Descant for Dog Whistles

With the worst aspects of the government’s repressive anti-terror bill defeated by forces both inside and outside the Liberal Party, there is a danger that the remainder of the bill, and the wide array of repressive measures, will fall out of view. Yet the attack on the most basic liberal structures — actually existing democracy, one might call it — continues almost relentlessly. In the US the fear of further terrorist acts has been almost incidental to the rollback of basic political freedoms beyond both the constitution and the Bill of Rights. The existing powers of the FBI and CIA were more than sufficient to identify the existing threats — but the organisations themselves are so corrupted, compromised and unaccountable that they have become virtually useless, even for their ostensible purposes. Further repressive legislation will not render people in the West any safer, but it will advance the profoundly anti-democratic aims of one faction of conservative political formations everywhere. The particular conditions of America — the liberality of its constitution, up against the fundamentalist and quasi-theocratic ideas of leading figures such as US Attorney-General John Ashcroft — have made this struggle particularly acute and striking. There are currently two US citizens — and, of course, many foreigners — being held indefinitely without trial, classified as enemy combatants, a situation which amounts to a de facto suspension of the constitution. In Australia, the near total absence of any protection of basic political rights and the widespread enthusiasm for ‘anti-terrorist’ measures means a continued series of skirmishes as State and federal governments nip away at such political freedoms as have been built up in recent decades. Regrettably one has to conclude that our aims are necessarily modest — we are defending the gains of 1215, jury trials and habeas corpus.

It is in that context that our dialogue with those from other traditions continues — a longstanding one with culturally and morally critical elements from religious traditions, and a more recent one with reflective elements from a liberal tradition.

Readers who were surprised to see Greg Barns appearing in the pages of a left magazine may be even more taken aback by the contribution of Charles Richardson in this issue, with some forthright things to say about the relationship between the socialist project and political freedom. Readers may even wonder if there is a place for such in a left magazine. The short answer to that is that it is in all our interests that a genuine debate about the nature and possibilities of a genuine liberalism be re-established in this country, and there are currently few places where this is happening. John Howard has effectively purged the Liberal Party of anything resembling a significant liberal element — and all but destroyed the party in two states, with more to follow, in the process. Publications of the Right have lost even the limited element of liberalisation they acquired in the 1990s and become what H.G. Wells once called ‘spite slums’.

Significant elements of the Right have become so corrupted by dog-whistle politics and tub-thumping about the ‘elites’ as to have been wholly consumed by an anti-intellectual cynicism.

Of course, dialogue with liberalism and a need for the broadest possible front against repression does not mean an eliding of the differences between that philosophy and a materialist leftist position. From the latter perspective, liberalism continues to have a one-sided view of human freedom, ignoring the degree to which the basic questions of necessity must be met before a genuine human freedom can occur. That debate should continue, but the pressing political needs of the moment make it imperative that a dialogue be established. Events such as the Liberals’ Tasmanian debacle, and the strife within the Democrats, are further evidence of a political recombination occurring within Australia, and one that may bring to the fore new energies with which to combat the forward march of a new authoritarianism.

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