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The slippery slope

By Adam Henry - posted Tuesday, 21 January 2014

The nature of the world in which our media information is gathered and processed is one in which historical memory and context have become a casualty of deliberate manipulations, populist opinion polls, and 24 hour political spin merchants within and outside of the mainstream media. It is almost as if the past is nothing more than a dream from which ideologues can cherry pick only what it needs in order to secure power and defame its opponents. The reality of evidence and facts, as has been demonstrated repeatedly by big tobacco and climate change denial, shows that it can be rendered almost meaningless. However, the operative word here is 'almost'.

In Australia over the last decades the trend toward selective newspeak has certainly accelerated. The betrayal of human rights in East Timor (and elsewhere) by both sides of Australian politics in the narrow pursuit of diplomatic and economic gain has a long history of clever and devious words providing every excuse and justification. Across vast areas of debate it now seems almost impossible to question, query, or engage in any critical historical dialogue without abuse, spin or ignorance. The prerequisite for meaningful reflection, namely philosophical curiosity and doubt, are considered obvious personal weaknesses. The more bold the assertion, the more decisive one becomes.

Last year Dr. Peter Phelps, a right wing New South Wales State politician gave an extraordinary five minute speech on the 11th September anniversary praising and defending the brutal dictatorship of General Pinochet in Chile. I contacted the politician by email politely asking about the sources upon which his speech were based. I received further quotes by email justifying Pinochet's coup and regime but no sources. When these sources were put through a source checking program Wikipedia emerged as the only source.


Bringing this to the attention of the honorable gentleman, and asking if he consulted anything else for his speech, the response was revealing. I was instantly treated as a political enemy, accused of being a Marxist historian, of being a left-wing brain-washer of young malleable minds, of being clearly biased because I had dared ask about his speech rather than someone from the Australian Greens.

When I highlighted that these inferences were clearly incorrect and that my only interest remained the sources and the curious ways they were used in the speech, this too, along with my academic professionalism, were smugly belittled. The same NSW politician as I discovered has described traffic lights as a centrally controlled 'Bolshevik menace', but roundabouts as bastions of 'democratic freedom'. Wow!

On the question of Chile, what exactly was the level of public debate contributed? On the anniversary of a major Chilean historical event a minor Australian politician gave a speech by any fair measure defending and justifying the brutal Pinochet's coup and his sub-fascist regime, the speech made absolutely no mention of the well documented US role in manipulating and supporting the coup in Chile, and the speech selectively cherry picked materials from Wikipedia without acknowledgment. Ultimately the only purpose of this speech was to attack his political opponents in the NSW Parliament, in this case the Greens, while the victims of Pinochet became nothing more than inconvenient footnotes.

The Phelps speech is not an anomaly; it is symptomatic of a wider and more established malaise in public debate. Indeed, Paul Keating along with John Howard have contributed enormously in shaping what might be considered a ruthlessly opportunistic post-truth Prime Ministership. The political landscape is one in which facts and truth have become only of secondary concern. The debate on asylum seekers in Australia is now about as sophisticated as the Phelps speech on Pinochet.

Political spin of both major parties would now have us believe that the billions of dollars spent on detention centres and off shore processing have only ever been about territorial sovereignty and a moral crusade to prevent people drowning at sea. Both sides of Australian politics have seemingly now adopted this strange proposition in order to justify highly punitive policies towards asylum seekers. Therefore, the major parties only act in this unpalatable punitive manner in order to save lives. Vastly more people die horribly from tobacco and alcohol related issues, but as yet a comparable regime of unpalatable but necessary punitive measures designed to save these lives are yet to be implemented!

Such has been the ability of the asylum issue to be of enormous utility to the right wing media and Liberal Party itself, the Labour Party has very publicly embraced off shore processing and its associated detention. Indeed it was the Keating Labour government which introduced mandatory detention in order to discourage asylum seekers. The moral high ground has never been so very low. It is well known that opinion polling on the issue of those coming by boat to seek asylum is very negative in certain vocal sections of Australian society. For over a decade boat arrivals have been subject to an ongoing litany of misinformation, allegations, stereotypes and propaganda. This has now become arguably the level of the mainstream Australian debate. The question is not, how do we uphold Australian commitments under international law and process asylum applications in a speedy and dignified manner, but rather how do we stop the boats. Let's take this argument somewhat seriously and consider.


It would be surely cheaper, quicker and more humane for the Australian government to use its navy to pick up and then process boat arrivals on the Australian mainland. Australia certainly also has the logistical, economic and policing capacity to process boat arrivals within its wider community. This would obviously prevent and minimize any drowning deaths at sea, provide better health outcomes for refugees, and comply with international law. Those found not to be genuine refugees can still be sent back to a safe point of return. Furthermore, there is absolutely no reason that the Australian Federal Police (AFP) could not still investigate and prosecute people smuggling in the wider region.

But would this approach poll as well? This seems to be the main driving concern. For the purposes of its own domestic political gain, the Abbott government is now prepared to increasingly hold itself above accountability and explanations, is needlessly risking ongoing and damaging diplomatic tensions with Jakarta, and more worrying is clearly prepared to risk the lives of vulnerable people at sea. The fate of fellow human beings has now become a secondary concern; the main game is to pander apologetically to the worst kinds of political opportunism.

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About the Author

Adam Hughes Henry is the author of three books, Independent Nation - Australia, the British Empire and the Origins of Australian-Indonesian Relations (2010), The Gatekeepers of Australian Foreign Policy 1950–1966 (2015) and Reflections on War, Diplomacy, Human Rights and Liberalism: Blind Spots (2020). He was a Visiting Fellow in Human Rights, University of London (2016) and a Whitlam Research Fellow, Western Sydney University (2019). He is currently an Associate Editor for The International Journal of Human Rights (Taylor and Francis).

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