Image for Dissent and be Damned

Thank you Garry Stannus for raising an issue at the heart of the primary ideology of our cultural mindset, translated more specifically into the context of deep divisions within Tasmania about forestry policy, including plantation monoculture agriculture, a distinction which needs to be explicit in any discussion about this.

The primary ideology central here is that of the “tribal group think”, the requirement in our inter-relationships at an organizational level, whatever they are, to an adherence to the status quo, to an unquestioning acceptance of the organizational view.

The notion here above all else is that “caucus” is paramount, and that all deviations from the party line are to be condemned, and condemned utterly.

This is a notion which has come to form the basis of how decision-making processes occur in the Australian political system to a much greater extent than exists in most other western “representative democracies” (I use that phrase without implying representation occurs).  There is much greater respect paid to debate and discussion and difference of opinion within political organizations in the US, for example, and in the UK, than in Australia.

In my view, public discussion of issues is the heart and soul of participatory democracy.  Any attempt to stifle discussion of public issues is an attack on the fundamental principles of democratic rights.  Any attempt to stifle independent voices in debate and discussion of public issues is an assault on peoples’ democratic rights.

The notion of caucus as it now operates in the Australian context is something I have consistently criticized as anathema to democracy, whatever structural frameworks and constitutional safeguards and separation of powers and decision-making processes exist.

It is a mistake to think that at any time in human history the institutional structures in place - however much they may have constitutional or legal frameworks in place sharing and distributing power, and however much they allow personal and organizational freedoms, such as religious difference and non-conformism in dress, language and other things, and however much they permit independence of the academy and media - are necessarily guarantors protecting freedom of expression of opinion.

The notion of “caucus solidarity”, however it is applied in the current Australian socio-political, environmental and economic context, whether by political parties or NGOs, or the media, or by anybody else, is always a noxious and poisonous threat to the expression of difference.

There is no doubt that the Australian political party system, with its rigid requirements for caucus conformity, is at odds with the concept of “representative democracy”.  If this is not blatantly apparent throughout all Australian political systems, the Australian senate is the no-brain clincher.  Originally established as a house of review and a house where all States had an equal voice, the operational reality is that it does not serve those purposes at all, but merely serves political party caucus decisions.  In other words, the senate is a farce as a political institution.  The only time when there is a chance that the senate can ever act effectively in serving the purposes for which it was established is when the numbers in the chamber are not controlled by caucus vote, such as when independents or minor parties hold the balance of power.

To me this is a weakness in our political reality.  A weakness which needs redress, rather than acquiescence, a weakness which requires discussion and debate at a serious level rather than the contrived – but nevertheless justifiable – criticism of the senate as “unrepresentative swill” by former Prime Minister Paul Keating.

But it is not just in the realm of political parties that the notion of caucus solidarity can poison the free flow of discussion about issues.  Every time any of my articles are published on a particular on-line site on the mainland they are immediately attacked with venom, not in terms of the issues, but merely in terms of condemnation because they question the orthodoxies and stereotypical views held by certain organizations.  They are an attempt to impose silence, to inhibit discussion and freedom of speech about issues.

This kind of attack on freedom of expression merely reinforces my view of the nature of the “group think” mentality as a strong and pervading weakness, which imposes severe limitations on how participatory democracy can function effectively.

The health of any social organization, any professional organization, any environmental group or organization, any union of workers – in fact any association of people at all where the exchange of information and the sharing of ideas takes place – can only be maintained by freedom of expression, and by a willingness to question and re-question. 

To give an obvious example, we expect medical science to question and to re-question, as an inate and indispensable part of that profession. Medical practitioners and chemists who do not keep in touch with new information, but who restrict their practice to the information base which they learned during their training, or to what they knew five or ten years ago, are obviously not the best members of their professions for patients to consult. 

The same is true for all organizations involved in the disputes about the future of the Tasmanian forestry industry.  Those who would stultify discussion, inhibit debate, label alternative voices or questions as “extremism”, or “eco-terrorism” or “McCarthyism” or witch hunting, whether they be speaking on behalf of Forestry Tasmania or the Tasmanian Wilderness Society, are imposing their own restrictions on freedom of speech about the issues.

From a personal perspective, I have had my own character impugned on numerous occasions for the things that I have written.  Having re-read the questions I asked the TWS to clarify about its policies, particularly in relation to its support for the establishment of a pulp mill on the north west coast, I cannot see how they are not legitimate questions which deserve answers.  I still do not know the answers to those questions.  What I do know is that I have been labeled a McCarthyist and a witch hunter for asking those questions.  It seems I am being told to conform to some sort of “caucus”, and that I am being told that deviation from the “group think” is a heresy which cannot be tolerated.

My views about the dangers of caucus solidarity are well known, and have been expressed at length on a range of issues in recent years.  It is not I who is a McCarthyist, but those who would stifle freedom of speech about issues, and those who would inhibit others from asking questions, and those who would demand conformism to the organizational “group think”, and would use the old tribal sureties of exclusion and ostracism as their defence against the heresies of those who ask, or those who dissent.

Picture: Senator Joseph McCarthy