Howard government and debate control

28 Jan

Sounds like a conspiracy theory, doesn’t it? I say it is no such thing, but a plainly obvious tendency for the current Australian government to mould public opinion by a whole range of strategies and techniques. Some have called it a culture war, and it is real, in my opinion. My tag “culture wars” will take you to more on this.

The Sydney Morning Herald has a very pertinent article by Sarah Maddison and Clive Hamilton, The Repression of the Bleeding Hearts:

A decade is a long time to be in government. Any government in power for so long will leave an indelible mark on the society it governs, changing the culture, identity, values and direction of the nation. For those in the community who disagree with government policy, there is some comfort in the knowledge that at the very least they can publicly express their dissenting opinions through the recognised institutions of democracy. This capacity for public debate and dissent ensures that governments must continue to publicly justify their decisions – a hallmark of democracy. But what happens when these democratic institutions are themselves eroded by government. What are the costs when a government tries to ensure that its values are the only values heard in public debate? What are the consequences for a nation whose citizenry is denied essential information about controversial policies?

The Howard Government has been progressively dismantling the democratic processes that create the capacity for public debate and accommodate dissenting opinion. The tactics used to silence critics are diverse, including the withdrawal of government funding, threats to destroy the financial viability of dissenting organisations, appointment of party functionaries or friends to key positions, strict interpretation of laws governing release of information, and the targeting of individuals. One sector that has been a particular target of these efforts to silence dissent is the non-government sector…

I wish this was just a conspiracy theory, but it is not the case. Howard’s avuncular or grandfatherly ordinary guy image may have some truth in his private persona with close friends and family, and it has worked well with many of the public too. It is not entirely a lie, at a certain level. But what it conceals is a very ruthless (or determined, if you prefer) will to power, and will to achieve and impose conformity.

The Herald article is an edited extract from Silencing Dissent: How the Australian Government is Controlling Public Opinion and Stifling Debate, edited by Clive Hamilton and Sarah Maddison, to be published next week by Allen & Unwin. I will consider buying it.


A related zeitgeist analysis is PC or not PC, it’s copping the slings of outrageous fortune by Lisa Pryor.

…Politicians who use the phrase “political correctness gone mad” are full of it. The problem with political correctness was supposed to be that it silenced dissent and used fancy language to hide the truth. Now the people who accuse others of political correctness are the ones who are slapping down dissent by using a hollow and cliched rhetorical flourish…

Of course, conservatives do not have a monopoly in the insult-masquerading-as-argument industry. Progressives do it, too, by using terms like “moral panic”… It is a concept that is still highly relevant but it is regularly misused as a shorthand way to dismiss things that conservatives worry about but progressives don’t. Worrying about immigration, violent crime and gangs can constitute a moral panic. But worrying about white supremacists, real estate developers and the mistreatment of refugees? That’s not moral panic, that’s called having a social conscience.

But who cares about progressives? They are, like, so yesterday. Conservatism is where the power lies now. If you really believe in butchering sacred cows, you should butcher cows which are still sacred, not cows that were sacred a generation ago…

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2 responses to “Howard government and debate control

  1. marcelproust

    January 28, 2007 at 12:52 pm

    Suspect it was that deep-rooted desire to impose conformity that did for Amanda V in the end.

  2. Adrian Phoon

    January 30, 2007 at 9:38 am

    Thanks for alerting us to Lisa Pryor’s great article on PC. I’m also reminded of Queer Penguin’s post on PC last year.

    Was the term PC ever useful as a marker of a distinct political ideology? In the US they talk of ‘conformist speech codes’, which is a bit jargon-riddled but at least gets to the point — the problem isn’t the politics you preach as such but the assumption that we should all conform to a single, hollow, cliched language.

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