Strange days in Australia. “Paranoia in the lucky country”, say the headlines in Sydney, “Terror threat grips a nation”. The government of John Howard has issued full-page advertisements calling on Australians to protect their “friendly, decent society” from terrorists within by spying on each other. More than a thousand people have used a hotline “to report things”, causing grief to Muslim Australians. Asked if he thought it better that Muslim women made themselves “less conspicuous at this time” by not wearing their traditional headdress, Howard replied: “Obviously.”
Howard’s is the only government in the world willing and eager to join the Bush/Blair assault on Iraq, a faraway country that buys Australia‘s primary produce and with whom Australians have no quarrel. For those Australians yet to succumb to the amnesia of the times, this is all very familiar, evoking a melancholy history of obsequious service to great power: from the Boxer Rebellion to the Boer war, to the disaster at Gallipoli, and Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf.
Some years ago, I interviewed an Australian warrant officer who had served on a CIA-run assassination team in Vietnam, and ruefully recalled to me the words of his American commander. “We really like using you guys,” said the American. “It’s like this: the British have the Gurkhas; we’ve got the Australians.”
In denying the truth of this humiliating role, and mythologising the war fodder of its youth, imperial Australian elites have kept the public in what a former deputy prime minister once called “the mushroom club”. “Like mushrooms,” he explained, “they are kept in the dark and fed bullshit.” A vivid example of this is Australia‘s current role in the “war on terror”. Recently, the head of Australia‘s version of the SAS announced that his heroic troops had “helped break the back of al-Qaeda” in Afghanistan. This amazing victory, unknown to the rest of the world, was reported without a hint of irony, let alone the truth of what Australian troops actually did in Afghanistan – kill tribespeople without knowing who they were.
Mushroom Club citations have been handed out. An Australian pilot beams from the news pages with his American Bronze Star, awarded for flying Black Hawk helicopter gunships “in combat”. Untold numbers of innocent Afghan villagers were killed by these gunship attacks; but that is beside the point. The gormless television news begins with “heart-warming” scenes of Australian sailors being welcomed home from the Gulf, where they are “playing a leading role in the international community enforcing the sanctions against Saddam”. There is no mention of the human cost to their fellow human beings, not a word about the latest, shocking UN State of the World’s Children report that child mortality in Iraq has tripled since sanctions were imposed.
Unheard and unheeded by the rest of the world, Howard is our mouse that roars. Almost anything that falls from the lips of George Bush or Donald Rumsfeld is repeated by him. When Bush announced that America would attack any country as “pre-emptive” action against “those harbouring terrorists”, Howard chimed in and threatened Australia‘s Asian neighbours with attack, demolishing what was left of Australia‘s diplomatic reputation in its region. None of this almost comical warmongering is reflected in the public mood, as far as I can detect. The task of humiliating England‘s cricketers has been far more important. Moreover, half the population oppose Australian involvement in an attack on Iraq.
Following the Bali atrocity in October, in which many young Australians died, what was striking was the public’s restraint and mood of reflection; a number of relatives of the dead have since called on Howard not to use the murder of their loved ones to justify joining an unprovoked attack on another country.
In contrast, “paranoia” and “threat” are daily media fare. A Mushroom Club “exclusive” in a Murdoch tabloid, the Herald Sun, claims that “terrorists train in forests in secret camps” near Melbourne. Australia has the most narrowly based and tightly controlled press in the western world. Seventy per cent of capital-city newspapers are owned or dominated by Rupert Murdoch; in Adelaide he controls everything, including the printing presses. The only national daily, the Australian, is owned by Murdoch. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, directly funded from Canberra, is routinely intimidated. Much of the rest is Murdochism by another name.
This is demeaning for Australian democracy, but never more so than now, when the fabrication of a war atmosphere here surpasses any absurdity spun by Jack Straw. The foreign editor of the Australian, Greg Sheridan, is not untypical. Sheridan earned a formidable reputation as an apologist for the genocidal Suharto regime, mocking the Australian parliament’s study which revealed that 200,000 East Timorese had died under Suharto’s brutality. Now a crusader for George W Bush, Sheridan‘s work is beyond parody. “Pilgerist Chomskyism is ideologically fuelling the followers of Osama Bin Lenin, sorry, Laden,” he announced last month. “Travelling recently in south-east Asia,” he wrote, “I was struck by how often, in the offices of Islamist activists and fellow-travellers, I saw the works of Noam Chomsky, and somewhat less often our own John Pilger [who] provide the Islamists with much of their interpretive narrative of the west.” News of this two-man conspiracy was displayed over most of a page and illustrated by a caricatured Muslim swatting away “facts” while reading Chomsky’s books and my own.
On other forms of “terror”, closer to home, the hysteria is different. Imprisoned behind razor wire in some of the most hostile terrain on earth, in what, by any definition, are concentration camps, are refugees who have committed no crime. Many are from Iraq and Afghanistan, the countries to which Howard is prepared to send troops “in the cause of freedom”. The racism is self-evident. Mandatory detention does not apply to the thousands of Britons and other Europeans who overstay their visas.
The conservative former prime minister Malcolm Fraser has described these camps as “hell-holes”. Australians caught a glimpse of their horrors when an ABC programme told the story of a six-year-old Iranian boy. Having spent a quarter of his life behind the wire of Woomera camp in the South Australian desert, he witnessed desperate adults set themselves on fire and a suicidal man slashing himself. Silent and depressed, he refused food and drink and sat day after day, drawing pictures of razor wire. The Catholic Commission for Justice, Development and Peace has described conditions in the camps as “institutional child abuse”.
When the head of the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, Louis Joinet, was finally allowed to visit Woomera and other camps, he said he had not seen a more gross abuse of human rights in more than 40 inspections of mandatory facilities around the world. The minister responsible for the camps, Philip Ruddock, once boasted to me that Aboriginal infant mortality was “only” three times that of white children. The Howard government opposes the protocol designed to strengthen the UN Convention Against Torture. Alexander Downer, the foreign minister, unwittingly explained why. He said he did not like the idea of UN officials from the Committee Against Torture arriving unannounced to inspect its refugee detention camps.
Racism is never far from the surface in Australian politics. John Howard promoted a “One Australia” movement in the 1980s, the precursor of Pauline Hanson’s campaign, with its veiled white-supremacist message. After years of political failure, he took power in 1996, the beneficiary of an extraordinary public cynicism towards a succession of Labor governments whose spin and betrayal of those known here as “true believers” are acknowledged by Blairites in Britain as prototypes.
Howard is now lauded in the media for his “political skills”. Having waged a war of attrition against the Aboriginal people, denying them universal land rights and incurring a shaming judgement of racism from the UN committee on discrimination, Australian government policy is clearly directed at exploiting the “threat” of non-European refugees – when, by any measure, there is no threat. Some 4,000 asylum-seekers arrive illegally by boat in Australia every year, one of the lowest figures in the world.
During the last election campaign, in October 2001, it has since been revealed, Howard and his ministers lied about refugees throwing their children into the sea, an incident that was presented as evidence of their inhumanity. His re-election was credited to this “tough stand”. While he was telling his favoured radio talkback bigots why it was kind to be tough, a leaking boat on its way to Australia took 353 people to their deaths – including 150 children. Known only as the Siev-X, it was overloaded with Iraqi refugees and in Australian waters, although the government disputes this.
An inquiry by the Australian senate last March disclosed that the Australian navy had extensive prior knowledge that the Siev-X was in a perilous state. In other words, the people on board could have been saved. In April, Rear Admiral Geoffrey Smith, commander of the
navy’s “border protection” department, testified three times under oath that he knew nothing about the boat until it had sunk. Jane Halton, a special adviser to the prime minister on asylum-seekers, made the same denial. Then on 22 May, the commander of Australia‘s Coastwatch revealed that the navy had known all along the boat’s date of departure, its intended destination, unseaworthiness and gross overcrowding. Smith hurriedly retracted his original denial, and on 15 June, Admiral Chris Ritchie, the incoming chief of the navy, admitted that the boat “never came within our search area and we did not change our search area specifically to look for [it]“.
It is questionable whether the navy let the ship sink, but what is clear is that Australia‘s defence forces have become immersed in corrupt, callous and racist policy designed to keep the Howard government in power. Navy personnel have been ordered to act as jailers; and prior to their accredited heroics in Afghanistan, Australian SAS troops were sent into action against a Norwegian ship whose captain had rescued asylum-seekers from drowning in Australian waters. A handful of tenacious journalists have told these stories for as long they can, but a consensual silence inevitably descends on what George Orwell called “smelly little orthodoxies”. The price Australians are paying for this silence and compliance is not immediately obvious in these midsummer days. But Australian social democracy, which was achieved by the struggle of the ordinary people of my parents’ and grandparents’ generations, is being subverted if not dismantled. (The minimum wage, an eight-hour working day, pensions, child benefits, the secret ballot were all won first in Australia.)
A “free trade” treaty with the United States is being negotiated, mostly in secret, giving the Americans a version of the one-sided North American Free Trade Agreement and de facto legal control over everything from Australia‘s quarantine laws and the pricing of drugs to the spread of genetically modified food and the content of Australian television. There is virtually no public discussion about this surrender of sovereignty.
And as the Bush gang destroys America‘s Bill of Rights, so the Howard gang follows suit with, as Scott Burchill of Deakin University in Melbourne wrote, “confected wars against imaginary or exaggerated threats [as] an effective tool of social conformity and a powerful antidote to political dissent”. In a land plentiful with academics, Burchill is one of a handful who have dared speak out. As for the federal Labor opposition, its mostly invisible leader, Simon Crean, has commended the CIA’s assassination of “terrorist suspects”. With no public scrutiny, the Labor government of New South Wales is enacting legislation that gives its police force totalitarian powers in the “war on terror”. No longer, says a bill being rushed through parliament, can police behaviour “be challenged, reviewed, quashed or called into question on any grounds whatsoever before any court, tribunal, body or person in any legal proceedings”.
The great American sage Mark Twain loved Australia. He described it as “a place where the ordinary man is king, or thinks he is”. In The Mysterious Stranger (1916), Twain also wrote about “statesmen [who] invent cheap lies, putting the blame upon the nation that is attacked, and every man will be glad of these conscience-soothing falsities . . . and will thank God for the better sleep he enjoys after this process of grotesque self-deception”.