Considering Silencing Dissent

10 Feb


In today’s Sydney Morning Herald David Marr reviews Silencing Dissent ed. Clive Hamilton and Sarah Maddison (Allen & Unwin 2007). It is of course no surprise that Marr approves of the book, which needless to say at this stage I haven’t read, but I will as soon as I can. It seems to distil so much that has disappointed and pained me during the long years of the Howard regime, so much that I have experienced in my own field of education and observed in field after field of what we might call our intellectual and moral life.

He came to office in 1996 with a list of people to be targeted and removed from universities, government authorities and the public service. In his first week, he sacked the heads of six departments. Those senior bureaucrats who survived Howard’s purge were instructed in future to report all calls by journalists to the Prime Minister’s press office. The new communications minister Richard Alston was soon lashing the ABC over budgets and bias. And the new men and women in power were deploying a new rhetoric of abuse against the critics they lumped together in a shadowy conspiracy called the left.

Touted as a contest of values, this was really a party political assault on Australia’s liberal culture. In the name of “balance” the Liberal Party agenda muscled its way into the intellectual life of the country. And the party had changed. This wasn’t the vaguely patrician party of Malcolm Fraser. Small business had triumphed and brought to government the ethos of the corner shop.

Marr would have done well to be a bit less the smart bastard in that last sentence though; I admire the Shanghainese couple who run our corner shop… But Marr goes on:

That the ground rules and language of public debate have changed enormously is not really in dispute. At issue is the extent of the damage done. Clive Hamilton and Sarah Maddison write: “The Howard Government’s intolerance and silencing strategies are not confined to organisations that might be seen as its political enemies, but extend to all of the institutions that make up a democratic political system.” They claim to find “an alarming decline in the health of Australian democracy over the last decade”.

Can it be so bad? The strength of Hamilton’s work at the Australia Institute over the years has been to find solid ground on which to stand while arguing about the most elusive values. The challenge he faced here was to diagnose the health of democracy in this country without Silencing Dissent reading like a bunch of losers whingeing. So the essays catalogue the horror stories of the Howard years – academics bullied, the military silenced, leakers prosecuted, the Quadrant crowd sanctified – but the book is grounded on the considered verdicts of professionals in the business of public debate…

So why have things grown exponentially worse under Howard? Keep Silencing Dissent within reach, and you’ll never be at a loss for the telling detail of reports repressed, parliamentary traditions ignored, talent overlooked, organisations brought to heel and whistleblowers punished. But the essays collected here don’t really ask the deeper questions that might clarify why this particular government has pursued so successfully what Robert Manne calls “a partly-instinctive and partly-conscious policy of systematically silencing significant political dissent”.

Nor does Silencing Dissent acknowledge the victories. Almost without seeming to, the collection maps the limits of the government’s capacity to suppress. After the public fiasco of Education Minister Brendan Nelson personally culling academic research projects – with help from Quadrant editor Paddy McGuinness – the process seems, once more, to be back in the hands of independent experts. And though they had to give their jobs away to do so, Mike Scrafton nailed the Prime Minister’s lies about kids overboard, while intelligence analysts Rod Barton and Andrew Wilkie exposed the deceit of the government’s case for the invasion of Iraq.

The trouble is, the nation seems to care little about the successes or the failures in Canberra’s long war against information. “While Australia has been transformed,” Manne writes, “large parts of the nation have seemed to be asleep.”

Perhaps the nation is waking up as the Howard years draw to a close. Silencing Dissent is the knock at the door, the alarm clock ringing, the handful of gravel thrown at the window. If we keep on snoring, we have only ourselves to blame.

In teaching, change does not happen overnight. Teachers are not pushed around by the whims of governments quite as much as governments hope they are. Most teachers I know have the modest aim of surviving, but beyond that a belief that they are doing good work and, given the right support and encouragement, which is where money and policy come in, they really want to do that work better and more effectively. I realised after about ten years in the job that there were all sorts of things we as teachers didn’t know, and things we could do better. In the 1960s we were not really very good at helping less able students, we were often narrow in our perspectives, and most of us would have had no idea what to do with a person from a language background other than English, who generally were just allowed to “sink or swim”, or in cases I know of were condemned to the GA (General Abilities, i.e., dummies) classes because no-one knew what to do.

Through the 70s and 80s and into the early 90s we collectively learned a lot about English teaching, about language, about reading and writing and how they work, and it was substantial knowledge, not just the “trendiness” that first the talk-back gurus and now the reactionaries setting policy agenda from Canberra (and sometimes from Sydney) have travestied it as. I have discussed this at length in Literacy and in Why I reject Kevin Donnelly’s educational analysis. I have seen wonderful and useful projects killed off, people with a treasure-house of knowledge marginalised or ignored, and the ideologically driven and often ignorant rewarded. It has all been very discouraging.

Good things still go on, of course they do, and with wiser government we may even begin to go forward again; but most of the really good things in English teaching, at least, are generally elaborations of and evolutions from the solid research and thinking that occurred in a kinder age. Teachers in fact change slowly, reluctant to throw out methods that have proven effective just because some policy from above tells them to; rather, they adapt, refine, graft.

So we may be able to go forward again, or my successors may, as I am at the end of my career.

Let’s hope so.

That stunning picture at the head of this entry comes from a state school, Smith’s Hill High School in Wollongong, an area where I worked through most of the 1970s. It is a dance and drama presentation of the life of the Dalai Lama staged at that school a few years ago. Imagine the work that went into it! No-one involved would have been paid any more for their efforts either. And, in case you wondered, Smith’s Hill also gets very respectable HSC results. I could have found parallel examples from many another school who do wonders, in my opinion, with often very limited resources and little encouragement from the climate Canberra creates these days.


See Mikey’s post Edumacation, Bishop-style, keeping in mind that while I am a “back number”, Mikey is just beginning. I find that encouraging.

Related in a different way, but part of the zeitgeist

Go to norrie’s new Villawood Refugees Blog: “True stories and pictures of people who have been locked up indefinitely in Villawood Immigration Detention Centre (Sydney, Australia).”


Image of Villawood from chilout

“One of the major objectives of ChilOut’s original mission has been accomplished with the release of children from razor wire detention into community detention. After participating in the successful campaign against the Designated Unauthorised Arrivals Bill 2006, ChilOut is winding down, but not totally disbanding. We continue to maintain our web site, and if ever there is any suggestion that the government intends to lock children up again we will let you know.”

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One response to “Considering Silencing Dissent

  1. AV

    February 11, 2007 at 9:08 pm

    Thanks for alerting me to Silencing Dissent: I know now what my next purchase will be!

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