Australian Lefty on Politics, Governance, Science and Info Management

Review of David Marr’s “His Masters Voice” – QE26

Posted by Dave Bath on 2007-06-08

The current issue of the Quarterly Essay (Issue 26), with David Marr’s His Master’s Voice – The corruption of public debate under Howard is well worth reading.

It is shocking because while it discusses changes over the Howard (and to a lesser extent, the Keating) years, it concentrates on events over a few months earlier this year, many of which I had not heard of, including censorship of Hansard.  The dispassionate account of specific events makes it all the more shocking.

Marr covers both legislative changes, administrative actions, and the gutless response of the public.

While I had realized that something was rotten, from the few events raised in the press, the sheer relentlessness of governmental attacks on what we consider standard parts of a civil society astounded me.

In a single month, embarrassing old intelligence secrets are protected, a text that offends Christians and frightens politicians is banned, animal rights campaigners are threatened with the law, and an academic critic is shamelessly slandered to try to destroy his reputation.  What these moves have in common is a lazy, brutal assertion of power at the expense of public debate.  Instead of allowing us to make up our own minds, the government resorted to insult, threats and suppression.

David Marr also offers an insightful review of the differences between the attitudes to freedoms and rights between the US and Australian republic, and correlates this with the form and content of the language of settlers and the English parliamentarians at the time.  In some ways, he is more scathing of the average Australian’s indifference to democratic principles than the Howard government’s abuse of them.

We haven’t been hoodwinked.  Each step along the way has been reported (…)  We’ve known what’s going on.  If we cared, we didn’t care enough to stop it.  Boredom, indifference and fear have played a part in this.  So does something about ourselves we rarely face:  Australians trust authority.  Not love, perhaps, but trust.  It’s bred in the bone.  We call ourselves larrikins, but we leave our leaders to get on with it.  Even the leaders we mock.

Or another section:

We roll with it because we have come to expect his government to behave like this.  We’re habituated.  (…)  So why doesn’t Labor rally the nation to fight Canberra’s bullying in the name of free speech?  Because the party’s heart isn’t in it and Australians have only the patchiest record of becoming passionate about great abstractions – even the greatest of them, liberty.

Here, I’d pick a bone with Marr.  The greatest abstractions are truth and the Good, but he is right that Australian’s don’t give a toss – deceit from leaders creates no outcry from the majority, at most the mere shrug of a shoulder.

In my opinion, while the QE is always an excellent read (a fifty page essay required to cover the issues adequately, and it’s satisfying get the chance to really sink your teeth into something meaty), this is the most informative and important issue of the QE since John Birmingham’s review of the changes to Australia’s military strategy and administration.

See also:
David Marr’s extract in the Sydney Morning Herald 2007-06-03 Careful, he might hear you
Q&A with David Marr about the essay by Readings

Other blog reviews of QE26:
Andrew Norton (a self-confessed "classical liberal)
Politically homeless (an ex-member of the Liberal Party).
(Funnily enough, neither of these blogs like the article as much as little-ol-lefty me, but at least they are rational and pertinent, … unlike …)
Andrew Bolt’s diatribe 2007-06-04 (and most of the comments demonstrate Marr’s comments about the Oz public’s apathy)
Other opinions:
The IPA’s John Roskam (2007-06-05) knocks down the straw men (after pooh-poohing ILO conventions)
Sydney Morning Herald 2007-06-01
Labor eHerald: Book Details and, (by an author I totally agree with), a review of the essay.
External posts on related issues:
Sen Andrew Bartlett (Dem) : Shrugging our shoulders at torture (2007-06-18) on the lack of interest of both press and public in human rights.
Sen Andrew Bartlett (Dem) Government seeks jail for nonviolent protesters (2006-06-14) on how far the Howard will go to silence dissent.
New Matilda: The Australian, Free Speech and Hypocrisy (15 June 2007) which discusses the contradiction between the Murdoch press joining in a campaign (Australia’s Right To Know), and an The Australian Opinion Editor’s piece (2007-06-04) critical of Marr, and taking the same tack as the Andrew Bolt piece mentioned above. 
BTW: Results for New Matilda quiz on why Rudd will lose the election agree with Marr.
Official Spin: Censorship and control of the Australian press 2007 – by Media Alliance c/-

7 Responses to “Review of David Marr’s “His Masters Voice” – QE26”

  1. Dave – I only read this QE on Tuesday, and I don’t recall any mention of censoring Hansard.

    And ‘politically homeless’ is an ex-Liberal rather than a political party member, as his blog name suggests.

  2. Dave Bath said

    Thanks for the correction about Politically Hopeless, I must have skimmed over the "was", and will fix the body of the post in a minute.

    Re censoring Hansard, this relates to the federal ban on use of electronic means to provide information about methods of suicide, and a speech discussing such methods by SA Democrats leader Sandra Kanck that was not made available in the online Hansard (See QE26, p 19).

    You can find an ABC 2006-09-01 report Democrat’s euthanasia speech censored from Hansard, which while the action was taken by the SA parliament, the federal legislation either prohibited it, or provided the opportunity for the law to be tested, even against a state government.

  3. Marr doesn’t actually say whether the law can extend to State Hansards or not – my Constitutional law is too rusty to be sure.

    But the example highlights one point I made on my blog – that though I disagree with censoring material on how to kill yourself, it has nothing to do with diminishing ‘public debate’, and another I did not, that whatever Howard has done public debate is now better resourced than at any time in history because of the mass availability of information on the web and the ability of anyone to have their say, even if they cannot get access to the traditional forums of debate.

  4. To elaborate on the above, in 1996 there were no online Hansards to censor, and the print version is as it was.

  5. Dave Bath said

    Andrew: 1996? The laws against using telephones, internet, etc to indirectly or directly incites suicide or discusses methods or cop a $100000 fine came into force Jan 2007.

    That certainly diminishes debate, as it prevents arguments for or against euthanasia versus pain, or methods that might be certain rather than uncertain (but leaving long-term debilities).

    The fact that I can’t use this blog to discuss the moral implications, or the shades-of-grey, and whether they might or might not lead somebody to a particular conclusion, is a pretty big example of censorship.

    Nitschke had to move his internet services to a host in NZ, and given that some articles (first published in other blogs) were included in OzPolitics feeds, which might be hosted in Oz, I wouldn’t want someone to “publish” such material and get fined on my behalf.

    While I agree with you that "public debate is now better resourced than at any time in history because of the mass availability of information on the web and the ability of anyone to have their say", it is probably that the latte-sippers get their jollies by merely bitching on blogs rather than get of their backsides and do something concrete, like make a parliamentary submission when the opportunity arises, and public comments aren’t closed 5 minutes after they open.  Here Marr was spot on about people prepared to bitch but otherwise not change their vote or make a real protest to MP or a senate committee.

    But my inability to discuss electronically my thoughts about what happens if I get something worse than just epilepsy, especially in the light of my background in toxicology, is definitely censorship, which I think is detested by the thinking classes of both left and right.

    You can see how I try to balance censorship versus free speech issues in the tricky area of porn and possibility of children being exposed to it here.

  6. Dave – My point was that the law on inciting suicide over the web it a slight reduction to a massive expansion in the scope for free speech since 1996; back then there was almost no government information, and no Hansard, on the web that could be censored.

    And your own point about NZ highlights a larger point, whatever the Australian government does the information is only a google search away.

    And while I agree that the web is still a modest direct influence on opinion compared to the mainstream media, it is growing and also increasing its interaction with mainstream media – for example, online media reports often link to primary sources, and journalists quote bloggers or use them for background (I get journalists calling me about things I have written on my blog, and sometimes I am asked to expand on what I have said for an opinion piece).

  7. Dave Bath said

    Andrew: I’m not quibbling with your points, but I would put some caveats on your comment about googling stuff from other countries.

    (1) Given the “take down” provisions of the new Content Services Bill which can include orders to network providers to prevent access to certain sites, along with the “for other purposes” clauses that seem to appear in all legislation these days, it is entirely possible that connections to oversease sites are cut on this side. The chinese do this quite effectively, and have even taken the extra step of coercing search engine providers to prevent displaying information that such sites even exist.

    (2) It’s not just the internet which allows authorities to find people to prosecute: the phone system is also tapped for keywords in realtime using a system commonly called Echelon which is used for purposes other than military intelligence, but also industrial espionage by governments. Phone conversations look for identifiable keywords (which could include “bomb”, “suicide” or anything else a regime is interested in) in realtime, and flag the conversation for further examination.

    The Echelon report to the EU parliament and the Technical research paper Development of surveillance technology and risk of abuse of economic information (and appraisal of technologies for political control) were pretty damning of its usage, it’s smashing of the “right to a private life” provisions of the UN/EU declarations on human rights. The minority report intimates between the lines that it’s almost enough to get the UK kicked out of the EU.

    While technology allows people to be liberated, it also provides regimes with the ability to be more intrusive and prescriptive – and legal protections are way behind technological advances.

    As a classical liberal, I think you would be concerned about the potential for censorship and prosecution of dissenters. I think Marr identifies a willingness for the current government to be intrusive and prescriptive, and that this provides a thin-edge-of-the-wedge and precedent for future governments, given the lack of concern of people for their privileges.

    But I think the capabilities for diminution of freedom of speech, the constraints on public servants to restrain governments to even the weak provisions of existing law, and the lack of interest by the public in their rights are a good topic for another post.

    But most importantly, Marr identifies a tendency of the latte drinkers, whether lefty or small-l-liberal, to just bitch rather than take action. To me, even mass demonstrations are merely bitching. Technology has given new ways to interact with democratic processes, but people seem happy enough to salve their conciences by complaining between like-minded individuals.

    Again, I’ll go into this in another post.

    I enjoy your comments, and think this is a good example of how right and left can pick up things from each other. Unfortunately, most righties-on-lefty blogs and lefties-on-righty blogs degenerate into something that does not help the development of solutions, and the interchange of ideas across “divides” so necessary to a civil society doesn’t happen.

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