14 June 2007

Free Australia

In his 1922 novel Kangaroo, D H Lawrence thought Australia would be highly susceptible to fascism. He wrote of people's laid-back attitude disguising a love of order and hatred of foreigners, and fictionalised a "leader" who would exploit these qualities in turning the country to fascism. Twenty years later Australians were distinguishing themselves in a global war against fascism. The qualities conducive to that tendency within Australia were not as strong as Lawrence thought they were, and weakened as time went on.

Lawrence's contemporary Sinclair Lewis said that "when fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross". This has been misinterpreted by many to claim that any display of flag or faith is inherently fascistic, a category error similar to the claim that any concern for the underprivileged must be communistic.

Today, we have a resurgence of faith and flag in Australia. Does this mean that we also have a surge of fascism? If we did, how would we know? The title of this post could be a description for some, an imperative for others.

in this article, American writer Naomi Wolf uses the term "fascism" and "tyranny" (in quoting political essayist and former US President John Madison) interchangeably. Wolf is a bit hit-and-miss with her polemics, a bit like Christopher Hitchens, but good on them both for getting in and wrestling with the big questions.

Her ten steps are more like ten features of totalitarianism, as one does not necessarily precede the next. There is also a question of degree to consider in reading this article. It is not clear that the timocracy that preceded Thailand's recent coup could be considered democratic. Wolf pays tribute to the resilience of America's democratic character while at the same time insisting that George W Bush has created a fascist regime in the face of that character.

To take issue with Wolf's article is to wade into American debates and slanging matches which others can deal with. There has been no antidemocratic measure here like the burning of the Reichstag or the closing-down of the Florida electoral count in 2000. Still, it bears examination: to what extent are the phenomena Wolf identifies present in John Howard's Australia?

1. Invoke a terrifying internal and external enemy

The obvious candidates here are not Jews or Freemasons or Rotarians or whomever else, it's the Muslims. Australia's Muslim population have distinguished themselves by being moderate without being weak. The Howard government has, apart from a few barbed comments and a bit of dogwhistling, resisted demonising Muslims as internal enemies.

Members of the chattering classes like Andrew Bolt have insisted that internal enemies exist within the ABC, but he was doing that before 11 September 2001 and his jeremiads have no more discernible purchase than they did then.

The external enemy has been invoked in the sending of small numbers of existing regular troops to Iraq and Afghanistan. Those troop deployments match deployments elsewhere which are not overtly directed against this same enemy, such as East Timor or the Solomon Islands. Nobody is claiming that we have to fight criminal gangs in the Solomon Islands over there so we don't have to fight them here.

Invoking an enemy to the extent necessary to effect authoritarianism would require a mass mobilisation of fighting-age men. This happened in Australia during both World Wars, where we were fighting against authoritarianism rather than for it. It happened half-heartedly with the lottery in Vietnam and has not been tried since.

Australia's presence in Iraq is small and not likely to increase. It is a token effort to curry favour with powerful friends in Washington rather than a tool to repress dissent and rally Australians behind the incumbent government. If the government really though the external threat was as grave as political rhetoric might suggest, the Australian armed forces - in Iraq and elsewhere - would be better equipped and bigger than they are. US Presidential candidate Barack Obama was right when he called Howard out over this country's troop commitments. Any abuse of troop rotations, reserve call-ups or neglect of casualties would have greater political consequences for the Australian government than they appear to do in the US.

The threat posed to Australians overseas with the Bali bombings in 2002 and 2005 was significant, as was the tsunami affecting Indian Ocean countries at the end of 2005. The government has not used the Bali bombings to mobilise the country (i.e. to divert people and resources away from private-sector activities to the control of government and fulfilment of its own policies). Perhaps this is because there is no coherent plan for attacking fake militant Islam, toward which resources can be mobilised. Perhaps this is because the Howard government's hearts just aren't in the whole authoritarianism thing.

2. Create a gulag

The Howard government seems happy to outsource this to the Americans, if the experiences of Mamdouh Habib and David Hicks are any guide.

Australia's history as a British gulag creates a different perspective on this phenomenon than occurs in other countries.
But soon enough, civil society leaders - opposition members, labour activists, clergy and journalists - are arrested and sent there as well.

No sign of this yet, though the lingering persecution of Michael Harvey and Gerard McManus is embarrassing and hopefully not a precedent.

Persecution of journalists (if we extend this definition to contributors to student papers) was laughed out of existence in the decades following Vietnam. While it's possible that Australian authorities have learnt nothing from this experience, those so named were hardly impeded from leading full and productive lives. Many were enhanced by the experience, again a culturally-specific Australian phenomenon of rallying support for those "victimised" by the authorities.

Habib and Hicks have not yet succeeded in winning widespread sympathy for themselves and their activism for fake militant Islam, leading to a long-standing perception that they deserved what the Americans dished out to them. This belief persisted until too much time had passed for too little result in terms of hard evidence against the two, whereupon the Americans begrudgingly handed them to the Howard government. Authoritarianism has not won a victory nor suffered a defeat with the popular and legal ambivalence over these two.

3. Develop a thug caste

David Clarke has certainly done this within the NSW Liberals, but there is no evidence of it beyond that institution. The New Guard is no more after its ridiculous zenith with de Groot "opening" the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

4. Set up an internal surveillance system

Increased resources for the Australian Federal Police do not necessarily constitute a Stasi-like apparatus. Surveillance only comes to light when it is retroactively justified with a conviction and does not appear to impede lawful organisation of dissent against the current government.

5. Harass citizens' groups

Citizens' groups that wade into the political realm are subject to political attack, crossfire and collateral damage. Fake outrage at political rough-and-tumble does not constitute authoritarianism - it barely constitutes news. No evidence has come to light of political opponents being tax audited, spied on, denied operating licences or otherwise harassed by government.

6. Engage in arbitrary detention and release

Apart from Hicks, Habib and Jack Thomas, who volunteered for fake militant Islam and got burned, this hasn't happened. Greg Combet, David Marr, Simon Crean - these are among the many critics of the Howard government who have not been caught-and-released like Rex Hunt's fish.

7. Target key individuals

Habib, Thomas and Hicks were nobodies before they left for their little boys-own-adventures and they've been nobody since. Civil servants, artists and academics might be "monitored" by over-keen Young Liberals if they go on the ABC but otherwise, this hasn't happened. There's been nothing similar to the politically-motivated purging of US public prosecutors here.

8. Control the press

Lazy journalism is more of a problem than actual control.

Media legislation by successive governments - including that of the current Opposition when it last held power - delivered a sizeable proportion of the print media to one organisation that aggressively supports neo-conservative policies, and with it the incumbent Australian government. Mainstream media is suffering a longterm decline in the proportion of the population paying attention to it.

Australian governments have relied too heavily on the media in presenting the best possible impression to those who voted for it, to the point where they (the current government and the one before it) flounder when no amount of shiny shiny news stories has any impact on voter perceptions and intentions. Control should be made of sterner stuff.

The Howard government has been extraordinarily successful in stemming the flow of leaks, mainly because there was no countervailing force to protect leakers from retribution by government. It will be interesting to see if public servants feel freer to leak politically damaging information now that a change of government looks likely. Again, the Harvey/McManus case is a worry but if there's a negative version of "one swallow doesn't make a summer", it applies here.

There has been no discernible coincidence of terror reports diverting attention away from political embarrassment, as pointed out here.
In some cases reporters have been wounded or killed, including ITN's Terry Lloyd in 2003.

I have no sympathy with the notion that one journalist going into a war zone and getting killed is somehow more of a tragedy than the deaths of those they would use as story material. There's no firm allegation in those cases - and none for any Australians - that they died at the hands of their own governments with the intention of suppressing political dissent.

It is still possible for journalists to get access to information to which the Australian government would prefer they not have access. Hard, yes; increasingly difficult perhaps - but nowhere near authoritarian.

9. Dissent equals treason

This is the weakest part of Wolf's analysis, doing a bit of scaremongering herself. Howard has done this in offhand remarks but has not pushed it. This might be more convincing if Australia were under direct and recent attack, but it actually looks over-the-top and diminishes the Prime minister's poll standings when he does do it.

Doing something that diminishes one's standing is counterproductive for someone seeking to cultivate an authoritarian persona.

10. Suspend the rule of law

Apart from Hicks and Habib, this hasn't happened, and we blame the Yanks for that anyway. I doubt the Australian High Court would prove so compliant with the wishes of the executive as its US equivalent.
Even as Americans were focused on Britney Spears's meltdown and the question of who fathered Anna Nicole's baby ...

No, that was the media, that pliant mob so easily nudged away from political stories. No Australian legislation, no bill makes it easier to invoke martial law than it did before 11 September 2001, or before the current government came to office in 1996.
... a hollowness has been expanding under the foundation of all these still- free-looking institutions - and this foundation can give way under certain kinds of pressure.

This may be true, to some extent, but the hollowness is most pronounced in the media.
What if the publisher of a major US newspaper were charged with treason or espionage, as a rightwing effort seemed to threaten Keller with last year? What if he or she got 10 years in jail? What would the newspapers look like the next day? Judging from history, they would not cease publishing; but they would suddenly be very polite.

In Australia, this would be the end of newspapers as reliable sources of information. Newspaper readership has been in decline since 1947, when there was a newspaper for every 1.4 adults. This seeming inevitability would be followed in short order by a collapse of ad revenue and the transfer of attention to other media - like blogs, for example.

The Howard government doesn't have the heart to go authoritarian, it doesn't have the plans and it couldn't execute them anyway. Hooray for inept and fading government! Hooray for politics that doesn't motivate people! Hooray for a hollowed-out media!

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