In the name of the people

As assaults on what is left of the public sphere are daily renewed, it seems that any political decision can be justified by appeal to ‘democracy’ — understood as the imposition of majority will on the general population. Appeals to ‘democracy’ are the standard justification for almost any policy decision, including the detention of asylum seekers in violation of international obligations, not to mention basic considerations of human rights. These appeals to the popular will are more often more rhetorical than an accurate reflection of what people want, but they serve to add a veneer of legitimacy to what in other times would appear as reprehensible decisions. Such an application of ‘democracy’ was well illustrated in December last year, by the decision by the Baulkham Hills Shire Council, located in north-western Sydney, to reject a building application from local Muslims hoping to build a mosque in the area. The application was rejected for a number of reasons, some of which — such as those relating to local services and sewage — could have been negotiated or worked around, if the goodwill had existed to do so. In this case, however, goodwill was manhandled out the door, and the butler instructed to release the hounds. The main reason for the council’s decision arose from local distrust and illwill towards Muslim people, euphemistically called ‘public interest concerns’. As reported in the Sydney Morning Herald, the building of the mosque was ‘not considered to be in accordance with the shared beliefs, customs and values of the local community and, if approved, [would] result in a change in the character and amenity of the area’. The council was reported to have received 5000 letters about the mosque, the majority of which were opposed to it.

No doubt something like ‘public interest concerns’ prompted the recent letter, sent by Federal Minister for Multicultural Affairs Gary Hardgrave, to some 2500 ethnic community radio stations around the country. The letter cautioned broadcasters to be vigilant in the choice of broadcast material, to ensure that broadcast material did not incite hatred. ‘It’s critical’ Hardgrave was reported as saying, ‘that [the] original source of information is tempered by an Australian editorial effort’ (ABC News Online 11 January, 2003). Interestingly, the letter was not sent to commercial radio stations, particularly those who host shock jocks — as noted by the chairman of the Federation of Ethnic Community Councils of Australia, Abdu Malak. The message to ethnic communities is unmistakable: fomenting prejudices is completely in keeping with Australian editorial standards, so long as your prejudices happen to coincide with those of the majority — and the good opinion of your shock jocks is important to the re-election strategies of the government. Equally disturbing, Hardgrave’s letter appeared to be based on nothing more than ‘anecdotal evidence’. The absence of any evidence of criminal, or other wrongdoing is apparently sufficient to attract a ministerial caution to ethnic community organisations and the communities they serve — if you happen to fall outside the standards of white Australia politics.

The catch-all application of ‘democracy’ to what amounts to bullying is not new. What is new is the suffocating totality of the rhetoric as we move closer to a US-led war on Iraq. In the fifteen months since the destruction of the World Trade Center, terms like ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ have been emptied of any possible political content and have instead become symbols of Western and white power. Our ‘freedom’ is deemed to be so precious that it must be held in a blind trust until such time as it is safe to enjoy it again. The farcical ‘be alert’ anti-terror advertisements, and the accompanying booklet now being delivered to millions of households invoke the spirit of democracy and the republic against those mysterious elements who are in it but not of it. There is not much distance from vigilance to vigilantes.

The genuine increased risk of terrorist attacks in Australia makes visible the problems of talking about community wishes and democracy within a mediatised and globalised public sphere. Implicit in the idea of true democracy is that decision-making occurs through dialogue — which can only occur in face-to-face situations. Media such as radio replicate the appearance of such an encounter — talkback and the shock-jocks — but as spectacle. That is not to say that genuinely moderated ‘open forums’ on radio or the internet — such as the Indymedia sites — do not play a role in facilitating dialogue. But because they have that role they are too easily confused with a democracy at its root, which must be grounded in the power of people to run their own lives.

A globalised communal space necessarily demands some overarching commitment to some important — but never total –rights within that space. Such rights cannot be considered in isolation from the dominant balances of power. A muslim community within a nominally Christian-majority country should have a right to build a mosque pretty much wherever it wishes. But we can think of other situations where that might not apply. Should an aggressively evangelical Christian outfit have a right to build a church within a predominantly Aboriginal community, or Jewish community, that objects to it? A definitive answer can never be given in the abstract. What can be said is that when the exercise of the ‘will of the community’ is invoked in the absence of such — and its substitution by the pseudo-community of private media — then all that remains is the exercise of the will, as the Muslims who sought a building application from Baulkham Shire Council, and ethnic broadcasters, are only too aware.

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