Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

Fear and loathing of gutsy debate

By Duncan Kerr - posted Wednesday, 11 December 2002

I joined Labor 34 years ago because it was a party of reform rather than reaction. I joined it because it was a social democratic party built on two strands of idealism, and on working to resolve the dynamic tension between them. The first strand was the radical championing of the majority against closed economic elites. The second was the principled protection of vulnerable minorities against the tyranny of the majority.

Yet both strands of idealism – most especially the second – are now deeply unfashionable in mainstream Labor circles. Those who dare speak out against this top-down correctness are increasingly pushed to the margins of credible debate. This intolerance is not unique to Labor. At both State and Federal levels, the Coalition and Labor now fight elections as quasi-presidential contests. In each camp, open dissent is increasingly equated with disloyalty. But the consequences are different for the Coalition and Labor. For the Coalition, this change undermines their relatively unimportant claim that their members do not formally caucus to vote as a bloc on all issues. For Labor, the impact of this change is more profound. It means that the effort of the progressive left to articulate a larger transformative agenda has been largely abandoned. As a result, Labor today attracts fewer men and women of passion, intellect and principle, who are willing and able to generate real debates about the best way to deliver social and economic justice in Australia and beyond.

Labor needs to look again at neglected parts of its history – and it is timely to highlight the unique contribution made by Lionel Murphy to Australian politics and law. His contribution was thoroughly permeated by the second strand of idealism. Murphy spoke out always for the right to dissent, the right to be radical, the right to oppose a government, the right to remain within the Labor and Australian families despite holding unorthodox views.


During Murphy's lifetime, that tradition was largely honoured by his Labor peers, even by those who were his strong opponents (and those who would never have given him political credit for anything!). Today, however, things are very different in the party to which Murphy devoted so much of his too-short life. Today those in Labor who set policy and tactical directions seem driven primarily by fear. Fear of being questioned, of being criticised as unAustralian, of negotiating all the difficult arguments that Murphy took on with such boldness and eloquence.

All this is not just bad for Labor; it is dangerous for Australia. We live in a challenging and globally fearful time, and we need brave and thoughtful voices perhaps as never before. We need more and gutsier questioning of received wisdoms, less spinning of the message that our various emperors are fully clothed. We need the goad of those who feel that too much in the present national and world order is both morally wrong and practically unsustainable, and who insist that Labor work to generate fundamentally different outcomes.

It concerns me greatly that the individuals who today are prepared to articulate this kind of challenge to the Howard government have chosen to remain outside Labor, a party that was once their natural home. One such individual is Julian Burnside QC, who continues his tireless efforts to better the lot of asylum seekers detained in Australia's onshore and offshore camps, and continues to raise accompanying difficult questions about the strained quality of Australian mercy.

Too many Australians, and too many in Labor, are deaf to Burnside's disturbing message. We do not want to hear his accounts of the daily indignities and cruelties perpetrated on the defenceless by a hostile or indifferent bureaucracy, from its highest to its lowest levels. We do not want to answer when he asks what human purpose is served by denying the survivor of a sunken boat, brought from detention in Nauru to give testimony at a coroners' court in Australia, permission to leave that court for a bare twenty minutes to attend a memorial service for his dead family? Or by denying Burnside access to a teenage girl who had attempted suicide in detention, and was being held under guard at the hospital treating her, on the basis that there is 'a rule' that detainees can only see lawyers between the hours of nine and five? We do not want to imagine the potential implications, for Burnside himself and for Australia's democracy and its own citizenry, of the fact that Burnside's public utterances are routinely monitored so that DIMIA may identify possible inaccuracies. We do not want to see that the mismanagement of the asylum seeker question is as damaging to Us as it is to Them.

A kind of bell jar has descended in the zones of Australian public life that hitherto generated noisy, healthy debate on fundamental questions about liberty and justice. I am an optimist at heart, but I am not so naïve as to imagine that this problem of silence and denial within my party and my nation will be easily solved. The bell jar is heavy, and we will need considerable strength to lift it.

Right now is a good time to start speaking out. Not least because Labor is about to celebrate the achievements of the largest of its Murphy-era icons, Gough Whitlam. We increasingly cherish his contribution to Australian society, and for good reasons. I will conclude with Whitlam's own words, written recently in a different context, but I would like to think for all of us – for Australians, for Labor supporters, and for the men and women, and the little boys and girls, who we lock up behind razor wire in the name of a greater good:


... as I look forward to the political landscape of Australia's future, I conclude with a message of confidence for the party which made me Prime Minister of Australia. It is the words with which the divine Dante concluded the Inferno:

"E quindi uscimmo a rivedere le stelle."

(And then we emerged and saw the stars again)

  1. Pages:
  2. Page 1
  3. All

This article was first published in The Canberra Times on 3 December 2002.

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Author

Hon. Duncan Kerr is Federal member for Denison (Tas) and was Federal Attorney General and Minister for Justice in the Keating government. He is author of Elect the Ambassador: Building Democracy in a Globalised World.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Duncan Kerr
Related Links
Duncan Kerr's home page
Photo of Duncan Kerr
Article Tools
Comment Comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy