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Tuesday, 28 February 2012
Page: 1108


Senator FAULKNER (New South Wales) (20:25): Tonight I want to pay tribute to the life and work of Vaclav Havel, playwright, activist, prisoner, president. Havel died on 18 December 2011, of course during our parliament summer recess. Havel had a belligerent interest in the truth, an abiding sense of justice and a lifelong commitment to freedom. His struggle against communism and the sacrifices he made in this cause remind us how fortunate we are to live in one of the world's oldest and most stable democracies. In a time when, too often, public intellectuals are dismissed as meddling elitists, Havel reminds us of the crucial role they play in public life.

Havel was born in Prague in 1936. In Stalinist Europe his wealthy heritage stopped him from entering college, and so it was in the theatre that Havel first made his mark. He worked initially at the avant-garde Balustrade, where his first play The Garden Party was staged in 1963. Already in this play we get a sense of young Havel's frustration with the communist regime's relationship with the truth, as the characters in the play argue over the relative sizes of large dance floor A and small dance floor C. He would go on to write 20 more plays—all politically relevant, many critically acclaimed. Havel's suspicion of the regime was confirmed during the Prague Spring, when in 1968 Soviet tanks rolled into Wenceslas Square to crush the tentative reform movement of Alexander Dubcek. As spring ended and Czechoslovakia really entered a long and repressive winter, Havel through his plays, his essays and his letters began a long, sometimes lonely but always determined battle against totalitarianism.

In 1975 he wrote an open letter addressed to then party leader Husak criticising the Czechoslovakian government. In 1977 Havel, along with fellow dissidents, published the Charter 77 manifesto calling on the regime to honour its human rights obligations. In 1978 he, along with others, established the Committee to Defend the Unjustly Persecuted to help those harassed by the state. In the same year he published his now famous essay 'The power of the powerless', where he argued that Czechoslovakia was ruled by a regime that 'touches people at every step and is captive to its own lies'. Commenting about this period he said:

Order has been established. At the price of a paralysis of the spirit, a deadening of the heart, and devastation of life.

Havel had a way with words, but he would pay dearly for his eloquence. In 1971 his works were banned and removed from public libraries and schools. For his involvement in the Charter 77 movement, Havel was arrested and imprisoned for five months. He would be arrested again in 1979 for helping establish the Committee for the Defence of the Unjustly Persecuted. This time he was given a 4½ year sentence. During this period the secret police were a constant and menacing presence. His country home had its very own guard tower. Friends, family and fellow activists were fined and arrested. Some were killed. Despite these trials, Havel remained dedicated to his cause, animated not by ideology but by his conscience. In his own words he continued to criticise the government:

… not because it happens to be a Communist government, but because it is bad. I am not on the side of any establishment, nor am I a professional campaigner against any establishment—I merely take the side of truth against lies, the side of sense against nonsense, the side of justice against injustice.

In 1989 he would be arrested again for joining a student demonstration. But, as the spirit of Gorbachev's glasnost overwhelmed eastern Europe, Czechoslovakia's long winter was about to end. In November 1989, students took to the streets in Prague and what would later be dubbed the Velvet Revolution took hold across the country. And so, without violence, and with little retribution, one-party rule was overthrown.

Havel was the revolution's natural but reluctant leader. Shy and self-effacing, he became its figurehead—not out of desire but because the times and, indeed, the people demanded it. Havel would go on to serve as President of post-communist Czechoslovakia. During his presidency he oversaw the peaceful transition to democracy, greater integration with Europe and entry into NATO.

He was a leader of immense moral authority. He called for the renewal of society through, to quote him, 'the rehabilitation of values like trust, openness, responsibility, solidarity, love'. But the force of his character could not keep his young nation united. Despite his wishes, the country divided into the Czech and Slovak republics in 1993. He would serve again as President of the Czech Republic until his retirement in 2002.

Havel was a national leader of international standing. His courageous pursuit of human rights was recognised with the United States Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Philadelphia Liberty Medal and Amnesty International's Ambassador of Conscience Award, along with a raft of other distinctions.

Like Solzhenitsyn, we can make the mistake of thinking that Havel's was a lone voice crying in the wilderness. The reality was nobler still. He had the courage to speak the truth to the powerful, and the capacity to give voice to the voiceless. In doing so he truly gave power to the powerless.