development of our own digital literacy and culture. To compare, this act is as patently ridiculous as a renaissance monarch forbidding the printing of any book longer than 100 pages at the request of a great engraving house. Perhaps we’ll just have to use a digital equivalent of really small writing.


Ann Butcher in Thornlie, Western Australia

Firstly, many thanks for your column. It’s a breath of fresh air on a regular basis, mainly because it makes me realise that other people feel the same way I do. It’s so nice not to feel isolated.

With reference to reactions to ‘Howard’s road to absolute power’, whilst reading many of the correspondents I wondered whether they watched Monday night’s Cutting Edge on SBS, ‘The Cartel – Oil And The US Government’.

The program was an eye-opener for the many links between George W Bush and companies like Enron, Reliant and El Paso. (Some of this had been documented in Michael Moore’s Stupid White Men but not to the extent of this program.) Dick Cheney and his relationship with Halliburton was also heavily featured. The program fitted beautifully with your description “(of) the US model of a corporatist state run by government in partnership with big business, where politicians and business people swap roles routinely and big business finances the conservative party.”


Brendon Leeder

One of the things I am not sure you have mentioned in the whole media debate and John Howard’s road to absolute power is the manipulation of the public’s opinion (attitude) away from the ‘lucky country’, the free-to-do-as-you-please attitude of the Australian people. We have been led to believe (I believe misled) that we are under threat from terrorist groups and their cells in our own homes in Australia.

When the former Lord Mayor of Brisbane Jim Soorley was asked about whether there was an imminent or any future threat of terrorism in/aimed at Brisbane – or more specifically the Story Bridge, – he said something along the lines of “The terrorists haven’t heard of Brisbane, let along the Story Bridge”. I am not afraid of what might happen if I travel, I am not afraid to walk around the city, or for that matter the countryside.

If we hadn’t blindly backed the United States in everything in the past couple of years (sorry, our work to ease tariffs on our exports to the US has been commendable, though I believe military support should not be our primary negotiating factor) we would be under no threat from terrorism. Australia was not even on the radar – there would have been as close to zero threat on our nation as ever.

You will also note that after the Bali bombings, the fact that Australians were killed was originally a regret of the bombers (at least our people were not the target). However, since the war on Islam begun in earnest with the attack on Iraq and with the promise of further attacks should any non-Western nation not kow tow to the US foreign oil policies the Bali bombers have been glad Australians died in the attack.

Since Bali and the war on Iraq, terrorism has dominated the newpapers and television, coinciding with our increasing support for John Howard as our nation gets progressively more fearful of a threat that is NOT HIGH, and is only increasing because of our blind support for the United States.

Conspiracy theorists could argue that the nation has put itself at risk for the ultimate power of one person, John Howard, whose government and police will have control over everything people say, do and think in public. Hang on, didn’t we take out Saddam Hussein for those reasons?

On the side, I admire John Howard for what he has done to keep the Australian economy up there with the best in the world, if not the best, and also his leadership qualities. Also, I am a capitalist, not a socialist.


Steve Wallace

Great work on the media issue. I read your first piece and was sick in the pit of my stomach. To say the proposition is frightening is major understatement. It is horrifying to look out on a future crafted by Howard. I am trenchantly opposed, and will remain so. No room for depression.

Those who sell contentious products and encounter social or regulatory opposition, say for example pornography (I choose the example intentionally as I find Howard World quite so), often quote the maxim “If you don’t like my product, your don’t HAVE to buy it”. The proposition seems fair, and is difficult to oppose. Well, perhaps rather than oppose it we can embrace it. I won’t buy Murdoch or Packer products.

By way of anecdote; I haven’t had a TV for more than five years. Sounds surprising I guess, but I only had one for three years. A friend was sharing with me, and was addicted, so I relented. Prior to that I didn’t have a TV for about ten years, but have lost track of the length of time. That’s most of the eighties and early nineties I’d say.

Think for a moment about the prospect. Can you imagine how that clears your head? I find that, in comparison to many people I interact with, my mind belongs to me. I start my thinking at a different point of departure and generally proceed to a different destination. I am not available for manipulation. Sure, I have little to talk about to the people at work on a Monday morning, but while they are great folks they have been generally compromised by their TV habit. And, I have a lot more time.

Perhaps in the ASIO torture chambers of Howard World the spooks will force me to watch commercial TV for days at a time (there was nothing in the legislation to stop them exposing me to this mind-altering material). Before that happens I intend to have nothing to do with TV, and only a little radio and some selected print.

I encourage all your readers to abandon their TVs and embrace freedom. Imagine the impact on the media barons if they couldn’t sell advertising. Just say NO. They are very exposed.

Oh, and I encourage you to find a large number of alternate web sites for your work before you are terminated


Antonia Feitz in Rocky River, NSW

It isn’t just John Howard that’s the problem. The Australian body politic has been rotten for about twenty five years. How did this lamentable state happen? Someone at The Age summed it up pretty well: “For almost two decades, during the age of globalisation, the two major parties have conducted a democratic experiment in elite bipartisanship, largely excluding from the policies and considerations, signs of deep popular resistance to sweeping economic reform and change.” (20/7/98).

Read it again and get angry: “a democratic experiment in elite bipartisanship.” That, Margo, is a poly-syllabled euphemism for a defacto one party state. THAT’S why Australia is in the mess it is. And that’s why voting in a Labor government will change nothing. Way back in 1984 (appropriate!), Hawke said Labor’s task was to establish permanent acceptance of the “naturalness and inevitablity of change and reform as the authentic way of life” for the Australian people.

Since then both sides of politics have ignored the Australian people’s expressed preference for maintaining a decent society as an authentic way of life. In his book, Paul Keating admitted that the reforms had not been ‘inevitable’. Yet anybody who protested against them was routinely vilified by the media as a luddite, an economic troglodyte, a nostagia freak and, most insultingly, as envious. Ah yes, “the politics of envy”. What a catchy little phrase for the editorialists as they lecture us that reform fatigue is not an option. In a truly democratic nation, why not?

Pauline Hanson was the canary that should have warned people something was seriously wrong in Australia. Back then it was only the riff-raff that suffered, but they were inarticulate and had no voice until she accidently burst upon the scene. After she was safely neutralised The Australian commented that the One Nation phenomenon had really been about globalisation, not race. Indeed. It wasn’t Hanson but the media that disgracefully played the race card.

These days it’s not just blue-collar workers, seamstresses and dairy farmers who are being burnt by globalisation. Australian legal firms are sending their dictaphone messages to the Philippines to be processed and emailed back at a fraction of the cost of Australian workers. Call centre jobs are going to India for the same reason. The ‘Australian’ government even advises companies to follow this path and so IT and other professional jobs are being exported too. There are artificially created teacher and nurse ‘shortages’ – instead of educating our own young we import these professionals trained in third world countries because it’s cheaper. Obscene.

It’s not as if the savings in labour costs are being passed on to consumers. Brand name bras made in the Philippines or Vietnam retail for $50+ in the shops. Doona sets made in China cost $200. A stainless steel whisk made in China retails for $17. It’s the greatest consumer rip-off in history.

This is wake-up time. Do we really want to participate in the race to the bottom? Do we agree that the government’s sole aim in managing the abstraction called ‘the economy’ should be to maximise shareholders’ profits and to hell with everybody else? That’s not a society; that’s a jungle.

Back in 1998 Michael Costello said: “The very existence of the nation state will be challenged by globalisation as never before. After all, a global corporation’s patriotism is for company, not country. … globalisation reinforces the tendency of free markets unfettered to make the rich richer and the poor poorer. We are only in the foothills of globalisation and already this is happening.” (The Australian, 5/5/98). At least he was honest when he warned, “We ain’t seen nothing yet”.

Who’s really running the country? Who said the federal government should focus on “strengthening enterprise bargaining further and reducing the role of awards and third parties in wage determination.” And “while it is necessary to maintain an adequate social safety net it is also necessary to limit the duration of unemployment benefits to encourage employment search.”

Howard? Costello? Abbott? Give up? Actually it was the IMF. No, I don’t recall the IMF Party on the ballot paper either.


Puttnam forces block on predatory media barons

Matt Wells, media correspondent

Thursday July 3, 2003

The Guardian

A heavy block was placed in the path of powerful press barons last night when the House of Lords forced the government to rein in its plans to loosen Britain’s tough cross-media ownership restrictions.

In the face of significant opposition, marshalled by the former film maker Lord Puttnam, the government agreed to impose a public interest test on any media merger that threatened to concentrate power in too few hands.

Lord Puttnam said the measure would prevent Rupert Murdoch from ever being able to take over Channel Five – a scenario that would be permitted under the communications bill, which is nearing its final stages in the Lords.

But sceptics said the power of the public interest test could only be measured when the government publishes the wording of its proposal next week.

The government dropped its long-standing refusal to give ground on the bill – first published in May last year – when it became clear that it would suffer a heavy defeat if the issue was put to the vote.

With the authority of the culture secretary, Tessa Jowell, the broadcasting minister Lord McIntosh accepted the principle of Lord Puttnam’s public interest plan. Lord McIntosh said the government would publish a public interest test – in return for Lord Puttnam’s agreement to drop his own wording – when the bill receives its third reading in the Lords on Tuesday.

He said: “We are supportive of the principle behind Lord Puttnam’s amendment that we safeguard plurality and diversity of the public voice.

“Media plurality is important for a healthy and informed democratic society. The underlying principle is that it would be dangerous for any one person to control too much of the media because of their ability to influence opinions and set the political agenda. It is therefore essential to set limits on concentration of ownership.”

He said the test would be applied to a wide range of media mergers, not just any takeover of Five.

Lord Puttnam said that he wanted to prevent the “Berlusconi-isation” of Britain, warning of the situation in Italy where Silvio Berlusconi, the prime minister, owns or controls large sections of the country’s media.

The Tories were critical of the climbdown. John Whittingdale, the shadow culture secretary, said it was a “humiliating surrender” that added needless regulation. He pointed out that when the test was first proposed, the government’s then broadcasting minister, Kim Howells, rejected the idea saying the bill was intended to “remove regulations, not impose new and unnecessary ones”.

Lord McNally, the Liberal Democrats’ media spokesman in the Lords, said the public interest test would give a measure of protection, but urged the new media regulator Ofcom to have the courage to wield its new power.

But Lord McNally said he wished the legislation had never been framed in its present form. He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “For all the denials that this is a Murdoch bill, this bill was authorised in No 10, where Mr Murdoch has had worrying influence. The bill should be redrafted to rule out an American takeover of the third channel or a purchase of Five by Mr Murdoch. Believe me, these forces are out there; in the words of the Terminator, they’ll be back.”

Hanson, Abbott and the whole damned thing: the contrarian position

What a huge ten days in politics! To end a week dominated by the aftershocks of Pauline Hanson’s jailing, contributions from Webdiarists who support the verdict and/or the sentence. As with everything concerning Hanson and her clashes with ‘the system’, the story is complicated, many layered, and utterly fascinating, particularly in what it says about where Australians are at in their conversations about our nation and its values.

Webdiarists’ Hanson reaction pattern is like the Tampa one – first a flood of emails outraged at the sentence, then defenders start to trickle in and gradually build in numbers. The strange thing is that many of the same people outraged by Howard’s Tampa sting are also outraged by Hanson’s jail term. Like the Tampa, many Australians are keen to get their views on this matter recorded for posterity. I’ll do my best, but there’s no way I’m going to be able publish everyone. So the usual request – if you’ve written a corker that hasn’t got a run, please re-send.

I’m debuting as a columnist for the Sun Herald on Sunday. It’s on Hanson, of course.

Geoff Kitney, our bureau chief in Canberra, in his brilliant column today, Cue the PM: ‘No one told me about that’, concluded:

For all their unseemly manoeuvring to try to protect themselves from any political backlash from Hanson’s imprisonment, both sides will be hoping the appeal court confirms her crime and her punishment.

Unusually, I disagreed. I reckon the major parties – if they’re intelligent – hope her jail term is dropped. What do you think?

I’ve just watched Lateline’s Friday debate before publishing. Mark Latham -v- Queensland Liberal backbencher, brilliant barrister, and strong civil rights defender George Brandeis on Abbott’s Hanson sting and his lies about it. In the middle, Tony Jones, the bloke who asked Abbott the question in 1998 on Four Corners, the bloke Abbott looked in the eye and lied to.

The last time I saw Latham on Lateline he debated opposite number Abbott on Howard misleading Parliament about his meeting with Manildra’s Dick Honan. It couldn’t be Abbott now, could it? Betcha Abbott is moved as manager of opposition business real quick, just like Peter Reith was after the Telecard scandal. Abbott can’t do outrage about the other side’s sins any more. George did his best, but the brief was so shocking even he didn’t sound convincing, poor bastard. Talk about getting the job from hell!

I’m debuting as a columnist for the Sun Herald on Sunday. It’s on Hanson, of course. Have a good weekend.


Jason Hall in Newcastle emailed a complaint about Webdiary’s content and direction at the moment:

Margo, I used to like the Webdiary for its quirkiness, however it now has a sameness which is stale. Please, there is more to write about than the Government. Have a look at the headlines of the last 20 entries – what they tell you, and ultimately your readers, is that the Webdiary has become one dimensional and a comment guided by your politics. Let’s cover more than the government – it’s become boring!

Is it time for another navel gaze about Webdiary’s content? What do other readers think about Jason’s point?


Anne Ryan

Oh please, Margo, “…let Pauline Hanson walk free”???! You can’t deny that she broke the law, cynically and with clear intent. Don’t replace hypocrisy with more hypocrisy – you do yourself, and us, a disservice.(Margo: Hi Anne. Have a read of Anthony Green’s piece Perils of Pauline: her breach of ‘club’ rules was technical rather than deceit.)


Diana Lyons

I sort of agree with your comments in Mother of the nation in jail, its father in charge, but really, Pauline Hanson does deserve her sentence and I do not feel sorry for her.

This ignorant woman seemed to believe that becoming a politician was in some way the equivalent of becoming a film star – a gaudy wardrobe, lots of attention from fawning media and instant ‘celebrity’ status, all without actually having to work at anything. Apart from that maiden speech, which was written for her, not by her, she spent precious little time in the house during her term, instead preferring to party in Canberra’s night spots. She did not vote on legislation, again because she failed to attend. She spent buckets of money – party funds, election allowances etc on cars for her kids, extensions to her home, overseas trips to meet her American boyfriend and a truly horrendous wardrobe.

She knew exactly what she was doing in setting up One Nation as a company with three directors who had full control and a bunch of ‘supporters’ who had no rights apart from supplying cash. Apart from her appalling beliefs, the division she stirred up and the legacy she left John Howard, please, someone, tell me just what her achievements as a political leader were? I can’t think of any.


Con Vaitsas in Sydney

Margo, Mother of the nation in jail, its father in charge was spot on except for the 2nd last line “…let Pauline Hanson walk free”.

No way does she deserve to get off scott free. She is lucky she got only 3 years – many ordinary Australians have had to endure 7 years of abuse since she came to prominence and gave Aussies the OK to release their racism in public on anyone they thought did not match their view of a typical Aussie.

Sure she may not have spat on, verbally or physically abused anyone, but she gave succour to those intolerant ratbags who lurk in the community to go out and do such things in public – in the street, a car park or a shopping centre. I myself came close to blows on several occasions because I made it my business to interfere with passengers being abused because of their ethnicity.

What was so depressing about some of those train incidents was that the carriages were full of people but no-one made any attempt to say anything to stop the abuse, It was a case of minding their own business, which annoys me even more.

And sure, I know that if Howard had come out at the start of Hansonism and told Australia that he strongly disagreed with her views on people from certain ethnic backgrounds and Aborigines a lot of people might have been saved from harassment and abuse.

So you see, Margo, I feel she got what she deserved. Speaking to a couple of people today, they felt relieved she was sent to prison because of her views against their cultural background. They used to feel unsafe when she was at her peak with popular support. (Margo: Do they feel safer under post-Hanson Howard?)


Mary Jones (nom de plume)

Having read much of the outrage in Webdiary and elsewhere in the media since Hanson was jailed, and taken time to think about it, I can’t believe what you and some of your fellow lefties are saying. I agree with everything Richard Ackland said in today’s SMH (Hanson’s fraud had major political consequences, as did her bigotry).

Don’t for a minute think I’m saying that Abbott and Howard’s comments re slush funds, who did what and what they said and when etc etc have been totally believable. They haven’t!! Their continued tendency to deceive, twist the truth and play with words is outrageous.

But for God’s sake, can’t some journalists, just for once, calm down and realise that what Hanson and Ettridge did was illegal and they deserved to be punished. Maybe three years does seem a bit long, but Karen Erhmann here in Queensland has also been jailed for electoral fraud. Matt Price is right in The Oz when he points to the incredible hypocrisy of Labor and as for Bronwyn Bishop, well…what would you expect from her. (Margo: I fail to see Labor’s hypocrisy. It was up front from the beginning opposing Hanson’s policies, strongly. Of course they urged Howard to argue the case too, but he didn’t. Where’s the hypocrisy? I was surprised by Matt’s piece. I love his work, but maybe he’s been in the gallery too long. I recommend a fabulous piece in this morning’s Australian Financial Review by the paper’s bureau chief Tony Walker. An extract:

Surely the bigger issue in all of this, in light of Pauline Hanson’s sentencing and associated static, is what it reminds us about the sort of duplicitous game being played by the Liberal Party back in 1997-98 in dealing with the One Nation insurgency on its conservative flank., and what it reveals now about lingering fallout from that period. Back to Mary Jones…)

I have voted for a range of political parties in my life. I support some of Howard’s decisions and there are many I disagree with. I have worked as a journalist and now teach at a university (a grossly underfunded one mind you!!). I’m preparing to do my PhD on an aspect of journalism relating to media coverage of the environment, the influence of the Internet and how this all sits in a globalised world. I’m just sick and tired of reading and listening to the “Howard haters” within Australia’s media reacting to every story and nuance coming out of Canberra, as if they’ve finally ‘got him’.

By all means report the facts in a truthful and fair manner, but don’t let your hatred for Howard and co so distort your reporting and commentary that it begins to sound totally ‘off the planet’.


Greg Abbott

Margo, let’s not over intellectualise this. Pauline Hanson is not exempt from the legal process just because she brandishes (divisive, ignorant and hurtful) political views. (Margo: Agreed in spades!)

Ms Hanson appears to have thought she was above the law and that she did not have to go through due process to establish her party and have access to “ordinary Australians'” money.

How are you really able to argue that the “elite” have conspired to achieve this result. (Margo: I did not argue that.) Should enforcement agencies not have investigated? (I didn’t argue that either.) Should the public prosecutor not have prosecuted? (Or that.) Was the judge biased or politically motivated in her sentencing (a very serious charge)? (Definitely not – in fact I castigated Bronwyn Bishop for doing just that – see Now Abbott lies about lying, copies Howard’s Manildra)

No, this is not some attack by the “elite”. “Ordinary Australians” have with little apparent hesitation found her guilty of intentionally committing a serious crime, one that involved both fraud and interference with our system of democracy.

Some of the words you have written today seems to support the “martyr” role her few remaining supporters are trying to conjure. Why don’t you go and leave a message of support on her website then … (Because I don’t support her.)

Yours, with tongue partly in cheek. (Thank God for that!)


Tom Chesson

A member of the right wing of politics taking on the extremes of the far right and wins – how dare Mr Abbott have the courage to do something like that? He’s not even a fully fledged Member of the latte set. Hanson and her cohort are in jail for RORTING the Australian public out of half a million dollars. She has been found guilty not by any political party but by a jury of 12 of her fellow Queenslanders.

No matter how much money Abbott raised, not even he could rort the Queensland criminal justice system. Far from being ridiculed for ridding Australia of an extremely dangerous group of conspiracy freaks, the Labor Party should be taking a leaf out of Mr Abbott’s book and take on the dangerous fringe groups gaining some respectability on the left wing spectrum of politics.


Marcus Vernon

Margo, I haven’t checked in with Webdiary for some time, for various reasons, but felt I had to after the Hanson verdict. I was shocked to see dreadful picture of you at the top of the page. How long has that been there??! (Margo: Since I published Webdiary’s ethics last month) Who on earth decided that was a good idea? (My news editor) Please lose it asap. We don’t need or want any personality cults in the media.

As to Hanson, the three-year sentence was appalling, way way over the top. I’m no fan of Hanson, and knew she had neither the intelligence or organisational kills to develop a genuine, long-lasting presence in politics. But I supported her right to say what she thought (which has since been picked up by other pollies and community groups) and stand for election if she felt that was the way to go.

I liked your piece on the verdict, Mother of the nation in jail, its father in charge, although I think Howard has done nothing more than what other opportunistic pollies, including Hawke, would have done.


Gary Fallon in Noble Park, Victoria

I have been under the misapprehension that the term ‘right wing bleeding heart’ was an oxymoron – until I read the newspapers! The One Nation Onanists are up in arms because Pauline Hanson, in accordance with the laws that prevail in the state of Queensland, has been found guilty of fraud. There are disingenuous claims that the crime was ‘victimless’, a novel concept to say the least. Even under good old Joh, the laws of Queensland needed to have this test applied. Somehow these individuals feel that ignorance of the law should be a reason for it not to apply. Although ‘ignorance’ is certainly a hallmark of Hanson, I note that they are unwilling to extend this defence to anyone else in the criminal justice system.

I wonder what the reactions of the One Nation Onanists would be to a situation where an Aborigine falsely completes an employment application for a position in a bank. Through this she obtains employment and then proceeds to defraud the bank of $500,000 to help her local community fight alcoholism and domestic violence. She is charged, tried in a court of law, and despite having arranged repayment of the money to the bank, is found guilty by a jury and sentenced to three years imprisonment by the judge.

Would One Nation Onanists be claiming the sentence is ‘racially based’? Would they be claiming that the sentence is ‘too severe’? Or would they demand that the maximum sentence (I believe this is 10 years) be applied and decry the fact the courts are too lenient on criminals?

Somehow, I think we all know the answer to this; our poor Aborigine would not receive the One Nation sympathy that Precious Pauline has! Ah, the hypocrisy of the ignorant right!


Andrew Stapleton in Sydney

In an effort to show that they can be magnanimous in victory the ‘left elite’ are tripping over themselves and the facts of the case.

In Too severe on stupidity Mike Carlton said: “On reflection, I think her sentence is too much. Her crime was not deliberate, more a stupid administrative error” (SMH August 23, 2003)

Richard Glover in At least the Sunshine State is safe from angry pen wielders said: “This week it was the turn of Pauline Hanson, who’d made a hash of her party paperwork. There were all sorts of forms that were filled out incorrectly.” (SMH August 23, 2003)

Margo Kingston feels ‘sorry’ for Hanson and says: “Australia’s political, police and legal establishment has put Pauline Hanson – fish and chip shop heroine to the poor, the ignorant and the disenfranchised, the woman who created a party out of nothing in an instant and mobilised Australians never before involved in politics – behind bars.” (SMH online, August 21, 2003)

Politicians from B. Carr to B. Bishop feel that prison was inappropriate.

A fundamental element of the platform on which Pauline Hanson ran was that Australia had become an oligarchy, in so far as the major parties had been captured by an elite and no longer responded to the concerns of ordinary Australians. Her One Nation party was intended as a grass roots party that would represent the interests of the forgotten Australians.

There are differing levels of democracy in political parties. At the most democratic end are the Australian Democrats who may have come unstuck because they were too democratic. The membership of the Democrats can all vote to elect the parliamentary leader of the party which is fine if the membership is similar to the people who vote for the party but when the party became dominated by Uni students attracted to Natasha and chose her as its leader it alienated a significant proportion of its voter base, middle aged housewives from the North Shore. A significant portion of the damage to the Democrats was caused by Natasha framing her speeches and policies so that they appealed to her electoral base within the party

rather the electoral base of the party.

The Liberal, Labor and National parties have a more stable model of internal democracy. Any Australian elector can join the local branch of their preferred party (membership of political parties has dwindled over the past couple of decades and these parties would be delighted to get new members) and then vote in the preselection for the local candidate.

Occasionally a party’s head office will overrule that preselection, as the Liberals did with Hanson in 1997, but generally they will accept the branch’s choice. The party’s parliamentary membership then elects a leader of the party.

When Hanson, Ettridge and Oldfield and were setting up Pauline Hanson’s One Nation political party they decided they didn’t want to allow members any democratic vote in running the party. They created a separate skin, the Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Members Inc., for the membership that could be shed if it raised its voice against the leadership. This membership organisation had no control over the allocation of party funding, the selection of candidates or who would lead (the Party) Pauline Hanson’s One Nation political party.

Hanson and Ettridge fell foul of the law when they went to register the political party in Queensland. The Queensland Electoral Act 1992 Sect 70 (e) requires that if the party does not have one member of the party who is a member of the Legislative Assembly they needed to ‘set out the names and addresses of 500 members of the party who are electors’.

Although they had at least 18,000 supporters they did not have 500 members because they had chosen to allow only themselves, the leadership, membership of the party, kind of like an oligarchy. In her sentencing statement Judge Wolfe said:

In finding you guilty the jury has accepted that you, David Ettridge, as the person who was one of the National Management Committee of the party, one of the three, and you, Ms Hanson, as another member of that Management Committee, as well as being the president and vice president respectfully of the support movement knew, Ms Hanson, when you caused to be handed in a list of members, and which Mr Ettridge had obtained for the purpose of providing to the Electoral Commission, that it was not a list of members of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, the political party. The jury, in their verdicts, has found that both of you knew that it was a list of members of the support movement.

It is absurd for Hanson and Ettridge to claim that they didn’t realise the list of people submitted were not members having intentionally structured the party to exclude those people from membership.

It is a red herring to suggest that Hanson and Ettridge didn’t personally benefit and so the fraud can be forgiven – they were effectively the One Nation party and its success was their success. Judge Wolfe pointed out that registration of One Nation in Queensland conferred a couple of benefits on the party. Registration allowed the party to make a claim for electoral funding and it meant that Pauline Hanson’s One Nation appeared on the ballot paper easily identifying its candidates. Further more, if the One Nation candidates had stood as independents under a One Nation banner those that garnered more than 4% of the vote would themselves have been entitled to the electoral funding.

The greatest fraud was perpetrated on the supporters of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation who thought that they were joining a democratic party and would have some measure of influence.


Tim Gillin in Randwick, Sydney

Your discussion of the harsh treatment dished out to Pauline Hanson puts all the blame on Howard. Politicians really do deserve our contempt but it needs to be spread around more. (Margo: Not true! I also gave a big blast to Keating.)

You have left the whole left wing and “Big M” Multiculturalist hate campaign against Hanson off the hook. These self described opponents of racism and “friends of diversity” showed zero tolerance for opinions other than their own monologue. (I made this very point in my book.)

That some less optimistic souls wish to apply the Greens’ “precautionary principle” when massive state managed social engineering is foist on the only country we have, was frankly beyond these dogma addicts.

You rightfully pointed out that Howard’s refugee detention policies are actually tougher than the

position publicly advocated by Hanson. But somehow you managed to completely miss what Howard’s immigration policies really are.

Although the left accuse Howard’s tough line against mass maritime illegal immigrants as racist /xenophobic, his total policy seems quite different, at least according to Ross Gittins.(He’s kept it bloody quiet though – and he’s safe, because Labor won’t argue. And he’s skewed the intake away from humanitarian in a big way.)

If Gittins is right Howard may be playing a magician’s trick. Gittins seems to be saying that, despite Woomera, Howard has actually run the ‘least European’ immigration policy in our history. Future generations of multiculturalist pundits will no doubt rehabilitate his reputation a la Fraser. The two card trick was up until now Keating’s specialty. The “vision thing” on one hand, economic rationalism up the sleeve.

What does the average Australian think about all this? The last figures I saw come from this old 1996 article that show low interest in immigration as a ‘hot button’ issue. The public really has more important things to think about, but when pressed for their views, the majority position is one neither the government or white collar left would support. In fact these two apparent foes are solidly allied against public opinion.

This (admittedly old) poll explains Howard’s machiavellian tactics. It also explains the extreme paranoid (indeed “McCarthyist” in the worst sense) insecurity of the multicultural lobby. Pundits may accuse the Australian people for being scared about maritime hordes, but the anxiety in Moonee Ponds is nothing compared to the multiculturalists fear over an unplanned outbreak of public opinion.

I don’t believe there was a conspiracy to put Hanson in prison, but it is hard to believe she received a fair go when Hawke hero Alan Bond misplaces a billion dollars and serves three years. Anyone concerned with justice needs to examine whether the establishment and left’s joint campaign hasn’t steamrolled a mutually inconvenient and pesky nonconformist.

German poet Rev. Martin Niemoller once wrote: “First, they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Could it be that in cosmopolitan, globaloney, multicultural Australia, they are coming for the xenophobes first?