Australia’s slide into Tyranny #
Primitive societies were obsessed with fertility. Any drought, famine or pestilence was seen as a punishment from superior beings. The safety and welfare of the tribe depended on the health and life of a semi-divine or demi-god ruler. A healthy vigorous and virile king ensures natural and human productivity. A sick, maimed or impotent king brings blight and disease to the land and the people. To avert this danger, the man -god must be killed as soon as he shows symptoms of decline or failure and his power transferred to a vigorous successor. Kings eventually sought to have a substitute figure or animal to die in their place.
The “catastrophic loss of faith in democracy” in the last decade, is indicated by the “chaotic state of federal politics” largely to blame. In 1996,, 85 per cent of people were satisfied with the way democracy worked in Australia. That number has more than halved to 42 per cent, in two decades in which Australia witnessed five prime ministers being axed by their own party.
Australians love a good crucifixion, not least the one we commemorate at Easter; Christ challenging the ruling class, the mockery and the execution that followed. But we don’t only know this story from the religious tradition, we recognise it – even celebrate it – in the pattern of our political debate. The Passion play repeats whenever the powerful, prejudiced or privileged begin to feel uneasy.
A voice challenges the status quo but the public execution that follows distracts the baying crowds. The establishment’s anxiety is then allayed and structural injustice maintained.
All who challenge power and injustice can be certain public excoriation is on its way. As soon as you do something good for the greater public, your destiny is assured.
Prime examples throughout Australia’s history include, (but not limited to): Captain Bligh, Lachlan Macquarie, Jack Lang, Gough Whitlam, Julia Gillard, Malcolm Turnbull.
Welcome to Australia, where voting is compulsory, but the results don’t matter because they can easily be manipulated.
Australian governance has been called a revolving door of leadership. It has had a long history of coups, from William Bligh’s arrest in 1808, to Lachlan Macquarie 1820, sent back to England in disgrace, Billy Hughes sacking from the Labor Party, to Jack Lang’s dismissal in 1932, John Gorton betrayed by Malcom Fraser in 1971, Gough Whitlam’s, in 1975, Bob Hawke, overthrown in 1992, Kevin Rudd, 2010, Julia Gillard, 2014, Tony Abbot, 2015… Malcolm Turnbull – 2018. Seven PMs in 11 years makes post-war Italy look positively stable by comparison.
That many consider it a blood sport was confirmed when Richard Carlton asked Bob Hawke what it was like to have blood on his hands in disposing of Bill Haydon in 1983.
When Malcolm Turnbull ousted Tony Abbott back in 2015, Wikipedia pranksters updated the “Sport in Australia” page to say:
“The main national sport is the Leadership spill which fixates the nation on a random but regular basis.”
As Guy Rundle put it: “a country that changes leaders like underwear and for the same motive, when they’re more skidmark than fabric — has to be understood as a traumatic event in the national order.”
On the contrary it has become normalized; a predictable, it’s become a continuity seared into the national psyche.
In the gospel narratives, Christ’s mockery and execution was the consequence of publicly challenging those in power (Mark 11:15-18). While plotting Christ’s death, one high priest stated “It is better for you that one man should die for the people than for the whole nation to be destroyed” (John 11:50) – which could be interpreted as “It is better that one person die than that all my privilege perish.”
The spectacle of retribution that follows is not mere tabloid entertainment. It has political purpose – distraction and deterrence – and is as old as the Easter story itself.
As Christ faced trial, so the scriptures say, his disciple Peter infamously denied knowing him in order to avoid sharing the same torturous end (Mark 14:66-72). The threat of political execution works, silencing dissent and leaving the truth unspoken.
Julie Bishop claimed: I’ve had many calls from my counterpart foreign ministers who are politely asking why I am no longer the foreign minister and what happened to the prime minister. There have been some rather unkind comments about Australia being the ‘Italy of the South Pacific’ and the ‘coup capital of the world.’
According to Mike Carlton, The Saturday Paper, “the mainstream media are on the same bandwagon, chiefly at Murdoch’s News Corpse, where vendetta journalism has become an art form. Targets – frequently prominent women – are chosen to be relentlessly reviled and bullied for trumped-up transgressions in both the news columns and on the opinion pages. Julia Gillard, the young Muslim activist and engineer Yassmin Abdel-Magied, the former human rights commissioner Gillian Triggs, the Indigenous academic Larissa Behrendt and, most recently, the ABC’s economics journalist Emma Alberici, have all been singled out for the lash”.
Bruce Guthrie, a former Murdoch editor, claims Rupert Murdoch’s annual visits to Australia invariably trigger seismic events both in and outside News Corp, the company he’s presided over for decades.
So, is it any surprise that Malcolm Turnbull faced his political demise less than a fortnight after Murdoch arrived in Australia? Of course it isn’t. “A minority in the party room, supported by others outside the parliament, have sought to bully, intimidate others into making this change of leadership,” Turnbull said.
Channel Nine political editor Chris Uhlmann had made the same point:
“everyone from the PM down has pointed out to me that they believe there has been a campaign waged against them”. “We are talking about The Australian, The Daily Telegraph, tabloid newspapers around the country, 2GB in Sydney led by Alan Jones and Ray Hadley, and Sky News in particular with its evening line-up, are waging a war against the prime minister of Australia.”
Murdoch has form. He decided when it was time for Whitlam to come and go, similarly for Keating, Howard, and especially Julia Gillard. The campaign against her was targeted, misogynist, vicious and relentless. Murdoch openly boasts that he decides who wins elections in Britain, America and Australia. He claims he talked daily with Trump. Despite all the licence given to him by sycophantic leaders, if you are too liberal, he will destroy you.
Australia’s more regressive elements in society appear to be gaining the upper hand. They believe they are leading a war against an abhorred pluralist democracy. The backlash is against immigrants and refugees, legal abortion, even marriage equality, rekindling uncomfortable memories of the decay of democracy that preceded Europe’s descent into repression of the 1930’s.
“The road to tyranny is paved with pebbles of silence, fear of others, division, lies, national myths of imaginary threats, and the coarsening of rhetoric.” Richard Flanagan.
An honest take on the history of the world acknowledges that power accrues to a select few even in the most democratic societies.
Despite this, people have struggled to take power into the hands of the governed only to a limited extent. Democracy is lauded in lip service, but disavowed in practice. Liberty demands eternal vigilance.
Hannah Arendt gave us an insight into the totalitarian mindset in all its glory; ‘the banality of evil’ was the inability to hear another voice, the inability to have a dialogue either with oneself or the imagination to have a dialogue with the world, the moral world.” Arendt pairs privilege with obliviousness; obliviousness is privilege’s form of deprivation. “When you don’t hear others, you don’t imagine them, they become unreal, and you are left in the wasteland of a world with only yourself in it, and that surely makes you starving”.
To preserve freedom, we have to become guardians of our language, our institutions and our leaders. We have to keep them alive and working. That means being very intentional about using words. That means, for example, calling lies, “lies.” - not a “misstatement,” The definition of “lie” involves intent—a lie is a statement made with the intention to deceive. The euphemism “misstatement” clearly connotes a lack of intent.
Using words to lie, destroys language. Using words to cover up lies, however subtly, destroys language. Validating incomprehensible drivel with polite reaction also destroys language. This isn’t merely a question of the prestige of the writing art or the credibility of the legal domain: it is about the basic survival of trust in the public sphere.
Howard, Reith, Ruddock….all conspired to make sure asylum seekers were not humanised. The effectively poisoned the language by constantly referring them to “illegals”. Ruddock even referred to a child in detention as “it”. We have no idea what happens to boats, on Manus Island or in any area of security. That is Kafkaesque.
Here is what Confucius had to say on the topic:
If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone; if this remains undone, morals and art will deteriorate; if justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion. Hence there must be no arbitrariness in what is said. This matters above everything.
The enlightenment led to a more rational view of how we can only be governed by the consent of the governed. This is misunderstood by power freaks.
“When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty. Thomas Jefferson
The American model justifies open rebellion of tyrants:
“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants." – Thomas Jefferson
Democracy is an imperfect system. It is easily undermined and debauched.
“The thin and precarious crust of decency is all that separates any civilization, however impressive, from the hell of anarchy or systematic tyranny which lie in wait beneath the surface." Aldous Huxley
“It is a truth wearily demonstrated by history that acts of tyranny condoned against some will finally become a tyranny visited on all.” Richard Flanagan ……..
The Philosopher, John Gray maintains; It’s tyranny we often seek – with rather more zeal than we like to imagine. “Tyranny offers relief from the burden of sanity and a licence to enact forbidden impulses of hatred and violence.”
Post modernism perhaps created the most radical disillusionment of history of the world, even greater than existentialism. In postulating that all values are relative, in effect it advocates an extreme form of nihilism, subverting all core values. This gives today’s authorities the licence to act without compunction. Regardless of how evil Shakespeare’s characters are, most of them have remorse, affecting their conscience. Modern leaders feel at liberty to act unconscionably.
Madeleine Albright warned against Fascism after four years as America’s chief diplomat, her life and views were again shaped by encounters with tyranny. She engaged with Kim Jong-il, father of North Korea’s current jailer-in-chief, and found him, new book, cordial, courteous and “pretty normal for someone whose father’s birthday is celebrated every year as the ‘Day of the Sun’.” Slobodan Milošević, the Serbian autocrat, “did not fit the stereotype of a fascist villain” and liked to “act the innocent” even as his security forces attempted the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo.
Hugo Chávez, the late ruler of Venezuela, was “very charismatic” and initially seemed to hold promise for his country when he supplanted “a bunch of tired old men that were very elitist”.
When Recep Tayyip Erdoğan first came to power in Turkey, he was a refreshing change from rule by people “who live in big houses, or occasionally the military”. “These people initially did have some feel for the working class and then power went to their heads – all of them.”
One chapter of her new book is about Vladimir Putin, whom she found to be “so cold as to be almost reptilian” but also a man of considerable, if dark, talents. “He’s very smart. He’s played a weak hand really well. He has a larger agenda which is to separate us from our allies and it begins by separating central and eastern Europe from western Europe.”
With the benefit of hindsight, she accepts that the west was slow to understand that Russians felt utterly humiliated after the cold war and ready to succumb to a nationalist strongman promising to make them great again. She recalls a Russian man complaining: “We used to be a superpower and now we’re Bangladesh with missiles.” Putin, she tells me, “has seen himself as the redeemer of that man”.
I wonder whether her first-hand encounters with despots had led her to identify any common personality traits. She laughs: “I’ll tell you – you’ll be surprised when you hear this – they seemed different when I met them.” She cites the example of Viktor Orbán, the self-styled “illiberal democrat” who rules Hungary. She first came to know him in the 1980s during Hungary’s struggle for liberation from communist dictatorship. “He was everybody’s favourite dissident. He was funded by George Soros to go to Oxford. He’s the one who started Fidesz, the youth party. The age limit for the youth party changed as he got older,” she adds with her hallmark waspishness. Orbán’s transformation in office has taken her by surprise. “I didn’t, I don’t think any of us saw this coming.”
Where we might be going is the chilling theme of Fascism: A Warning. The book is a cry of anguish about the global resurgence of authoritarianism and a lament over the decay of the liberal internationalist politics to which Albright has devoted her career. The work is also an act of homage to her father who wrote books about the perils of tyranny and worried that Americans were so accustomed to liberty – so “very, very free,” he wrote – that they might take democracy for granted. She quotes Primo Levi – “Every age has its own fascism” – and makes her case with observations about the autocrats she has dealt with and brisk histories of past dictators and the horrors that they unleashed. A devil’s portrait gallery includes Benito Mussolini, the original fascist, and Adolf Hitler, the most destructive. Then there’s Donald Trump. Australia has been seduced by creeping authoritarianism – and its citizens need to wake up Jeff Sparrow
We need to ensure democratic freedoms apply to everyone. If they don’t, they’ll soon apply to no one.