Panel agrees Howard government has managed to silence dissent in Australia

29 Jun

Sponsored and organised by the Don Chipp Foundation, the name of the foundation, derived from the founder of the Australian Democrats, the Silencing Dissent forum at the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts on 28 June saw an estimated attendance of 150.

Senator Lyn Allison of the Australian Democrats who chaired the event, gave a brief summary of how dissent has been silenced by the government through various methods such as hiding bad news, shutting down the flow of information and creating spin in the media. She also drew attention to the need for the protection of free speech by highlighting the inadequacy of current whistleblowing laws.

David Bernie, Barrister and vice- president of NSW Council of Civil Liberties touched on the national obsession for secrecy particularly since 9/11. He also touched on the enhanced powers that ASIO (Australian Security Intelligence Organisation) was given after the tragedy, including the right to detain suspected terrorists. The anti terrorism bill (2005), in his humble opinion, was one of the worst bills ever to be passed. It provided for new sedition laws and preventive detention laws which eroded basic common laws essential in any functioning democracies e.g. the right of presumption of innocence until proven guilty.

Dr Sarah Madison who is the Senior Associate Dean Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences at the UNSW, revealed how her students, who were only 7 or 8 when the Howard Government came to power, knew only about the current political mode, without realising that Australian political history were more critical and radical. She opined that dissent has been reduced to simplistic ‘Us Vs Them ‘rhetorics with critics being painted as extreme leftists. The restriction of information has also resulted in an uninformed population that is less able to hold the government accountable.

Upon taking the microphone, David Marr, stressed that he was speaking merely as an independent reporter and commentator, and not as a Australian Democrat supporter. After making a few corrections made by the panel members, he went on to highlight the inadequacy of shield laws which gave judges the discretion to compel journalists to answer questions which should have been otherwise.

Judging by what the speakers and the floor had voiced out, it appears that there is a general consensus that the Howard government has gradually and incrementally been using various means to neutralize, sideline or eliminate dissent. The government was able to do so by exploiting the climate of fear and terrorism threats post 9/11.

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