peteg's blog - noise - books - 2007 06 10 QuarterlyEssay26

Quarterly Essay #26, David Marr: His Master's Voice: The Corruption of Public Debate under Howard

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To think of this unfocussed essay as essentially another, better written, chapter of Silencing Dissent would be both apt and to miss the point. As the pull quote on the website says:

More than any law, any failure of the Opposition or individual act of bastardry over the last decade, what's done most to gag democracy in this country is the sense that debating John Howard gets us nowhere.

The Smage review abbreviates the quote and swiftly rebuts it:

The frustration is palpable as David Marr writes, "What's done most to gag democracy in this country is a sense that debating John Howard is futile".

It's not, as the polls are showing on a weekly basis. But for much of the past decade this is how it has felt to those who do not share the Prime Minister's political and social agenda. Marr describes how the terms of engagement in public discussion have evolved — deteriorated — during the long years of the Howard Government.

I almost choked on my Weetbix; since when has an opinion poll been a debate? Perhaps, like electricity and frogs' legs, they indicate that some force is at work, but what? Let not informed debate inform that, lest the Government lose control of the agenda! Elsewhere, at The Australian, the faceless editorialist similarly opines:

This last thesis [that Australia is becoming an increasingly authoritarian state where dissidents are silenced], expounded at length in Silencing Dissent published earlier this year, would seem difficult to sustain at a time when the marketplace of ideas has never been so crowded. In newspaper opinion sections and magazines and on radio and televisions and increasingly online, Australians are engaged in intelligent conversation about the issues of the day great and small. Blogs and internet chat rooms have given everyone a seat at the debating table. Technology has lowered the barriers to publishing. A host of new periodicals online and in print including The Monthly, New Matilda and The Australian's own Australian Literary Review are providing new platforms for discussion while established journals such as Quadrant and the Griffith Review are reaching new readers and providing a home for new writers. The queues outside venues at this year's Sydney Writers Festival, record attendances at similar writers festivals around the country and new events such as next month's Adelaide Festival of Ideas are public expressions of a confident, mature democracy in which informed debate flourishes.

Ah yes, if people are talking, they must be debating! How could they not be contributing to Australia's democratic future if they are sitting around in cafés, lecture halls, cubicle farms talking about John Howard? Clearly there is discourse in the public sphere, and these polemics are not complaining so much about the amount of it, but how it is informed and almost entirely summarily ignored along petty partisan lines. For the Government to be blown around by the winds of focus groups and opinion polls, as apparently advocated by the Smage, is to reveal how small an agenda it has now that most of its narrow ideological goals are in train.

It is the restriction of the foundational acquisition and dissemination of hard information that is troubling; this is an expensive business (look at how much your average university professor is paid and how much knowledge they produce) that the media is loathe to do a decent job of in these times of economic rationalism. If whisteblowers are persecuted, public servants valued only in their capacity as executors of Government policy, Freedom of Information requests evaded, and so forth, are we not well on the way to thinking of citizens purely as voters, entities of limited memory and interest whose coarsely aggregated opinions only matter once every three years or so?

It makes more sense to consider Marr's piece a response to Judith Brett's Quarterly Essay 19: Relaxed and Comfortable: The Liberal Party's Australia, where the intelligentsia is entreated not to abandon the field to Howard, but to join him out in the middle, the mainstream, arguing for the future of this country. Marr finds this futile, as the pull quote makes abundantly clear. The above-quoted editorial from The Australian goes on to insist that the "left" is completely dysfunctional and has dealt itself out of the debate, though the "argument" left me cold; take, for example:

Closely related to their hatred of the US is their contempt for capitalism. The impact of the modern share-owning democracy has yet to dawn on them. Corporations no longer answer to the bourgeoisie, they answer to shareholders -- ordinary people who are now stakeholders, either directly or through the $1 trillion in superannuation. Karl Marx's dream has been fulfilled now that the workers truly do control the means of production.

Any given worker may now own 0.000001% of some very large means of production, but even that much control is diluted by the fund managers and the machinations of the big boys. One only has to look at Rupert Murdoch's poison pill to see what kind of stakeholding The Australian has in mind; "privatise the profits, socialise the losses" springs to mind, albeit from the broader perspective of influence rather than just money.

Andrew Norton's review (and the ensuing commentary) is much more thoughtful than those of the mainstream press, though I mildly disagree with his closing (unargued for) claim that "Public debate [...] is not under any threat". Andrew Bartlett's comment there almost makes me mourn the passing of the Australian Democrats. Also Andrew Elder treads similar (good) ground.