Saturday, November 24, 2007

Just getting 11 years 8 months and 22 days of John Howard off my chest......

"I left the keys under the mat." John W. Howard has left The Lodge

The opposition Australian Labor Party has won the Federal Election by a massive majority. Prime Minister John Howard is expected to loose his own seat of Bennelong, the first serving Prime Minister to do so since 1929 and only the second Australian Prime Minister to do so ever.

I am very glad for this result. I grew up in a labor voting family and while I lean more towards Green Party policies, the abandonment of the Howard vision for Australia is long overdue. While obsessive economic growth and soft nationalism may seem to be a formula for successful governance on the surface it just does not provide for all levels of society. As well, many of the key ingredients for sustainable development are ignored when popular opinion and fiscal performance become the sole measure of success. I would like to list a few of the issues that have troubled me over the last 11 1/2 years of Howard.

Australia since 1996 has committed its citizens to armed conflicts in Timor-Leste, Solomon Islands, Afghanistan, and Iraq (with fatalities in each). Austraian peace keeping military have been deployed Bougainville (1994)(1997-2003), Guatemala (1997), Yugoslavia (1997-),Kosovo (1999-), East Timor (1999-), Solomon Islands(2000-),Ethiopia/Eritrea(2000-), Sierra Leone (2000-2003), and Sudan (2005-). As well military excercises have expanded considerably; Rim-of-the-Pacific 1996 (RIMPAC 96), Crocodile99, WESTPAC Exercises, Tandem Thrust 2001, Talisman Sabre (biannual), Exercise Albatros Ausindo and PN-RAN Exercise Lumbas 2007 being some of the more major war games conducted under the Howard administration. All this gun play costs money and military spending has increased considerably since 1996:

Since coming to power in 1996, the Howard Government has increased spending on the military by 46 per cent in real terms. Spending for the current financial year will reach $19.9 billion. Thanks to Costello’s 12th Budget, next year it will be $22 billion or around 2 per cent of gross domestic product. By 2016-17 it is expected to rise to $29.9 billion. The Guardian

International aid on the other hand is stagnant or has fallen slightly in real terms under the Howard government, 0.3 percent of gross domestic product in 2007 from 0.36 in 1996/97 (ABS Australian National Accounts Series 5206.0). This is despite a booming economy that is being driven hard by mining and exports (coal, oil, gold, aluminium, wheat, beef, wool, passenger motor vehicles, natural gas and other base metal ores being the top 10). I believe that as the energy demands of global society change over the coming decades (due to peak oil, altering cost structures and changing attitudes to non-renewables like coal) then what is driving the Australian economy today will cease. That the country has not contributed to international aid as reflected its prosperity will also not assist it in the future when countries such as Indonesia and the micro-Pacific states are needing more help as a result of climate change. It is then that histroy will judge the Howard government. History will also take stock of the social policies of the Howard government.

One of the most interesting books I have read in the last few years about politics in Australia is God under Howard: The rise of the religious right in Australia By Marion Maddox (Allen & Unwin, 2005):

God Under Howard makes it clear that this growing electoral base needs to be satisfied, policy-wise, and the Coalition is delivering. Maddox presents a persuasive argument that shies away from demonising individuals of faith. They are not her target. Instead, she highlights the ideological similarities between conservative churches such as Hillsong and Howard's Government. A denomination that celebrates wealth as God's blessing and supports personal satisfaction fits Coalition dogma perfectly. "Such theology is a neat fit," writes Maddox, "for a government that stresses market capitalism and privatised economics over social welfare and collective responsibility for one another."
The recently revitalised abortion debate provides ample support for Maddox's disturbing thesis. It is evident, despite the obsequiousness of those suggesting otherwise, that a number of conservative, Christian men in the Government are determined to make women's bodies their domain. Maddox warns us that unless we want to enter the realm of America's decaying democracy, where the line between church and state is hopelessly blurred, we must fight to reinstate our democratic traditions.SMH

Maddox builds a convincing argument that while Howard himself has always shied away from evangelical admissions in political contexts, he has fostered a climate of right wing evangelical christianity in his policies and those he appoints to positions around him. The power asserted by the secretive Lyons Forum in the Federal Coalition Government is discussed at length in God Under Howard. The Lyons Forum is:

"A secretive Christian faction of the Federal Coalition which attempts to influence policy in areas such as censorship and other so-called "family" issues. It is widely regarded as the equivalent of the American religious right. The forum has about 50 members, including about 15 members of the front bench, and meets once a fortnight. Membership is restricted to coalition MPs" Electronic Frontiers Australia

One example of the catering to right wing agendas by Howard has been the rediculous levels of censorship that have been excercised in Australia under his government. Not only has sedition been made a crime again (Federal Anti-Terrorism Bill 2005) but dozens of books, films, audio, websites and computer games have been banned (A short list I complied recently). Australia, under Howard, has slipped regarding freedom of the press to a level that one usually associated with non-democratic countries;

“Two international studies ranked Australia 35th and 39th on a world press freedom index,” News Ltd chairman and chief executive John Hartigan said. “We should be up there with other democracies that are way in front of us." The Australian

Race is discussed by Maddox in God Under Howard and it is difficult to forget the feelings I had when I read about the Cronulla Riots:

On Sunday 11 December 2005, an estimated crowd of some 5000 people had gathered at Cronulla beach. In the week leading up to the incident of the 11th, this confrontation and the subsequent circulation of anonymous calls to gather at the beach — spread via SMS text messaging ("Come to Cronulla this weekend to take revenge. This Sunday every Aussie in the Shire get down to North Cronulla to support Leb and wog bashing day.") and other means — were the subject of much publicity and media commentary.

The mob appeared to be of non-Lebanese ethnicity. The assembly occurred after elements in the local community had called for a public showing in response to the previous weekend's confrontation between a group of Middle Eastern background and some local Cronulla beach surf lifesavers. Police had earlier stated that they believed this previous assault had been racially motivated.

A number of the rioters wore clothing bearing racially-divisive slogans such as "We Grew Here, You Flew Here", "Wog Free Zone", "Aussie Pride", "Save 'Nulla" and "Ethnic Cleansing Unit". Chants of "Lebs out", "Fuck off Lebs", "Lebs go home" and other discriminatory expressions were continuously shouted out by the mob. Wikipedia

Howard responded to the riots by saying "I do not accept that there is underlying racism in this country. I have always taken a more optimistic view of the character of the Australian people. I do not believe Australians are racist." The increasingly racialised atmosphere in Australia was made apparent by the riots and while I don't think Howard had much to do with the violence in Cronulla directly, the society that has developed during his 11 years of government is one where race is now a part of identity to an extent it has not been in Australia for several decades. Eleven days before the election which saw the end of the Howard government the special police powers granted after the Cronulla riots(including the ability of the police to close bars and hotels, to stop and search vehicles and people, to seize cars and phones and to disperse mobs) were made permanent in New South Wales.

I was in Australia in July this year when the so-called Northern Territory 'intervention' was announced by now former Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough. To combat an 'epidemic' of gross sexual abuse of children the military were to be sent in to take over Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory. Because of the federated structure of the Australian state and national system, the Northern Territory is the only state level administrative area that the federal government has the legal ability to do such a thing (although the Australian Capital Territory around Canberra and national parks can also be 'intervened' with if they had to I suppose). Having lived in Redfern and having friends on several communities, I know that there are very unpleasant realities behind the apparent concerns of Brough and Howard. However, they situation for even the government run legal and social systems in Aboriginal communities has been dire for years, let alone any projects or programs run by locals. Prior to the intervention there was only one child welfare officer working in Katherine in the Northern Territory. Katherine is at the crossroads for serveral Aboriginal communities and support for the young there has not been sufficient for a long time.

Watching the slow death of the Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Council (ATSIC) in 2004 and 2005 as it drowned in its own isolation and mismanagement is typical of the attitude of the Howard government to the indigenous peoples of Australia. ATSIC was

an elected body whose constituency was indigenous Australians. This included: people from the many Aboriginal communities on the Australian mainland, Tasmania and other off-shore islands, and the ethnically distinct people from the many Melanesian communities inhabiting the islands of the Torres Strait, collectively known as Torres Strait Islanders. Later the Torres Strait Regional Authority took over responsibility for programs in the Torres Strait Islands. This body continues to operate.

While it (again) seems clear there were problems with ATSIC, the fact that it was the only elected representative body for and by indigenous Australians made it an important part of the structure of a demoracatic and just Australia. Because its chairman was charged with criminal offences seems like a strange reason for disbanding the entire organisation. Instead, all the roles and duties of ATSIC passed back to the federal government's representatives:

The policy and coordination role is now the responsibility of the Office of Indigenous Policy Coordination in the Department of Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs from 27 January 2006 (previously with the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs). wikipedia

With the loss of his seat in the Federal Senate in 2005 by Aden Ridgeway the last elected Aboriginal officer during the Howard Government was gone.

With the Australian military active overseas, and in the marginal parts of Australia, one would only expect that immigration would reflect a reaching out to the world in need. The image of people living behind electric fences and razor wire in the desert is not something I would have associated with the Australia I grew up in (although at school between 1974-86 we were told nothing about the stolen generation, genocide, or anything really). While immigration detention was begun by the Keating labor government it was it 1999 that the Woomera Immigration Reception and Processing Centre (IRPC) opened:

The Centre was opened in November 1999, with a capacity of 400. This capacity was very quickly exceeded, as the boat arrivals continued. Nursing and administrative staff working there at the time have since complained that facilities were totally inadequate, and that it was impossible to provide proper medical care.

Most detainees applied for refugee status, and had no possibility for release until their claim had been finalised. Men, women, and children were detained at The Centre. The highest number of children detained at any one time was 456, out of a total population of 1442, on September 1, 2001. As at 26 December 2003, the average length of detention for children was one year, 8 months, and 11 days. An unaccompanied child refugee had this to say:

"I believe you [Australians] are nice people, peace seekers, you support unity. If you come to see us behind the fence, think about how you would feel. Are you aware of what happens here? Come and see our life. I wonder whether if the Government of Iran created camp like Woomera and Australians had seen pictures of it, if they would have given people a visa to come to Australia then."

The detention centre was a source of much controversy during its time of operation. There were a number of riots and escapes, as well as accusations of human rights abuses from groups as diverse as refugee advocates, Amnesty International, the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, ChilOut, Human Rights Watch, and the United Nations.

In March 2002, the Secretary General of Amnesty International, Irene Khan, said:

"It is obvious that the prolonged periods of detention, characterised by frustration and insecurity, are doing further damage to individuals who have fled grave human rights abuses. The detention policy has failed as a deterrent and succeeded only as punishment. How much longer will children and their families be punished for seeking safety from persecution?" Wikipedia

Then Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone turning on the electric fence at the Villawood Immigration Detention Center

The razor wire has come down - but the electric fence is going up. After months of battering over a string of departmental bungles and growing public concern about the effects of mandatory detention, the Immigration Minister, Amanda Vanstone, took personal carriage of a rare pleasant duty in her portfolio last week: removing the razor wire around the Villawood detention centre.

All the children had been let out, along with some of the longest-held detainees. Senator Vanstone thought of the idea herself, viewing it as symbolic of the shift she hopes to see in the departmental culture.

"OK, let's go and have a snip," she said to media crews, doing away with three coils of the wire.

The decision to remove the perimeter wire and leave razor wire in only one area for criminal detainees went further than reforms introduced after the inquiry into the detention of the mentally ill Australian resident Cornelia Rau, she said.

But what the Government cuts with one hand it apparently builds with the other.

Immigration officials admitted yesterday the razor wire was being replaced in some parts by an electric fence.

Over the next three months an "electronic detention system" will be built on top of one-quarter of the fences in higher security areas at Villawood.

They said it would deliver "a short, harmless shock" to anyone coming into contact with the fence but stressed it would be more than three metres above the ground and that warning signs would be put on the fence itself. SMH Date: September 15 2005

I could go on.....Children overboard and the Tampa, the Tas RFA Logging Deal, Cubby Station, the Pacific Solution, Mohammed Haneef and detainment without trial..but I won't. It will take a generation for Australia to move on from the Howard Government. The time to get over all this has begun. Goodbye John....goodbye!

Bye Bye!


Diego Luego said...

I feel quite a relief now the long conservative rule is over. I hate the way Australian society has been directed in the last few years. "Mateship" and "a fair go" have taken quite a beating. I am also sick of the hype and the lies.

((((((((ö)))))))) said...

I agree with you Diego. I actually left Australia in 1996 and one of the reasons I did so was the comming conservative rule, which I felt would be similar in affect to the Thatcher years in Britain.
I find it ironic that Howard was always so quick to resort to the rhetoric of mateship and fair go, when he complied so severly with United States conservative agendas and the hard cold edge of economic rationalism. I beileve he has sold out so many of the fine values that can be found in Australian culture and history and they have been mutated into the sort of ugly displays we saw at Cronulla in '05.
I spent a month in my home town last July, and it disturbed me to see the competitive and consumption orientated society that is becoming the dominanat source of values there. This is sort of perplexing as well as many of those who seem to be persuing such values are also members of the Christian community with what I thought were the values of parsimony.
I conclude that so much of the right wing agenda is a con, a trick to gain most profit for least outlay (Howard is very much the shopkeeper). However, now that the course has been so convincingly set in Australia I think it unlikely that the new Labor government will be so radically different in its values, just maybe a bit more humane in how it implements them.