Silencing Dissent: How the Australian government controls public opinion and stifles debate
Silencing Dissent is an appropriately red, incendiary book detailing how the Howard Government is undermining democracy and playing by its own rules.
To learn more, I spoke with Dr Clive Hamilton, co-writer and executive director of the Australia Institute. In 2004, Hamilton and co-editor Sarah Maddison had researched nearly 300 NGOs representing concerns across Australia. While 9 per cent said the Federal Government encouraged public debate, 90 per cent felt funding cuts were a threat to dissenting individuals and organizations.
The research located a communiqué from Environment Minister Ian Campbell to environmental NGOs, which explicitly threatened the tax-deductible status of groups too involved in political activity. The Wilderness Society has since been audited by the ATO three times within a two-year period.
Seeing similar tactics used elsewhere to target government critics – also at a state level but more so federally – the pair expanded the project to study silencing strategies “emanating from the Howard Government”.
Hamilton said the biggest shock while compiling the book was the type of fear they encountered: “The unwillingness of otherwise strong, forthright, outspoken people to actually speak out or ‘blow the whistle’ on the sort of pressure and intimidation that they’d been subject to.”
The difficulty in exposing these trends was not just a matter of people’s fear for their own jobs or reputations but also for the wellbeing of their colleagues and organisations.
“It generally happens in quite a subtle way,” said Hamilton. “Suggestions are made, there’s a quiet word, and people modify their message or shut up.”
In one case, Professor John Goldberg of Sydney University used Freedom of Information (FOI) to expose Vice-Chancellor Gavin Brown and Macquarie Bank executive, former Federal MP Warwick Smith. Goldberg had spoken out on the ABC’s 7:30 Report about Macquarie’s billion dollar toll road developments.
Smith wrote a letter demanding that Brown distance the university from Goldberg. Brown obliged, publicly announcing Goldberg was not an employee but an Honorary Associate. But Goldberg was an employee, and had been for 15 years.
The case, according to Hamilton, was unusual – not because intimidation occurred, but because the lecturer went public.
“It only takes one or two people to be made examples of – everybody gets the message pretty quickly,” he said. Even academics partially quarantined from government interference are now reluctant to speak out, having “seen colleagues pressured or, in a few cases, seriously put upon in public by the universities or by politicians”.
The role of senior “attack dogs” like Eric Abetz, Tony Abbott and Santo Santoro is also detailed in the book. Beyond micromanagement of media, such as Santoro’s 900 questions to the ABC on content and perceptions of bias, hard line policies are in place.
Parliamentary photographers face a “three strikes and you’re out” rule; government monitors scour publications for unflattering photos – Alexander Downer obsessively SMSing during speeches, ministers unkempt, asleep or yawning. Three photos on file mean a loss of Canberra access for the photographer.
And Australian politicians are increasingly adopting protocols like ‘message discipline’ and ‘talking points’. Hamilton explained these sleights-of-hand are not just about avoiding public gaffes. As political opponents “converge” under the dominant neoliberal ideology, differentiation through spin becomes ever more important. Hamilton said these media management techniques are anti-democratic because they serve to eliminate accountability.
As detailed in the book, Howard’s use of Southern Cross Broadcasting is particularly disturbing. During his weekly visits to a right-leaning radio talkback show, callers’ questions are screened, answers are filmed, and journalists are then referred to the transcript. National radio, TV, and print media are all dealt with in one half hour, with no opportunity for real questions.
To address their real questions, Hamilton and Maddison assembled writers as diverse as Iraq whistleblower and intelligence analyst Andrew Wilkie, emeritus professor and Australian Conservation Foundation President Ian Lowe, and even the Clerk of the Senate.
Lowe writes that the Howard Government “is increasingly using science in the same way that a drunk uses a light post – for support rather than illumination”.
Such colourful writing about typically ‘elite’ issues is characteristic of Hamilton’s own writing and other projects.
“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 the subject matter can be disturbing,” he said.