Silencing Dissent
Edited by Clive Hamilton & Sarah Maddison
Allen & Unwin $24.95

JOHN Howard promised more open government but his years in power have brought unrelenting attempts to control information and views, writes the respected political editor for The Age, Michelle Grattan.

In her recent review of Silencing Dissent Michelle cautions us not to expect too much different from Labor!

Labor’s Kevin Rudd will no doubt assure us, as he seeks our votes, that if elected, his government will be more open, transparent and accountable, and the public service treated more respectfully. All the sort of things John Howard pledged before the 1996 election.

Such promises might or might not be honoured by a Rudd government in Canberra; they certainly weren’t by the Howard one.

A few months after he won power in 1996, Howard was celebrating that ‘pall of censorship’ had been lifted — people could speak out more freely without being labelled as bigots or racists. Yet the new jibe term for those you wanted to denigrate was to refer to them as from the ‘elites’.

The Howard years have seen an unrelenting attempt to control information, curb irritant views, reward and advance political friends, and hobble those considered not one of ‘us’. Silencing Dissent documents this process, inside and outside government — in the public service and statutory authorities, media, universities, and the research community, non-government organisations, the intelligence community, and, since the Government won a majority, the Senate.

The book’s thesis is that “the apparently unconnected phenomena of attacks on non-government organisations, the politicisation of the public service, the stacking of statutory authorities, increasing restrictions on academic freedom and control over universities, the gagging or manipulation of some sections of the media, the politicisation of the military, police and intelligence services form a pattern that poses a grave threat to the state of democracy in Australia”.

There is a more general quality to that thesis as such control of information and view has also occurred in our own State of Tasmania.

The government has been ruthless in its methods, assiduous in its reach. Senior and respected individuals have been hauled into line like errant schoolboys and made to issue ‘clarifying’ statements when what they’ve said has embarrassed the Government.

Historian Stuart Macintyre documents how, as education minister, Brendan Nelson butted into the research grant process. Emeritus professor Ian Lowe examines the ideological intervention into the sciences, concluding the Government “is increasingly using science … as a drunk uses a lamp post — for support rather than for illumination”. Journalist Geoffrey Barker captures the attitude towards the public service when he recounts the comments of one former secretary: “previous governments had said, ‘Don’t be against us’, but this one asked, ‘Are you one of us?’”

While there as been a lot of discussion about the public service, the fate of statutory authorities has been less noticed — with the exception of the ABC. Andrew Macintosh from the Australia Institute documents the Government’s two-pronged approach: board stacking and the stripping back of the power and independence of these bodies.

Andrew Wilkie, who resigned from the Office of National Assessment in March 2003, “over the Government’s deceitful case for the invasion of Iraq”, has had the personal experience of what can happen to those who blow the whistle. The Government demonised him, including the leaking of classified material, which is a criminal offence (no-one was caught).  Shades of the payback wrought against US Ambassador Wilson for challenging President George Bush’s claim that Niger was providing Uranium yellow cake to Saddam Hussein.

Wilkie is sceptical about the possibility of change. “One might hope the military and intelligence services will automatically de-politicise somewhat with the next change in government. More likely, such a change will do little more than regenerate the existing problem … The Labour party is, after all, probably no less likely than the Coalition these days to try and skew the security agencies in their favour by adjusting senior appointments and playing to people’s timidity and obsequiousness.”

Regrettably, in the end, governments are mostly the same — when it comes to control, they will do what they can get away with. If this process seems to have got worse, it may be because governments have got bigger and more efficient — for instance, technology and increased staff numbers make it easier to swamp the media market with your message.

The book closes with a brief cheer-up chapter. Editors Clive Hamilton and Sarah Maddison highlight some “signs of resistance’ — those brave souls who buck the trend. Some rebels are on the Government backbench, which is now militant and outspoken. Then there is Defence chief Angus Houston who publicly took issue with the account given by his minister, Brendan Nelson, of what Nelson was told about the Kovco affair.

This is a book with attitude — lots! Clive Hamilton heads the left-leaning Australia Institute. It makes its arguments robustly, giving little quarter to any other side. But even if there is some exaggeration, the case its various contributors build is scary.

Those in the media who observe the control mechanisms up close can attest to their power. But there are indications the [Howard] Government might have overreached, as happens when power goes to political heads.

David Obendorf

Wilkie is sceptical about the possibility of change. “One might hope the military and intelligence services will automatically de-politicise somewhat with the next change in government. More likely, such a change will do little more than regenerate the existing problem … The Labour party is, after all, probably no less likely than the Coalition these days to try and skew the security agencies in their favour by adjusting senior appointments and playing to people’s timidity and obsequiousness.”