06 September 2012

Silent George and the death of a story

For hundreds of years, men have fought and died for liberal values. Today, Australian liberals are fortunate to live in a society which is relatively congenial to their beliefs. The danger of congeniality is complacency: it is all too easy to take the hard-won achievements of liberalism for granted; all too easy to forget what makes us liberals. That risk is especially great in the busy and unreflective world of practical politics, where so often rhetoric replaces reason and pragmatism supplants principle.

- George Brandis and others, "Liberal values", 1984*

We have come to a sorry point in Australian politics when a Labor government can propose something like this and the Liberals and Nationals in Opposition have nothing to say about it.

The press gallery, virtually untouched by downsizings elsewhere in the media, didn't ask them. They didn't mention the absence of comment from a reliably negative Opposition; after a hard-won reputation for relentless negativity it would be interesting to see whether they continued that reputation, or whether it's true that they vote with the government than against them. The Shadow Attorney-General fancies himself as a bit of an interrogator, and is voluble if not logorrheic when he chooses to be; even if journalists related the story of such a man going to ground, they'd have better stories than the ones they ran.

Disconnected individuals protesting against the Federal Attorney General, trying to raise an alarm that didn't resonate, might have satisfied the editorial need for 'balance' but the sheer asymmetry made Roxon's decision look like a done deal. You'd think this outfit and its member organisations might have something to say (and that a Coalition spokesperson on law-and-order issues might take issue with that silence, no matter what their own position) but clearly not when it counts.

Why he chose to be silent on this, the prospect of a vast government surveillance project, with the shift in the relationship between the individual and the state, is unclear. There are strong philosophical issues, as well as complex legal issues on both sides; the perfect opportunity to demonstrate superior understanding of what's important and of the complexities in comparison to an apparently stumblebum government.

The Liberals have three options in response to this proposal:
  • They can agree with the government's wish to track every click of the mouse, in line with the momentum for an increased security state fostered by the US Department of Homeland Security and increased US-Australian co-operation on policing, defence and intelligence issues;
  • They can disagree with it passionately on principle and stake a claim for freedom; or
  • They can disagree just for the sake of wedging the government and forcing it to make a case against the presumption of innocence and freedom from government interference.
There is no sign of any debate in Liberal Party ranks on such an issue, which is every bit as far-reaching in modern Australian society as the Chifley government's proposal to nationalise the banks was in its time, or the Australia Card proposal as in the 1980s. It's not as though the debate has been driven deep underground: it simply is not being had. The ownership of a farm in outback Queensland causes far more angst than this. Nobody - not even the Shadow Attorney General - has the basis to make such a case, as the late Alan Missen did in the volume quoted above:
In particular, the [Liberal Party's federal] 1974 platform stressed the need for vigilant protection of privacy and reputation, particularly in the areas threatened by the use of modern surveillance systems and data banks.**
The 1974 federal platform looks like a high-water mark for moderate liberalism within the Liberal Party. Moderate liberals are dead, like Missen; have left the party, like me; or are refusing to admit that moderate liberalism is dead within the Liberal Party while doing nothing themselves to maintain or advance it. Moderate liberals can and do force no change within the party; only pressure from outside, like this feeble but potentially interesting campaign, will force the Liberal Party to stand up for values it no longer embodies.

Brandis will happily waste his political life on things like his failed Javert-like campaign to crack Craig Thomson because moderate liberalism, and liberals, have no power to compel his attention. Brandis' rhetorical record is no help; he has played all sides of the debate over time in the orotund and obscurantist way that second-rate lawyers revel in, thinking it makes them sound clever.

As to Labor, who knows what is going on with those people? You can get your whither-Labor fix elsewhere.

Now the Attorney General has shunted the debate to a parliamentary committee and it is unlikely the issue will be revisited by the government before the election. Given the reaction from Silent George, he won't be bringing it up either; not even Abbott would remember what undertakings he gave the US on his recent trip to Washington (and no journalist, not even stuffed-shirt Geopolitical Realists like Greg Sheridan or Peter Hartcher, have asked him about it).

For the journosphere, the Great Big New Monitoring System is now a dead story and they will do no further investigation on it (and anyone who presses them on this can expect a whiny tirade about stress and lack of resources, the aching of phantom limbs &c.). The issues are very much alive, however arrogant and facile editors will deem that no issue can survive the lack of their attention When, not if, the issue arises again the journosphere will be starting from scratch, and will not inform us well then either.

The parties of government and opposition will be ill-informed and will make binding decisions on that basis. They no longer have internal debates that help shape public perceptions as to how the issues may be approached regardless of the details at a later time; and yes, Virginia, it is possible for a political party to conduct a debate without behaving like a rabble.

Let us be very clear that it has been bloggers who have been both most outraged, and most articulate on what the issues are and why they matter. This is a very important issue to all Australians and the mainstream media has missed it, the political parties that actually form governments in this country have missed it, and at best non-government political actors have made token gestures in the general direction of these issues. The election campaign, as presented by the major parties and the mainstream media, will not enable voters/taxpayers/citizens to make informed choices either.

All cyberspace issues suffer from the duality where they are both overwhelming (Big Brother with his vast and expensive data banks will monitor everything you do say and think!) and trivial (IT is the preserve of children's toys, and boys who haven't grown up but are somehow overpaid) at the same time. This does not mean that the issues arising from it are trivial or hysterical, or are the sole preserve of obsessives. The reason why the mainstream media has lost its role at the centre of Australian public discussion is because it can't even participate in such debates, let alone lead them or be the forum in which public debate takes place.

* Brandis, G., Harley, T., and Markwell, D., "Liberal values", in George Brandis, Tom Harley, and Don Markwell (eds.) Liberals face the future: essays on Australian Liberalism Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1984, p. 1

** Missen, A. "Justice" in Brandis et al., op. cit., pp. 232-233


  1. Just plain sad. As bad as Conroy's super-filter on just about everything. The LNP only make noise when they think there is a headline, and the newspaper editors even lead them to that.

  2. Completely ridiculous policy, one has to wonder whether the lack of a response from the coalition has as much to do with their age and fear of this newfangled interweb as anything.

    Their NBN policy has amply demonstrated that they have absolutely no understanding of the internet generally, i suppose this is just further confirmation that a part of lazy reactionaries struggles to deal with the dilemmas of the modern world.

  3. The silence of the Liberals and media speaks volumes.

  4. Yes, you'd think Labor had handed the LNP an ideal stick to beat them with, but no. I guess it's because the LNP are all diehard fans of the US alliance, so if as you say it's in the context of co-operation with the US, their rhetorical hands are tied. (Lots of bad mixed metaphors there.)

  5. Andrew, thank you for recently shining a light on Tom Switzer, and now Sen Brandis (the not so moderate, moderate).

    Switzer, one of Turnbull's harsher critics, will no doubt be fuming after Turnbull's recent speech on the state of politics and trust.

    Hopefully, the 'longer term' future is bleak for the Tories when you have individuals such as Switzer and Brandis apparently providing inspiration for the new breed of aspiring Liberal frontbench hopefuls. Such as the casual insolence of Jamie Briggs, and the pursed-lipped sneer of Michaelia Cash. I once saw an image of the latter holding a puppy. An unpleasant image, to say the least.

  6. http://www.ustream.tv/user/MUDSlive

    Have a look at this debate about why labour has lost it's way conducted at Melbourne University!!

    Tim Wilson's sentiments ring very true....

    Great Speaker that homocon is here

    Sneering elitism comment from him is hilarious

    Guilt by association Tim et al...