Not happy John and Mark

In October of last year at a ceremony marking the centenary of the High Court of Australia Prime Minister John Howard told those assembled that Australia did not need a Bill of Rights because “this nation has three great pillars of its democratic life. A vigorous parliamentary system, robustly Australian, responsible for the making of laws; a strong independent and incorruptible judiciary; and a free and sceptical media.”

In October of last year at a ceremony marking the centenary of the High Court of Australia Prime Minister John Howard told those assembled that Australia did not need a Bill of Rights because “this nation has three great pillars of its democratic life. A vigorous parliamentary system, robustly Australian, responsible for the making of laws; a strong independent and incorruptible judiciary; and a free and sceptical media.”

In her book, Not Happy John!, political journalist Margo Kingston outlines why she believes Howard has fallen down in this ideal in a number of ways, not least of which has been a persistent attempts to hand over control of the Australian mainstream media to the two big players Packer and Murdoch, both of whom now more often than not collaborate on projects such as rugby league coverage, into one indiscernible voice.

Perhaps more insidiously, Australia has become numb to the fact that we have little if no political differentiation captivating our media’s attention. An excellent documentary on Dr Helen Caldicott, which aired on SBS recently, articulated this argument quite poignantly for me. The anti-nuclear activist, who was once able to muster sufficient US support to at one time be considered for the Nobel Peace Prize, has been all but side-lined from the post September 11 debate.

Any view, only half as extreme as Caldicott’s belief that war is institutionalised murder, is immediately met with a chorus of abuse from the new right.

This point has been made clear to me on a number of occasions. A few months ago, I questioned in another magazine’s editorial opinion whether allowing incidents such as those that occurred in Abu Ghraib prison and Guantanimo Bay was allowing a cure that was extinguishing the fundamental tenets of a free Western society, such as a the rule of law (see Lawyers Weekly 11 June 2004).

The criticism that most caught my attention following this column being published was the one that challenged my right to have an opinion. Like this column, that one was quite clearly labelled opinion. I was taken aback that as a free member of society, and importantly for me a member of Howard’s free and sceptical press, a senior lawyer could think that I had no right to question what was happening in the world.

Has Australia so meekly become a country in which having an opinion that falls outside of the mainstream is considered unacceptable? Have we been so beaten down by CNN that we actually think that dropping cluster bombs into built up residential areas in Bagdhad is an acceptable remedy to counter terrorism even though there has been little, if any, evidence that weapons of mass destruction actually existed in the first place?

As former US President Bill Clinton points out in his book, the UN weapons inspectors were never given a chance to finish the job, and now far fewer resources can be dedicated to fight Al Qaida, which he always saw as a far more significant threat than Iraq. But then, seeking a second opinion is apparently no longer acceptable.

With the Federal election just around the corner, I find myself more and more depressed not by the fact that I think the Howard Government may well be returned to power, although that certainly isn’t helping, but that the Opposition has put up such a lame fight. In time when the pages of this magazine are filled with words about leadership, values, corporate governance, corporate social responsibility and, importantly, role models, both major political parties have engaged in a sickening display of stage-managed insincerity compounded by a soul-destroying focus on scare-mongering.

If you happened to catch ABC’s ‘Media Watch’, you would have been aghast at just how stage managed both Howard and Latham have been in their campaigns. With carefully scripted catch phrases they avoid answering questions and keep banging out the exact same lines time and time again.

What has happened in our society that our leaders can be so ingenuous while the average non-gender-specific individual in the street just laps it up. With a government that has taken Australia to the extreme right of politics, the alternative government has not had the gumption to challenge them on even the basic tenets of human rights. They say you get the leaders you deserve – I truly hope we don’t.

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