Webdiary - Independent, Ethical, Accountable and Transparent
header_02 home about login header_06
sidebar-top content-top

Moral influence and democracy

Moral influence and democracy
by Basil Smith

John Pratt at March 18th on Lyndon Storey’s Recognizing our humanity thread aspires to a miracle, quoting the cooperation of the ant colony – so why can’t we emulate? Ants do not know of danger, or fear. We humans are blessed (or is it cursed?) with knowledge beyond limit. But knowledge creates responsibility, accenting our duty to others, while failure opens the door to guilt and the fear which raises barriers, leading to dislike, to hatred, to cruelty. We are far from emulating the ants in any of our human, fear-traumatised environments. How then can we hope for successful global government and harmony in the world?

There’s no doubt that fear destroys empathy, resulting in various arrangements for self defence – politically, socially, from family to friends to factions to parties to nations, to empires – and personally, in diverse religions. Yet it is true that in all of these defensive arrangements, relationships fall over, basically through selfishness. The laws and rules of dogmatic religion designed to keep selfishness in order all tend to failure, as avoidance of conflict becomes a selfish end in itself.

Now faith, whatever its basis, is the opposite, and is a hopeful product of experiences created by received love, whatever its origin, giving empathy and inspiration. (By far the greatest inspiration of all is the cross of Jesus which calls us to faith in a death of self). Love begets love, breaking down barriers with positive thinking and solutions to problems. Individually, the reach of love varies enormously, according to individual inspiration and faith. For most it is the family. For a few, with a deep faith, it is the world, with many in between. We can each be part of the problem or part of the solution, as we are inspired, or not.

Politically, all democracies are bedevilled by the structures of political power which defeat democracy’s moral influence, killing its empathetic equality of power and political opportunity for all citizens. Power structures create fears of disadvantage and loss in an adversarial system which, instead of empathy, creates hostility. A healthy start was made with elections by the secret ballot, which has enabled the appointment of governments with greater fairness and much reduced violence, but selfishness and fear still stand in the way of honest, popular government, with the unethical influences or factions, parties and other powerful minorities. Only the extension of the controlling influence of the ballot into all government decision-making can ease the fears that divide and antagonise. If we can win the democratic battle at the local and national levels there can be hope for the world. The question is: Can we, will we?


Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

Is the majority always right?

Basil, you ask: "Fair enough John. You draw attention to horrific problems facing our world. So, what are we going to do? We can't give up can we?

The problem with a secret ballot is that our politicians would not be accountable for their vote. We would not be able to judge who was for or against any particular issue. One example is the debate on euthanasia. A majority of Australians believe we have the right to die. A secret ballot may get the billed passed.

Australia lags well behind other jurisdictions. More than 30 million people in Belgium, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Oregon in the United States now have the right to seek medical assistance in dying.

Periodic opinion surveys show that the great majority of Australians believe patients should have the same right. In the latest survey (2007), support was at 79.7% across Australia, and over 80% in Victoria. Oddly, although the hierarchy of the Catholic Church is the main opponent of reform, more than three in four Catholics appear to be in favour.

The majority of Australians may also vote for tax cuts but is that always the best policy? I believe sometimes the majority behaves like a mob. Mob rule can lead to a lynching. For example the majority of the German people supported a leader like Hitler.

I think we should elect politicians that have displayed excellent leadership qualities. Leaders who we judge to have the ability to promote and to make the correct decisions. We look at their voting record on issues we believe in and it is by looking at the history of this voting record that we can make our decision.

If we had a secret ballot many politicians would say one thing and vote for the other. We can't trust them.

If I had the chance to improve our democracy I would get rid of the parties.

I would give electoral money to the individual not a party. I would not have party rooms I believe it is party politics that causes the problems and any ideas to weaken the power of the party is the way to go. Maybe we should make it illegal for politicians to collude with each other.

love logic education and real democracy


 The idea of radical democracy offers greater potential for individual and collective liberation than any other on the political and philosophical horizon.

Participation is the key  ... As to the ballot becoming a central institution and social practice of all aspects of governance, a terrific idea because anyone who argues against a ballot immediately exposes themselves for what they are – anti-democratic.

Appreciate your comment.  There are more specifics here.

I'm afraid I have allowed myself to be distracted from the most urgent need for political reform. Neither preaching nor education has the drive to resolve the truly terrible problems of the future without the wholesale cooperation of the people at large. Party politics has been eating away at community resolve and  without a radical democratic agenda  there is no way that the tide can be arrested, let alone reversed. There is very little popular comprehension  of the  dangerous course we are following, or the immense effort required ahead.  And the current outcry at rising costs illustrates how little willingness there is to face what lies ahead. As you say participation is the key,  but that  cannot happen without a radical devolution of power. There can be no development of popular responsibility without the transfer of  political power to the people. The ballot is the only instrument with the political relevance to do that.

Hence the need for the Secret Ballot Party, (secretballotparty.org) to destroy party politics and restore genuine parliamentary government and the  kind of  responsible leadership  that can rally the people.

Many difficult questions are being voiced -

like climate change, exhausting fossil fuels, world population, world food crisis, biofuels, extravagance of our meat diet, extravagant Western  life style, to name a few -

but the solution of all these problems, without bloody wars, can only be found  in a radical democracy, which can engender the willing cooperation of respected parliaments with a responsible citizenry.  Otherwise we will assuredly fail - in a bloody mess, that we can only dimly comprehend at present.

I sense the well-justified anxiety here in Webdiary, but only a selfless response to the logic of unavoidable change can get us over the line.

Citizen's Referendums

Citizen ballots on every important decision should be the end goal of a true democracy. To leave it all to elected representatives is simply  madness.

The process of becoming an elected MP now is so complex and riven with various power factions that we generally vote for one group who basically gives us a message we perceive is better than the alternative's. But the idea we then handover all decision making to that small group of representatives to make every single decsion for us is a farce.

Even with only 3 years betwen Federal elections, 4 in this state and 5 in the UK , any political party in power can corrupt the process to give them an unfair advantage when seeking re-election.

Power corrupts-and ultimate power corrupts fully. We saw that with Howard-an utterly corrupt politician-not in a the sense he was open to bribery or graft-but because he had become corrupted by power. He believed it was his moral right to mould 20 million people within his own image.

As was Blair-as was one of the maddest and most influential politicians of the past 50 years who even influenced our lives here-Margaret Thatcher.

A blinkered devotee of nut cases like Milton Friedman and F.A.Hayek and their "pursuit of equality is a mirage" concepts with all it's myriad variations was like a cancer that spread unchecked until it finally claimed our own little power hungry PM who finally, in the last 5/6 years believed his was free to turn Australia on it's head and abandon all concepts of fairness.

There are a hundred examples one could use to show the unchecked power hunger of Howard-but one is sufficient : his decision alone to take Australia into a war in which thousands would die in the Middle East. A power usually reserved for Kings and Queens with unfettered rule .

Nicholas Timmins, a Thatcher assistant recounts how within the her first week as PM Thatcher said to him about the great British Welfare State ( which she was determined to dismantle)-"it's time we brought back soup kitchens" ( being the extent of her charity). When Timmins smiled and gave a litle laughed she fixed him with her determined look and said "why are you looking so amused-I'm deadly serious".

And thus she set about it-attacking every institution from trade unions to National Health to the unemployed etc. And with that belief that these nutters have proclaimed that the real goal of life on this planet is to continually reward the rich for they are the wealth creators (despite the fact they need the poor as customers to become wealthy). Plus the sell-off every state asset to any shyster

We've had it here for past 11 years-with the Howard governments continued attacks upon the poorest-Tony Abbot's "dole bludgers"-his death by a thousand cuts to Medicare ( having perceived that no-one would get elected again by claiming outright they would dis-mantle our welfare health system).

The insane idea that to manage this economy one should reduce worker's wages to compete with the third world. The result in the UK-as in the USA under Bush and with Howard to a lesser extent-was that all the money removed from the majority poorer sections of society was simply given to the minority richest in tax cuts.

We are fortunate-Thatcher had a head start in the UK and Reagan in the USA ( assisted by Bill Clinton) with years to dismantle any idea of fair goes to the underdog. We only had Howard for 11 years and his real madness for the past 5 or so.

He was nipped in the bud before real damage could be done ( although NSW Labor under Bob Carr and now Iemma enthusiastically have adopted some policies-flogging off state assets that we own and gave them no permission to sell).

We aren't yet suffering the enormous collapse of social order that has been emerging in theUK  for the past 10 years as the real effect of the Thatcher years kicks in. The total collapse of British industry and the build-up of London as a money re-cycling centre of Europe., that has left huge swathes of the countries cities with decimated communities were crime, drugs, prostitution and child abuse are simply out of control as the great Friedman experiment collapses.

How ironic that F.A.Hayek-one of the main instigators of all that has happened over the past 50 years-the squeezing of democracy through the power of globalisation and the removal of power from the poor to the rich- that has given us the perverted form of democracy we now have ( in which fromer premier  Bob Carr declares Aussies need no Bill of Rights as they have politicians to protect their rights !) learned his craft not through hard work-but by monetary grants from rich supporters.

As usual-welfare is a sin-except when it's for those who don't need it.



Democratiya, Cohn-Bendit and '68

Democratiya has a new site, here. It is edited by Professor Alan Johnson of Edge Hill University, UK, and run (so I have read) from one computer in his rather cramped study.

The latest edition contains an interesting review by Philip Spencer of Forget '68, a new and provocatively titled book by Daniel ('Danny the Red') Cohn-Bendit, who shot to world fame (or notoriety) during the 1968 upheaval in France.

Some topics never really go stale.

What price a moral life?

Ethicist Peter Singer believes we need to challenge the idea that you can live a morally decent life "just by looking after your own family and not actually causing harm to others". "We need to develop a sense that if we have an abundance, we are actually doing wrong if we don't share it with people who, through no fault of their own, are in the most dire poverty," he has said. Part of the solution, he argues, is to show people how easy it is to make a difference. It would take only a modest proportion of the richest people's wealth to free the world's poorest from shocking poverty.

I believe most people would like to live a moral life. Those among us who are religious believe we must live a moral life to please our various gods.

Most of us believe democracy is the best form of government and in fact we often go to war to protect democracy. But is our version of democracy the best form of government to help frame a moral life?

Is the democracy we have today the best we can do? I think it is too easy for us to opt out and leave it to others. We should be looking for constant improvement. Our system of democratic capitalism leaves many behind, millions live in poverty, and the gap between rich and poor continues to grow.

Democracy as we have developed it is not very democratic. We have a party system which means we get to choose between Labor or Liberal. Third parties have tried and failed. This month we will see the last of the Democrat senators leave our Parliament. The Greens put alternate policies but their chance of winning government is slim. How do we bring about real change?

How many of us participate in choosing who will be the Labor or the Liberal candidate in our electorate? I have been a member of the Labor party for four years. I have asked many of my fellow party members, who chose our candidate? No one seems to know - it just happens. I think most of the candidate selection process happens behind closed doors. So even before we get to vote hidden forces have taken over. I am sure something similar happens in the Liberal Party.

So we vote for a candidate most of us do not know, the party selects a leader and we live with the result for the next three years or so. It seems almost impossible to change the system or even steer it in a different direction.

Meanwhile we face real challenges such as climate change, peak oil and over population. Millions are on the verge of starvation, while the rich live in unbelievable luxury and have more money than they could possibly spend in a lifetime.

Most of us feel we live a decent life if we just look after our family. Yet every night we helplessly watch wars killing millions of women and children, punctuated by reports of a food crisis which will leave millions more to starve.

We must do more, we must change our "democratic" process so we all get a real voice.

Is democracy up to the task?

Basil, "If we can win the democratic battle at the local and national levels there can be hope for the world. The question is: Can we, will we?"

Given the problems we are facing I am not sure democracy will do the job.

Are we going to give the starving a vote?

If so what do you think they would vote for?

BARRING NUCLEAR WARS, pandemics and cosmic accidents, there will be about 9.1 billion people living in the world in 2050. Yet they will eat as much food as 13 billion people at today's nutritional levels. So how will we feed them all? The answer to this question could be the greatest scientific challenge of the 21st century – greater even than finding a solution to climate change.

The problem is that humanity is consuming more food, year-on-year, than it produces, especially as demand for high-protein food increases in high population developing countries like China and India.

I hate to be so pessimistic; I have always tended to be an optimist, but some of the problems we will face over the next 50 years or so seem to be insurmountable.

Is democracy up to the task?

John Pratt: "I hate to be so pessimistic; I have always tended to be an optimist, but some of the problems we will face over the next 50 years or so seem to be insurmountable."

Fair enough John. You draw attention to horrific problems facing our world. So, what are we going to do? We can't give up can we?

What are the options? Decisions have to be made. Many of us are doing small things but they won't be enough.That much is clear.

The big decisions have to be made by governments, right? The problem is that existing governments are not coping are they? And they look even less like coping as the size of the problen really kicks in.  We placed some hope in Kevin Rudd but he's not really going to be good enough with the Coalition sniping, the media picking at him and the public displaying little stomach, even for what will prove to be minor cost increases.

The situation looks rather like Britain in 1939 -  many very anxious but government paralysed until Churchill became PM and created a coalition government - to get stuck into the problems.

We need to pull together. That individuals can't do that; it requires leadership at government level, where alone can big, far-reaching decisions  be made. High courage will be needed, but they won't be able to give the necessary lead and rally the people while party allegiances divide the country.  

In the end government is the responsibility of the people. Leaving it to leaders is what has caused our drift into trouble. Global warming was first noticed 20 years ago. Why no action?  And why are we running aroiund in circles on the subject now. Because party  government is  divided and devisive, isolated  from the people.

Without a deep involvement of the people, government is weak. True democracy is needed to devolve power to the people and make   governments strong to tackle the hardest problems.

The election ballot gave some power to the people but  the people need more -  to eliminate party candidate advantage, and regain control of  their members' parliamentary  representation.  Then the  people can and will pitch in and  take responsibility for government.

The Secret Ballot Party  says democracy needs a fresh start - with the electronic secret ballot  ruling in parliament, to return the power of government to parliament -  and to the people.  We will then have a chance to face  the future with condidence.   Advance Australia fair!

The convergence model for tackling climate change.

Basil: "But knowledge creates responsibility, accenting our duty to others, while failure opens the door to guilt and the fear which raises barriers, leading to dislike, to hatred, to cruelty. We are far from emulating the ants in any of our human, fear-traumatised environments. How then can we hope for successful global government and harmony in the world?"

If we want successful global government and harmony in the world we shall have to accept all as part of our "family" - we will have to learn to share.

As daily news reports now remind us, there are three key factors behind the rocketing price of the most basic foodstuffs: the rising cost of oil, swathes of agricultural land being given over to biofuels, and the fact that the increasing affluence of China and India is spearheading an explosion in the demand for meat and the feed needed to produce it.

From there, it is only a small step towards an argument that is rapidly gaining ground: that with more than 850 million people going hungry, using huge amounts of water, grain, energy and land to rear livestock is a luxury now officially beyond us. This may suggest the arrogant west once again telling the rest of humanity to refrain from what we have happily done for years, but there is another way of thinking about it: à la the contraction and convergence model for tackling climate change, if we are to accommodate other countries' increased demand for meat, we will have to drastically reduce our own.

To enable the poorer nations of the planet to have a reasonable standard of living we will have to drastically reduce our demands on the planet. We have to learn to share the resources and that will mean giving up many of the luxuries we have been accustomed to.

Basil, you are right to say "knowledge creates responsibility." It is our moral duty to share the wealth of this planet.

A very interesting idea

Basil Smith, I think you are right on the money with this idea. The task for us is to defend and extend democracy as a set of practices rather than a mere set of institutions. The idea of radical democracy offers greater potential for individual and collective liberation than any other on the political and philosophical horizon.

Participation is the key in every sphere of life from the domestic to the workplace and into civil society. The notion of citizen journalism, for example, allows participation in public discussions in the public sphere around the issues of the day. Thank heavens for WebDiary. Workplace democracy is still perhaps the most challenging notion to come out of the old socialist movement. The standout example in Australia is the BLF and the way that the radical leadership encouraged union members to take social responsibility for the consequences of their labour. And what a challenge to privilege and power that turned out to be ... I recall at the height of the struggle around Victoria St the SMH had something like seventeen editorials in a row condemning these upstarts BL's.

The level of social co-operation we have already achieved as a species is extraordinary. Now we need to make sure that this capacity for co-operative social behaviour is directed towards our common species interests. First and foremost is preserving the planetary ecological conditions of existence. The current crisis around energy supplies, industrial production and ecological degradation is probably our best ever opportunity to argue for a radical democratic agenda.

One big struggle, I know, but the most worthwhile life project I can think of.

As to the ballotbecoming a central institution and social practice of all aspects of governance, a terrific idea because anyone who argues against a ballot immediately exposes themselves for what they are – anti-democratic.

What stuff Richard?

I am not in the habit of writing stuff I believe or know to be untrue.    Tell me what is and I will fix it.

Linda was forced out by Don Farrell of the SDA and his right wing mates because they disapproved of Linda's moral stance on abortion, stem cell, kids in detention, David Hicks and other things.

As can be seen, Alan, Linda is a shoppie herself and she was most definitely not a waste of space.

Richard: Marilyn I don't doubt the your truth.  Not for a second, as I hope you know.    There's a couple of people who are asking for backup links, and it would be great if you provide them.   It's one of the "joys"  of writing online...

Love and logic

Thanks for your response John. However, I would argue that the love (Agape) we need is coldly logical. It responds to need not by affection but recognising the need of another – for an equality of wellbeing (though not necessarily of assets!). The Good Samaritan (a story) acted logically. Jesus called it love. Jesus acted logically to free mankind from the 'dead works' of religion.

An old man fell off the railway station in the path of an oncoming train. A sixteen-year-old youth instinctively, logically, jumped and moved him off the rails, both lying just off the rails just as the train roared in.

When my sister's husband joined the army in 1940 I knew I, being eighteen, had to join up too. This is the kind of love – coldly logical if you like – that we need to match the problems of today and tomorrow. Where action is logical we need to take it regardless of convenience or self-interest – the narrow way.

I agree entirely that It is time to develop new skills. I think it is clear that the most damaging lack of skill in the world today is that of democratic decision-making. We have used the ballot for elections for over a century but we still have not adopted it for decisions at all levels. Why not?

Is it because we don't trust politicians, or because we can't be bothered spending the time and effort to liaise with the independent representatives we would surely have if we allowed them to vote secretly in parliament? Not very logical, is it, when the curse of every democracy is the dominance of party politics?

The greatest lack of skills is quite plainly our neglect of the citizen role in government by the people.

God bless.

Invertebrate love, and formicatory love in particular

Basil, on many occasions as a pre-teen budding naturalist, I used to sit near (but not too near) ant nests and watch their coming and going.

Bull ants or "Bull Joes" , they of the fiery sting, were fascinating. But the common and stingless Australian meat ant, Iridomermex purpereus intrigues me above all, and to this day.

Catch an individual from one nest, then drop it on top of another nest, and watch the donnybrook. The unfortunate foreign drop-in will be set upon by all and sundry, and will high-tail it out of there. Bear in mind that all save a few in any nest are sterile females, and all are members of the same species.

The moral: if she walks up close enough to you to tear you apart and then doesn't, she truly loves you.

Love is being passed over for dismemberment. It's as good as it gets on an ant heap.

Senator Kirk is my friend

Linda has been forced out of the Senate for daring to have human rights at the forefront of her conscience and I just heard Trish Crossin pay tribute to this maiden speech of Linda's. Linda has been a friend of mine for most of her time in the senate, she has helped to expose many of the crimes of the immigration department and has forensically questioned them in estimates for years now.

We should all remember this speech. It is a ripper.

Senator KIRK (South Australia) (5.26 p.m.)- Thank you, Mr President, and congratulations on your election to office. This is the first and last time that I seek to have the adjective `maiden- attached to a speech that I give in this place. I feel privileged to take my seat in the Senate on the centenary of female suffrage in the Commonwealth.

At Federation, only South Australian women had the vote. Our founding fathers did not include women-s suffrage in the Constitution. It was only by the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 that Australian women were granted the right to vote in the second federal election in 1903.

The three women who nominated for the Senate and the one for the House of Representatives for that election marked the first occasion on which women nominated for any national parliament within what was then the British Empire.

It took another 40 years for any woman to be elected to the federal parliament. Dorothy Tangney from Western Australia was aged 32 when she became the first woman senator, elected in 1943. She went on to represent the Australian Labor Party for the next 25 years to become the longest serving female parliamentarian. After 100 years, it remains that only some 50 women have been elected to the Senate.

My colleague Senator Penny Wong and I are only the second and third women senators from the ALP from South Australia. The election in 2001 saw a record number of six women enter the Senate-five of them representing the Australian Labor Party. I congratulate my colleagues on their election.

The concerns of the pioneering women who have preceded me in this place, including the cause of increasing the representation of women in Australian parliaments, remain challenges today. These concerns are among the reasons that motivated me to stand for election to this place.

My great-grandfather, Frederick Thomas Pullen, was a stonemason in London who struggled to find regular work. When the Titanic sank on its maiden voyage from London to New York in April 1912, the cost of passage from London to faraway places dropped dramatically. It was the maritime equivalent of the fear of flying after September 11. Just one month later, my great-grandparents borrowed A£100 to take the voyage from London to Australia on the Ophir. They arrived some two months later in Adelaide with their six children, 10 shillings and a kitchen chair. My grandmother was born soon after, as their seventh child, on 31 October 1912 and was named Violet Adelaide.

My great-grandfather was a proud trade unionist and a Labor man. In 1953 his indentures of apprenticeship were given to the United Trades and Labor Council in Adelaide. Through stories told to me by my father, I learned of his strong principles and pride in being a working man and a trade unionist.

After my father left school at the age of 14, he completed a trade and went on to retire, some 50 years later, as the state manager of a manufacturing plant. Although they were not themselves educated beyond secondary school, my parents encouraged me to make the most of my state school education and to gain a university degree.

With their support, I completed a first class honours degree in law and a degree in economics at the University of Adelaide. After some years in legal practice, a Commonwealth scholarship enabled me to take a Master of Laws degree at the University of Cambridge. As I enter the Senate I am writing up my doctoral thesis, on the separation of judicial power, at the Australian National University.

For the opportunities and support given to me over a lifetime, I thank my parents, Gloria and Les Kirk, who are in the gallery today, and my brother Steven, without whose love and encouragement I would not be standing here today making my first speech to the Senate.

I would also like to thank my staff: Carla, Nimfa, Alex, Chris and Xanthe, who have been a great source of support and assistance to me in my first few weeks as a senator. I would also like to thank Helen, who travelled from Perth to be here today to hear me speak.

While at university I worked part time as a checkout operator at a department store. At this time, I joined the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association, the SDA. I was an active member of the SDA and won several of its education scholarships, which assisted me to complete my undergraduate studies at university.

Following my election to this place, I worked at the SDA as an industrial officer representing retail workers in their employment disputes. I thank the SDA and, in particular, its South Australian secretary and national president, Don Farrell, and his wife, Nimfa, who are also here in the gallery today, for their faith in me, their support for my preselection and for their friendship over many years.

With them, I thank the delegates to the South Australian state conference who, in April 2000, supported me to represent the Australian Labor Party and my state in the Senate. I shall fulfil their expectations and those of the many South Australians who elected me in November last year. I must earn the continuing privilege to represent my state and the Australian Labor Party in the Senate.

In 1988 I joined the Australian Labor Party as a student. I was attracted to its policies and philosophies, which reflected the values that had been instilled in me by my parents and my background. These core values include: the right of individuals to develop and apply their talents and abilities for self-advancement supported by high standards of public education and training; an unqualified opposition to discrimination based on race, colour, ethnic origin, gender or sexuality; recognition of the prior possession of Australia by the Aboriginal people; belief in and assistance for developing the Australian population through family support and further migration, including a substantial intake of refugees; the right of workers to organise and bargain collectively supported by a robust, independent and fair industrial relations system; and the belief in a strong, democratic and republican system of constitutional government underpinned by strict separation of powers and adherence to the rule of law. These core beliefs led me to join the ALP some 15 years ago. They motivated me to stand for election to this place. I will dedicate myself to their achievement.

I take the opportunity that this, my first speech, presents to be heard without interruption-except perhaps by applause-to outline my view of the importance of maintaining the underpinnings of our system of constitutional democracy. On its first anniversary, my theme is the Tampa incident and its aftermath.

To my mind, Tampa exposed this government-s lack of respect for our democratic institutions, the separation of powers and the rule of law. In the 17th century, Sir Edward Coke told James I that he could not dispense with the law. In 2001 the Tampa incident was characterised by prime ministerial directions to dispense with the law and bypass the constitutional role of the courts to protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of citizens and non-citizens alike. The Tampa incident and its aftermath exposed that our democratic system of constitutional government, underpinned by the separation of powers and the rule of law, is under direct threat under the stewardship of this government.

Last August, 433, mainly Afghani, asylum seekers were taken on board the MV Tampa near Christmas Island. In accordance with the finest principles of maritime duty, Captain Arne Rinnan defied government directions and took his ship into Australian territorial waters on 29 August 2001. This decision of the government to exclude these asylum seekers from the application of Australian law, namely the Migration Act, was never explained except for the rhetoric of the Prime Minister of `sending a clear message to people-smugglers and queue jumpers that Australia is not a soft touch-.

On 29 August 2001, SAS troops boarded the ship to prevent asylum seekers from landing on Christmas Island. No person was allowed to approach the Tampa. The asylum seekers on board were dehumanised. The Australian people were only allowed to see the images of tiny coloured figures on the deck of the ship. On the same day, the Prime Minister introduced the Border Protection Bill 2001 into the House of Representatives. On 31 August 2001, the Victorian Council for Civil Liberties and Eric Vadarlis, a concerned citizen and Victorian lawyer, filed applications in the Federal Court challenging the detention of the asylum seekers on board the Tampa and seeking orders to compel the government to bring the asylum seekers to the migration zone where their applications for asylum could be processed. Counsel for the VCCL and Vadarlis appeared pro bono in the Federal Court.

In finding for the asylum seekers, Justice North noted that the issues involved the operation of the rule of law and the relationship between parliament, the executive and the judiciary. He held that statutory authority was required to arrest and detain the asylum seekers. The Prime Minister-s reaction to Justice North-s decision was to reassert the sovereign right of a state to control its borders. He suggested that Justice North-s decision represented an attempt by the judiciary to curtail national sovereignty as to matters which `should be decided by democratic governments-.

On 17 September 2001 the Commonwealth-s appeal against the decision of Justice North was upheld. By a majority of 2-1, with a strong dissent from the Chief Justice, the full Federal Court held that the Commonwealth-s action was a valid exercise of executive power under section 61 of the Constitution. An application by Vadarlis for special leave to appeal to the High Court was refused. Thus, by a bare majority on appeal, the exercise of the executive power of the Commonwealth in the detention of the Tampa asylum seekers was not restrained by the courts.

During the appeal process the government moved quickly to ground executive power in this area in legislation. In his second reading speech on the Border Protection Bill, the Prime Minister emphasised that the purpose of the legislation was to ensure that decisions as to who comes into this country and the circumstances in which they come be determined by the executive and, secondly, to remove from judicial oversight, that decision. It was never made clear by the government just what was the defect in Commonwealth executive power that the legislation was designed to remedy. Albeit by a bare majority, the government had been successful in the Federal Court and the Prime Minister-s public statements suggested that he believed that there was sufficient legal authority for government action to demand the removal of the Tampa and the asylum seekers. In the Prime Minister-s words, the purpose of the legislation was `for more abundant caution- and to `ensure that there is no doubt- about the government-s ability to order vessels to leave Australian waters. The bill sought to remove any future judicial scrutiny, including by the High Court, of the actions of government agents.

The Labor Party opposed the August bill, with members in both houses noting that it would have given an unnecessary, unreviewable and absolute discretion to officers of the Commonwealth. The Senate-s rejection of the August bill saved the government from the almost certain embarrassment of the bill being declared unconstitutional by the High Court. The government then presented a second series of bills from which the more offensive provisions of the August bill had been removed. These bills were supported by Labor.

The Tampa incident formed the dramatic backdrop to the 2001 federal election in the blatant exercise of dog-whistle politics. Full-page advertisements in all newspapers on polling day pleaded a policy of prejudice: `We decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.- The clenched-fisted John Howard represented the focal point of the coalition-s campaign. During the campaign, the Prime Minister said:

The circumstances surrounding the Tampa are particular but they are nonetheless a metaphor for the dilemma this country faces.

I would ask: of what `dilemma- is Tampa a metaphor? Plainly, it is how to keep asylum seekers out of this country.

But, on a deeper level, the `dilemma- that the Prime Minister saw, I believe, was how to construct a new relationship between the parliament, the executive and the judiciary. What remains unsettled following the 2001 `Tampa- election campaign is the question of who and what constitutes the `we- in the statement: `We decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.- The identity of the `we- is possibly the most crucial question raised by the Tampa incident and the 2001 election campaign. Is it merely the royal plural adopted by a Prime Minister confirmed in power by the policies of prejudice?

To my mind, these events raised the question of which of the three arms of government is to be supreme in our constitutional system. On a superficial level, it could be said that the parliament was successful in asserting its control over entry into Australia of asylum seekers in passing the coalition-s legislative program. However, the passage of the laws and the effective grounding in statutory authority of the executive-s otherwise untrammelled power to detain the Tampa asylum seekers veiled the more central issue of the consolidation of executive power at the expense of the parliament and the judiciary. The `we- in the election statement, `We decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come,- is clearly a reference to the executive government.

The question of who should have the final say on migration issues has been, and will continue to be, a source of confrontation between the executive and the judiciary during the term of this government. Building on earlier attempts to restrict review of migration decisions, the government-s first Tampa bill, rejected by the Senate, went a step further and sought to exclude such decisions from any form of judicial review including by the High Court. Such legislation marks the continuation of what appears to be a deliberate policy of this government of undermining a fundamental principle of our constitutional system of government- namely, the separation of powers.

At the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the establishment of the Federal Court, on 7 February 2002, the Attorney-General said that reducing the number of time wasting migration cases had been a major rationale of the Tampa legislation. In this regard, attacks on the legitimacy of the judiciary as the third arm of government in a democratic system have been a consistent focus of the Prime Minister and his ministers. In response to criticisms of the High Court-s decision in the Wik case by the then Deputy Prime Minister, a former Chief Justice of the High Court, Sir Anthony Mason, noted that these criticisms:

... reflected a lamentable failure to respect the independence of the judiciary and a failure to appreciate the importance of the rule of law as a central pillar in our society.

Viewed against this background, one cannot help but think that the government seized on the Tampa incident as an opportunity to gain popular endorsement, and hence legitimacy, for its attempts to oust the role of the courts in our constitutional democracy. The Tampa incident highlighted the government-s contempt for the rule of law and the separation of powers. This was evident in the government-s attempt to recover costs against the lawyers who acted pro bono to promote the interests of asylum seekers on board the Tampa. In a press release in October last year the Attorney-General said:

It is fair and appropriate that the Commonwealth seeks to recover at least part of the thousands of taxpayers- dollars that we spent responding to what we consider was an unnecessary court action. The litigation was not in the public interest, rather it was an interference with an exercise of the executive power of the Commonwealth.

When asked whether the application for costs from the applicants- lawyers would act as a disincentive to the bringing of public interest litigation by lawyers and publicly minded organisations, the Attorney-General responded, `Well, that regrettably might be a consequence but this is a very special case.-

How was the Tampa litigation a very special case? The Attorney-General said that, from a government perspective, the lawyers were `promoting unlawful activity-. The subtext of the Attorney-General-s statement and the government-s attitude is that in daring to challenge the executive power of the Commonwealth, the lawyers were acting contrary to the public interest and therefore were deserving of an order of costs against them.

The High Court in the special leave application-and taking its cue from the High Court, the full Federal Court-dismissed the Commonwealth-s application for costs. In its judgment, the majority of the full Federal Court identified particular features of the Tampa case that `point powerfully- against the `usual rule- favouring an award of costs. These included the novel and important questions of law raised by the case concerning the alleged deprivation of liberty of the individual, the executive power of the Commonwealth, the operation of the Migration Act and Australia-s obligations under international law.

I believe it is necessary to consider the Tampa incident in its wider context and to reflect on the nature of the precedent it, and its legislative aftermath, sets for the treatment of civil liberties in this country. In a speech to graduates at the University of Sydney in May this year, Justice Graham Hill of the Federal Court said that the restrictions on judicial review of migration decisions effected by the Tampa legislation meant that he:

... could not do justice at all ... it is a dangerous precedent. This time it is refugee decisions that, while wrong, cannot be challenged. Next time it might be some other decision that could personally affect you and your rights.

Not one minister in this government-and certainly not the Attorney-General-has seen it as his or her business to defend the separation of powers that is at the heart of our constitutional system. The fundamentals of our democratic system are being seriously challenged by the actions of this government. Government ministers have attacked the High Court and the Federal Court. The government has politicised the Public Service, the office of the Governor-General and the armed forces. One may well ask: what is left? These institutions are meant to be apolitical arms of government with each functioning independently of the others. We pride ourselves in Australia on our democratic institutions and our respect for fundamental freedoms. Plainly, we must be concerned that the government-led attacks on our democratic institutions in the present climate will only escalate and that the civil liberties of citizens and non-citizens alike will be sacrificed. In this place, I will make it my business to oppose this trend, whether it be the government-s proposed ASIO legislation or whatever else this government sees fit to impose on the Australian people.

In a recent article published in the Public Law Review, Pringle and Thompson argued that the Tampa incident has highlighted the lack of debate in Australia about the philosophical underpinning of Australian democracy, the nature of constitutional government and the place of the separation of powers within a system of responsible government. They argue that underlying the Tampa incident and its legislative aftermath is a conception of democracy that is seen as resting on popular will expressed through a strong executive---a not unprecedented combination in authoritarian governments. In the opinion of these scholars, the Tampa incident represents the rise in Australia of a majoritarian conception of democracy. This conception views democracy as the public will being given effect to by a strong executive government with limited oversight by the parliament and the judiciary. Pringle and Thompson observe that, despite the common view that the Tampa legislation was a response to the wishes of the Australian people as expressed through their parliamentary institutions, it in fact highlights the shortcomings of our democratic institutions in the face of a determined executive.

In a constitutional system, the strength of its checks and balances is put to the test during times of political crisis. The Australian constitutional system was severely tested by the events of 1975. Posterity may well judge the Tampa incident and its aftermath as another significant test of the strength of our constitutional system and its entrenched separation of powers. The Tampa incident and the events of September 11 were manipulated by the government to promote legislation that undermines Australia-s standing in the international community with respect to human rights and to exclude the role of the courts as constitutional umpire. The legislative aftermath to the Tampa incident highlights the threat to the separation of powers presented by a government that views judicial review of executive action with overt hostility.

The `we- who decide who comes into this country and the circumstances in which they come must include the courts and the parliament alongside the executive. I will defend these fundamental issues and principles in this chamber. I look forward to contributing to this and other debates. Thank you, Mr President, and honourable senators, for your indulgence in listening without interruption to this my first speech.

Richard: In a hurry to get this up, I've left some things that will need to be tweeked. Sorry PK. Marilyn, I understand you much more after this. However, it would still be helpful if you substantiate some other aspects of your stuff.

Forced out?

Marilyn Shepherd, How was Sen. Kirk forced out of the Senate? I thought the people voted them out or was this a special case? Just like Sen. Nettle she was a waste of taxpayers money.

Burying the dead - beam me up Scotty

Alan, she (Kirk) was shoved out for being able to think for herself- a characteristic she shares with Nettle, and the Dems no longer remaining.

The factional gods decreed she make way for Don Farrell of the SDA. Obviously not enough conservatives in the Labor Senate team.

Look what having not enough yes men has cost Iemma.

Logic not love.

Basil: "Individually, the reach of love varies enormously, according to individual inspiration and faith. For most it is the family. For a few, with a deep faith, it is the world, with many in between."

Many religious leaders encourage us to love one and other.

Is it love or logic we need?

Insects such as ants cooperate on a level that gives them an advantage over other insects. The cooperation of an insect colony is not necessarily love. It is a survival technique which gives the colony an advantage.

As human understanding developed the first love was self love. This led to the selfish behaviour we often witness in children. As we mature this normally develops into love of family: families protect each other and pass on knowledge. As families grew into clans and tribes we developed a love of community and by osmosis the community religion. Clans and tribes were able to better protect the family and the individual. This has been a pattern that stood humankind in good stead for thousands of years and allowed us to populate the globe, conquering all that we saw.

Most people still cling to the love of family, tribe, and religion. Our cooperation has been extremely successful, so successful that we have now increased our population to such a level the planet can no longer support a growing human population. The old system of tribes and religions is failing as we fight for land and resources. It is time to develop new skills.

We must learn to cooperate on a global scale. We have to broaden our vision of family to encompass all living things. We are all part of one big family and every time a member of that family suffers we all suffer.

What is needed is logic, not love. The logical thing to do is to learn and encourage better cooperation. We must not use the self love of a child to prevent us from sharing this planet with all.

It is not love that we need to be encouraging but education.

It is our intellect that has brought us so far. It is time we used it to full advantage.

We will only survive if we learn to work together just like the ants.

Love, logic, education

 John, I think whatever it takes. We are on a straight course to disaster the way we are going. Our political structure can no way succeed in providing the leadership needed. Our democracy is failing us. We cannot sit back, taking no action. Radical change as outlined in my thread Resurrecting democracy is urgently needed.

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
© 2005-2011, Webdiary Pty Ltd
Disclaimer: This site is home to many debates, and the views expressed on this site are not necessarily those of the site editors.
Contributors submit comments on their own responsibility: if you believe that a comment is incorrect or offensive in any way,
please submit a comment to that effect and we will make corrections or deletions as necessary.
Margo Kingston Photo © Elaine Campaner

Recent Comments

David Roffey: {whimper} in Not with a bang ... 13 weeks 4 hours ago
Jenny Hume: So long mate in Not with a bang ... 13 weeks 21 hours ago
Fiona Reynolds: Reds (under beds?) in Not with a bang ... 13 weeks 2 days ago
Justin Obodie: Why not, with a bang? in Not with a bang ... 13 weeks 2 days ago
Fiona Reynolds: Dear Albatross in Not with a bang ... 13 weeks 2 days ago
Michael Talbot-Wilson: Good luck in Not with a bang ... 13 weeks 2 days ago
Fiona Reynolds: Goodnight and good luck in Not with a bang ... 13 weeks 4 days ago
Margo Kingston: bye, babe in Not with a bang ... 14 weeks 22 hours ago