Communist Party of Australia

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Issue #1619      November 20, 2013

A new course set for Australia

Shrouded in secrecy

Opening Parliament last week, Governor General Quentin Bryce started her speech by saying, “we celebrate the enduring health of our democracy. One hundred and twelve years after the first federal election, nearly 14 million Australians have cast their votes in another free and fair election… The people have set a new course for our country.”

In the true, archaic tradition of the British monarchy, she presented “her” government’s agenda as the Queen’s representative in Australia. But there is nothing to celebrate, the health of the limited democracy that we have looks far from enduring. And the “new course” that has been set for our country was not set by the people.

The people of Australia have little knowledge of what this new course is. The government and media are saying as little as possible. But the Coalition government and its patrons in the Murdoch media and Business Council of Australia have certainly set a new and very dangerous course.

It includes quashing dissent, destroying the trade union movement, slashing wages and working conditions, deregulating development and mining projects, and handing over government and public assets to big business and church corporations.

Prior to the federal elections Tony Abbott promised his would be a “no surprises government” that could be trusted by the electorate. It now seems that “no surprises” is spin for secrecy, half-truths and cover-ups.

We know that the government is pursuing its prior commitments to abolish the carbon and mining taxes, revamp the NBN and outdo Labor’s appalling, inhumane treatment of asylum seekers. Abbott had also indicated that he would bring “law and order” to the building industry by restoring the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC).

But where were all the announcements about the dismantling whole areas of government departments, the loss of 12,000 public service jobs (just the first round), the funding cuts to community groups, dismantling of advisory bodies, the massive privatisation program, and the rest of it?

Tune in to talkback radio any day of the week or check the social media, and there are reports of funding cuts and funding not being renewed. Most of the cuts are peanuts compared with the budget as a whole and the recipients are community and other organisations that are assisting the homeless, the unemployed, people with disabilities, youth, Indigenous Australians – the most disadvantaged.

The media are becoming increasingly frustrated with their lack of access to Ministers or information from the Coalition government. Abbott has gone from feeding the mass media on a daily basis to around one media conference a week if they are lucky. Questions are rarely answered.

Public servants are gagged like never before. They live in fear with 12,000 jobs on the line. Some have no work to do with the restructuring of departments, shutting down of programs and contracting out of their work.

Asylum seekers

Ministers are on a tight lead. Immigration Minister Scott Morrison gives his Friday, “say-nothing” update on asylum seekers. It doesn’t matter what is asked. How many boats were turned back? Did Indonesia refuse to accept them? What became of the asylum seekers? How many boats arrived last week? How many Indonesian fishing boats has the government bought? Have unaccompanied children been sent to Manus Island? All legitimate questions.

Regardless of the question, the same set lines are trotted out: “I will not comment further (sic!) in relation to on-water matters” or “We’re not going to go into the micro detail of these operational matters.”

We are supposed to believe that such information would “advantage people smugglers”. How? Morrison refuses to say. When in Opposition Abbott was always saying that such information would act as a deterrent. Now it is shrouded in secrecy, a secrecy that permeates government.

What is Morrison covering up? Reports from staff in the centres and agencies providing assistance are consistent. All tell of the rapid deterioration of conditions and the punitive and torturous conditions asylum seekers, including children, are being subjected to.

The government was forced by public pressure to respond following Fairfax media’s revelations that an asylum seeker mother was denied the right to be with her sick new-born in intensive care in a Brisbane hospital for more than six hours a day.

Abbott broke his silence, saying he deeply regretted it, but refused to apologise or indicate it would not happen again. “If you want to avoid these things you’ve got to stop the boats. I don’t, as it were, apologise for what happens when people come to Australia illegally by boat.”

There is a strong racist element which the Coalition and Labor fostered during the election campaign. To Abbott these people deserve what happens. And he doesn’t mind lying that they are illegal. Under international law which Australia is party to, they are not illegal. It is our legal obligation to provide humanitarian assistance.

If it were not for the Fairfax media, the Indonesian media and the various groups supporting asylum seekers, we would be in the dark over the brutal, torturous treatment being meted out to asylum seekers. The brutality is more akin to fascism than an enduring, healthy democracy.

The precedent has been created. If the government can get away with treating one group of human beings like that, it won’t be long before it is extended to other groups.


But treatment of asylum seekers is not the only thing the government is trying to keep from the people. The government’s portrayal of its changes to the ABCC is a classic example of how the public are not being told what is going on. Labor renamed Howard’s ABCC, modified a few of its worst features, reduced the penalties and put it under the Fair Work Australia umbrella. The Coalition’s legislation goes much further than bringing “law and order” to the building industry or restoring the old name.

The Transition Bill gives the ABCC incredible retrospective powers to revisit and take up any matter that may have been resolved in the past. There is a mandatory penalty of six months jail for failing to attend an interrogation session, answering questions or providing documents and other information as demanded by the ABCC. (More detailed coverage in next week’s Guardian.)

Racial vilification

The government is just as misleading over its plans to delete section 18C from the Racial Discrimination Act. This section makes it unlawful to do an act that ‘’is reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people ... because of the race, colour or national or ethnic origin of the other person.”

This is the clause that Abbott’s friend, ultra right-wing columnist Andrew Bolt, ran foul of for publishing deceptive and offensive material about Indigenous Australians.

Abbott defends its deletion: “Any suggestion you can have free speech as long as it doesn’t hurt people’s feelings is ridiculous. If we are going to be a robust democracy, if we are going to be a strong civil society, if we are going to maintain that great spirit of inquiry, which is the spark that has made our civilisation so strong, then we’ve got to allow people to say things that are unsayable in polite company.”

The Act doesn’t mention hurting people’s feelings. It is about racial vilification inciting hatred. The suggestion that the Act limits freedom of speech is a bit rich coming from a Prime Minister who has gagged his ministers and government departments and is keeping the public in the dark.

Abbott’s aim is to give the likes of Andrew Bolt a free hand to fuel racist sentiments, create divisions within the working class and society at large, and so prevent a united and broad movement capable of challenging his government’s reactionary and backward agenda. And that is exactly what is required now, the unity of the labour movement and all democratic and progressives forces in opposition to the government’s agenda which is reactionary and is targeting the “enduring health of our democracy”.

Next article – Asylum seeker kids in detention – What’s happening where

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