Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Australia, the International Image and disintegration of human-rights

The continued disintegration of human rights in Australia will leave no one immune.

The international image of Australia is, by now, surely under question, if not from the governments of the international community, then from the organisations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the United Nations. And not least from the citizens of the world who watch the news, seeing Australia but thinking South Africa, or Communist Russia.

I was pondering developments over the last ten years in Australian politics this morning, thinking; where did this degradation of our rights as citizens begin? To answer that question fully (and truthfully), we must look back to the beginning (for white 'settlement' in the country); but in terms of recent history, I believe it had to do with jobs.

There is, of course, that seedier beginning which needs mentioning; the indigenous Australia has long suffered at the hands of the government and 'white' Australia, and we (apart from the indigenous people, of course), have thought little of it, collectively at least. But, to quote Winston Churchill, we could sum up, quite succinctly, the huge setbacks the aboriginal population has suffered since the beginning, since Churchill's viewpoint played such an important role in the world's views, and confirmed Australia's view at the time:

"I do not agree that the dog in a manger has the final right to the manger even though he may have lain there for a very long time. I do not admit that right. I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place."

Now, in Australia to a greater degree, but to the US, the UK and other countries to a lesser (or less obvious) degree, the same dog status is being reapplied to the lower class citizens (and strengthened against the indigenous everywhere), those with heritage in the mid-east, and Asia, and Africa, those with poor backgrounds, and to an even greater degree, the original owners of this country.

A quick look at the recent past will show us many occasions where the Australian government has shunned or rejected the covenants of the United Nations, from maritime law regarding the Tampa crisis to the indefinite imprisonments of refugees and their children, to mandatory sentencing for aboriginal children in the northern territory and western Australia - where a teenager can be locked up for years just for stealing a chocolate bar from a shop.

Add to these publicly accepted methods of infringement and disregard for human rights the lesser known and complete media blank on such stories as the genocide of Aborigines through forced birth control, the arrests and harassments and murder of children in the Block - Sydney by armed police and the refusal of pay from the government to Aboriginal workers of the 50s,60s and 70s (effectively turning what was tacitly regarded as slave labour to an actuality).

These are just off the top of my head. To think of injustices committed in the name of Australia, and more specifically, the Australian government, requires no leaps of faith, no taking one's mind back and sorting through the politics to perhaps find a silent injustice - the reality and regularity of such events are such that the average Australian forgets them almost as soon as they occur - for the little they are explored in the media. We need only to be told the police were 'just doing their jobs' to accept the situation and go back to our lives.

It is less like a broad representation of the novel '1984' (as in other countries such as the UK and the US), and more like a directly quoted passage of the script. We don't know our enemy; the irony is we rely on our enemy to tell us that important information.

Now with the new legislation - generously provided by one dissident minister, against the wishes (read 'demands') of the prime minister, set to become a reality in the very near future, Australia faces a further risk - and a further and even more serious deterioration of human-rights - because this time it will affect all citizens (though in reality, it will affect only all citizens unconnected or directly disconnected to the present government).

This is (so far) the point to which freedom has regressed in Australia, during the term of the Howard government. But I want to take it back a little here - to see how it began, because one thing people are not discussing in or about Australia at the moment that I can see as relevant is this; the laws may be changing to disregard the powers and rights and freedom of the people, but
Mr Howard is not the one who will be responsible for enforcing these laws. That is in the hands of people - state and federal police, ASIO officers, the military. Like all areas of industry in a free country, they could rebel, with a strike. They could stand up and say, 'enough is enough. We will not do it.'

Maybe they will.

Chances are though, they will do their jobs, as John Howard envisages it. Indeed, it seems they have already started along these lines with the recent deportation of Scott Parkins. People often ask of military regimes, such as those in Chile or Iraq, 'Why do the soldiers do it? If afterwards they tell us they were just doing their jobs, and they feared for their own lives, if they are all the same in their thoughts, surely they could have rebelled?'

The thing is, people could rebel, they could en-masse say 'No', but one major things stops them - money (translated as hunger). If not for themselves, for their families. In the past 10 years, John Howard has taken a functioning and purposeful health and social welfare system and turned it on its head. He has brought the working community to his side, telling them that welfare is a drain on their taxes, and that there is work, if people would do it.

He has made the welfare recipient a dirty dole bludger rather than an unfortunately unemployed citizen, and, on the opposite side of that coin, he has made the lowest socio-economic demographic feel dirty and worthless, and turned them against the employed 'elite', abandoning Centrelink for abject poverty.

This has served 2 purposes; the first to ensure that people want work, whatever the cost, whatever the work. The second has been to bring down official unemployment figures (measured by the number claiming unemployment benefits) to an all time low, at the same time as sending the unofficial unemployment figures up perhaps even higher than they were under the previous Labour government. In addition, it has put a further economic strain on the employed who have unemployed family or friends which are no longer claiming unemployment benefits (and yet, ironically, the employed are still paying taxes - higher than ever).

When people are desperate, they will do desperate work, and incidentally, government work is the most lucrative for the uneducated and educated alike, out of any industry in the country. He has also systematically brought down the once many safeguards in the commercial labour market put there initially to protect the worker. There are many examples, but a recent one is the removal of the laws surrounding unfair dismissal. It puts greater power in the hands of the employer, less in the hands of the worker. A person can be fired without reason, which provides a more transient job market and more desperate part-timers, looking for enough for next month's rent.

How attractive then, would the prospect of working for the government be in these terms, where the pay is high and guaranteed, as long as you can put your moral standards aside for long enough to feed your family? Its not yet reached the Pinochet or Saddam Hussein level of government, but some would argue it is well within the boundaries of the current Russian government already (barring size and colonies); nevertheless it is fast approaching such dictatorial leadership.

These were the first steps in a tyrannical government, set in place almost 10 years ago. The effective dictator thinks forward, and plans well ahead. That is the man that John Howard is; the early attempts to dismiss him as a fool were as foolish as those same sentiments directed at George W Bush. The only difference is that the US president pays men like Cheney and Rumsfeld to think for him - Howard does it by himself.

Australia is a much smaller country globally, and plays a lot less influence over its neighbours than does the US or even the UK, (though what influence it does have it uses to bully and intimidate - see East Timor), but what this means to Australians is a dictator's penchant for control and power is directed inwards, towards those within the country.

Australians need to join together, united against their government, if there is to be any hope, not divided against one another, as it has happened, (beginning officially with our treatment of Indigenous Australia, and reaching now to the poor and the foreign-born.) Unofficially, it has also been those things, but smaller differences have played a part in the rifts between us too, from the differences between the Labour and Liberal voters (or democrat, greens etc), between the logger and the environmentalist, between the city and the country. These divisions are there because your government made it so. Its time to put aside those differences (for a while) and put your voices forward, because soon, if you are not for the government, it will consider you 'seditiously' against it.

By Derek Lane Wednesday October 19, 2005 at 11:53 PM

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