A Day in the Life of Our Faltering Democracy

Margo Kingston

Police dog bites cop outside Parliament House. Inside, Green Party leader Bob Brown breaks through a Coalition human shield to shake the hand of George Bush. The Australian people see the unprecedented scuffle between OUR politicians in OUR parliament because CNN defied orders from our government not to film in our Parliamentary chamber. It was that sort of day in Canberra, as our shuddering democracy proved that despite John Howard’s best efforts at total control, it still refuses to privilege form over substance and still insists on being heard.
A police dog bites a policeman during crowd control activities at the USA embassy, Canberra.
Prime Minister John Howard ensured that George Bush could not see the protesters when he arrived at the Parliament House entrance by pushing them way down the hill. They ensured Bush heard them by banging on the barricades. John Howard allowed only invited Coalition MPs and staffers to gather inside the entrance, and they cheered wildly and waved Australian flags as if George was a pop star. It jarred, at first (Howard, like Australians in general, has traditionally had a conservative notion of appropriate Parliamentary behaviour towards important invited guests, one of reserve and polite formality). The spectacle emphasised how much he seeks to transform our style and substance by politicising every event for its propaganda potential in a divided Australia. Scripted cheering crowds with designated true-blue props inside the Parliament and doubters of his all-the-way-with GW Bush policy feel more isolated, supporters more confident.

MPs and Senators never look comfortable together in the same chamber, but this time the discomfort was palpable. John Howard invited Senators - the people whose power he wants to crush and who have twice censured Howard for invading Iraq and lying about his reasons - to the House of ‘Representatives’ to applaud the man who asked him to do it.

On the Labour side, outspoken MP Harry Quick was the only one to wear a white armband. The two Green Party Senators wore a sprig of wattle over a postcard picture of the two Australian citizens interned in Guantanamo Bay. The imprisoned pair, Mr. Hicks and Mr. Habib, have been held by the Americans without charge for nearly two years in gross breach of international law and in stark contrast to the treatment received by the American captured in Afghanistan. The American received all the rights guaranteed by the American bill of rights. John Howard did not protest. Only two Senators had the guts to insist that Australians and Americans had equal rights.

Howard banned members of the public from the public gallery - a telling symbol of the battering he’s prepared to give to core Australian democratic traditions - this one the people’s right to witness the proceedings of their elected representatives - to avoid protests. But there were school children there, after all. Apparently, Howard’s office partly reversed the ban after public outrage and invited a few schools to send ten children each. 

‘Honourable members, honourable Senators, the President of the United States of America.’ All politicians stood as he entered, in accordance with the short political tradition of such addresses. This time, though, more than a few press gallery members stood too, although this is not the tradition of the press gallery.

From then on, the right side of Parliament behaved in a totally different way to the left. John Howard’s team seemed choreographed, as if they’d been geed up before a big game. They were not individuals with individual reactions to what they were hearing, they were a pack. They bayed ‘hear, hear’ on cue, clapped on cue, shouted down the Greens in unison and laughed loudly at what might or might not have been Bush’s attempt at a joke. Their behaviour was - that’s it - more American than British. On the left side, Labour remained silent during Bush’s speech. Some looked uncomfortable at times, others more at ease. They seemed to be actually listening.

His speech was almost contemptuous in its tired banality. He treated us as children, he told us a simplistic fairy story laced with cheap flattery. Recalling John’s visit to George in Texas, he said: “You might remember that I called him a man of steel. That’s Texan for fair dinkum.” In Australia, fair dinkum means you’re for real, that you’re up front and honest. Man of steel doesn’t mean that. Was it meant to be a joke? The Coalition laughed.

In times of trouble and danger, Bush said, “Australians are the first to step forward, to accept hard duties and to fight bravely until the fighting is done.” Silence to that. First forward, eh? So when did John Howard really commit to invading Iraq and why did he lie to us about it? And we effectively skipped Iraq more than six months ago and the fighting goes on without us. Bush praised Australia for fighting alongside America in Vietnam. Pin prick silence.

Green Party Senator Bob Brown and MP Michael Organ talk with Senator Kerry Nettle whilst wearing pictures of the two Australian citizens being held at Guantanamo Bay.

Green Party Senator Bob Brown and MP Michael Organ talk with Senator Kerry Nettle whilst wearing pictures of the two Australian citizens being held at Guantanamo Bay.

After Bush asserted that America had removed “a grave and gathering danger” from Saddam, the Greens’ Bob Brown stood up. “I call on you to return our Australians … and we will respect you.” Coalition members yelled “sit down, sit down” and a parliamentary attendant approached to ask him to leave. Bob Brown stayed in his seat and the attendant moved away. Howard went bright red and stayed that way for the rest of the speech. His hand clutched the lectern in front of him. When Bush said that “Australia is leading the way to peace in South-East Asia”, Brown interjected “We are not a sheriff”.

When Green Party Senator Kerry Nettle rose to protest against the ‘free trade’ agreement Bush and Howard are negotiating in secret, the Coalition shouted her down. But when Bush responded that “I love free speech” the Coalition broke into wild applause. Many Labour pollies clapped too. Bob Brown opened his arms and said with a smile: “We do too.”

George Bush said that “a code of free people” united our nations, which “embraces the things that are right, and condemns the things that are wrong. We call evil by its name, and stand for the freedom that leads to peace.” The Coalition machine stood as one and clapped continuously for several minutes until Bush shook hands with pollies and left the Chamber. Most Labour MPs stood and briefly applauded. About 13 remained seated, mostly women.

As Bush headed to the exit, Coalition MPs formed a human shield to stop the Greens approaching their man. Western Australian Ross Lightfoot used his elbows, as he and others held the Greens back like police holding back the protesters outside. At the same time, Labour MP Tanya Plibersek strode to the other side of the chamber to Condoleezza Rice, shook her hand and handed her a book of speeches Labour MPs made in Parliament opposing the war before Howard said yes to George Bush. They smiled and shook hands.

Kerry Nettle (third from left) is jostled by Ross Lightfoot (second from left) and other coalition politicians as she attempts to present George Bush with a letter from the family of Mamdouh Habib, who is held in Guantanamo Bay.

Kerry Nettle (third from left) is jostled by Ross Lightfoot (second from left) and other coalition politicians as she attempts to present George Bush with a letter from the family of Mamdouh Habib, who is held in Guantanamo Bay.

After Bush left, health minister Tony Abbott demanded that Brown and Nettle be suspended from Parliament. Speaker Neil Andrew asked those in favour to say aye. The Coalition roared “YES”. Those against say no. Several muted Labour voices said no. Bob Brown called for a vote, as required when there is dissent on the voices. But Mr Andrew pretended not to have heard him and ordered the suspension, which means Brown and Nettle are banned from attending the Chinese leader’s speech to Parliament today. Labour was relieved - it feared some of its members would defend the right of the representatives of a significant number of Australians to have their say while all others stayed silent.

Brown argued later that he was given no choice but to interject on behalf of those two Australians Howard had abandoned, since Bush refused to do the usual and mix with MPs over tea and scones after receiving the rare honour of addressing a joint sitting of the Australian Parliament. The Green’s protest and the unprecedented physical violence in our Parliament meant Labour didn’t make the TV news last night. In a way, it was a relief - absence stymied the political cartoon Howard hoped he’d drawn for the TV news ? “Coalition united behind our hero George, Labour divided”.

If he’d had his way, Australians would not have seen either Brown or Nettle rise in their places to address the president, either in a photo or on film. In one of many firsts of this occasion, he banned press photographers from the gallery reserved for the media. He decreed that the government’s official photographers, Auspic, would take that position, behind Bush, looking out to Brown and Nettle. The arrangement was that Auspic would supply pictures to all media, but the government later banned Auspic from distributing their pictures to anyone.

The government never lets film cameras into any gallery in the chamber. Instead its official film makers body ASVO shoots vision according to strict rules which ban it filming ‘disorderly behaviour’ by MPs so the public not in the public gallery don’t see the truth. It rejected requests from the American media to make an exception for them. CNN defied the ruling, on the nod from White House Security - which, it seems, took over our parliament for the day - and got the footage which shows a parliamentary attendant manhandling a Senator.

And so it came to be that Australia’s media had to beg the American media for footage of the Brown/Nettle interventions in the Australian Parliament. The technical format used by the Americans is different to ours, so our media had to film from the USA monitors. That’s why the vision you saw on TV last night was grainy and jumpy. You also saw a parliamentary attendant grab Senator Kerry Nettle’s shirt in an attempt to drag her away from George Bush courtesy of CNN footage shot in defiance of John Howard.

After question time, Labour Party leader Simon Crean and George Bush had a meeting in the Cabinet room. Under the agreed, written arrangements for media, a Network Ten camera crew, on behalf of all Australian media, was designated to film Bush entering the meeting. The government insisted, however, that no media photographer could shoot footage. Only its official photographers, Auspic, would be present ? and it would distribute pictures to all the media. Control, you see. You see the image John Howard wants you to see.

But the White House press minders waved away Network Ten. A male White House staffer informed Daniel Bolger, the contractor Mr Howard hired to handle the Australian press’s access to Mr Bush, that there was to be ‘No press”. A female White House Official repeated “No press” before ordering the White House Press corp. to follow her down the corridor.

A member of the Network Ten camera crew asked Mr Bolger’s assistant, a man standing at the Cabinet room entrance awaiting Mr Bush’s arrival, why media access had suddenly been cancelled. “The President’s saying he doesn’t want anyone, so ...” Asked whether the order came directly from the President, he said: “That, I don’t know.” He then realised the camera was filming the exchange, amended his answer to “No” and waved his hand over the camera lens to block vision.

Bush emerged from the meeting to greet a White House press corp. given the nod to film and take pictures. No-one bothered to tell the Australian media that Bush rules had changed.

It got worse. As agreed, Auspic delivered the photos it had shot as the designated pool photographer to the Sydney Morning Herald’s Andrew Meares. After we’d transmitted the photos to Sydney but before we’d given them to other media, he received a call from Auspic advising that the Prime Minister’s office had instructed Auspic not to distribute photos to the media. That meant no pictures of Bush with Crean could be seen by the Australian people. After lots of calls from lots of people, Crean’s people asked Auspic to give Crean the photos in accordance with his rights as a member of parliament. Crean’s office distributed the photos, as did, eventually, Auspic.

Police carry away a protestor as others control a crowd of anti-war demonstrators outside the USA embassy in Canberra.

Police carry away a protestor as others control a crowd of anti-war demonstrators outside the USA embassy in Canberra.

These are a couple of the many extraordinary machinations of John Howard, the Prime Minister who asserts the right to decide what you see of your political process. But it gets even worse. Yesterday morning and throughout most of the day John Howard’s office refused to release the guest list for his barbecue with Bush. He didn’t want you to know which Australians were allowed to meet the President. Nearly half of Australia’s citizens voted for Labour in 2001 in preference to the Coalition. Not one Labour MP or Senator - not one - was invited to that barbecue.

The United States’ democracy, for all its faults, releases such basic information as official guest lists as a matter of course. The Australian media had to fight all day on a very busy day to get it. It was finally faxed through late last night, too late for most deadlines.

When Tony Abbott, Minster for employment, was asked why he would not disclose the donors to his ‘Honest Politics’ trust, he said “There are some things the public has no particular right to know.” Try every thing John Howard can get away with. Unlike America, we have no bill of rights guaranteeing citizens free speech and other civil rights fundamental to a democracy. Under John Howard, we get no rights unless we fight for them.

Maybe that explains the story which, as a press gallery journo for 12 years, most shocked me yesterday. John Howard cares so little about what’s left of our free media, or what a free media is for in a functioning democracy, that he contracted out the responsibility of liaising with the White House on what access Australian journalists would have to the President to a small-time freelance PR man called Daniel Bolger. Bolger had no power or authority and agreed to whatever the White House said. That way John could say, “Oh well, that’s the way it has to be” when the result was little or no access by our media to anything.

It also meant the American media got privileges denied to Australian journalists in OUR country, such as the ban on Australian journalists or photographers attending the barbecue, leaving Australians to read what American journos with an American perspective had to say about it. When The Herald’s Mark Riley broke that story this week, public outrage again forced Howard to intervene, and he wrangled permission from Bush’s people to allow one Australian journo and one Australian photographer to be present. We asked both men to write down the names of everyone they saw there and recognised, since at that stage Howard was STILL refusing to release the guest list.

So next time you scorn the performance of the Australian press gallery, remember that in Howard’s Australia a lot of their time is spent pleading for basic rights the Australian people didn’t know they’d lost. Yes, the Australian press gallery is in the midst of a crisis of credibility. But so is Australia’s democracy.

Published Thursday, October 23rd, 2003 - 12:54pm GMT

Article courtesy of the Sydney Morning Herald

This is the print-ready version of A Day in the Life of Our Faltering Democracy

Margo Kingston

It was found in the Global Flashpoints section of the World Crisis Web.

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