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Taking democracy for granted

By Warren Reed - posted Wednesday, 4 August 2010

As Australians hunker down against waves of political rhetoric and spin, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that a national election campaign and the election itself are key manifestations of democracy at work. But the glue that actually keeps our political system, and ultimately our free society, together is almost totally subsumed by this torrent of verbiage and imagery. Three key elements provide its adhesive power: trust, responsibility and accountability. Without them, democracy can wither and die right under our noses.

Signs of decay are not hard to find in today’s Australia, though they largely go unnoticed. They’re evident in virtually every walk of life. Sometimes, it will be a development overseas that points to how low this country’s standards have sunk.

This happened in July when Baroness Eliza Manningham-Buller, the former Director-General (2002-07) of Britain’s security service, MI5, confirmed that the Iraq war had increased the terrorist threat to the West in general and to the UK in particular. She was giving evidence to the Chilcot Inquiry into British involvement in the US-led conflict. “Arguably,” she said, “we gave Osama bin Laden his Iraqi jihad so that he was able to move into Iraq in a way that he was not before”. She added that Britain’s involvement had radicalised certain elements in British society, with disastrous results.


That was precisely the point that then Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police, Mick Keelty, was making in 2004 after the Madrid train bombings. He quite reasonably observed that Australia’s involvement in Iraq could heighten the risk of terrorist attacks here. But the government of the day belittled him, with then Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, making the childish assertion that Keelty was no better than an al-Qaeda propagandist.

This was not only a rank insult to the Commissioner and his staff, but also to the intelligence of Australians as a whole. To make matters worse, then Chief of the Defence Force, General Peter Cosgrove, appeared in full uniform alongside his minister to refute what Keelty had said. The Commissioner came close to resigning. At least Cosgrove later acknowledged that Keelty was correct.

In May 2006, The Weekend Australian Magazine ran a cover story on Keelty, which elicited a raft of letters. One noted that, “When a senior public servant is made to publicly express regrets for telling the truth, we have come to a sorry pass”.

Recently, the now-retired Keelty noted that, “Obviously, at the time it was quite damaging to my reputation and also it questioned the judgment I’d made about what was required at the time. It was a time for leaders to build a level of trust with the [Muslim] communities and you couldn’t build a level of trust if you were hiding behind a veil of ‘no comment’ or secrecy.” Manningham-Buller’s statement has vindicated Keelty’s stance completely.

But who’s taking responsibility for Downer’s cheap political point-scoring in 2004? Well, for a start, he’s not. His silence is deafening, though his actions at the time clearly ran counter to the national interest. Nor has the media tracked him down and obliged him to comment. The election campaign, after all, is one hell of a distraction. A public apology from Downer is what we deserve, but don’t hold your breath. With Australia’s support, he’s currently busy acting as a United Nations peace negotiator between the Greeks and the Turks on the island of Cyprus. Let’s hope for the sake of all Cypriots that Downer’s judgment has improved. A Billy Bunter outburst there could have tragic consequences.

Meanwhile, off in a vastly different domain, is the controversy a few months ago that surrounded Sam Leach, this year’s winner of the $50,000 Archibald Prize for portrait painting. Few would quibble over his contribution there: an expert portrayal of singer/songwriter, Tim Minchin. Rather, it was Leach’s tiny landscape - Proposal for Landscaped Cosmos - that won him the $25,000 Wynne Prize alongside the Archibald that whipped up a storm of protest.


The Wynne is awarded for an Australian landscape, and that, Leach’s Cosmos certainly wasn’t. Even Blind Freddie could have seen that. But the judges who awarded Leach the Wynne unbelievably missed the fact - as Leach later acknowledged - that the painting was “based” on a 1668 work entitled Boatmen Moored on the Shore of an Italian Lake by a Dutchman. Its soft European hues were the antithesis of our sunburnt country. Leach had not cited the Dutch picture when he submitted his work for the competition, which clearly breached its published entry criteria.

Far from being outraged by all this, prominent members of Australia’s art community jumped to Leach’s defence, appalled at claims that the artist was a “copy-cat”. Their justification of the artist’s actions involved contortions that would do an Olympic gymnast proud. But they left common-sense Australians unimpressed. Nine of the 27 losing finalists for the Wynne wanted the Cosmos painting withdrawn and for the trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, who judge both prizes, to show they understood not only their own rules but the principles of fair play that underpin our society.

Edmund Capon, the long-serving director of the Gallery, initially dismissed these concerns, but then made the mighty concession that the topic would be discussed at the Gallery’s next board meeting. That was followed by an impressive back-flip with pike, which saw the original decision upheld. Final score: trustees’ face-saving skills 10, integrity and trust nil.

In such myriad small ways is the glue that keeps our society together eroded. Minor matters like these are easy to forget in the hurly-burly of today’s electioneering maelstrom and many Australians are unlikely to pay them much heed between times. It is indeed ironical that while we are frantically manning the parapets to fight off alien forces, we’re white-anting ourselves from within.

The words of the late American novelist, Norman Mailer, should resonate here: “Real democracy comes out of many subtle individual human battles that are fought over decades and finally over centuries … [It] is a state of grace attained only by those countries that have a host of individuals not only ready to enjoy freedom, but to undergo the heavy labour to maintain it.”

If you ever hear that Alexander Downer has become a trustee of the Art Gallery of NSW, head for the hills. There, you’ll find the spirit of J.F.Archibald who died in 1919 and made a bequest for this country’s richest art prize. He’ll be sitting round a campfire with the spirits of soldiers from the First and Second World Wars and of other men and women who have contributed to the free society we now enjoy.

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About the Author

Warren Reed was an Australia-Japan Business Cooperation Committee scholar in the Law Faculty of Tokyo University in the 1970s. He later spent ten years in intelligence and was also chief operating officer of the Committee for Economic Development of Australia. He served in Asia, the Middle East and India.

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