typing is not activism….

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Silencing Dissent: an interview with Clive Hamilton – April 17, 2007

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What follows is the full version of a 20 minute interview with Dr. Clive Hamilton, executive director of The Australia Institute, conducted as preparation for an article about the book he has recently edited and contributed to with Sarah Maddison, Silencing Dissent. The summary impact of contributions from a range of authors is not only certainty that the Australian government is deliberately controlling public opinion and stifling debate, but a keener, specific awareness of the insidious processes by which this is occurring.

On a personal note, Hamilton’s Growth Fetish was the first book grounded in economics which I found to be not only highly readable, but to actually give both hope and reason to better understand the subject. In this Information Age (does that imply a Post-Information Age?), his multi-disciplinary proficiency, expansive critical thought, and refreshing accessibility are natural resources which offer an opportunity for social, economic, ecological, and political advancement in Australia. At the very least, he is a provocative thinker, and grounded as his ideas are in human rather than partisan values, they should also find resonance with a number of peoples across the globe.

Editing and pulling together a book like Silencing Dissent would seem to put you and Sarah Maddison in a sort of privileged position, having all this work coming in hot and fresh from a wide range of sources. Was there an emerging sense of shock or alarm in the process as you saw the pieces coming together?

Well, we had done a piece of work two or three years earlier on concern amongst non government organizations and the silencing strategies being pursued by both federal and state governments. So we were quite shocked two or three years ago when the forms started to come in from this range of NGOs talking about the sorts of pressures that they had been put under. Then we started to think, well, similar sorts of tactics are being used to target other critics of the government, and we decided to focus specifically on the Howard Government – many of these problems are occurring at the state level as well, although not as severely in our estimate. So we thought there seems to be an overall political approach here to dealing with critics, emanating from the Howard Government.

The thing that surprised me, as we did the research and commissioned papers and looked for case studies, and so forth, was the fear that most people have about blowing the whistle, and the sort of pressure and intimidation that they’d been subject to. The unwillingness of otherwise strong, forthright, outspoken people to actually speak out on these issues because they were fearful – partly for their own jobs and reputations, but also for their organizations, their sense of loyalty to their organizations and that if they speak out about the pressures they’ve been under from the Federal Government then a lot of other people will suffer too.

So that was a shock to me – I sort of knew it, but when you come face to face with people who you think would be willing to blow the whistle and they decide not to, you realize just how hard it is to expose these sorts of trends.

Do they realize that is a position of power – as much as it’s one in which you can bring down the full wrath of the system right across the board on top of yourself, that is a position of power; there’s a systematic disempowerment which you became aware of?

CH: I think life could become much more politicized. That is, there are powerful political forces exerting influence in various ways, and that has meant that people realize the consequences of resisting or speaking out are much more serious, potentially. It only takes one or two people to be made examples of – everybody gets the message pretty quickly. So universities, which are sort of semi-quarantined from government interference, you have academics who are afraid to say what they believe because they’ve seen colleagues pressured or, in a few cases, seriously put upon in public by the universities or by politicians.

I think it probably goes on quite a lot but very rarely gets into the public domain, which is why the Sydney University one was unusual. The academic in question went through a Freedom of Information request and got hold of the correspondence between the Bank and the University and the various parts of the University and he went public with it – that was a brave thing to do. You have to ask how often that sort of pressure is applied to universities. We just don’t know. It shouldn’t happen at all but it does. It generally happens in quite a subtle way; suggestions are made, there’s a quiet word, and people modify their message or shut up, so that’s how the political power is exercised.

With all of this going on – looking at protest in Australia, which seems to have frequently been a uniting thing, it seems that with all of the causes coming so thick and fast especially in the first 5 years under Howard, it seems to have really weakened protest. Often, a lot of the same people concerned about trees were the people concerned about mining on Aboriginal land, were concerned about Aboriginal rights, were concerned about student rights, and union rights, and all of a sudden, rather than maybe sticking with one cause for a year or going out to protest once a month – everything going on at the same time really seemed to split people.

In this moment and since then, there hasn’t been strong political opposition, there hasn’t been a major opposition party at the federal level – and obviously at that level we’re talking about the Labor Party – there hasn’t been anybody who has really taken a stand. I would say that Latham – as much as people want to say ‘the Latham Experiment’ – I think he was actually exceptional for the brief moment that he was going on…. (note to self – get to the friggin point!)

CH: Latham was very interesting because he was not part of The Establishment, andwasn’t always thinking about political power and was therefore willing to take on and be critical of powerful elements in the business community, or the media, or even the American alliance. He was willing to articulate a view about America and the Bush presidency that is quite widespread within the Australian community – I’m not saying everybody holds that view but a lot of people do. He must have sent a chill down the spines of The Establishment because he was sort of ‘untamed’ and so he was seen to be a sort of extreme character. It’s a pity that he didn’t have greater self-control and could therefore put his rejection of Establishment views more into practice.

We’re really adopting at a media and political level a lot of the models and protocols which have been dominating America more seriously and for longer and two of those really insidious things, I think, are message discipline and talking points. It seems that those are part of this fear for people that rather than standing for something, they’ll end up depicted as standing in something?

CH: Certainly politicians are extremely disciplined nowadays, and with the convergence of the main parties and the dominance of neoliberal ideology there’s not a lot to separate them which means spin becomes ever more important. So, the sorts of media management techniques they now adopt are often anti-democratic, because they are much less accountable.

In the book you detail the fear which now seems active across the board, and if you create a societal or economic model where people are more focused on self-interest, rather than looking outside themselves, and then add fear to the mix so it’s individually isolationist – there’s an interesting point in Silencing Dissent that while previous governments have really asked the media, ‘hey, get along with us,’ the radical shift with the Howard Government was that message really became, ‘are you one of us?’

CH: I think that’s very much been the case although it did start, I think, under the previous Labor Government, where they brought a bunch of journalists into the fold, gave them special information, special treatment and everything in exchange for sympathetic stories. The rest were on the outer. The Howard Government has refined that, and so there’s a hell of a lot of media management that goes on with government deploying all those resources at its disposal.

There’s an adage which I really like, ‘don’t pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the tonne’…

CH: Yeah

Last year at the Washington Press Corps Dinner, Stephen Colbert launched a scathing, dark satirical attack on President Bush just 8 feet from his face that went for twenty minutes and was seen by over a million people, attacking him for many of the things the media had refrained from and people were angry about. The gates were slow to open, but they really did seem to open after that. Can it be something as simple as that in Australia?

CH: It can be if the times are right. Things like that happen but the times aren’t right so it doesn’t go anywhere, and the perpetrator gets punished, sometimes. It just depends on the times. But I think there’s a huge role in history for courageous individuals who stand up at the right time and say the right thing. A lot of the doubts and worries that others are having suddenly crystallize and people shift.

And a key theme in your writing seems to be that the traditional conservative moral values and the free market ideology espoused by Howard are radically incongruous – I guess all these questions point toward, ‘how can this house of cards stand and continue to stand?’ If we’re talking about a party and a party leader who identifies himself proudly as The Most Conservative Australian Prime Minister – why is that not picked apart?

CH: I think that Howard once said, ‘the times will suit me,’ and he assumed the Prime Ministership when the time suited him. In previous eras the time didn’t suit him and he was rejected and even ridiculed – which only seemed to put the steel into him, and make him even more determined and ruthless in his exercise of political power. I think the times are turning against him now, and even if he wins this election life will get harder and harder for him and those who think like him.

I was reading, I think from you, that climate change and the continued detention of David Hicks seemed to be two of the big issues that had got people looking at him differently…

CH: I think so. He hasn’t handled it at all well. On climate change, he was always fighting a losing battle because relentlessly the scientific evidence kept piling up. It wasn’t a creation of ‘feral environmentalists’. It was the world’s best scientists saying we’ve got the most severe problem facing us. But Howard, because he has a loathing for environmentalism, wouldn’t allow himself to see the facts so it was just stubbornness and narrow-mindedness when it came to the environment that has seen him end up in a very difficult position politically. And he can’t just suddenly change his spots because people don’t believe him; he has defined himself as somebody who doesn’t believe in climate change and that’s why he’s snookered himself on this one.

Mmm – there’s a quote I loved in the book, from Ian Lowe, saying that this government “is increasingly using science in the same way that a drunk uses a lightpost – for support rather than illumination”. That quote, because I’m a bit of an eco-head, but also because it’s exemplary not only of what is done in this book, but also in your other work. In your own work, and the projects that you oversee, have…I don’t know if it’s a knack, or an ability, or a driving urge to present complex information that’s normally sort of considered in ‘intellectual elite’ kind of circles, in a very readable even entertaining, as disturbing as it is, kind of way. How much thought goes into that? What’s the main reason that you attach to that?

CH: Well, it’s definitely an art that you have to work on over the years, and I guess it’s what you need to do if you want to influence society. You’ve got to be committed to social change and you have to say, well, one of the ways in which social change comes about is by directly influencing people on important issues by what you write. If you want a broad audience then you have to write in a way that’s intelligible and entertaining, that people want to read or find enjoyable to read even though, as you say, the subject matter can be disturbing.

And I guess it’s just a skill that I’ve worked on over the years, and have finally acquired a certain facility in doing it. I’m not the only one of course, but those who can express powerful ideas in a simple and compelling way can have quite an influence. You have to have a sense of what people are thinking or could think, what they’re anxious about, the sort of arguments that are likely to tip people’s thinking from one state into another. You just have an intuition for the times or a predisposition to understanding what your target audience is thinking and how to keep them reading.

On the feedback and promotional tours that you’ve been doing over the past six months around Australia, what seem to you, firstly, the informational nuggets or factoids in the book that are most resonating with people, and, on another point, collecting other people’s stories as they come up and speak with – what’s been really striking to you?

CH: I guess the thing that struck me at the talks is the number of public servants who’ve come and said, ‘that’s exactly what happens in my work area’. They can be Commonwealth or state public servants, and they say: ‘there really is a politicization of the service, and we now have to unambiguously serve the government and any wider responsibility to the public interest is, now, no longer regarded as appropriate. And people are afraid to speak out’. So that’s been worrying. There have been a number of stories, we’ve been told over a book-signing table or whatever, so that’s certainly been one thing that I’ve noticed.

A lot of comparisons have been made or shouted between Howard and Hitler or Stalin because it’s easy and obvious and emotive and striking, but unfortunately not completely accurate…

CH: Well no, it’s wrong and it’s damaging and it’s not credible to make those sorts of comparisons. And it’s insulting to the victims of those regimes too, to compare modern Australia to Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia – I don’t make those comparisons, not at all.

No, but what I’d like to get is your perspective – where and when do you see the period most analogous to where Australia is now?

CH: I don’t know, I mean the world is so different now than it was in the ’30s or ’20s or ’50s, it’s really very hard to say. I suppose, even with McCarthyism, what we’re experiencing now in Australia doesn’t get close to that. There are certainly some similarities, but in terms of the intensity of it, the U.S. in the 1950s was a very scary place for any sort of independent thinking. The fact is that in Australia alternative opinion still can be expressed, although often at some cost to the critic. Some of the laws restricting free speech that have been introduced recently go too far and represent a significant threat to our civil liberty.

Thanks so much for your time Dr. Hamilton

CH: Thanks



Written by typingisnotactivism

April 18, 2007 at 11:22 pm

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  1. […]presents Silencing Dissent: an interview with Clive Hamilton – April 17, 2007 posted at typing is not activism…., saying, “Interview with author Clive Hamilton about […]

  2. […]presents Silencing Dissent: an interview with Clive Hamilton – April 17, 2007 posted at typing is not activism…., saying, “Interview with author Clive Hamilton about […]

  3. […] under George W Bush. There are significant differences, obviously, but super-bureaucracy as a barrier between politicians and public, fear campaigns, nationalism, religion as a political mascot – these are significant and common […]

  4. […] an exercise in printing 279 blank pages? Nothing worth noting? Odd considering what Clive said in this interview around the time of the book’s launch: ‘Some of the laws restricting free speech that […]

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