All posts by Carmen Lawrence

Howard’s games with boys’ education

Carmen Lawrence is the MP for Freemantle, the ALP’s federal president and a Webdiarycolumnist. My report on Howard’s attempt to allow sex discrimination in teacher training is atHoward’s affirmative action for men. The Polly Bush analysis is at Teaching sex discrimination.


Federal Parliament was asked this week to debate a Bill to amend the Sex Discrimination Act so that scholarships for teachers could be offered selectively to men. In rushing the Bill into the House, the government claimed their objective was to �redress gender imbalance in teaching�, a move they claimed would remedy the under-achievement of boys in school.

I found it hard to take the legislation seriously, not least because the Prime Minister clearly doesn�t, but also because it�s not actually about improving the performance of boys in schools. And it�s certainly not about increasing the number of male teachers in the school system. The only thing that�s certain is that it will achieve neither objective.


Nor is it about good public policy based on thorough and careful analysis of the problem and the interventions most likely to be effective.

It�s not that such analysis hasn�t been done. It has – at the request of the government and at considerable expense to the taxpayer.

At the instigation of the Minister for Education Brendan Nelson, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Training (chaired at the time by Nelson himself), undertook a comprehensive inquiry into the education of boys. The Committee received 178 submissions, conducted numerous public hearings and submitted a unanimous report in October 2002.

In addition, generously funded conferences on the issue of boys� education have been held and research commissioned. A brief inspection of the Education Department’s web site turns up a veritable goldmine of relevant research, most of it focused on the policy responses needed to improve children�s performance at school.

And what that meticulous and extensive research shows is that the measure contained in the Bill, to overturn long established principles protecting citizens against discrimination, will do nothing to improve children�s learning. The government knows what strategies will work and has, so far, done little or nothing to implement them.

The legislation is not about crafting good policy for the betterment of Australian children; it is about crude partisan advantage. It�s a classic Howard tactic based on strategies that he�s been employing since the day he was elected.

The problem for the government is that they�ve employed such tactics so often and so transparently that people are awake to their cynical ploys, their partisan purpose. The tactics are familiar- and have inevitably bred contempt. Like everything else about this government they�re tired and predictable.

Australians know, after watching him as Prime Minister for nearly eight years, that John Howard is the quintessential politician, the sort of politician that gives politicians a bad name. His passion is with the game, in winning at all costs.

As Mungo MacCallum pointed out in a recent essay , with Howard, �It�s not a question of the end justifying the means; the means has in fact become the end�. Howard does not see politics as a way of creating a better world, but as a world in its own right. The only reason he appears to want political power is for political power itself.

Why else is he hanging on? He has no agenda and his government is doing very little that is worthwhile.

The legislation, like many of the Howard initiatives, is a calculated political tactic aimed at using a potentially divisive social issue to political advantage. It has already used such tactics on all the usual suspects � the people the Howard government has encouraged us to think of as �not one of us� – Indigenous Australians, refugees, single mothers, the unemployed, homosexuals.

Commentators have labelled such tactics �wedge politics� and treated the phenomenon as novel. It�s not; Menzies used such tactics to great advantage with his �reds under the beds� scares, tainting the entire labour movement with the communist influence and splitting off the conservative, Catholic wing.

As Shaun Wilson writes , wedge politics �involves a political party stirring up populist feeling about an issue or a minority group and then tagging its political opponent with support for the unpopular cause or group.�

The object of wedge politics is to divide your political opponent�s support base and split away identifiable groups of voters. The goal is to win political ascendancy and control the political agenda. Such political tactics are usually based on careful opinion polling to reveal the issues and groups which attract resentment or antipathy in the wider electorate. The strategists then work out the best way of creating resentment among a large group against a smaller one, preying on fear and prejudice.

Howard�s entire 1996 election campaign was based on depicting the Keating Government as a captive of minority interests. Howard caricatured Labor�s commitment to equality and reducing disadvantage as giving special, undeserved treatment to minority groups (about whom he knew resentment could be cultivated). The Coalition victory gave the green light to such resentment and bigotry.

That�s what this government up to again � although this time, the tactic has backfired. They�ve picked the wrong issue and the wrong target. I think the Government hoped they could set disaffected men who are feeling dislocated by the economic and social changes of the last twenty years against the �politically correct� feminists who, in the eyes of many conservatives, are the cause of the problems in the first place.

Women campaigning for equality have often been saddled with the responsibility for all the ills of contemporary society and specifically, for ruining men�s lives. They make easy scapegoats. If boys are not doing as well at school as they used to, then it must be the fault of some woman � single mothers, their female teachers, the women who campaigned for better educational opportunities for girls.

What better way then to get at the new Labor leader, a leader who has genuinely recognised the problems that many, particularly working class, men and boys are having in modern society and who, at the same time, leads a party which has pioneered measures to remove discrimination against women and improve their status.

The trouble for the government is that it�s all too obvious and the players aren�t playing.

The Catholic Education Office, in whose interest the Bill was allegedly crafted, doesn�t want the amendment; they�ve reached agreement with the Coalition appointed Sex Discrimination Commissioner Pru Goward, a friend of Howard’s who who co-wrote his biography. She, in turn, has taken umbrage at being saddled with the PC label which the Minister tried to attach to her.

Introducing the Bill with an air of urgency was presumably meant to engender a sense of alarm that men were being prevented from becoming teachers by the nasty feminist legislation. All it signalled was a government in panic about their declining political fortunes.

The Government�s sudden introduction of the Bill begs two questions: Why now? And why this measure?

The answer to the first question is obvious. But why this measure, when all the evidence shows that it will be totally useless?

Every teacher in the country knows that the reason there are fewer male than female teachers is not because of any discrimination against men. Indeed the disproportionate number of men in promotional positions suggests that it is women who suffer discrimination.

The difference exists because men choose not to enter the profession and women do; because most men and boys with the ability seek better paid work and in areas seen as more �masculine�. It is a symptom of the high degree of occupation segregation which still exists in Australia.

To make teaching a more attractive career option for men would actually require the government to get serious about pay and conditions which many women tolerate because they like working with children; because the structure of the working day and year makes it easier for them to balance their work and family commitments and because women still do most of the caring in our society.

The parliamentary committee on educating boys specifically recommended that government �urgently address the remuneration of teachers, with the payment of substantial additional allowances for skilled and experienced teachers as an inducement for them to remain in teaching and to attract new teachers by offering more attractive career paths�.

The government knows that amending the Sex Discrimination Act is not likely to increase the number of male teachers in classrooms.

In any case, it�s not clear that getting more male teachers, even if this were achieved, would necessarily improve boys� retention at school or their educational performance. It was not among the recommendations made by the parliamentary committee because there�s no strong evidence that having more male teachers actually improves boys� performance or behaviour at school.

In fact, one investigation found that male teachers are less likely to implement gender-inclusive strategies and are less attentive to the needs of �at risk� boys. Sound curriculum development and good teaching, which caters for a variety of learning styles, are much more likely to make a difference.

School achievement or underachievement depends on a range of factors including ability and learning style, peer influences, family practices and relationships, community attitudes to learning, the curriculum and assessment procedures and student-teacher interactions.

What happens outside the classroom may be just as important in promoting literacy as the organised curriculum. Boys are less likely than girls to read and take part in music and the arts. More of their time is spent in competitive sports and watching TV. And all too often, boys are only rewarded for how well they do at sport rather than for anything else they do.

It is sometimes claimed that boys in sole parent families are more likely to do poorly at school, but recent research suggests that children in sole parent families do as well as in two parent families and, indeed, boys may perform better with their mothers who are more likely to participate in homework and encourage reading.

And the problem may be miscast in the first place. There has been a lot written about sex differences in school retention and achievement, and the underachievement of males is real. But the differences pale into insignificance when compared to socio-economic differences. In fact one of the major longitudinal studies on tertiary entrance performance concludes, �gender differences in tertiary performance are small compared to differences according to socioeconomic background and school sector�.

While boys are less likely to stay on at school and to have a wider range of academic results than girls, the differences in performance are not as marked as the popular press would sometimes have us believe. Indeed, in some states there are no differences between the average university entrance scores of boys and girls and high achievers of both genders perform about equally well. The evidence is that some boys are failing to achieve the results of which they are capable. And these boys are more likely to be from working class families. As one boy, interviewed as part of a research project on boys� underachievement put it, �why bother studying? Older men are losing their jobs�.

Australian research shows that socioeconomic status – parents� income, occupation and educational level – makes a larger difference than gender to year 12 performance, even in English, where girls generally do better than boys.

Socioeconomic status is associated with the biggest differences in educational participation, particularly for boys. Poverty is the major indicator of low participation and performance for both girls and boys and these effects are even more marked for rural and remote areas and for indigenous students.

As I pointed out in A fair go education system: the advantages for all of us, there are bigger gaps now between the best and the worst performers in Australia than in other developed countries and it�s a family�s position on the SES scale which is most likely to predict a child�s performance.

We should all be concerned at the failure to close the socio-economic gap in performance and retention, especially for males. The gap may, indeed, be widening. And what is this government doing about this glaring inequality. Exactly nothing.

No � I�m wrong, they�re actually exacerbating the problem.

They�re placing a growing proportion of funds into already well funded schools, where the parents are increasingly drawn from higher income groups. In fact, recent ABS data show that, particularly in the secondary school sector, there is an increasing concentration of high income families in non-government schools and a decline in the proportion of those from low-income families. Conversely, government schools have greater proportions from low income families and fewer from high income backgrounds.

Howard has mounted the diversionary tactic on changing the Sex Discrimination Act and waffling on about �values� in schools, because neither he nor Nelson have been able to mount a convincing argument � because there isn�t one- for cutting government schools� share of Commonwealth funding or for dramatically increasing funds to non-government schools.

Neither can they defend the results of their policies – that according to the most conservative estimates, by 2005 spending on state school students will be $2000 a year per head less than for non-government school students. Howard knows that even the best spin merchants could not make it seem fair that the wealthiest, most exclusive schools now operate with 200% of the resources available to government schools look fair.

And the exclusive schools do exclude the costly and difficult students and send them off to the government system. These schools now receive massive taxpayer support, yet they exclude difficult or underachieving students or prevent them from sitting university entrance exams altogether if they think such students will pull down the average. Most of these students end up in the government school system which actually plans for an influx at the end of the first semester.

Too many �exclusive� schools keep up their �standards� by washing their hands of those who often really need help. And education support for severely disabled children is almost entirely the responsibility of the government system.

It doesn�t seem unreasonable to require all schools who receive taxpayers funds to be fully accountable for those funds; to provide programs for all students, no matter what their ability; to allow students to choose whether or not to sit university entrance exams, and to retain all students who are enrolled until the end of their schooling, developing appropriate programs as government schools do for managing those with severe social and emotional problems.

And funds should flow to schools on the basis of need. Then performance tables and comparisons might mean something.

I have no doubt that the Howard government�s polling is showing that people are starting to nominate education funding as one of the issues which are weighing on their minds and which might cause them to change their votes at the next election.

That�s why we�re having a phoney debate about scholarships for male teachers and values in schools.

The government knows that parents on modest incomes who send their children to government schools are starting to notice that their children are being treated unfairly in the carve up of resources. They know this will disadvantage their kids� employment prospects and income earning capacity.

Over the last 50 years, Australia has had a strong commitment to a high quality public education system. Under this government, that commitment is being undermined.

Now that�s a value we should talk about!

A fair go education system: the advantages for all of us


Marat’s dream. Image by Webdiary artist Martin Davies.

Rising inequality presents a real threat to our collective well being, not just to the well being of those who are missing out. Rising inequality, especially in a society accustomed to seeing itself as fair, creates a nagging sense of unfairness and threatens social solidarity and stability. It undermines the perception that we are all equal. It can lead to bitter divisions and increase the psychological and social distance between the haves and the have nots. As James K. Galbraith pointed out, it can cause “the comfortable to disavow the needy” and it becomes easier to persuade people – as this government is trying to do – that defects of character or culture rather than economic history cause the gap.

As a member of the Labor Party, I have always been passionately committed to egalitarianism – the idea that each person has equal worth; that any limitations on their achievement and their ability to share in society’s goods should be systematically broken down. And that this requires public action and investment.

The conservatives embrace – if they do at all – a pallid version of equal opportunity. They think it is enough to let people step up to the mark and do as well as they can no matter what handicaps they start with. They speak from the vantage point of privilege, blind to their own advantages. They fail to understand that promoting equal opportunity actually requires active intervention to minimise disadvantage and ensure that people’s life chances are more equal, so that the accident of your birth does not cripple your future.

Most Australians still hold firm to the view that ours is an egalitarian society. Indeed, some who argue that egalitarianism is the value that defines us. While more of us are uneasy about the widening income and wealth gaps we see, many still appear to accept the boast made by our leaders that ours is a nation of equals where the ethic of a “fair go” is the norm governing our private and public relations. But is this really so?

There is now a great deal of evidence which challenges this comfortable assertion. While researchers may disagree about the extent of the problem, they generally agree that inequality amongst Australians is increasing and that egalitarianism itself may be under threat as a defining social objective. And they all agree that it matters.

I was recently asked to review three new books on the subject of inequality and poverty and was struck by the fact that, although they use different data sources and levels of analysis, all three reached the same conclusion. We are a less equal society than we have ever been. (See Fred Argy, Where to From Here? Australian Egalitarianism Under Threat, Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2003, Mark Peel, The Lowest Rung: Voices of Australian Poverty, Cambridge University Press, 2003, Michael Pusey, The Experience of Middle Australia: The Dark Side of Economic Reform, Cambridge University Press, 2003.)

Fred Argy points out that Australia’s distinctive form of egalitarianism evolved over 70 years, and was defined by its advocacy of a strong role for government in advancing human wellbeing.

The historic roots of our egalitarian ethic lie in a pragmatic commitment to sharing the wealth of the country and the benefits of productivity, particularly through the award and wage fixing system – the “wage earners welfare state.” One of the features of this “settlement” was a recognition that government could be – and should be- a major player in achieving equality. Argy details “seven pillars” which were deliberately created by government action:

* the virtual guarantee of full-time employment,

* the protection of wages and conditions of workers,

* an unconditional needs-based welfare safely net,

* a strongly progressive tax system,

* generous government provision of non-cash benefits such as education, health and housing,

* a balanced distribution of regional economic opportunities and

* the capacity for workers to be involved in workplace decisions affecting their wellbeing.

Argy’s systematic analysis of the extent of erosion of these pillars and the reasons for the decline he identifies makes sobering reading.

Various data on Australian incomes show a widening gap between citizens. Stephen Long observed in 1998 that a map of Australia depicting the distribution of income and employment would show “a nation fracturing along class, residential and ethnic lines” (Australian Financial Review, October 24-25). The gap is not just between the rich and the poor, but between the rich and the rest of us.

The National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling calculated that in 1990 the richest 10% of Australian families received 23% of the national income (up 1.7% from 1982) while the poorest 10% received less than 3% (down 0.2%).

Income movements are reinforcing these differences. Between 1993-4 and 1998-9 the 2.2 million Australians in the lowest 20% received an average weekly increase of $9 (5%) while the top 20% received $343 ( 23.4%). Similarly, Natsem has reported that the number of low-wage earners doubled between the mid-1980s and the mid 1990s and that over the last decade, especially since the mid-90s, income inequality has been increasing.

Despite our myth-making, Australia also has relatively high levels of inequality by international standards. Incomes after taxes and transfers (benefits, rebates etc) are more unequal in Australia than in all but a few of the OECD countries (OECD, 2001), pointing to a tax/transfer system which is less effective than other developed nations. As Argy points out, while Australia has a relatively progressive tax system, it actually spendsless on redistribution than other countries.

Australia has even greater disparities in wealth, with the top 10% owning 52% of the nation’s wealth. Since 1993, the share of the nation’s wealth held by the richest 10 per cent has increased by almost five percent. The increase since 1996 has been even more concentrated. The richest 1 per cent increased their share of wealth from 12-15% and this has been made at the expense of those on middle incomes.

Inequality has many different faces apart from those captured by aggregate figures on income and wealth distribution. There are substantial inequities in Australians’ working lives, reflected in lengthening working hours for some and too little work for others, fewer full time jobs, unequal job opportunities, greater job insecurity and increasing numbers of long-term unemployed and marginal and discouraged job seekers.

As well, Australian workers have not received their fair share of the rapid productivity growth of the 1990s and the dispersion of income has become more unequal. Earnings have grown much faster for managers and those in professions and trades than for labourers, clerical and service workers. It is an affront to our egalitarian values that CEO and senior management earnings have grown at ten times the rate of award pay rates over the last decade producing a current ratio of 20:1, a figure exceeded only by the United States.

Egalitarian values are also under threat in the welfare system, in the declining progressivity of the tax system and in reduced non-cash benefits which flow from expenditure on health, education and housing.

And it is not simply a matter of inequality, but also of rank poverty. While it might be unfashionable to draw attention to poverty in Australia, it exists and causes great distress to those affected. While poverty in an affluent society such as ours does not have the same meaning as it does in many parts of the world, some Australians have so little that they cannot afford the basic goods and services the rest of us take for granted.

Accounts from people living on low incomes given to the Brotherhood of St Laurence reveal recurring themes of difficulties in meeting essential costs such as rent, food and electricity, stress in family relationships and a sense of social isolation. Social and recreation needs are rarely accommodated.

This month, Uniting Care Australia urged us to accept that all Australians are entitled to a decent life, in which they have access to work, education, housing, food and recreation. They also reminded us that a significant minority of Australians lack such a decent life.

Does Inequality Matter?

All this is doubly important because societies which have the greatest differentials in wealth and income are also the most unequal in access to other resources, including power and influence.

Societies with greatest income inequality are also the most likely to discriminate against minorities and to limit universal access to public goods, such as education and health services. The greater the inequality in wealth, the greater the social distance between citizens.

It is also typically more difficult for the least well off to move up the ladder and “elites” are more likely to exercise control and to dominate key positions of power. Inequality undermines social cohesion and weakens the bonds of co-operation. It makes democratic citizenship more difficult because some people are denied the resources – education, money and time, in particular – which are essential to exercise our democratic rights.

Rising inequality presents a real threat to our collective well being, not just to the well being of those who are missing out. Rising inequality, especially in a society accustomed to seeing itself as fair, creates a nagging sense of unfairness and threatens social solidarity and stability. It undermines the perception that we are all equal.

It can lead to bitter divisions and increase the psychological and social distance between the haves and the have nots. As James K. Galbraith pointed out, it can cause “the comfortable to disavow the needy” and it becomes easier to persuade people – as this government is trying to do – that defects of character or culture rather than economic history cause the gap. (Created Unequal: The Crisis in American Pay, New York: The Free Press, 1998)

Conversely, economic equality makes people feel similar to others and more likely to identify with them. The more inequality there is, the greater the awareness of one’s position and the more acute the knowledge about whether one is a loser or a winner; while the rich may feel more secure, the poor become less hopeful.

There is also a clear danger that increasing gaps may weaken the willingness of those who have to share by concentrating more and more resources into hands less inclined to be willing. This tendency threatens the ability of the society to provide for the weak, the poor and the old and sparks bitter debate about welfare payments and other benefits which go to the most disadvantaged. Inequality is accompanied by increasing pressure to withdraw resources from the public to the private domain – a deliberate policy drive under the current government.

Many have argued that growing inequality is likely to lead to a two tiered society where the wealthy live lives which are fundamentally different from those on low and middle incomes – an “apartheid economy”. Even Alan Greenspan sees unequal incomes as “a major threat to security”, a pretty miserable reason for addressing the problem. Work on “social exclusion” and “the culture of poverty” illustrates how readily people can be trapped in a cycle of disadvantage and poverty across generations, attracting further scapegoating and marginalisation.

More broadly, there is burgeoning evidence that unequal communities have poorer health, poorer education outcomes and rising crime rates compared with more equal communities. A joint Adelaide University – Commonwealth Government publication, The Social Health Atlas of Australia, reports a growing divide between the wellbeing of the richest and poorest Australians which mirrors the growing income divide.

Simultaneously with the “loosening up” of economic controls and the resultant growth in inequality, social control has intensified. The parallel development of laissez-faire policies in the market place and increasing social control have been noted by a number of commentators and is increasingly evident in the rhetoric and policies of the current government.

Education and Equality

There is little dispute that the universal provision of quality education is one of the keys to reducing inequality and enhancing people’s opportunities to participate in the economy and the society.

In the first instance, public expenditure on education operates as a so-called non-cash benefit, like services in health and housing, and has an equalising effect on after-tax income distribution. Assistance to families in the form of government-subsidised services increases the income families have to devote to other consumption.

These benefits are particularly important for Australians in the bottom thirty per cent, increasing their after-housing final income by at least 30%. Recent social policy changes have wound back some of these benefits with a resultant reduction in these redistributional effects. During the 1990s, the distribution of such non-cash benefits became more skewed towards higher income households. This can be attributed in part to reduced spending, relatively speaking, on public goods.

While there are few current data available, the most recent UN Human Development Index, a composite measure of GDP per capita and health care and education indicators, reveals that we have dropped from 7th to 15th place on the league table.

Education is also vital in improving life chances and reducing inequality in the long term, particularly by improving access to employment and conferring higher income earning capacity. It also opens people’s lives to enriching and enjoyable experiences.

Over the last 50 years, Australia has had a strong commitment to a high quality public education system. Under this government, that commitment is being undermined.

By international standards, Australia still has average to high standards of education (OECD 2002) but there is substantial educational inequality. And at least part of this inequality can be attributed to the education levels, occupation and income of students’ parents. Indigenous students and those from rural areas are particularly disadvantaged. Gifted students from poorer families are less likely to achieve their full potential.

It is clear that students from poorer families start behind the eight ball and are not given enough extra assistance to overcome things such as:

* poor study conditions at home;

* less encouragement by parents whose own experience of schooling has been marred by low achievement;

* language and cultural barriers;

* absence of books and other educational resources at home;

* attendance at schools with poorer facilities, a more diverse school population including more children with behavioural and social problems and teachers working under pressure; and

* lower expectations of their capacity.

International comparisons show bigger gaps between the best and the worst performers in Australia than in other developed counties. OECD data confirm that on measures of literacy, the poorest performing students here do worse than the poorest performing students in high ranking countries, including most of Europe. And the relationship between reading ability and social background is also more marked in Australia. We are one of the least equitable countries in the developed world. This points to inequalities in the functioning of our education system and a failure to compensate for pre-existing disadvantage.

Investment in public education rose impressively during the 1970s and 1980s. There are signs that this effort is stalling. For example, in the 70s 5.6% of GDP was spent on education, a figure which had been reduced to 4.5% by the end of the 90s, despite significant increases in education participation. Our spending on the all important pre-school years is low by world standards and there are too few early intervention programs for at-risk families.

Until recently the participation rate of lower socio-economic groups in post-compulsory schooling, including universities, was increasing. School retention and completion rates, after growing rapidly, stalled in the 90s and our levels are now well below those of the U.S. and Canada.

Of more concern is the failure to close the socio-economic gap in performance and retention, especially for males. The gap may, indeed, be widening. A similar trend to lower participation is evident in vocational education and training for the most disadvantaged.

As many commentators have argued, one reason for this gap is the increasing advantage enjoyed by non-government schools which educate the better off. In the thrall of narrow fiscal ideology and reduced grants from the Commonwealth, successive State governments have restricted funding to their schools. Simultaneously, the Howard Government has poured money into the wealthiest private schools at the expense of the government school sector.

Between 1995-6 and 2001 the Commonwealth cut the Government school sector’s share of funding from 42.2% to 34.7%, although the enrolment share declined only 1.9%. As a proportion of GDP, expenditure on the government sector was static while it increased by 21.6% in the non-government sector. Federal Government funding for non-government schools ballooned from $3.36 billion last year to an estimated $4.74 billion in 2004-05.

Ken Davidson has estimated that “total public and private expenditure on state school students will be $2000 a year per capita less than for non-government school students s by 2005,” a figure which other analysts describe as conservative (The Truth about Dr Nelson’s Uni Reform, The Age, 25 May 2003). Some have estimated average gaps as wide as $4000. When Catholic schools are excluded, the National Report on Schooling reports that the ‘independent’ schools are about 26% higher than the average for non-government schools – a difference of between $5,500 and $7,500 per student.

Some of the wealthiest schools operate with 200% of the resources available in government schools. The Government’s funding policies and the SES funding formula are major contributors to this reverse discrimination. Give most to those who have most; take from those who have little.

Such disparity in resources will almost certainly lead to even greater inequalities in performance. Instead of front-end loading the schools who deal with the most disadvantaged and systematically assisting those most likely to benefit from extra expenditure, the government provides derisory amounts to support literacy and numeracy programs. Last year, for example, they spent $115 million on advertising, while the current budget commits just $7 million for grants to foster literacy and numeracy.

In June last year, Ken Boston former head of Education in NSW, argued passionately that Australia urgently needs to debate and resolve some fundamental questions about the future of school education, particularly its inherent unfairness to the less well off:

Do we want to educate our children mainly in government-assisted fee-paying private schools, based on an exclusive clientele identified by socio-economic status, religion, ethnicity or some other dimension? Or do we want them mainly to be in inclusive government-funded public schools, mixing with children from a wider range of backgrounds and experiences?

We need to debate whether education should be something we purchase, like soap powder or a public good, for which we all take responsibility through our governments.

Boston makes a compelling case that “choice”, an ideology which the Howard government gives precedence over equality, should never be based on the fact that government schools are underfunded. In his view, and mine, the “overriding priority of national and state governments should be to provide universal access to first-class public education while respecting the right of parents to choose non-government schools and supporting them on the basis of need.”

John Ralston Saul argued that education is the “single most important element in the maintenance of a democratic system”.

The better the citizenry as a whole are educated, the wider and more sensible public participation, debate and social mobility will be. Highly sophisticated elites are the easiest and least original thing a society can produce. The most difficult and the most valuable is a well-educated populace.

As a former Education Minister and university lecturer, I am convinced he is right. Mass public education is costly, but citizens of modern societies have been willing to pay these costs because they have been convinced it is in the public interest; that there are public as well as private goods.

Surveys over the last few years show that whereas 20 years ago a high rate of economic growth, a stable economy and strong defence forces were considered the most important priorities for the country, today’s top priorities are:

(a) ensuring everyone has access to a good education,

(b) providing a quality life for our children, and

(c) providing quality health care for everyone

The same research reveals that preventing the gap widening between rich and poor was more important to the citizens of the 90s than increasing their own standard of living. They seemed willing to share.

Investment in public education is now under challenge and resources are stretched to the limit. Australian public education has been affected by the systematic attempts to undermine the “welfare state” – “the revolt of the rich”, as Galbraith called it.

Schools can either perpetuate or redress disadvantage. They work daily with young people who are disadvantaged in various ways and they are also a crucial means of reducing such disadvantage. Schools must work with disadvantaged students to offset the practical, psychological, cultural and economic impediments to their education. They must also seek to confront the complex social causes of inequality. They need resources for both of these tasks and the necessary commitment. The entire nation’s well-being is in jeopardy when young people are not able to participate fully in education or when their schooling is narrow and unsatisfying.

Inequalities in education persist: inequalities in retention, access, performance and subject choice. Most of these are linked to socio-economic status, gender and race. There are signs of a regeneration of income-based inequalities in education. And there are trends in current education policies which may exacerbate rather than alleviate the problems: higher funding levels for private schools at the expense of government schools, mainstreaming of “disadvantaged schools” programs, privatisation and commercialisation of public education, more standardised testing, more rigid and formal curricula and a narrow view of academic standards and basic skills.

In the past our inclusive public school system helped reduce inequality; now education appears to be reinforcing privilege and making it even harder for the kids of poorer Australians.


The trends toward inequality in our schools and our society are not inevitable and can be modified by sound public policy. Measures which improve the economic status of the least well off, increase employment, reduce inequality and “civilise” the workplace are likely to produce significant improvements in community outcomes. Conversely, passivity in the face of the “inevitable” consequences of market liberalisation is certain to lead to unnecessary and significant social dislocation.

It’s all a question of what we are prepared to do.

Port Hedland Detention Centre: Carmen’s eye witness report


Smell the flowers. Image by Webdiary artist Martin Davies.

A couple of weeks ago, I visited the detention centre in Port Hedland and met some of the people there. Like many Webdiary readers, I’ve been kept informed of the plight of those held there through numerous e-mails, faxes, letters and the occasional media report. I have learned from those detained, and their friends and supporters, of the grinding monotony and hopelessness which is their daily bread. I thought I had at least an elementary understanding of how distressing such prolonged incarceration might be, especially to those who had already experienced persecution and torture.


But I was not prepared for what I saw when I finally set foot behind the barbed wire that contains the asylum seekers’ lives. While they have valiantly tried to make the incarceration more tolerable by painting murals and flags on the outside walls, by planting gardens and decorating their airless rooms, nothing can disguise the palpable air of despair.

Their lives are controlled by the dictates of others; every move in the compound is monitored and their transition from one section to another controlled by the ACM guards, to whom there are polite and deferential.

I spoke with mothers fretful and tearful about their bleak prospects but struggling to maintain a facade of optimism and cheerfulness in the presence of their children. The Iranian men I had arranged to meet all faced imminent deportation under the MOU signed by the Australian government with the regime still described as part of the “Axis of Evil”. They were subdued but firm that they would not accept the government’s “package” and return to Iran. I will never forget the hurt in their eyes, their despondency; strung between never ending internment here and certain punishment if there are returned to Iran.

I have never felt so totally useless. I could offer them no real hope that the government could be persuaded to change the decision to forcibly expel them from Australia. They begged me to urge the Minister at least to assist them to gain asylum in some third country more willing than Australia to help them rebuild their lives. They were as one in insisting that they cannot go back to Iran – one said that it wouldn’t matter if he was offered $200,000 instead of $2000; he would not go back because his life is forfeit if he does.

The government, of course, has made it quite clear that they will take no responsibility for the fate of those sent back once they step off the plane in Teheran. In reply to a Question on Notice, Ruddock said:

The Australian Government… respects the principles of state sovereignty and does not monitor non-Australian citizens in foreign countries.

In The Age last week, Russell Skelton revealed that inquiries in Tehran confirmed that “returning Iranians who fled the country illegally are automatically charged with immigration offences and interrogated at length”. He also confirmed what many of those in Port Hedland already know – that returnees are often held for several days at airport detention cells where they are interrogated and that political and religious dissidents face further investigation and possible charges in religious courts. They also know that many are beaten, tortured and executed.

Some of the Afghani Hazaras living in Albany in Western Australia who fled the mother-robbed, fanatical Taliban have just learned that they face a similarly uncertain future – they are to be sent back to Afghanistan, the first of the Afghan refugees to learn their fate. They were previously recognised as genuine refugees and granted Temporary Protection Visas when they arrived in Australia over three years ago. Many were the victims of persecution simply because they belong to a racial minority.

The minister’s decision to revoke their refugee status and send them back flies in the face of international law and the worsening situation in Afghanistan; the government is ignoring repeated warnings – and evidence – that the Taliban are again in control of a number of areas of the country. The UNHCR and Amnesty International have both been urging countries not to send refugees back. It is would be particularly dangerous for this group of Hazara Afghans to be sent back, since they have been persecuted by successive regimes, including the Taliban Regime, and are still targeted by groups associated with the Taliban. One man told DIMIA his family reported being visited by known associates of the Taliban warning they know he is coming back. DIMIA have refused to accept this information as valid unless he provides their names, something he clearly cannot do.

Last weekend the Minister also ordered a number of Iranian refugees to be forcibly deported to Iran, against the advice of Human Rights groups. One of these men was intercepted at the UAE by Iranian Intelligence agents and is yet to be heard from. There are other confirmed cases of people being held in the notorious Evin prison on their return to Iran. It is unspeakable that Minister Ruddock can knowingly send these people back to fate of poverty and certain persecution, and is contrary to the spirit of the Refugee Convention.

I saw the chilling realisation of their fears in Port Hedland in the form of the refurbished Juliet block, the notorious isolation block used in the past to subdue the dissenters, the angry and distressed. No expense has been spared in transforming Juliet block into a maximum-security prison within a prison. The majority of the thirty plus cells are identical with cells normally reserved in the prison system for the most serious offenders. They are complete with massive, soundproof doors, peepholes, toilets and video surveillance and have been designed to eliminate hanging points. Family units on the upper floor invalidate the claim that the centre is simply for managing people threatening self-harm.

I think it is likely that these cells have been built to house those who are to be forcibly returned to Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan. I believe those to be deported will be separated from the larger compound (transported from other centres) and held in the prison cells until they are forced to board flights to their countries of origin, places they fled in terror. The Minister has already confirmed that those Iranians who refuse to leave peacefully will be handcuffed, removed by force and escorted back to Iran, where they will be handed to police and immigration authorities.

This is unspeakable cruelty. And many of our fellow citizens find it just.

Ideas to save our withering democracy

“Individualism … disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his fellows and to draw apart with his family and his friends, so that after he has thus formed a little circle of his own, he willingly leaves society at large to itself. … Individualism, at first, only saps the virtues of public life; but, in the long-run, it attacks and destroys all others, and is at length absorbed in downright selfishness.” Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835, Second Book, Chapter II.

As the attack on Iraq was launched we were nightly exposed to earnest, brow-furrowing admonitions from Bush, Blair and Howard to endorse the war because we were obliged to bring democracy and freedom to Iraq and, in time, to the whole of the Middle East. We were told it was imperative – at least once it became clear that the weapons of mass destruction argument had lost credibility – that we destroy the oppressive, autocratic and brutal regime of Saddam Hussein and replace it by a democratic system of government.

Some had the temerity to ask why we’d been so slow to recognise the plight of the Iraqi people, why the West had backed Hussein and supplied him with the finance and the means to wage war and why we punished those who fled in terror from Saddam Hussein’s brutality and locked them away in remote camps? These questions remain unanswered.

But some of us also asked what sort of democracy the allies might be thinking of exporting, like instant food, to the people of Iraq. What exactly do we mean by democracy? What are the key values and characteristics of modern democracies? How do we judge the success of the democracies currently in operation and which forms should we be recommending to the newly emerging democracies? Just how democratic is the Australian – and for that matter – the United States political system? Does our performance measure up to the rhetoric?

Ian McAllister describes a “surge” in democracy in the late 20th century, so that by its end, 120 of the world’s 192 countries – many of them former communist regimes – had embraced some form of democracy as their system of government with varying degrees of success. (1)

In thinking about democracy most of us would point to the minimum requirement of popular control and political equality (see International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance). In judging any democracy, most of us would want to go beyond these two simple features to include the protection of civil liberties and human rights, particularly against crude majoritarianism and sectional interests. A recently established Australian National University research project, The Democratic Audit of Australia, also includes the quality of public debate and discussion, assessing “the degree to which debate and discussion can be distorted by manipulation, strategising, deception and restrictions on allowable communication”. Many, myself included, would add the extent to which citizens actively participate (beyond the simple act of voting) in the political life of the country.

When people at large are questioned about the key values of democracy, the vast majority agree about the need for free and fair elections, freedom of speech, equality before the law, active citizen participation and the protection of minority rights. These are the desiderata of modern democracies.

When measured against these objectives, I believe we are falling short. Ours is a withering democracy.

Representative Democracy

As we contemplate the health of our democracies, we should be reminded that the evolution of modern representative democracies was accompanied by a “powerful distrust of the people”, of the poor, the poorly educated and women, who were initially excluded altogether and had to fight to gain suffrage. This distrust – and the practical difficulties of operating direct democracies in large populations and territories – was one of the reasons that representative government gained favour over more direct, Athenian forms of democracy.

Even Madison, one of the founding fathers of the U.S. system of government, argued that citizens could not be trusted to identify the “permanent and aggregate interests of the community”, a task best left to elected representatives chosen by the people, not the people themselves. Echoes of this view are evident in the nervousness with which the U.S. government has approached the possibility of control by the Shi-ite religious majority in Iraq. It also underlies some of the contemporary reluctance of political parties to allow their members to have a say in forming policy.

Initially this representative form of government, which keeps the people at arm’s length from the actual work of government, was not even considered a true democracy. In such systems, the work of government is conducted by the “elective aristocracy”, to use Jefferson’s term, and is mediated by political parties. This classical form of representative democracy is often considered non-participatory and elitist – a “thin democracy”, as Barber describes it. In such democracies, citizens are relatively passive. At best, they are monitors – experts and elites do the actual work of government.

Political parties are central to the functioning of modern democracies. Indeed, in 1941 the political scientist E.E. Schnattschneider asserted that “modern democracy is unthinkable save in terms of political parties”, a view which is reflected in most of the academic literature and reinforced by the evidence that no representative democracies appear to operate without them. The received wisdom is that political parties are key institutions for linking the various elements of the democratic process to ensure efficient and effective government. As Dalton and Wattenberg put it:

“Political parties have created political identities, framed electoral choices, recruited candidates, organised elections, defined the structure of legislative politics and determined the outputs of government.”

For better or worse, they are firmly embedded in the political landscape and any assessment of the health of democracies must include an assessment of the health of the political parties, especially of the extent to which they mediate the relationship between the community and their elected representatives.

The State of Democracy: Healthy or Diseased?

It is fair to say that democracy has generally functioned reasonably well when assessed against competing forms of government and methods for organising society. Democracy has characteristically produced societies that have been relatively “humane, flexible, productive, and vigorous”.

However, democracy is also characterised by “unsightly and factionalised squabbling by self-interested, short-sighted people and groups”. Furthermore, the policy outcomes often result from “special pleading” from those best placed to “adroitly pressure and manipulate the system”. Many commentators, here and elsewhere, observe that many citizens do not display the deliberative qualities theorists held to be central to the effective functioning of a democracy. Indeed, many display an almost monumental lack of political interest and knowledge. On the other hand, as Arendt has argued, politics as it practiced infantilises citizens who act as though power can only be gained by begging for it from a reluctant state.

There is a palpable cynicism routinely expressed by the public in democracies here and elsewhere, especially about political parties.

A large number of studies indicate deterioration on this front. There is some evidence that cynicism, discontent, frustration, and a sense of disempowerment and helplessness have markedly increased in recent years in most mature democracies. Various explanations are offered for these changes and remedies proffered.

One recent assessment of trends in attitudes toward political institutions and democratic government confirms that “citizens have grown more distant from political parties, more critical of political elites and political institutions and less positive toward government”. The authors describe these as “fundamental changes” in the political orientation over the past generation.

International comparisons show that these trends are characteristic of almost all the established democracies – and even some of the emerging ones. In particular, there is substantial evidence which points to a pattern of what has been called “partisan decline”, characterised by a declining role for the members of political parties in shaping policies and a reduction in the identification of voters with the major political parties.

A recent comprehensive assessment of the advanced industrial democracies found a general decline between the 60s and the 90s in the percentage of people who identified strongly with any particular party, a pattern also evident in Australia, which showed a 15% decline. These trends were more pronounced among the well-educated and the young, many of whom remain intensely interested in political issues, although not necessarily in participation. In fact, overall interest in politics appears to be increasing at the same time as participation in campaigns and volunteer work for political parties is decreasing.

The same research project traced the consequences for political behaviour of these changes. They reported bigger swings in election results on average, increasing fragmentation of political parties, a greater tendency of people to shift their votes between elections and to delay making decisions about their voting intentions until the last minute. More strategic voting is evident and where voting is not compulsory, voter turnout is in sharp decline.

Paradoxically, as parties are declining at the electorate level and party members have less influence on policy and strategy, the influence and control of central party organisations on campaigns and at the parliamentary level is stronger than ever. The responses of the political parties to these changes are likely to exacerbate both the cynicism and the disengagement. More campaigns are candidate and leadership focused and opinion polling, rather than party ideology, is more likely to inform policy decisions.

One contributor to an Internet discussion group reflected a commonly held sentiment when he wrote?:

“The ‘business of government’ is very sick indeed. If it were a real business it would have gone bankrupt long ago. It has lost most of its clients’ loyalty that’s for sure. The only reason they keep buying is that it is a monopoly and they have nowhere else to go.”

It may be tempting for politicians to dismiss such criticisms as the predictable whinging of malcontents, but it would be folly to do so. The growing clamour of such voices suggests there is more at stake. It is not simply the decline in political trust that has been noted in many evaluations of politicians and political elites, nor is it simply that the deference to authority once common in many Western democracies has been replaced by public scepticism of elites. Of greater concern for the future health of our democracy is that these feelings of mistrust have broadened to include the political regime and political institutions.

To date, this scepticism appears not to have significantly affected support for the democratic creed itself, although the risk is that failure to participate will eventually corrode commitment. While people are not yet abandoning democratic principles, they are critical of how these principles are functioning in our system of representative democracy. Citizens are frustrated with how contemporary democratic systems work – or how they do not work.

The solution, then, would appear to be to improve the democratic process and democratic institutions, not to accept non-democratic alternatives. People want democracy to work.

Democracy in Australia

In Australia too there appears to be a growing conviction that our political system needs to change; that the fundamentals of the democratic contract have been corrupted. Many Australians are disgruntled by a system which does not appear to respond to their needs and seems, increasingly, to be in the hands of elites more interested in their own advancement than the general good. As a result, our political system has less and less legitimacy.

Others have characterised this as a crisis which ranges across many of our democratic institutions and processes: our outdated constitution; the Byzantine, power-focused behaviour of our major political parties; the disquieting alliance of our political parties with corporations and large organisations; the control of our political parties by privileged minorities; the seeming irrelevance of much parliamentary debate and political discourse in the media; the pervasive use of propaganda to influence public opinion; the steady erosion of civil rights and minority interests; the increasingly blatant politicisation of the public service; the permanent state of vitriolic antagonism between the major parties; the elevation of executive secrecy above public disclosure; the readiness of government to mislead both the people and the parliament; the winner takes all outcomes of elections which preclude the input of minority opinion; and the failure to enunciate and plan for the long term challenges we face as a community. To nominate just a few!

Amongst the pessimists, this disenchantment spills over into disparagement of government action and a retreat into individual solutions to social and economic problems. This, of course, suits the neoliberal agenda, but is anathema to effective joint action necessary to reduce inequality, improve broad social outcomes and to protect the environment. Fortunately, there are optimists who believe it is possible to redesign our institutions. However, it is ironic that in an era which glorifies the novel and worships change, the same politicians who advocate flexibility and reform cling to conventions and practices which always had design flaws and which have ossified into caricatures of themselves.

Whatever the ascribed causes of these problems, it is clear that changes in our political system are needed.

Representation: Equality of Influence

The minimum requirement of any representative democracy is that governments should be elected and that all adults should have an equal right to vote. This minimum is indeed very little. As Rousseau acerbically observed:

“The English people believes itself to be free; it is gravely mistaken; it is free only during the election of members of Parliament; as soon as the members are elected, the people is enslaved; it is nothing.”

We might well ask what kind of accountability it is that operates only once every three or four years and which depends on assessments of performance which are inevitably based on information which the government of the day chooses to make available.

That said, it is fundamental even with our circumscribed democracy that all votes should be of equal value. In broad terms this has been achieved in Australia, with universal suffrage, electorates of roughly equal size and independent electoral commissions to determine electoral boundaries and prevent gerrymandering. Here in W.A. the entrenched conservative opposition in the Upper House over the past century made it impossible to achieve one vote one value and a High Court case to force the issue constitutionally did not succeed. The election of the Gallop government and the success of the Greens in gaining the balance of power in the Upper House gave hope that the principle of “one vote, one value” would finally prevail. But shockingly – and against their stated values – the Greens are blocking reform. The coming appeal to the Full Bench of the High Court is the last hope.

Despite the otherwise general equality in voting power, many are suspicious that not all citizens are equally able to influence their representatives. This breeds cynicism and a belief that the ordinary voter’s needs and views are ignored, while preference is given to the interests of the wealthy, to big business and to political cronies.

Several features of our political system contribute to these attitudes. Substantial campaign donations to the major parties by corporations and large organisations such as unions and business foundations foster the perception (and perhaps the reality) that it is possible to buy privileged access to MPs and ministers and that this influence is in proportion to the amount of money donated.

The disclosure that business leaders paid $10,000 per head for dinner at the Lodge indicates that not even the Prime Minister’s office is free of this practice. Reports on the extraordinary level of – secret – access to the Prime Minister afforded to the CEO of the Manildra Group, Dick Honan, and the favourable treatment of his ethanol producing company (over $20 million in taxpayer funded subsidies since October) has again sparked controversy.

Like many Australians, I am perturbed at these tendencies. We run the risk of becoming a “corporate democracy” – a “donocracy” – in which the number of shares you have purchased in the party of your choice determines your effective voting power. While there has been extensive debate about big money in politics in the U.S., there is still a conspicuous silence on the issue among Australian politicians.

Public funding of elections was supposed to reduce the parties’ reliance on private corporate and union donations: all that has happened is a blow-out in both public (doubled since 1993) and private funding as parties engage in an increasingly expensive bidding war at elections. Corporate contributions have become an accepted part of the election landscape. Figures collated by the Parliamentary Library show that in the 1998-99 financial year, the latest figures to which I have access, $37 million was paid to the parties by corporations and $3.7 million by unions.

The substantive problem is the possibility that such donations can purchase influence. Recent controversy surrounding the exercise of Ministerial discretion in the issue of visas has given credence to this concern. Like those Australians who follow politics, I am still waiting to hear a credible explanation for the donation by a Buddhist monastery in Sydney of $100,000, the largest ever donation to an individual candidate, to Minister Ruddock’s last election campaign.

While I know of no comparable Australian data, surveys of major corporate donors in the U.S. show that they donate not out of charitable impulses or civic duty; they expect a return for their money principally in gaining access, ensuring consideration of their interests and receiving “preferential consideration on regulations or legislation benefiting our business”. Many of these multinationals operate in Australia and donate to the major parties. There is no reason to suppose their motivation changes as they fly across the Pacific.

Retired U.S. Senator Paul Simon observed that “anyone who has been a candidate for major public office and says, ‘Campaign contributions don’t affect you’ is simply not telling the truth”, and that “the financially articulate have inordinate access to policy makers”.

There is no reason to believe the same observations do not apply to Australian MPs.

Reliance on donations may also create a strong inducement for political parties to bias their policies toward business and high income earners who provide the bulk of the funding, thus conspicuously undermining the promise of democracy that we all share equally in political power. The threat by the mining industry earlier this week that they would withdraw campaign contributions to both major parties unless they made changes to native title and other policies indicates just how blatant the exercise of such influence has become.

As I have said elsewhere, I believe it is time to reign in the exponential growth of corporate donations and to curtail the proliferation of content free, coercive media advertising that passes for policy debate during elections. The retention of public funding of elections should be accompanied by measures to limit the size of individual private donations to $1500, or thereabouts, and to proscribe any donations from corporations and large organisations. An extension of free-to-air radio and television could accompany these changes.

There are other reasons to scale down paid political advertising, particularly given the increasing tendency of Australian parties to emulate the negative tactics of our American cousins. As many have suggested, such advertising is one of the corrosive influences in our political system. To paraphrase an analogy used by Paul Simon:

“If Qantas ran regular 30 second commercials saying ‘Don’t fly Virgin Blue and showed a plane crashing into Mt Kosiosko and Virgin Blue ran a similar commercial showing a plane blowing up and urging travellers not to fly Qantas, it would not be very long before fear of flying became endemic.”

Politicians shouldn’t be surprised when their negative campaigns succeed, not only in diminishing their opponents, but in undermining confidence in all politicians. Tony Abbott’s “don’t trust politicians to elect the President” campaign was a case in point. I think we should be greatly concerned that negative campaign advertising will increase voters’ cynicism about the electoral process and be taken by some voters as “a signal of the dysfunctional and unresponsive nature of the political process itself”, causing them to lose interest in how they vote.

If free time on radio and television were to replace such paid advertising and candidates themselves were required to speak, they might spend more time advancing their own agendas and less time abusing their opponents. It might just encourage the media to focus more on the real issues and less on the trivial and combative characteristics of campaigns.

Mirror or descriptive representation

Part of the growing sense of disenfranchisement about politics amongst Australians may lie in the obvious differences between party members and MPs and the wider community. This failure of “mirror” or “descriptive” representation is, of course, most noticeable in the relative absence of women in the senior echelons of the major parties and in the Parliament.

What kind of representation is it where the candidates are not even remotely typical of the wider society, even using crude indicators such as age, gender, income and occupation. Voters need to feel that their representatives – at least in aggregate – can understand their circumstances and have sufficient identity with them to press their interests. The greater the distance of representatives from electors, the greater the mistrust.

These weaknesses begin with the political parties who determine who will be presented to the community for election and who govern the behaviour of their members in law making.

It is not generally appreciated that none of Australia’s parties is a mass party with a substantial membership base: at last count only 1.5% of Australians were members of a political party. Nor are the influential party members necessarily typical of the wider community. Too many candidates come from the party organisations and from MP’s staff. Many have little experience with anything other than back-room operations and are not active in their communities.

In Australia, it is apparent that many people have formed the view that the major parties are in the thrall of special interest groups. They reject involvement in party politics because they are not prepared to be used as factional pawns and campaign volunteers when elections are on and ignored when policy is being developed. Party members and supporters are often asked to fall in behind policy positions that they had no hand in developing and about which they have not been consulted.

As a contributor to a website discussion forum put it:

“If we as a party are serious about rebuilding our membership base, we need to rethink the way we as a party govern. A rather large slice of the cynicism that is evident in the general population has come about from the perception that we are governed from the top. Australians as a rule dislike being told what to do unless it is for very good reason, doesn’t damage their pride and is explained long enough for them to be comfortable with the change.”


The most visible symbols of our democracy, where decisions are theoretically made, are our parliaments. Once elected, MPs may find that their contribution and that of the parliament as a whole is much more limited than the theories of representative government suggest. It is fair to say that, even with the expanding contribution made by the Senate Committee system, executive domination remains a hallmark of Australian politics. This too may have contributed to the alienation of voters.

The author of a Parliamentary Library report compiled as part of the Centenary of Federation celebrations concluded that “the domination of the Parliament by a disciplined bipolar party system meant that the House of Representatives came to be seen at worst as a theatre of meaningless ritual and at best as an institution under the foot of the Executive”. (2) Although she politely places her observations beyond contemporary politics, the view is one that is often repeated today.

There are many, myself included, who believe that the Parliament is long overdue for substantial reform to enable it to take greater responsibility for its own affairs and to act independently of the government of the day. Our current system is increasingly based on the “rubber stamp” model of government criticised by the Clerk of the Senate, Harry Evans in his commentary on Howard’s proposal to water down the role of the Senate:

“The electors elect a party (or a party leader) to govern. The government governs with total power to change the law and virtually do what it likes between elections.”

In this scenario, the MPs are there for no other purpose than to register the voters’ choice. What then is the purpose of having a Parliament at all? If this is the way government is to operate, then there appears to be little justification for all the effort and expense entailed.

One of the more disquieting experiences in the Federal Parliament is that most speeches are delivered without an audience, into the void. Speech after carefully prepared speech disappears without a trace having no impact on the fate of the legislation. This, in the House of Representatives, is determined in advance by the simple arithmetic of majority. Even in the Senate, where outcomes are more fluid, deals are done behind closed doors rather than fleshed out in public.

This is particularly true of the House of Representatives, where there is almost no opportunity for individual members (or even the opposition en bloc) to introduce or modify legislation. Scrutiny of the Executive is limited to the charade that is Question Time, when no questions are answered. Committees in the Lower House, while they often inquire into matters of great significance, have no capacity to quiz ministers and bureaucrats about budgets and legislation. Some of our brightest and best are effectively excluded from the tasks they were elected to perform.

Question time is often mentioned by voters as one of the most irritating of Parliamentary procedures with its aggressive and insulting language, accusations instead of questions, replies that contain no information and evade the question, and gratuitous attacks on political opponents – all in the atmosphere of an unruly locker room complete with “sin bin”. I agree with Coghill’s assertion that “the rules for Question Time are so ridiculous it is no surprise that they generate the type of behaviour we see on the nightly news”, and his contention that it has “degenerated almost to a farce”. As a result, Question Time rarely functions as it was intended – as a means of ensuring accountability of the executive, exposing abuses of power and corruption and challenging the arbitrary exercise of power by the government.

While most MPs I have met are conscientious, they are largely unable to influence the legislative or policy agenda except behind the closed doors of the party rooms. Even then, there is often little room to manoeuvre because decisions have already been made by the Executive. Matters which deserve free and open consideration are often submerged because of anxiety about dissent. The media feeds this paranoia by portraying even the most minor disagreements as tests of leadership or signs of party disintegration. The absence of any dissent from the entire Coalition back bench about the attack on Iraq is mute testimony to this stranglehold.

Indeed, it is fair to say that the opportunities to speak open openly are becoming more and more constrained. I think the community wants its political leaders to stand for something and to be prepared to publicly stand on the issues. Too often we are driven by the polls or what the media tells us matters and not by conviction. We have a political culture of pandering, of telling people what they want to hear. It is by definition a grey and cautious culture because it removes all the contentious issues and seeks to offend no one. Confected personality politics and theatrical “biff” then substitutes for genuine debate on the values and solutions which are our responsibility to propose.

While the Parliament often seeks the views of the community and of experts in various fields, most of this contribution occurs in committees whose deliberations and conclusions are ignored. A treasure trove of thoughtful and meticulously prepared submissions and reports languish in countless bottom drawers.

On a broader front, members of the wider community are pressing for greater involvement in decision making while their representatives, especially in government appear to be moving in the opposite direction, involving fewer and fewer people, with less and less public scrutiny of the development of public policy.

Idiots? Political Knowledge and Participation

Having laid much of the blame for the problems with our democracy at the feet of political parties and politicians, I think it only fair to reflect on the role that citizens – and voters – play in our democracy. Citizens themselves must share some of the blame for declining interest and participation. It’s always easier to leave the work of democracy to others.

Perhaps it would pay us to reflect on the etymology of the word idiot – Greek “idios” – “one’s own”, someone who does not participate in public affairs. Only later did the word acquire the connotation of someone incapable of participating in public affairs. If we do not pay attention to the state of our democracy, we could become idiots in both senses and end up, as we were before the development of democracy, as “subjects” again.

I think we all assume that, as a minimum, a competent voter should be a knowledgeable one, that “democratic citizens should have a minimum understanding of the political system in which they express preferences and elect representatives”. Governments almost certainly operate more democratically when people have a greater range and depth of information about politics and when the distribution of knowledge is more equitable.

People in developed democracies are now better educated than at any time in the past, but surprisingly, at the same time as general levels of education are rising, knowledge of the political system has not improved – as far as we can tell – here or elsewhere.

McAllister has argued that any assessment of political knowledge should include both knowledge of events, personalities and institutions as well as political concepts and the procedures by which political institutions operate. (3) McAllister’s research in Australia has revealed a high level of political ignorance – typical of other developed democracies. Of those questioned here, 55% did not know that the Senate was based on proportional representation and only 5% were able to answer correctly all of the questions put.

There is a great deal of evidence of a large and apparently growing uninformed segment of the population, a group that is also less likely to participate in political activity of any kind. Research shows that political participation and knowledge affect each other reciprocally. Knowledge is a prerequisite to effective political engagement and in turn participation informs citizens about politics and increases their attentiveness to political events. This is one of the apparent benefits of compulsory voting, although the degree of “participation” reflected in voting is perhaps the bare minimum.

Around the world, the decline in political participation – particularly in voting – is greatest among those with less education, less money and fewer connections and is most pronounced amongst the young. In the United States, today’s young adults are less politically interested and informed than any cohort of young people on record.

The weakening of political parties and the replacement of policy focused with personality based campaigning has been cited as one of the factors contributing to this decline. The dearth of information about values and policies and the way they affect various groups in the community also reduces the motivation of people to get involved. Marginal seat campaigning which responds to the ephemeral moods of the most undecided effectively says to half the population, ‘Your needs and interests are irrelevant – you’re just spectators’.

The narrowing divide between major parties of the left and right also makes it harder for voters to distinguish among political alternatives, leaving them effectively less politically informed. “Citizen competence is largely a function of the political environment, which often gives the citizen difficult tasks and little support for reforming them.” (4) In this respect, it is instructive to contrast the millions of young people who vote in “Big Brother” elections at some monetary cost with the level of enthusiasm amongst the same young people for general elections, in which they often say they’re not interested and can’t be bothered to vote.

Many people of good will are worried about the direction in which Australia is headed but uncertain about where to turn for an analysis and understanding of what may be done. They are confused by the apparent convergence of the two parties, wanting at least to hear a debate on issues such as the role of government, population and immigration, rising inequality, reconciliation with our indigenous people, simultaneous underemployment and overwork, human rights and international citizenship, models of economic growth, balancing work and life and the priority which should be given to environmental improvement and protection.

In the past, the major political parties, here and elsewhere, were differentiated by their economic and social philosophies. As parties have converged and become less clearly defined, candidate and leadership centered campaigning has become more pronounced. As a result elections are reduced to a competition between individuals rather than ideas and campaign coverage becomes just another from of infotainment, focusing on personality and appeal. Who is more popular or likeable is more important than what they have to say about policy and the contests themselves become more “personal” and negative. For many people this is so offensive that they simply turn off.

In response to this apparent lack on interest and knowledge among many voters, some political activists fall back on democratic elitism. Rather than encouraging participation, they are content to accept this passivity and to circumscribe the voters’ task to choosing between competing elites who will then make all the important decisions on behalf of all the electorate. This seems increasingly to be the view of the cadre of professional politicians who control the development of policy and the conduct of elections. They see no benefit in getting the citizenry involved.

The Role of the Media in Representing Politics and Politicians

No assessment of the state of our democracies would be complete without examining the role the media play in shaping political debates and personalities. There is a widespread belief that the mass media have played a significant role in eroding trust and interest in politics.

Whatever the truth of this assertion, most voters devote only a tiny proportion of their time to the analysis of personalities and issues and often use shortcuts to help them make reasonable choices with imperfect information. They combine, as Popkin observes, “learning and information from past experiences, daily life, the media and political campaigns”. (5) The media have considerable power to frame our understanding of public life, to set the agenda on key issues and to influence the political process. The treatment by the media of the attack on Iraq is the most recent vivid illustration of this effect.

What is certain is that most people do not experience politics at first hand. Voters’ perceptions of the political figures and issues are shaped principally through the news media: this is even more likely in large scale, national and state based constituencies where personal contact with the candidates is made difficult by the sheer weight of numbers and distances. Such coverage is necessarily selective. It may be said that, in this sense, the news media shape rather than mirror the political landscape.

In general, political activities are portrayed in the media as fiercely competitive. Debates are frequently described in adversarial terms and those elements of political life which most resemble combat are most likely to be reported. There is, in all the media, a highly selective reading of issues, a tendency that is cultivated by many in politics. Serving politicians come to appreciate that coverage is more likely if their statements and images are provocative and controversial. Reasoned and moderate argument delivered without vitriol is given a wide berth.

Television, in particular, seems unable to cover complex stories in which the image is secondary to the facts. It is fair to say that the coverage of politics – and current affairs generally – has increasingly come to resemble entertainment. Confrontational media images give the impression that politics is only about argument and conflict, “that all parties are constantly locked in permanent and irreconcilable conflict”.

The choice, for example, to restrict most images of parliamentary proceedings to Question Time with the constant shouting, heckling and interjections reinforces the view of politics as a blood sport unworthy of all but the crude, rude and unattractive.

In addition, debate about politics via current affairs programs is often combative, with the interviewers setting up political opposites for confrontation or adopting an aggressive posture, regardless of whether is contributes to a better understanding of the issues. Interviewer’s reputations are made by their success in unsettling or demolishing interviewees. It appears not to matter that little light has been shed on the subject under discussion. In fairness, the same criteria are often used by politicians to judge their own performance in the media.

There is fairly general consensus among politicians, regardless of political affiliation, that there has been an increasing trend toward “tabloidisation” of both print and electronic media. Political and current affairs coverage is characterised by increasingly brief “grabs”, trivialisation and sensationalism – all inimical to sustained and complex debate. There is also and increasing trend for reporters and presenters’ views to be more intrusive, often ignoring what the interviewee has to say in favour of the media personality’s “authoritative” assertions.

The descriptive style of journalism which focused on the views and behaviour of newsmakers has been replaced by reporting which places the reporter at the centre of the action. In the United States, this has reached the point where during the 2000 campaign, for every minute that the candidates spoke, the network correspondents spoke for six. And their tone was “skeptical, negative and strategic”, a disposition which appears to have contributed to distrust of politicians. (6) This distrust then feeds into reduced involvement including in watching news about politics and campaigns. News organisations then cut back on their coverage or make it softer, producing further declines in involvement.

It’s perhaps not surprising that television has been identified as one of the major causes of declining civic engagement. As one researcher put it, this is primarily a “knowledge reducing effect” as newspapers and public service radio and TV announcements are replaced by commercial TV as the primary source of political information. (7) The commercial media, in particular, devote less time to current political events and when they do, it is often in sensationalist and strategic terms. Candidates are ignored or portrayed as boring if they run issues based campaigns. Attacking sound bites get airtime, positive problem solving statements get the delete button.

In general, we have yet to fully calculate the effects of the transition from word to image on our democracy. As Barber encapsulates the problem:

“A succession of fast-moving images is not conducive to thinking, but it does accommodate advertising, manipulation and propaganda, and these are the hallmarks of modern consumer culture and its privatizing political ideology that displaces governments with markets.” (8)

Media Manipulation

The media are also the principal means by which governments attempt to manipulate public opinion. Propaganda – now called “spin” in an attempt to render it innocuous- is the antithesis of democratic discourse.

We sometimes forget that the restriction of information and the manipulation of public opinion are not solely the prerogatives of totalitarian Governments. Indeed the use of propaganda techniques has been, and is, commonplace in Australia as in many other societies. These appeals persuade not through give-and-take of argument and debate, but through the manipulation of symbols and of our most basic human emotions.

Some of us are old enough to recall the vivid and terrifying images of the yellow peril and the “reds under your beds” drummed into us by conservative governments in the 1950s. More recent examples include Peter Reith’s “construction” of reality in the lead up to the waterfront dispute, the government’s sustained campaign to dehumanise asylum seekers, and the continuing attempts to justify the attack on Iraq.

In the lead up to the sacking of waterfront workers, Reith employed classic propaganda techniques: creating the stereotype of the greedy wharfie by grossly exaggerating their rates of pay and conditions, misrepresenting productivity levels and engaging in continuous name calling and repetition of negative phrases (e.g. rorts) and simplistic slogans.

The goal was clearly to destroy collective action and to ensure that the workers were segregated and alone in bargaining with their employers. There was considerable irony in the alternative labour force later banding together to sue the Minister and the Government for misleading and manipulating them.

The Reith tactics were part of a long-standing propaganda war perpetrated largely by major corporations to portray unions as disruptive, greedy and harmful to the public interest as defined by the business community and its allies. By virtue of their strategic position, docks have long been the crucibles of struggles for improved wages and conditions in most countries, including Australia. Since it is at the heart of the union movement it is attacked – and defended- with considerable vigour.

This was obviously just a practice run for the concerted campaign of vilification which has been conducted against asylum seekers who’ve arrived on our shores in leaky boats. It was Reith too who managed the “children overboard” scandal and repeated with Ruddock and Howard the many calumnies perpetrated against these people. For political advancement they still continue to denigrate their victims, many of whom remain hopelessly strung between their fear of returning to face persecution and their despair at indefinite detention.

It is no accident that in both the cases I have cited, the sell job followed market research and opinion polling. While such polling has some uses, it is also one of the starting points for propaganda and media manipulation designed to convince an unsuspecting public that what is being proposed, while it might appear damaging, is actually benign – “Toxic Sludge Is Good For You”. (9)

Implicit in these strategies is the desire to control public access to information on the grounds that the political elite is best placed to understand what is in the public interest. The strategies rest on the assumption that open and informed public debate is either impossible or undesirable. This is also clearly the view of some in the media – the so-called elite opinion.

Law and order campaigns designed to frighten the population and distract from hard questions of causation provide another illustration of the operation of privileged interests. The fact is that analyses of the causes of crime invariably point to inequality of wealth and power as critical factors. The necessary remedies, including the redistribution of both wealth and power, are not likely to be advocated by the likes of Packer and Murdoch or the political players who protect their privileged allies. They prefer to feed people on a steady diet of alarming images which generate fear and outrage, but not much else.

This is important because the steady diet of bad news can simply bolster the status quo and bad news can, and does, convince people that the world is much more dangerous than it is.

Gerbner found that people who watch a lot of television see the world as much more threatening and filled with menace than those who watch less. Fears about crime, often exploited by politicians, have less to do with actual crime rates than with the perception we get from the news. Bad news can create panic and distort the policy agenda. It’s anyone’s guess how fearful people have become after the declaration of the so-called “War on Terror” and the constant bombardment with threat assessments and warnings of imminent disaster

It is generally the case that those who “engineer consent” are those with the resources and the power to do so – principally the business community and some in the political class. It may be said that the well-connected and the well-protected can work the system, but the interests of the ordinary citizen are often left out.

The major political parties in Australia are becoming more and more dependent on the PR industry – the consultants, marketers and social scientists who manage and promote causes and candidates. The current government routinely undertakes market research and polling at taxpayer’s expense to “test messages” and spin the most acceptable lines. The insistence by the Prime Minister that to do anything other than support out troops as they were sent off to attack Iraq was, almost certainly, a market research driven line. Nothing else really worked.

Protection of citizen’s rights and minority interests

One of the consequences of this sustained manipulation of the media is that many Australians have stood by uncomplaining – even cheering – as their own rights, as well as those of minorities such as indigenous people and refugees, have been eroded. Had it not been for the Senate, many were apparently untroubled by the original ASIO Bill which would have seen children as young as ten detained and searched. The government knew that there was little opposition to detention without trial because they had already left citizens to rot for months in Guantanamo Bay, without lifting a finger to insist on their minimum legal rights. And they had already successfully trampled on Indigenous property rights and disrespectfully denied them recognition and compensation for dispossession and suffering under separation policies. They also knew that they enjoyed widespread community support for locking up refugees indefinitely, in defiance of every international human rights convention. On this front our democracy is in a parlous state. We need a Bill of Rights.

Reforms to increase participation

Popular dissatisfaction with present democratic structures is fuelling calls for reform all over the world. Recent data from the U.K. indicates that the politically dissatisfied are more likely to favour constitutional reforms, such as changes in the role of the House of Lords, judicial protection of human rights, and greater public access to government information.

Recent electoral reforms in Italy, Japan, and New Zealand resulted from public dissatisfaction with the electoral process. Interestingly, as one nation moves towards Proportional Representation (PR) as a solution, another moves in the opposite direction. This makes me sceptical that reforms to political parties and electoral systems are sufficient to address the present malaise. Widespread declines in political support, and growing alienation from various institutions and forms of the democratic process suggest that the sources of dissatisfaction go deeper than what can be addressed by modest electoral reforms.

However, it is worth noting that there is a well-established turnout boost associated with electoral systems based on proportional representation. It has been argued that this is due to otherwise excluded citizens seeking representation from small parties incapable of breaking through in winner-takes all contests. Every vote then does count, as it does with Senate voting in Australia. Under PR, parties have an incentive to inform all voters of their programs rather than just targeting the marginal seat voter. It is possible that PR based multi-party systems may inhibit precipitous changes in a parties’ principles and identity with the result that the political map is more stable and clearly drawn.

People are also expressing a more fundamental dissatisfaction with the system of representative democracy itself. Many express the desire to move toward greater participatory democracy.

The potential for citizen participation is limited in traditional forms of representative democracy. The opportunities for electoral input are scandalously low in most democracies, limited to the chance to cast a few votes during a multiyear electoral cycle. The declining voter turnout in advanced industrial societies suggests growing disenchantment with this form of democratic participation.

Barber’s alternative to this “thin” democracy, a “strong” democracy, incorporates muscular participatory and deliberative elements, something that many citizens are urging for Australia. In such democracies, citizens are engaged in political action and are prepared to engage in debate and deliberation in order to reach agreement about solutions to shared problems. In other words, citizens take a greater role in governing themselves.

Strengthened commitments to the democratic ideal and increased skills and resources in contemporary societies can lead to increased political participation beyond the present forms of representative democracy. A growing body of international research has documented a steady growth of protest and direct-action methods.

It also shows that while participation in elections may be declining, direct contact with government officials and politicians and work with community groups has been increasing. Participation in new social movements, such as the environmental movement, has also increased substantially over the past generation.

These new participation patterns are creating pressure on governments to develop forms of more direct, participatory democracy. For example, surveys of the German public indicate that democratic norms are broadening to embrace more participatory forms of democracy. The use of referendums and initiatives is generally increasing in democratic nations. Younger generations and the better educated are more likely to favour referendums, greater participation by the citizenry, and other forms of direct democracy. The Internet shows promise as a means of broadening the scale and scope of political discussion.

A recent review of the social movement literature describes other ways that institutional reforms can increase direct citizen participation in policy making. In Germany, for example, local citizen action groups have won changes in administrative law to allow for citizen participation in local administrative processes.

Italian environmental legislation now grants individuals legal standing in the courts when they seek to protect the environment from the actions of municipalities or government administrative agencies.

These institutional changes are difficult to accomplish and therefore are likely to proceed at a slow pace; but once implemented they restructure the whole process of making policy that extends beyond a single issue or a single policy agenda.

Similar reforms need to be debated in Australia.

It is possible to do much better, to open up decision making, to involve more MPs and engage the wider community, to actually thrash out the issues in real debates. Australia was once considered the “democratic laboratory” of the world. It’s time to conduct a few new experiments to revive our body politic and embrace the principles of openness, accessibility and accountability.

As a start we could:

* As in the new Scottish Parliament, establish an all party Business Committee to determine the business of the Parliament including the allocation of business to committees. The Committee would require regular endorsement of the Parliament for its plans,

* Amend standing orders to require that a greater proportion of parliamentary time is devoted to non-government business,

* Ensure that legislation introduced by the Executive undergoes a substantial period of pre-legislative development and consultation through the relevant committees, interest groups and the general public,

* Give committees the power to initiate legislation arising from their inquiries, especially if the government has failed to respond to major recommendations,

* Establish joint estimates and legislation committees with the power to question public servants and ministers from either House and to take submissions and commission independent research,

* Limit the number of speakers on legislation and change the standing orders to ensure that a real debate occurs with members from both sides to provide a quorum,

* Restrict Question Time to genuine questions without notice, with a majority going to the Opposition,

* Devote the second chamber to a more extensive deliberation of the bills in committee,

* Provide for private bills which allow private citizens or groups (with sufficient backing) to bring certain matters before the Parliament, probably through sponsoring MPs,

* Require that all petitions be investigated, if necessary by special hearings, of a dedicated petitions’ committee,

* Commission citizens’ juries or deliberative polls on contentious and complex issues,

* Invite expert and community representatives to address the chamber in session and engage in debate with members,

* Promote and sponsor the establishment of groups such as civic and youth forums to enable more regular and efficient consultation with the public, and

* Strengthen freedom of information legislation to reduce the number of exemptions from disclosure.

As well as engaging the general public and their representatives more fully in the democratic process, I believe such initiatives could transform politics in the way that many have dreamed about; into a more engaged and active democracy. The goals of greater participation, more civil and co-operative parliamentary conduct and an informed public debate are worth striving for.

Slow Politics

In preparing for this lecture I read quite a lot of speculative material about the likely effect of the Internet on the operation of modern democracy. It struck me, as I thought about the Internet with its impressive speed, that a strong democracy actually needs a speed limit sign.

We need a political equivalent of the “slow food” movement to enable people to stop and think about the nature of the problems they confront, to assemble all the best ingredients for solutions to these problems and to debate the respective merits of various proposals.

In a speech to the Wesley College Foundation, John Menadue asserted that:

“Politics is too serious a matter to be left to politicians. Unaided, they will not reform our political outlook.”

At one level this might be taken as yet another blow in the national sport of bashing politicians, but Menadue was, in fact, making the more serious point that the health of our democracy requires greater involvement and participation from party members and the community at large. It’s a view I share.

We need to take politics beyond the politicians.


Carmen Lawrence delivered this manifesto to protect and enhance our democracy at a public lecture at the University of Western Australia on August 7. She is standing for the ALP presidency in the first direct election of a president by the rank and file since the ALP changed party rules to encourage greater participation by party members after its 2001 federal election defeat.


1. McAllister, Ian, A crisis of democracy – again, in ‘Policy Review’, Summer 2000-2001, 47-49

2. Thompson, Elaine, Australian parliamentary democracy after a century: What gains, what losses? ‘Vision in hindsight: Parliament and the Constitution,’ Paper No. 4, p6, 2000

3. McAllister, I, Civic education and political knowledge in Australia, Australian Senate Occasional Lecture Series, Canberra, 2001

4. Kuklinski, J.H. and Quirk, J.J., Citizen competence revisited, presented at the 2001 annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, San Francisco

5. Popkin, Samuel I, The reasoning voter: Communication and persuasion in presidential campaigns, Chicago University Press, 1991

6. Patterson, T.E., The vanishing voter: Civic involvement in the Age of Uncertainty, Alfred A. Knoph, 2002

7. Milner, H., Political participation and the political knowledge of adults and adolescents, paper presented at the 30th ACPR Joint Session Workshops, University of Turin, 1998

8. Barber, B.B., Which technology and which democracy? MIT Communications Forum, 2003

9. Stauber, J. & Rampton, S., Toxic sludge is good for you: Lies, damn lies and the public relations industry, Monroe, Maine, Common courage press, 1995

It matters!

The failure to discover the so-called weapons of mass destruction in Iraq – and widespread reports that intelligence was subject to political pressure and interference – has so far drawn a relatively mild public response in Australia and, for that matter, in the United States. Tony Blair, however, has been under the hammer, and pressure is mounting after the death of Dr David Kelly.

The Prime Minister here has absolved himself again of any responsibility for what has to be the greatest con trick ever perpetrated on the Australian people, one with deadly consequences for the people of Iraq, who are still dying and suffering every day as a result of the violent invasion and subsequent occupation of their country.

We are supposed not to care about this – we’ve “moved on”, Howard claims, using Bush’s line, as he has done so often. We’re told it doesn’t really matter now.

It doesn’t matter, apparently, that we were told that the coalition of the willing invaded Iraq to destroy nuclear, biological and chemical weapons to prevent them being used against other states or passed on to terrorist groups like al-Qaeda. The motion which the Howard Government put before the House of Representatives stated unequivocally that:

“Iraq’s continued possession and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, in defiance of its mandatory obligations under numerous resolutions of the United Nations Security Council, represents a real and unacceptable threat to international peace and security.”

And he said in his Address to the Nation on March 20, 2003:

“Therefore the possession of chemical, biological, or even worse still, nuclear weapons by a terrorist network would be a direct undeniable and lethal threat to Australia and its people. That is the reason above all others why I passionately believe that action must be taken to disarm Iraq.”

The Prime Minister went on and on about the imminent threat from such weapons this and many other speeches. They were the reason, the ‘principal’ reason, the principal objective of the allies’ military actions.

‘Truly,’ we were assured, ‘we are at grave risk; the great superpower itself, the United States, is threatened; peace-loving people and democracies are in jeopardy unless we discover and root out these weapons.’

If the United Nations won’t act, we were told, we will. Oh, and by the way, despite a mountain of international legal opinion to the contrary, our decision to be part of an invading force is justified by previous UN resolutions – don’t worry about that. And to show that it really is about the weapons, if Saddam Hussein would give them up, we will not pursue him. The weapons are the thing, we were told-both by our Prime Minister and other leaders.

It’s fair to say the only fig leaf our government had in prosecuting this case within international law was the weapons argument. Invasion of another state for regime change, the justification embraced by the Howard government since weapons have not turned up, is in flagrant breach of international law. Everyone agrees about that.

In the United States a gullible people fed garbage by Fox and the largely compliant print media have decided that it does not matter much that they were lied to and manipulated; the attack did get rid of a really nasty dictator who most of them still believe was somehow responsible for the September 11 attack. In their minds that apparently justifies their government treating them with complete disdain. Australians, by and large, appear to have reached the same conclusion; it does not matter how we got there, the bad guy has gone – although we do not actually know where he is – and none of our defence personnel got killed.

It does not matter, apparently, if the Prime Minister has shown the Australian people again that he thinks that they are a bunch of gullible fools who will swallow any old load of garbage without demur. I guess he might be entitled to think that after the largely apathetic reactions to the revelations that the government systematically misled us in the children overboard and Tampa incidents. Having fooled us he now takes us for fools.

I think it does matter and I think it matters a lot. It matters that thousands of Iraqi people were killed and injured and that their lives have been turned upside down. Electricity supplies are still unreliable; water and sewage treatment cannot be guaranteed; security is a nightmare. It matters. It matters that our own government feels it owes us no explanation for the questionable intelligence it used to justify the most extreme of actions – waging war – without parliamentary approval, putting our people’s lives and future security at risk. It matters.

Years of inspections, hours of debating in the United Nations and in parliaments around the world, acres of newsprint and endless spin from government officials and leaders were all devoted to convincing an initially sceptical public that there were biological and chemical weapons which could be launched within 45 minutes; that Iraq had wilfully resisted proper inspection and disclosure of massive secret stockpiles of weapons.

How did we know this? Despite UN weapons inspectors and other reliable sources within Iraq concluding that it was most likely that these weapons capabilities had been effectively destroyed by years of sanctions and pressure from the UN itself, how did we know this? Because our intelligence sources told us so.

The big question is: did they really? Or was there a massive disinformation campaign to create a justification for war from partial, contentious and often unreliable sources, which the intelligence agencies themselves urged should be treated with caution?

We were forced to participate in a charade of raking over past United Nations resolutions for pretexts for war, of alliances and of new resolutions – the last one dumped when it became clear that the Security Council was not going to roll over under US pressure.

We were invited to look away while bribes were offered to desperately poor nations to buy their votes and we were invited to ignore well-sourced reports of the electronic surveillance of member states to allow the United States and the United Kingdom to anticipate and prepare rebuttals to the arguments of those nations who dared oppose them – all of this conducted in an atmosphere of confected crisis and imminent threat.

We all watched with increasing alarm the big speeches by Bush and Blair and Howard, by Colin Powell and Jack Straw, replete with maps and dossiers, making concrete those fears, showing us diagrams of laboratories, specifying the quantities of weapons trained on the world, showing us all of these things and engaging in lurid speculation about the many and varied ways in which we were at risk from these “weapons of mass destruction” – the phrase repeated over and over again.

How did we know all this? Because the reach of the United States intelligence apparatus is enormous; because its ally the United Kingdom knows the region intimately as its former imperial overlord. Australia, tagging along behind, used our own intelligence agencies to try and assess the veracity of the material shared with us by our allies. We were told over and over again that there was no doubt that Iraq did possess large quantities of weapons of mass destruction which they could use at any time or hand over to the terrorists, who would have no compunction about using them on us, the hated westerners.

Besides, as one of the grim jokes circulating about the missing weapons has it: ‘How did we know that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction? Because we still have the receipts.’ It was, after all, the United States and some European nations who supplied most of the material and the technology and turned a blind eye while chemical weapons were used in the Iran-Iraq war and then against the Kurdish people. The flow of money, material and technology did not stop until Iraq invaded Kuwait.

It is not as though there were not plenty of dissenters within the intelligence community, even before the attacks; people who were prepared to put their own jobs and reputations on the line so that the truth could be known before such an important decision was made.

Hans Blix himself issued diplomatically circumspect and repeated cautions about some of the more extravagant claims being made about the weapons Iraq was said to possess and objected vehemently when his own report to the UN was misused by the US administration in particular and also by the Australian government. Dr ElBaradei confirmed that there was no nuclear capacity at all. And we know that the Niger uranium connection was a forgery – although John Howard continues to deny it. Indeed it was widely known well before the now notorious speeches by all three leaders which included the false claims.

Blix has since pronounced himself disappointed with the quality of US and British intelligence and has said that their governments had not been justified in their conclusions that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. This man knows more about it than anyone else on this planet. Former weapons inspector Scott Ritter too made it clear from the outset of the US push to a pre-emptive strike that the inspections and the sanctions regime had effectively dismantled the greater part of the Iraqi arsenal and their capacity to develop new weapons. He argued that the claims being made by the so-called allies were exaggerated and unduly alarmist-this all before the attack.

Even more compelling was the evidence of Saddam Hussein’s son-in-law, who defected to the United States in 1995. CIA and British intelligence officials who debriefed Hussein Kamal after his defection and reviewed the complete transcript of UNSCOM, who also interviewed him, reported that he insisted that nothing was left. He is alleged to have said that all chemical weapons were destroyed, that he personally had ordered their destruction. Weight I think has to be given to his evidence since Saddam Hussein had him executed after he returned to Iraq.

Blair’s dossier was exposed before the war as decidedly dodgy. Downing Street was finally forced to admit that much of the dossier came from dated academic sources and one portion at least was plagiarised directly from a PhD student’s thesis. And Robin Cook’s resignation could have left no doubt about his uncertainty about the evidence. One of the most intelligent and best informed of Blair’s cabinet, he was privy to regular security briefings and was not convinced of the claims that Iraq had a massive stockpile of weapons and posed a serious threat. He recently urged the British government not to be suckered again, as he put it, by the US hawks into similar action in Iran or, we might add, North Korea.

Before the attack on Iraq, former CIA and other intelligence operatives actually wrote to George Bush expressing their alarm at what appeared to be political interference in the intelligence community. Their worst fears of course have since been confirmed.

Just in case the Howard government thinks it can pass the buck for intelligence failures to the big guys, Andrew Wilkie’s courageous resignation from the Office of National Assessment – because he believed that Australia’s decision to join in the attack on Iraq was simply wrong and was based on incomplete information – prevents them from doing so. Wilkie made it clear in a recent article that ONA officials and others were well aware of the deficiencies in US intelligence and warned the government repeatedly that Iraq did not have a substantial WMD program and that the US reasons for engagement were not really about the destruction of such weapons. He correctly anticipated that the Howard government would not be keen for an inquiry into Australian intelligence assessments on Iraq; much better, as Wilkie put it to let “the whiff of US intelligence failure drift across the Pacific in the hope it implies that Australia was the victim of advice beyond its control”.

Wilkie emphasises that there could not have been any doubt whatsoever about all this in the mind of Prime Minister or any other member of the National Security Committee of Cabinet. Report after report from the bureaucracy made it abundantly clear that US impatience to go for Iraq had very little to do with WMDs and an awful lot to do with US strategic and domestic interests. They cannot now credibly claim ignorance. It’s a measure of the contempt in which they hold for the Australian people that they are trying to so.

Now that it has been officially declared that the war is over and its objectives achieved, a steady stream of information from security sources in both the US and the UK confirms what these analysts said before the attack and what many of us who were opposed to the war suspected. There is increasing evidence of manipulation of intelligence and political pressure skewing British and US intelligence on Iraq and the use of it here in Australia. This has clearly led to the Australian government itself ignoring the warnings of its own intelligence advisers – intelligence about the supposed weapons threat was manipulated, exaggerated and spun to suit the political objectives of the coalition of the willing.

The intelligence agencies, at least in the U.K., are apparently not prepared to take the rap for the conspicuous failure to turn up any weapons. That is why they have been leaking so comprehensively. It transpires that they warned their political masters that they had no direct evidence of such weapons. The Australian agencies have been so politicised that they are throwing themselves in front of the PM and his ministers to absorb any flack. As they now do so often and with such alacrity.

In the United States while George Bush was telling the world, and being echoed slavishly by our own Prime Minister, and I quote: “… the Iraqi regime possesses chemical and biological weapons …”, a widely circulated defence intelligence agency report at the time concluded that “there was no reliable information on whether Iraq is producing or stockpiling chemical weapons”. As Jason Vest put it in a recent article inNation:

“Anyone familiar with the intelligence game knows how susceptible any intelligence – raw reports and intercepts, finished analyses, white papers, national intelligence estimates – is to potential manipulation or subversion.”

“It was clear that the Rumsfeld-Chaney axis was having its way with the CIA,” he wrote, and this should not have come as a surprise because “the neoconservative clique the Defence Secretary and Vice President hail from has a long history of using form and subterfuge to make intelligence say – implicitly or explicitly – what is ideologically desired.”

Academic John Prados, who sifted through all the unclassified CIA reports on Iraq’s nuclear, chemical, biological and missile capabilities, reported in the May-June Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:

“It is fair to suspect that CIA analysts did not approve of the cast being given to their reporting. Conversely, Defence Secretary Rumsfeld had little real need to create his own in-house intelligence staff to furnish threat information on Iraq because George Tenet’s CIA had already been hounded into doing just that.”

One official from the Defence Intelligence Agency in the US told the New York Times:

“As an employee of the DIA, I know this administration has lied to the public to get support for its attack on Iraq.”

Another claimed the Bush administration “grossly manipulated intelligence” about WMDs. And the Australian government was being warned precisely that that is what they were doing and that much of the “intelligence” being transmitted to us from the U.S. was “garbage”. There was no intelligence failure; they wanted a war so they insisted on reports to support their case while ignoring contrary evidence.

US intelligence officials have kept up a steady stream of complaint about the pressure exerted on them. Cheney and senior aides apparently made numerous trips to the CIA, and operatives reported that they felt they were being pressured to make their assessments fit the administration’s objectives.

What of the evidence now that the search has been going on the ground for almost four months, and Australia sent a team to join the US rather than involving the experienced UN team again? What have they found? Exactly nothing. A couple of mobile labs were held to be the clinching evidence – the Prime Minister even added an extra one. But an official British investigation has already found that they were to manufacture hydrogen for weather balloons as claimed, and that the mobile trailers were actually manufactured in the United Kingdom. Yet our own Prime Minister continues to insist that this is the decisive evidence of weapons of mass destruction.

Like Rumsfeld, our Prime Minister and the Minister for Foreign Affairs continue to insist against all logic that Iraq may have destroyed all the WMDs before the war started. That would be very odd behaviour if it were true. If you were going to be attacked, if war was imminent and you had one last means of defence, why would you destroy it? And there is no evidence of this having happened. So we’re now asked to grasp the straw that they had “weapons’ capabilities”.

Similar pressure was apparently placed on British officials. Reports in the UK media over the last few weeks attest to a continuing battle of propaganda on both sides of the Atlantic. British intelligence sources – one of whom is now known to be Dr David Kelly – made claims that intelligence on Iraq had been ‘sexed up’ for publication by Downing Street. On top of this, the BBC was also informed that a major claim in Blair’s now infamous dossier – that Iraq could unleash chemical or biological attack within 45 minutes of the order-was actually inserted at the insistence of Downing Street. Even The Times, which adopted a pro-war stance at the time, recently ran an analysis which concluded:

“The government is seen as having spun the threat from Saddam’s weapons, just as it spins everything else.”

Despite the apparent exoneration of the Blair government by a Parliamentary Committee on which the government has the numbers, the BBC refused to withdraw these claims and Blair is no longer trusted by a majority of the British people. Even Bush’s popularity and support for the attack on Iraq have declined. Doubt is corroding the triumphalism of the coalition of the willing.

It matters and Australians should take notice.

We should listen to Andrew Wilkie when he says so emphatically that Australians have been gulled by this government. The attack on Iraq rests on a lie-the ‘greatest foreign policy scandal’ since World War 11, as Robert Manne puts it.

Those who care about democracy, regardless of their views on this war, must demand explanations from this government. In the United Kingdom and the United States the media and some MPs are insisting on proper accounting, with severe embarrassment to Blair if not to Bush. Australians deserve no less – and the Joint Parliamentary Committee inquiring into the matter will provide us with the opportunity to expose this government’s mendacity.

So far the weapons have not turned up. There is every chance that they will not. But we already know, whether we find some or none, that intelligence has been misused and the Australian government has been prepared to ignore its own advice – to use the ‘stacks of garbage’ as a justification for such extreme action: going to war, killing other people, and putting Australians’ lives at risk. We already know that our government has been prepared to traduce the truth and to cynically manipulate the Australian people – again.

The plight of the Mandaeans in Oz: A new Iran contra deal

Amongst the poor souls who are still detained in Australia’s detention centres are approximately a hundred Sabian Mandaeans, followers of the teachings of John the Baptist, who have fled from Iran. The Iranians are the largest group of asylum seekers still in detention.

Some have been held, brutalised and traumatised, for as long as four years, a situation which caused the United Nations Working Party on Arbitrary Detention to find the Australian government in breach of the Refugee Convention and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The Government’s solution to this flagrant breach of out international obligations is to throw out these people who dared ask for asylum on our shores.

Together with several hundred other refugees from the repressive Iranian regime, there are between 17 and 22 Mandaean families now faced with the threat of forcible deportation as part of the Howard government’s secret agreement with the government of Iran. About 80 Iranians have already received notice that they could, at any moment, be sent back to Iran, if necessary, by force.

The government has persistently refused to make public the contents of the Memorandum of Understanding which details this agreement, telling the Senate and in answer to one of my questions that it was “not in the public interest” to make the document public.

At a time when our partners in the “coalition of the willing” are suggesting that they might support a popular uprising in Iran, already designated as one of the members of the “axis of evil”, the Howard government is busy making secret agreements and forging closer economic and political ties with the regime.

Recent trade talks with senior government ministers, the visit of an Iranian parliamentary delegation and raids by the AFP of the homes of Iranians associated with the opposition forces in Iran, all signify this closer relationship. The Iranian followers of John the Baptist – and their fellow country men and women – are part of the contra deal for increased trade with Iran.

The Howard government has also consistently refused to provide any guarantees for the safety of those deported to Iran. This, despite the fact that the head of the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, Justice Louis Joinet, said this week that, having recently visited Iran to inspect the human rights situation, he had come away deep concerns about the nature of Australia’s agreement with Iraq, particularly the fact that, “There are no guarantees as to what will happen when they (Australian detainees) are returned to Iran”. He also expressed some scepticism about whether so-called voluntary returns would actually be voluntary.

This scepticism is justified by the leaking of a Departmental memo which outlined the development of a strategy on the return of Iranian nationals. The minute, signed by John Okley, assistant secretary of international co-operation in the Department of Immigration, proposed two courses of action: the first, “encouraging voluntary departures” by inducements of $2000 per person; giving them the status of a returnee, rather than a deportee; supplying them with airfares and travel documents; and waiving the cost of their accommodation in detention!

And if this fails, “the creation of a credible threat of involuntary removal”, by telling detainees that the Iranian government would now accept their involuntary repatriation, something they had refused to do in the past. Priority for removal was to be given to “those who have attempted self-harm or committed acts of violence within the centres.”

There is no doubt that the Howard government does not regard itself as seriously bound by our international treaty obligations (except with the United States). But even by the degraded standards of the government, this represents a flagrant disregard of the obligations under the Refugee Convention not to return a refugee to “a place where his or her life or liberty is threatened” and of the Torture Convention not to send a person to “a place where there is a real prospect of torture.”

While the Federal Government has insisted that none of the 265 Iranians threatened with forcible deportation are owed protection under Australia’s migration laws, many of those facing deportation fear that, in providing information for their refugee applications, they have exposed themselves to greater danger if they are returned to Iran. This is especially true for those who are easily identified by religion, occupation or region, even if their names are withheld.

As Julie Macken pointed out in a recent article, the Refugee Review Tribunal, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and the Federal Court all publish their decisions and findings on the internet and while they do not publish names, “even with little information it is easy to work out to whom they are referring.” Louis Joinet told Radio National journalist, Tom Morton, “the very act of fleeing takes on a political complexion” and in certain cases, “this has given rise to persecution.” Ruddock’s response to this elevated risk to those forced to return is the implausible conclusion that if Australia’s refugee assessment process has found that they are not refugees, i.e. that they do not have a well-founded fear of persecution, then they will not be persecuted. By definition. Yes, Minister.

The Mandaeans, a tiny pre-Christian religious minority would, almost certainly, be readily identified from Tribunal and Court transcripts. Because their religion is not recognised by the government of Iran, they are subjected to discrimination and denied the normal protections of the law. The Federal Court, in an appeal against a decision of the Refugee Review Tribunal heard last year, gave the following measured assessment of religious persecution in Iran:

In Iran all religious minorities including Christians and of course Jews, suffer varying degrees of persecution, vis a vis the Shi’ite Muslim majority. The State, since the religiously inspired revolution, does not, for example, permit non-Muslims to engage in government employment or attend university and there are restrictions on the extent to which they can fully practise their religion, for example, by teaching it. If injured or killed, they or their dependants apparently receive less compensation than would the Muslim majority, and they may suffer in assessments of their credibility as witnesses before Iranian courts.

Religious persecution in Iran is a matter of public record and the subject of frequent comment from human rights observers and even from the U.S. State Department. The head of a UN working group on detention centres, Louis Joinet, recently told journalists that Iran was detaining dissidents and others without due process on a “large scale” and keeping them in solitary confinement. Human Rights Watch reported in February that:

“The arbitrary detention of students and the targeting of government critics have increased. Scholars and students who criticise the ruling clerical establishment have faced death sentences, teaching bans or long prison terms.”

There are many recorded cases of the execution of minority religious leaders for no other reason than that they practice their faith and organise their followers. Iran is almost as enthusiastic as the United States in its use of the death penalty, and for much less serious offences. Amnesty records that the death penalty and various brutal forms of torture were imposed “for issues concerning freedom of association and freedom of expression.” In 2002, 81 percent of all known executions worldwide took place in Iran, China and the USA. The Amnesty spokesman also drew attention to the fact that over the last year alone 113 prisoners, including long-term political prisoners, were executed in Iran. Many were also flogged, frequently in public.

Just this week I was sent photographs from Iran of people executed on “hanging trucks”, mobile cranes used to hang people in public, even for minor offences such as the possession of marijuana (the photos are atMDC Watch).Yet refugees from religious persecution by this vicious regime are held not to be “genuine” refugees.

Although there are only an estimated 20,000 Mandaeans, significant numbers have fled to Australia, claiming religious persecution much as the now well-settled families of the Bahai faith did in the 70s and 80s. Most of them have ended up in detention because the Howard government has consistently refused to accept that they have been subjected to persecution, insisting that they have merely suffered harassment, and has denied them refugee status. The Iranian government, until now, has refused to accept their return as part of a general policy of resisting involuntary repatriations. The result is that the Mendaeans have been stranded in the twilight zone of indefinite detention, many in the desert camps. Men, women and children alike exhibit the predictable psychological symptoms of such prolonged incarceration.

For the Mandaeans this is a double jeopardy, since they are also subjected to discrimination and mistreatment by some of the other detainees who regard them as unclean. Evidence given in a Federal Court hearing recounted events during 2001, in which Mandaean people were denied access to showers in the ablutions block because of the aggressive actions of a small group of hostile Muslims. The Mandaeans were warned to stay away because they were ‘dirty people’. These threats were apparently backed up with action, since the persecutors simply turned off the water supply when the Mendaeans attempted to use the facilities. This mistreatment escalated to the point that they had to be placed in a separate compound.

Although their plight has not excited much attention in the mainstream Australian media, they were the subject of a report by Amnesty International last year. Amnesty concluded that they, and other religious minorities in the camps, were suffering additional psychological trauma because of the constant discrimination they faced. Amnesty reported that as well as their dietary needs being ignored, they were not allowed to celebrate their religious festivals and had no access to their own clergy. Amnesty also recorded instances of violence or threats against them and concluded that intolerance and vilification were now serious problems within the camps. The small Mandaean community in the Port Hedland have been particularly badly treated, initially without much protection from the camp administration. Although the Government and DIMIA are responsible for ensuring the well-being of all detainees, they clearly abdicated this responsibility a long time ago.

One of the very generous Australians who provide support and succour for those in detention told me that deporting these people “would amount to murder” and that those he sees on his regular visits “are in a state of terror”. Another, who has been visiting a young Mandaean mother and her 2 children in the Baxter detention centre, holds grave fears for their survival if they are not allowed to settle here.

Although there are several Federal Court injunctions standing between these people and other Iranian detainees threatened with deportation, it is clear that the Howard Government is determined on a program of forced deportation, first of those whose claims for asylum have failed and then of those on Temporary Protection Visas whose countries of origin have been deemed to have improved sufficiently to allow their return. Even a cursory examination of the state of security and basic infrastructure in both Iraq and Afghanistan would lead to the inevitable conclusion that people returned would confront serious risks to their lives and health.

As Russell Skeleton reported in The Age this week some of the Iranians threatened with deportation have had a reprieve as a result of a recent Federal Court decision. (Russell’s article is republished below). Mr Justice Richard Cooper’s judgment included a scathing condemnation of the Refugee Review Tribunal’s failure to investigate the specific claims of persecution made by an Iranian family of the Mandaean faith.

As a result, Justice Cooper ordered a review of the family’s claims for asylum, noting that the tribunal had ignored vital evidence, including violence and threats of violence against Mandaean women by Muslim men. He also found that while the Tribunal had apparently accepted evidence that Mandaeans living in Iran could not attend university, were harassed in daily life, were not adequately treated in hospitals and did not have their complaints to police acted upon, the Tribunal had employed an overly narrow definition of “persecution” in reaching their decision to refuse refugee status.

This judgment potentially undermines more than 60 adverse decisions already made against Mandaean families and offers some hope that the Courts may achieve what the Howard Government has refused – the protection of asylum seekers from possible loss of liberty, torture and even death if they are returned to Iran.

But this is just the beginning, the experiment, ahead of the mass deportation of people from Iraq and Afghanistan who hold Temporary Protection Visas; people whose claims for refugee status have been confirmed. The Government wants to test the resistance of Australians to this indecency. I hope they are unpleasantly surprised and that Australians will draw the line at forcing people back to situations where their very lives are at risk.


Judge orders refugees review

by Russell Skelton

Dozens of Iranians may not now be deported from Australia after the Federal Court delivered a damning assessment of the Refugee Review Tribunal and its failure to investigate claims of persecution made by an Iranian family of the Sabian Mandaean faith.

Dozens of Iranians may not now be deported from Australia after the Federal Court delivered a damning assessment of the Refugee Review Tribunal and its failure to investigate claims of persecution made by an Iranian family of the Sabian Mandaean faith.

Justice Richard Cooper, who ordered the tribunal to review the family’s claims for asylum “afresh in their entirety”, found the tribunal ignored key evidence and failed to deal with claims of violence and threats of violence against Mandaean women by Muslim men.

Justice Cooper’s stinging judgement, which also questions the tribunal’s narrow definition of “persecution”, by implication calls into question more than 60 adverse decisions made by the Immigration Department and the tribunal against Mandaean families now awaiting forcible return to Iran under a secret agreement between Canberra and Tehran.

The judgement, handed down on May 30, will increase pressure on Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock to review the asylum claims of Mandaeans, followers of a tiny pre-Christian faith that adheres to the teachings of John the Baptist. Although there are only an estimated 20,000 Mandaeans, significant numbers fled to Australia from Iran and Iraq. The vast majority have ended up in detention because the Federal Government refuses to recognise that they are treated as “infidels” and persecuted by Shiite Muslims.

Justice Cooper’s judgement questions the Federal Government’s stand by canvassing a number of legal opinions asserting that any definition of persecution should include sustained discrimination against individuals and groups unable to protect themselves. The Government has informed the tribunal that Mandaeans are discriminated against but not persecuted.

Justice Cooper found the tribunal had accepted evidence that Mandaeans living in Iran could not attend university, were harassed in daily life, were not adequately treated in hospitals and that their complaints to police were often not acted on.

“The tribunal was required to ask itself why this conduct was engaged in, and if for a convention reason, whether or not it constituted persecutory treatment. This it did not do,” he said.

“The tribunal did not address all the claims of personal violence, and threats of violence to Mandaean women in their homes and in hospitals from Muslim men, nor the reasons for such violence and threat of violence. Nor did it address the claims that children were denied the right to be taught their religion at school, were denigrated for their beliefs and put under pressure to convert to Islam.”

In relation to the family’s specific claims, Justice Cooper said the tribunal did not deal with the wife’s claim that she was physically assaulted and threatened by Iranian police in front of her children and had not been treated appropriately in hospital because of her religious beliefs.

The president of the Sabian Mandaean Association in Australia, Khosrow Cholaili, yesterday called on Mr Ruddock to review the cases of 17 Mandaean families waiting to be deported to Iran under the terms of a memorandum of understanding between Iran and Australia.

“It is clear from this case and from other recent judgements that the plight of Sabian Mandaeans and the persecution they face in Iran because of their beliefs has not been properly taken into account by the tribunal,” he said.

Mr Cholaili said there was plenty of evidence that the high levels of discrimination in every facet of daily life amounted to persecution. “Because of our alleged ‘uncleanness’ it is difficult for us to obtain medical attention. Even our children are not to permitted to attend kindergartens. If a Mandaean handles food in the market, the whole lot will be thrown out and they will be made to pay.”

Meanwhile, the head of the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, Justice Louis Joinet, has called on the Government to explain plans to deport more than 100 Iranians by force.

“Experience has shown that even with the case of voluntary repatriations, as in the case of Afghanistan, you have to be sure that people are returning voluntarily,” he said.

Justice Joinet said he had recently visited Iran to inspect the human rights situation and had come away with deep concerns about the nature of Australia’s memorandum of understanding.

“There are no guarantees as to what will happen when they (Australian detainees) are returned to Iran,” he said on radio at the weekend.

A spokesman for Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock said last night that the minister was unaware of Justice Cooper’s judgement and declined to comment on its implications for the tribunal and Sabian Mandaeans.

Why are Australians being sent to kill Iraqis?

“They have guns and bombs and the air will be cold and hot and we will burn very much.” Assem, 5 years, Iraq.

The justifications being offered by Bush, Blair and Howard for attacking Iraq are constantly changing. Most Australians, as they demonstrated at the weekend, have rightly concluded that they are pretexts, arguments of convenience served up to garner public opinion.

Nothing is more certain, however, than that the publicly stated reasons are not the real reasons. A sudden commitment to democracy, the protection of human rights and the elimination of weapons of mass destruction are not at the heart of the Bush administration’s rush to create a new killing field.

The United States has “form” on all these fronts and many of its own citizens have had the temerity to remind the Bush administration of U.S. governments’ dismal record to date. As Lewis Lapham say bluntly in his December 2002 Harper’s Magazine essay ‘Road to Babylon’:

“We’re good at slogans, but we don’t have much talent for fostering the construction of exemplary democracies; we tend to betray our allies, dishonor our treaties, and avoid the waging of difficult or extensive wars. A Government that must hold Senate hearings to discover whether it has a reason to go to war is a government that doesn’t know the meaning of war.”

We’ve been told anyone who expressed such views is somehow suspect – “You’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists”. You either support the virtuous United States or you’re with the “evildoers”. As Joan Didion argues in ‘Fixed opinions, or the hinge of history’ (The New York Review of Books, 16 January), September 11 is being used to justify the “reconception of America’s correct role in the world as one of initiating and waging virtually perpetual war”. It’s also being used to forcefully silence critics in the U.S. and elsewhere.

As Laura Rediehs has argued, Bush and his apologists draw a sharp line between good and evil, assigning people and nations to one side or the other. Neutrality or complexity are not possible. “Every attitude, action or person must be assigned to one side or the other. Therefore, to question the official interpretation of these events (Sept 11) or to question the appropriateness of a military response is to remove oneself from the side of goodness … the questioner must be regarded as evil,” questioning goodness itself. (Collateral Language: A User’s Guide to America’s New War, New York University Press, 2002.)

Apparently all this is good enough for our Prime Minster, who simply parrots Bush’s assertions about Iraq and the “war on terrorism”, imitating the pre-emptive strike rhetoric to the alarm of our neighbours.

The Prime Minister appears to unembarrassed by Bush’s petulant impatience, by his whining complaint that he is fed up with watching what he describes as a B-Grade movie, by his childlike reasoning that things will be so because he says so – “I’ve made up my mind, that Saddam needs to go.” Or trivialising what’s at stake – “The game is over.”

There is no doubt that the U.S. is about to attack Iraq, with or without UN endorsement, but certainly with British and Australian troops in tow. Our troops are joined with the massive U.S. contingent and a significant British force. They are poised to attack Iraq.

They are being readied to rain down bombs on the Iraqi people in what one Pentagon source described as the “Shock and Awe” strategy. As reported in the New York Times of February 2:

“The Pentagon has disclosed its plan to maintain peace by carrying out an opening blitzkrieg on Iraq, more than 3000 bombs and missiles in the first day of a U.S. assault so that you can have this simultaneous effect rather like the nuclear weapons at Hiroshima, not taking days or weeks but in minutes.”

Even if this is nothing more than a crude device to scare Saddam Hussein into fleeing the country, that such a strategy could be articulated is grotesque.

Depleted uranium weapons, whose use during the last Gulf War is already linked to increases in childhood cancers will, almost certainly, be used again. Indeed, the United States has not ruled out the use of nuclear weapons. Why is our Government supporting these actions?

Recent reports from the U.N and Medact estimate that if the threatened attack on Iraq eventuates, between 48,000 and 260,000 people could be killed. Civil war within Iraq could add another 20,000 deaths. They estimate that later deaths from adverse heath effects could add a further 200,000 to this hideous total.

The estimates of the toll of death and misery which might result from an attack on Iraq do not include the use of nuclear weapons which we know the U.S is contemplating (William Arkin, Los Angeles Times, 26 January, 2003). Sources within government confirmed: “The current planning focuses on two possible roles for nuclear weapons: attacking Iraqi facilities located so deep underground that they might be impervious to conventional explosives; thwarting Iraq’s use of weapons of mass destruction.”


The burden of proof and argument must always be on those who argue for war. We should not have to argue and demonstrate against the use of violence. Peace and non-violent means of conflict resolution should be the starting point of any discussion.

That, after all, is why the United Nations was founded. It is why we have helped devise and have adopted so many conventions and treaties to prevent war, human rights abuses, including torture and persecution.

It is easy to be distracted by the minutiae of the arguments, but we sometimes forget to ask whether the arguments or the evidence in support of war justify the killing of tens or even hundreds of thousands of Iraqi people. Or the flow on effects, including greater instability in the region, and the probable generation of a new wave of anti-western extremism, including in our region.

Our Prime Minster’s statement to the Parliament was simply a pale echo of the U.S. propaganda and is no more convincing.

Neither the Blix report, nor Blair’s plagiarised dossier nor Powell’s “evidence” before the Security Council justify war. Blix, himself specifically repudiated many of the claims made in Powell’s presentation and said that his own report was being misrepresented by the U.S. to justify war.

We know too that the U.S. government also has a history of using disinformation to drum up support for war, including the Gulf of Tonkin incident to justify the campaign in Vietnam.

Amongst others, Major-General Alan Stretton, a former deputy director of the Joint Intelligence Bureau wrote recently that he was unconvinced by the Powell evidence to the Security Council.

More damningly, he concluded: “Even if these US intelligence reports are true, there is still no valid reason why the Australian Government should be sending young Australians to be embroiled in a war in the Middle East where the consequences and duration are unknown.”

It is often those who have seen war who most revile the use of force. A war correspondent who has seen the end result of “orders from far away” describes his experience in Vietnam and anticipates the likely effects of the waves of B52 bombers which will be used in Iraq. He remembers the “children’s skin folded back, like parchment, revealing veins and burnt flesh that seeped blood, while the eyes, intact, stared straight ahead”.

This raises the question, what is the actual imminent threat posed by Iraq to the U.S. or any other nation which would justify war? Mere possession of weapons, even if established, is not evidence of an aggressive threat. The U.S. falls back on the “someday” argument to justify strike without threat, against international law.

The most obscene suggestion is that the U.S. now has to go to war because it threatened to and, otherwise will lose face. “Our credibility will be badly damaged,” one official said.

We desperately need a peaceful resolution to this and conflicts like it. We have to ask, if containment and surveillance have worked until now, why abandon them? Have we really explored all means less terrible than war? Is it really beyond human imagination and intelligence to devise other diplomatic and security solutions such as those proposed in recent days by France and Germany? Is killing Iraqis really the only course of action open to us?

Killing people should not be considered until all alternative means have been tried and failed. We cannot in good conscience say that this is the case.

I’ve heard Coalition MPs justify an attack in terms not dissimilar to those of the Bush administration; that because they do not intend to kill children that they are somehow exonerated. Even if Bush and Howard claim they do not to intend to kill innocent civilians, they are still using military techniques which they know with certainty will result in the loss of innocent lives. As Rediehs so eloquently puts it: “So, although both sides in this Great Cosmic Battle employ similar techniques- violence that includes the killing of innocent civilians – our doing this is justified because we are good; their doing it is unjustified because they are evil.”

Like many in the community, I’ve tried to make sense of what’s happening; to read and think and talk, to gain some sense of control over the dark chaos we’re confronting. Like many, I cannot help but to return again and again to the images of children dying. The face on the poster which advertised last weekend’s rallies was that of a child. And rightly so, because children will be – already are – the most likely victims of an attack on Iraq.

Of the approximately 25 million people living in Iraq, 12 million are children, with four million under the age of 5. Every time a bomb hits, on average, we can expect half of the victims to be children.

Writing in The Guardian, Jonathan Glover tells how in discussing medical ethics with his medical and nursing students, it is clear that everyone agonises over life and death decisions, for example, when discussing whether to continue life support for a severely disabled child, never rushing the discussion.

He is struck by “the contrast between these painful deliberations and the hasty way people think about a way in which thousands will be killed”.

“Decisions for war seem less agonising than the decision to let a girl in hospital die. But only because anonymity and distance numb the moral imagination.”

We know that Iraqi children are already suffering as a result of the last Gulf war and the sanctions that have been imposed since 1991. Several meticulous reports, including from the U.N., attest to the already fragile state of Iraqi children.

The most recent, ‘Our Common Responsibility’, from the International Study team, which documented the effects of the last war on the children of Iraq, has assessed the vulnerability of Iraqi children today, forecasting a “grave humanitarian disaster” should war occur. This independent group of academics, researchers and practitioners used data from a wide variety of sources and more than 100 unaccompanied visits and interviews within Iraq, particularly in Baghdad, Karbala and Basra.

They concluded that “Iraqi children are more vulnerable to the adverse effects of war than they were before the Gulf War of 1991”, in part, because they are more dependent on food distribution programs which are likely to be disrupted by war. If war breaks out the number of children who are malnourished will almost certainly grow beyond the 500,000 already affected.

These children are particularly vulnerable to infectious diseases that are likely to increase with damage to water supply and sewerage treatment facilities, already operating below capacity because of sanctions. The death rate among children under five is already 2.5 times greater than in 1990, and has improved only slightly as result of the Oil For Food program initiated after adverse publicity on the devastating effects of sanctions.

Furthermore, the health care system, formerly one of the best in the region, is in a run-down state, with severe shortages of health professionals, many of whom have fled, and some of whom are rotting in our own Gulags.

The United Nations itself estimates that an attack on Iraq could force more that 1.4 million people to flee Iraq and another 2 million to within Iraq away from their homes. It is clear that no one is prepared for such an exodus, least of all the Australian government.

As SMH journalist Mike Seccombe pointed out recently, the newfound concern by the Government ministers and MPs for the plight of Saddam’s victims has not been much in evidence over the last few years – ask the poor bastards who are still being brutalised on Nauru. Ask the more than 1000 Iraqis who have been held in detention for varying periods. Ask their children, who have been locked up in contravention of every relevant UN Convention to which Australia is signatory.

These are the same people for whom the Government felt such compassion that it systematically denigrated them as “greedy, wealthy queue jumpers,” as “illegals” who were prepared to manipulate the Australian people with their hunger strikes and desperate acts of self harm.

These are the people described as unworthy future citizens because they “threw their children overboard,” a claim we now know to be a calculated lie of political convenience. The Government so well understood the trauma they had already experienced at Saddam’s hands that it refused them aid altogether, marooning them on remote islands, trying to deny any responsibility for their wellbeing. They sent over 600 desperate Iraqi people to rot on Manus and Nauru, where many of them are still being held.

Just last week, the Senate was told in the Estimates hearings of seven Iraqi women and their children being detained on Nauru, despite the fact that their husbands have been granted temporary protection visas. The Senate was told that the women could not claim refugee status just because their husbands could. When asked what would happen to them, the official said, in the bloodless language of DIMIA and its minister, “The individuals on Nauru are free to return to their homeland or any other country they may wish to travel to.” Alexander Downer had just spent part of question time that day spelling out what women in Iraq can expect when they fall foul of the regime – rape, torture and murder. Not to mention the bombs that will fall. When challenged about the gross hypocrisy of this position on radio the next day, Downer said, “We don’t send people back who would be at risk. We send people back we think have been rorting the system.”

The government felt such pity for the plight of Saddam’s victims that it turned its back on the foundering SIEV-X and allowed 353 of people to drown, victims of either indifference or a deliberate strategy of sabotage, or in the chillingly clinical language of this government, a “disruption” program. The majority of these poor souls were Iraqi, 142 women and 146 children trying to join their husbands and fathers here on temporary protection visas which cruelly deny them family reunion.

There are an estimated 4000 Iraqis here on these temporary visas, many now up for review and renewal. Like the Afghani man who committed suicide last week rather than face return, many will now be under enormous strain. They know that some of their compatriots have already been either forcibly returned to the region or coerced into agreeing to their own deportation, although even Syria is now refusing to take them.

Just a few weeks ago I helped organise the removal of an Iraqi asylum seeker from a vessel where he’d stowed away. A political refugee, he’s now in the Perth Detention Centre. He’d been held in a paint cupboard on board the ship for two months as the vessel pled the coastal trade because the Australian government has made it clear to all ship owners that they allow asylum seekers to land here at their peril. They risk prosecution and the cancellation of their permits. Such sympathy for those feeling the Monster of Baghdad!

To return to the children of Iraq, the most disturbing reports contained in “Our Common Responsibility” were those of the psychologists on the team. They followed up children who were interviewed after the last war and found, unsurprisingly that children “continued to experience sadness and remained afraid of losing their family”. They described the increased stress on parents from the effects of the last war and the sanctions and the subsequent difficulty parents have in providing a caring and supportive environment for the children.

We all understand that losing people we love, particularly children, causes long lasting grief and depression. These experiences can be devastating for children. During the early part of the sanctions regime, childhood mortality escalated at an alarming rate to reach 131 per thousand children below the age of five years, meaning, as the report puts it, “that every second family runs the risk of losing a child”. Think about it – and that before the planned attack on Iraq. When these deaths are caused by shelling or bombing or shooting, the loss is even more traumatic and will lead to lifelong mental suffering.

Is it really a surprise that the researchers found that the imminent threat of war was adding to this stress and preoccupied many of the children they interviewed. Even the preschoolers were afraid and “possessed concepts of the real physical threats of bombs and guns; destruction of houses, burning homes, killing of people, and in the end referring to their own family: ‘We will all die’.” One five year old boy said of the threatened U.S. attack, “They have the guns and bombs and the air will be cold and hot and we will burn very much.”

Older children, also fearful, were found to be in a state of fatigue, resignation and sadness, many experiencing sleeping problems and nightmares, severe concentration problems at school and, in some cases, feelings of extreme detachment. Nine year old Hana said, “Often I feel nothing. Nothing at all.” This same feeling was starkly revealed in the finding that almost 40% of the teenagers interviewed thought that most of the time life is not worth living.

It seems that Bush and Blair and Howard are about to confirm their fears and grant them their implied wish. Many of them will surely be killed.

Proud to be ‘juvenile’

Standing off the coast of Western Australia, the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln is a stark reminder that the United States is preparing to attack Iraq, almost certainly without United Nations approval.

After a short stay here over Christmas for R&R, the vessel (and its battle group) returned unexpectedly to anchor off the Port of Fremantle, a city accustomed to hosting the warships of our allies. Despite this familiarity, many local people are alarmed at its presence, as much for what it symbolises as for the heightened risk associated with U.S. war readiness. As I’ve taken my regular evening walk along Port Beach with the aircraft carrier in full view, many have stopped me to express their alarm at the presence of the vessel, representing as it does, Australia’s potential involvement in a war they believe to be illegal and unjustified.

The carrier’s presence and its silhouette also remind us of the unparalleled fire power which the United States now commands. This battle group is but a tiny fragment of U.S. forces arrayed all over the world. U.S. Defence Department statistics reveal that of the 189 countries which are member states of the U.N., there is a U.S. military presence in 100. It is almost impossible to estimate the current U.S. expenditure on arms, but we do know that they funnelled billions of dollars into the anti-soviet forces in Afghanistan, including the dreaded Osama bin Laden.

For good reason, given our recent century of war, the United Nations has spent years debating and devising means to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons and biological and chemical weapons – though not, it must be said paying much attention to so-called “conventional” weapons.

With the end of the cold war, many of us hoped that we would see and end to the expansion of these weapons stockpiles. Instead we are seeing further proliferation and the collapse of agreements which had some capacity to limit their development and expansion.

According to the Bush administration, war against Iraq is justified by the alleged build up of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. And they have accused Iraq of damaging the weapons’ inspection system – which may be true. However, there is plenty of evidence that the U.S. has done a great deal to undermine the inspection system and has avoided scrutiny of its own weapons. As George Monbiot put it in the Guardian:

There is something almost comical about the prospect of George Bush waging war on another nation because that nation has defied international law. Since Mr Bush came to office, the United States government has torn up more international treaties and disregarded more UN conventions than the rest of the world has done in twenty years.

It has scuppered the biological weapons convention, while experimenting, illegally, with biological weapons of its own. It has refused to grant chemical weapons inspectors full access to its laboratories, and destroyed attempts to launch chemical inspections in Iraq. It has ripped up the anti-ballistic missile treaty, and appears to be ready to violate the nuclear test ban treaty.

As William Blum has also pointed out in his excellent treatise, “Rogue State”:

“Washington officials are careful to distinguish between the explosives the U.S. drops from the sky and “weapons of mass destruction” (WMD), which only the officially designated enemies are depraved enough to use.”

He points out that the U.S. government (add the Australian Government to that) speaks sternly of WMDs which are used indiscriminately, as opposed to the precision cruise missiles, cluster bombs, depleted uranium weapons and landmines – which it must be said have no other purpose than indiscriminate damage to civilians.

Cluster bombs, used in the recent bombing of Afghanistan, are apparently described by the Pentagon as “combined effects munition” and by the manufacturer as “all-purpose, air delivered cluster weapons system”. They are, in reality, indiscriminate weapons of mass destruction, and anti-landmine campaigners have requested that they be placed on the list of banned weapons under the Geneva Convention. Reports from Afghanistan confirmed that these weapons are particularly lethal for children who are attracted to the colourful devices. It was reported that they were the same yellow as the packages of food dropped by the U.S. to signal their compassionate concern for the starving Afghan people.

The rhetoric of Bush administration invites us to believe that they are good international citizens, interested only in bringing democracy to downtrodden people and preventing the development of weapons of mass destruction. Sadly, neither is true. And the United States has reserved to itself the right to act as it chooses. The Howard Government not only endorses this stance, but angered our neighbours when Howard recently indicated that he believed he would be justified in bombing our neighbours in order to hit terrorist targets.

Anyone who’s paying even the slightest attention to the unrelenting propaganda emanating from “Pax Americana” will be aware that the Bush administration has no intention of waiting for the U.N. weapons inspectors to complete their work or to accept their findings. They reserve the right to attack without the endorsement or restraint of the international community. The build up of troops on Iraq’s borders, the unrelenting pressure on reluctant players such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia testify to their determination to conduct war with impunity.

The momentum appears unstoppable and it’s my impression that many Australians have been lulled into a false sense of security about the Howard Government’s real intentions.

That’s why yesterday, at the invitation of a group of young anti-war activists (the Fremantle Anti-Nuclear Group), I joined upper house Green MP, Jim Scott, an international law expert and an environmental scientist to “inspect” the weapons on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln. We wanted to make the point that the U.S. is prepared to bomb the people of Iraq (estimates are that hundreds of thousands died as a result of the last conflict) with weapons, which will certainly be indiscriminate in their effect and cause ” mass destruction”. We also wanted to underline the fact that we do not have freedom of movement in our own waters and that the U.S. navy never allows inspection of its own “weapons of mass destruction”.

There are some who clearly disapprove of such direct (although lawful) action, but they appear unconcerned about the accelerating pace of war talk and the fact that we’re being seduced into accepting the Howard Government’s reassuring utterances about going along with the U.N., when it’s obvious that the moment George W snaps his fingers, Howard will jump and we’ll all suffer the consequences. It seemed to me that we had to seize every opportunity to voice our opposition to the conflict before it is too late.

Perhaps some of my anxiety stems from the fact that the anti-war movement was so slow to mobilise in response to the U.S./Australia “adventure” in Vietnam which killed so many in our region, producing decades of misery and conflict. Over thirty years ago I spoke at an ani-war rally and urged the young men who’d been drafted to tear up their draft cards. They did. Whitlam was elected on the wave of anti-war sentiment and Australia withdrew from the horror that was the Vietnam war which ended soon afterwards.

Perhaps, as some have charged, my actions in drawing attention to the double standards employed by the U.S administration are “juvenile”. But I know where I’d rather be today – supporting the young enthusiasts – those juveniles – who actually believe that peace is possible and that we all have an obligation to alert the community to the vile consequences of an unprovoked attack on the people of Iraq and the possibility of “blowback” on the Australian people.