Issue 6, October 2007 | Robert Manne


[Editor’s note: The farewell function at which this speech was delivered was organised by the Progressive Branch Alliance of the Western Australian Labor Party. Robert Manne’s visit to Western Australia was supported by the Institute of Advanced Studies, UWA].  

It seems to me unarguable that Australians today inhabit a significantly different country from the one we lived in when the Howard government was elected eleven years ago. During that time state support for the idea of multiculturalism has collapsed and the quest for reconciliation with the indigenous people has been abandoned. During that time, asylum seekers who reached our shores after fleeing from some of the most repressive regimes on Earth have been treated with a cold cruelty many would once have considered impossible in Australia. During that time, following the terrorist outrage of September 11, Australia signed a blank cheque agreeing to support the United States in every move it made in its War on Terror, reducing us as a consequence to virtual dependency of the United States. As a consequence of that commitment, we have supported an unlawful invasion of Iraq, which has reduced that country to the almost unimaginable misery of general fear, civil war, refugee flight, wide spread malnutrition and several hundred thousand war-related deaths. Like the United States we have refused to sign the only Treaty giving hope for a coordinated international effort to fight the threat of global warming. And during that time, all those who have stood out against the drift of the political culture have found themselves described, by the right wing commentators and by the members of the government, as Howard-haters and as morally vain members of the chardonnay-sipping elites.

As the political culture has drifted to the right so, necessarily, has the federal ALP. The central political event of the past eleven years was the Tampa incident, where the government helped win itself an election by exaggerating enormously the most minor differences between the position it was taking on border security and the position that was taken by the Beazley-led ALP. Since then, the fear of another Tampa has dominated the thinking of the ALP. Hence the eloquent silence of the Rudd Opposition in the case of Dr Haneef.

There can be no doubt that a very significant minority of Australians and an even larger proportion of the rank and file members of the ALP have been dismayed by the drift of the political culture since 1996. For these people there has been at least one prominent member of the ALP who has seen what has been happening with a moral clarity and who, at the expense of her career prospects, has been willing to refuse her assent. I speak of course of Carmen Lawrence, whose achievements as a federal parliamentarian are being celebrated this evening.

During recent years Carmen has become a symbol for many members of the ALP and for even larger numbers of the general public of the spirit of resistance to the trajectory of Australia under the Howard government. It was no accident that when the rank and file members of the ALP were given the democratic right to elect the President of their party the person to whom they turned was Carmen Lawrence. By the time of her election as party President Carmen had become the most important Labor figure to offer a clear moral alternative to the road that had been taken by Australia following the defeat of Keating in 1996.

In preparing for this talk I decided to read the speeches delivered by the Member for Fremantle since that time. Taken together, they provide evidence of the work of a formidable parliamentarian and offer a remarkable analysis of the meaning for Australia of the Howard Years. There is one speech where Carmen, perhaps at the time in a near-empty House, records her frustration. “I know that in many respects this parliament, this void we speak into, is not taken seriously by the wider community.” I understand the frustration. Yet for me reading her speeches on reconciliation, land rights, asylum seekers, Iraq and the War on Terror had a surprisingly powerful impact. Unexpectedly, I re-experienced the intensity of anger, astonishment and dismay that she and I had shared at different times, but which for my part I had falsely imagined I had by now been able to leave behind.

The first and perhaps most important thing returning to Carmen’s speeches makes clear is her prescience on matters large and small. During the November 2000 debate on the Australian Research Council Carmen warned about the threat of ministerial influence over the allocation of research funds. “We want peer review; we do not want review by the Minister.” Within a few years, a new Minister, Brendan Nelson, had placed the ageing cultural warrior, Paddy McGuinness, on a so-called ‘citizens’ committee’, which had been given the job of querying or vetoing undesirable research. In September 2002 and February 2003 Carmen spoke on the looming war on Iraq. In September she warned of the “risk of a perpetual war if the hawks of the Bush administration have their way” and, quoting Eliot Cohen from Foreign Affairs - it was one of the hallmarks of her contributions that she was widely read - of “the fantasy of the near-bloodless use of force”. On the eve of the invasion her predictions were more detailed than this. Carmen warned of “civil war” and of “a grave humanitarian disaster”, which she argued would fall most heavily on the children, the part of the population for whom she has shown an abiding concern. She warned of tens or even hundreds of thousands of war-related deaths; of 200,000 further deaths as a result of disease; of a possible 1.4 million refugees and 2 million people internally displaced. Shortly after the invasion, mission apparently accomplished, supporters of the government - like the editorialists at The Australian and the columnist Andrew Bolt - mocked Carmen mercilessly, as a mad Cassandra of the Left. Tragically enough, time has proven that these predictions, if anything, underestimated the depth of the catastrophe that was to come. No apologies have been offered, needless to say. When debating one of the many post-September 11 anti-terror bills in November 2005, Carmen warned against the threat to some of the most cherished British legal basic traditions—presumption of innocence, freedom from arbitrary imprisonment, executive secrecy. “The breadth of the proposals to date is extraordinary and so is the potential for innocents to be caught up in the net. It requires us to trust police security agents who have in the past shown they are capable of corruption, political partisanship and just plain incompetence. Why should we trust them to act without scrutiny? We have never done it before.” Given the politics of the past fortnight, the pertinence of these warnings no longer needs defence.

Yet there was more than prescience in Carmen’s warnings. Her speeches were also marked by qualities I think to be no less significant - courage, appropriate anger and moral taste. Many Australians felt a mild uneasiness about the way the Howard government treated asylum seekers after 1999. Carmen was able to capture rather the seriousness of what was at stake and the consequences for the political culture if the moral meaning of the government’s actions were not discussed in a language adequate to what was being done. By 2002 it was obvious to everyone that the Howard government’s military repulsion of refugees had achieved its object. The boats no longer arrived. Yet still thousands of asylum seekers were purposelessly detained in desert camps, many slowly going mad. At Easter 2003 Carmen called for a general release of these refugees, as an act of grace. She spoke of the continued incarceration of innocent people, including women and children, like this. “I can reach no other conclusion, having had this material before me now week after week, that this is a form of institutionalised sadism and psychological torture.” So it was.

Sometimes Carmen’s parliamentary rhetoric was sharp but cool. Here is her description of the fiscal philosophy of the Howard government - rewarding the rich by tax relief and punishing the poor through tightening the conditions for welfare distribution: “Those in the top bracket” she argued, “mewl expectantly for their carrot while the single mothers and the disabled brace themselves for the stick”. Her speeches were carefully wrought - note here the choice of the word mewl. Sometimes, however, her rhetoric became uncharacteristically sarcastic and fierce, as it did in February 2005 on the topic of truth in government: “At the last election the Prime Minister told the people of Australia…that the election was about trust. In a funny kind of way…he was right. …You can trust this government, as we have seen, to come into this place and mislead the Australian people. You can trust the Prime Minister and his senior Ministers to deny us the truth. You can trust this administration to ensure, when it is necessary, that all the doors are closed, that the mobile phones are switched off, that reports get lost or sidelined, that public servants disappear and get redefined, and that emails get filed under the heading ‘Don’t tell the Prime Minister’”. This is high octane political prose.

Australian politics after Tampa led me to an analysis of the ludicrously disproportionate influence of the Murdoch press and the ways in which the Howard government had effectively transformed the non-Labor tradition in a melancholy direction, from liberalism to populist conservatism. If I am not mistaken, a similar kind of deep anxiety about the post-Tampa Australian political culture led Carmen to a compatible but different kind of analysis, centring on the destructive role that is now played in Australia by a politics built on the manipulation of fear, whose most important victims were the most vulnerable groups in Australian society, welfare beneficiaries, Aborigines, asylum seekers and members of the Muslim faith. 

It was after the Prime Minister had won the 2004 election on the theme of trust, and after wedging the Latham Opposition over the logging of old growth forests in Tasmania and even indirectly over the war in Iraq, that I decided that my own small contribution to the daily life of Australian politics, a regular Fairfax column, needed to be reassessed. My views were by now so routinely being attacked by the enemies of Labor that even expressing them effectively sometimes seemed to do more harm than good. Was it because of thoughts of a similar kind that Carmen decided to take a step back, to ponder further the nature of contemporary democracy, and to leave it to a younger generation - of which she is an enthusiastic patron - to participate in the direct struggle to undo the damage wrought to the country by the Howard government, in the age of populist conservatism and during the era of a new politics of fear?

I genuinely do not know what Carmen’s reasons were for deciding to leave parliament at this time. What I do know, however, is this: that because of her courage, intelligence and integrity, her calm and uncompromising voice has been for many, many Australians during an inclement season a source of inspiration and of hope.

Carmen has been a great defender of what is best in the Australian tradition during what seems to me a curious period of our history, where new heights of material prosperity in society and new depths of moral callousness in government have been inextricably combined. When the histories of the Howard years are written I hope and trust that her special contribution during these years will be understood and accorded the full value it deserves. It has been an honour and a pleasure to have been invited here this evening to offer thanks and to wish her well for the next instalment of a still unfinished but already unusually distinguished public life, given in service to the country she so clearly loves. I thank you for inviting me here tonight.
3 August 2007