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Elections and the art of trust

By Adam Henry - posted Wednesday, 31 October 2007


Amid the spin and catch phrases of our Federal politicians, the incumbent Howard Government attacked the Rudd Opposition as inexperienced and untrustworthy. According to the Government, the ALP is nothing more than a Trojan horse for a corrupt and thuggish Union movement, ready to destroy Australia’s workplace utopia. Therefore, voters are bombarded with reasons why they should trust the integrity of one politician over another. With the Federal election campaign officially underway perhaps it is time to examine this phenomenon.

Is the Federal Government we elect the one we deserve?

Irrespective of ideology, national governance can reflect many of the dominant trends of national culture and history. For example, it can be argued that the long history of highly centralised government in Russia and China makes it more likely that there will be an elite political culture that values centralised control of the entire political system. For better or worse a national government may reflect many aspects of the society it governs. When citizens no longer accept the national government as a legitimate representation of their common values dissent rises until national institutions are forced to change, corrupt governments fall or revolutions occur. When the ethics of the rulers are not compatible with large sections of society there will always be a great potential for genuine grass roots political opposition.

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As I write Australian SAS soldiers are fighting in Afghanistan and other ADF personnel are in Iraq. The Taliban were an appalling regime, but hardly worse than other governments the Americans have done, and continue to do, business with. They were not responsible for 9/11, but gained freedom through US bombing campaigns. Yet again ordinary Afghans are pawns of US policy. Saddam was an evil man, but hardly worse than others the Americans have actively supported. The CIA, the Pentagon and the US military have a grotesque human rights record in South America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

Our leaders said Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, but the facts turned out to be falsehoods. Dissenters were condemned for their irresponsible attitude toward truth and reality. At the forefront of the WMD justifications were the words of John Howard and Alexander Downer. These are an example of "Howard Speak", where the English language is used to corrupt public ethics and moral responsibility. While Mr. Howard is more than willing to surround himself with the trappings of folklore, he feels no obligation to provide detailed briefings of our military’s actions, or even when they might come home. This is despite the fact that Australia has for the first time been a principal party to starting a war.

Far from being outraged by the ethical implications, most of our society sits passively observing Australia’s war on terror in their lounge rooms. Like Orwell’s Eurasia and Oceania with its parade of slogans, we should be "alert but not alarmed", although never fully informed. We privately shake our heads at the feeble "see no evil hear no evil" excuses of our Foreign Minister and Prime Minister over the Australian Wheat Board (AWB)scandal in Iraq, but how is it that our national leaders are seemingly comfortable with pleading ignorance of such massive corruption? What is the point of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service if they did not know about AWB through contacts in Iraq? What else do our authorities not know?

In the Tampa incident the PM smeared the boat people saying they had thrown their own children overboard. Therefore, these people were ethically unworthy of gaining asylum in a nation like Australia. Many Australians heartedly agreed when Howard said that Australia would "decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come". He went on to win a Federal election where the Tampa incident was a major catalyst for government refugee policies and tough election rhetoric. No children were actually thrown overboard. Angus Houston confirmed this to the government at the time and no clear evidence ever supported Howard’s statements. There has been no need for him to resign having lost the ethical confidence of a shocked cabinet room, or even apologise.

Many Australians endlessly complain that our politicians are a worthless bunch of liars, but see little point in making a democratic fuss. Only ratbags apparently bother waving placards, and intellectuals supportive of ethics are dismissed as naïve elites who do not live in the real world. Irrespective of the party they support, Australians know that it’s "better the devil you know".

In international affairs, the shortcomings of our leaders are well documented. Yet supporters of Gough Whitlam find no ethical revulsion in his murky dealings with Jakarta over Portuguese Timor from 1974. Supporters of Malcolm Fraser overlook the 1978 ethical back flip over de jure Indonesian sovereignty in East Timor, even though the Timor Gap was a clear consideration. Supporters of Bob Hawke find no contradiction in the abandonment of East Timorese self-determination in ALP policy (1985), his televised tears over Tiananmen Square, and the signing of the Timor Gap Treaty in 1989. Paul Keating’s Mutual Security Treaty (1995) with Jakarta required secrecy because an informed Australian public might have been opposed it, after all the Indonesian military has a habit of killing people in large numbers. Despite East Timor, Keating formed a special relationship with a corrupt and brutal dictator - President Suharto. At least 183,000 (if not more), East Timorese died during the Indonesian era (1974-1999).

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Many Australians believe our leaders mislead, deceive and overlook human rights abuses for economic and political gain. We expect the truth of the day to be a malleable fibre moulded by our elected, yet do little to instigate change. Instead of a serious expectation of ethics, they are a fairytale. Australians need to see ethics as more important than self-interest and party politics. Until then, our elected government reflects our rampant political apathy, ethical hypocrisy and materialism; in other words the national government Australia has deserved for decades. It is perhaps worth considering some of these thoughts as we live through an election campaign that will be vividly remembered (one way or the other), for a generation.

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About the Author

Adam is a Visiting Fellow of the School of Culture, History and Language, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific. He is also the author of Independent Nation: The Evolution of Australian Foreign Policy 1901-1946 - Australia, the British Empire and the Origins of Australian-Indonesian Relations, published by Charles Darwin University Press

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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