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Keeping government honest is up to all of us

By Greg Barns - posted Wednesday, 6 November 2002


Two weeks ago, a number of people in the Australian community, myself included, raised doubts about a proposal from the federal government to force school children to take part in daily flag raising and National Anthem singing ceremonies.

The point made by me, and others, was that this smacked of reactive sugar-coated US-style patriotism in the wake of the Bali tragedy, and that one can never force another to be patriotic. The point has also been made that the Australian Flag, for many, symbolises Australia as Terra Nullius –a fiction that the High Court laid to rest with its Mabo decision in 1992.

This contrarian view was all too much for those whom the English commentator Christopher Hitchens describes, as "the voices of piety". On 3AW I was interviewed by Neil Mitchell who accused me of "irresponsibility" and "elitism"! The Australian newspaper wrote a pompous editorial questioning the right of those of us who dissent from this example of patriotic fervour to raise the issue of whether or not we need to change our Flag.

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And when some of us questioned the way in which our Nation has conducted itself in the past 12 months on the matter of asylum seekers and indicated that if we are going to talk about patriotism then this might be a relevant matter to deal with – as is the running sore of our past treatment of indigenous Australia – we were told that these matters have nothing to do with flag waving.

Well, actually they do have something to do with it!

If any nation is to be serious about what it stands for, then there must be a national dialectic. We must always hear the dissentient voices, listen to the oppressed, and ask – could these voices be right after all? Is the language that these people and groups use a language of utility or merely decorative, as the Canadian writer John Ralston Saul would put it?

And who is to listen to these voices if our government and other political actors will not? If so many elements of our media are prepared to sell copy on the basis of slamming dissent, raising fears, demonising individuals and groups, and accepting without question, the spin doctors of governments (the Children Overboard scandal being the most frightening example of this!), then who is left to listen and seek to influence the forces of bleakness and uniformity?

Might I suggest: it is all of us. It is incumbent on all of us to heed the call of Socrates, and remember that, again as John Ralston Saul notes: "doubt is central to a citizen-based society; that is, to democracy."

And with this sense of doubt must come the capacity to remain aloof from the daily flurry of activity. Alfred Deakin, writing in November 1910, near the end of a remarkable life, noted that although he lived "at the heart of things…with pulses oftener at fever heat than those of the most confirmed gambler or speculator, I feel and have always felt ‘aloof’…"

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This aloofness, coupled with a capacity for reflective doubt, is what so many leaders in Australia lack today. The voices of dissent, about which I spoke earlier, are not being listened to by our leaders, because they have little capacity of time for insight, no capacity to be as Deakin was, aloof.

Too many in public life today are driven by a dangerous and corrosive cocktail of pollsters’ focus groups and segments of the media who want to see the world in terms of black and white.

I say dangerous and corrosive because the liberal democratic values that have traditionally underpinned our society are today under threat from within.

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This is an edited version of an Occasional Address given to Deakin University on 30 October 2002.



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About the Author

Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

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