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Freedom and justice are alive and well: Australians care

By Gary Johns - posted Monday, 11 October 2004

Those who wanted to rid the nation of “the lying rodent” aka the Prime Minister, John Howard, should relax and have another pinot noir. Regardless of the Coalition government’s return, ethics still matter in public policy and Australia continues to be governed by laws - democratically framed and judicially reviewed - that reflect a rich and strong attachment to freedom and justice.

Those who believe that the Prime Minister lied to them prior to the 2001 election about children being thrown overboard by their refugee parents, cannot escape the fact that if the people did not do so in that instance, they certainly scuttled the boat: an action that put all of the refugees at risk. It was also declared by the RAN that on at least a half a dozen other vessels children were threatened with being thrown overboard. Not that those actions themselves justify a policy of incarceration for refugees. There are other perfectly acceptable grounds to do that, but the incidences leave the moral ground less high for those who would argue for a non-custodial policy for refugees. There was no failure of ethics in the formulation of the policy towards refugees, just a decision that ultimately helped to stem the flow of those who risked their lives in unseaworthy boats.

Those who believe that Australia invaded Iraq on false pretences cannot rely on the UN for a superior set of ethics in these matters. The UN may pass fine resolutions - and in fact did so on 14 occasions - to have Saddam Hussein give up his weapons of mass destruction or prove conclusively that he no longer possessed them. Ineffectual resolutions tend to aspire to the highest ethical standards, but the UN has neither the independent intelligence nor the armed forces to help anyone. Meanwhile Darfur burns and the UN, embarrassed, waits for the US cavalry once again to ride to the rescue. Hate the US at your peril next time you want the world’s policeman to help. And do not wait for the EU to come to the rescue, those states have so submerged their sovereignties as to be of little use to anyone outside their common border. There was no failure of ethics in the decision to invade Iraq in the absence of a further UN Security Council resolution, just the chance to remove a killer regime and to allow Iraqis to start again.


Australia is not “unethical” because a government had to make some hard calls. There are consequences in not making those calls and I am certain a Beazley government would have done the same in the circumstances. It may come as a surprise to those who think that “documentary” makers Michael Moore and John Pilger tell the truth: or that journalists David Marr and Margo Kingston are other than political activists: or that political activists Bob Brown and Tim Costello are especially competent to run a nation: or that philosophers Michel Foucault and Peter Singer have a way of thinking fit for anything other than a one way trip to the madhouse. But more Australians are more in control of their destiny, dare we say, less “oppressed” and more “empowered”, than has ever been the case.

More broadly, if an ethical politics means establishing a “set of principles of right conduct” or a “system of moral values” then Australia has been on that journey for a very long time. Australia is fortunately not the “materialistic, post-modern and post-Christian society” some would surmise. Australians care about right and wrong, they may have different versions of right or wrong to others who consider themselves more able to judge these matters, but if those named above are among the judges, like most Australians, I would just as soon be my own judge.

For those who, as I do, view postmodernism as “the ungrateful enfant terrible of the Western intellectual tradition”  we may ask what public policy would the post-modernists suggest. If postmodernism is a reaction to rationalism, science and objectivity, then we could expect the worst. We could expect an economy governed principally for “equity” rather than wealth creation, and lose both. We could expect a legal system guided by personal values rather than distilled consensual values, and lose certainty in the law. We could expect environmental policies to be framed by anti-scientific “evidence” and a mis-specification of risk, to the detriment of the environment. We could expect a welfare system so finely tuned to the immediate wants of the individual that the individual would disappear as an autonomous actor. We could also expect less space for the private domain and more issues belonging to the public domain, and we could expect more problems to be shared and therefore more problems.
Postmodernists “dissolve the distinction between fact and fiction”, so that for instance, in a discipline which claims to be describing reality, such as history, one can invent a past which suits a present political objective. Aboriginal policy could take a long time to free itself from the destructive indulgence of pretending that some cultures are so different that some cannot enter the secret and sacred world of the “other”. In reality, the “veil of culture” is used to screw resources from the system. If the likes of Keith Windschuttle had not shone the harsh light of evidence on the “frontier wars” myth of recent historiography, it would take even longer to break the shackles of Aborigines being untouchable. Cultures are not so radically different from one another that we should dismiss the laws of scarcity or wish a previous crude mode of living to survive in the modern world.
Judging by the iconic issues - Refugees, Iraq, and Aborigines - those who seek a better ethical standard in Australian politics, cannot make the case that the current policy settings are devoid of ethical standards.

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About the Author

Gary Johns is a former federal member of Parliament and served as a minister in the Keating Government. Since December 2017 he has been the commissioner of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission.

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