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Wednesday, 17 November 2004
Page: 149


Senator CARR (6:10 PM) —I would like to take this opportunity to say a few words in response to the Governor-General's address and perhaps take this opportunity to also comment upon the government's forward program as outlined in that speech. What strikes me as having happened with the election is that the government is now in a position to undertake an agenda beyond its wildest dreams. We have a situation—and to an extent it is a surprise result, particularly in terms of the Senate—in which the government is now able to confirm its long-cherished desire to abandon once and for all the core tenets of small `l' liberalism and, one might say, even the fundamental tenets of small `c' conservatism: the framework, the values, the guiding principles of the founding fathers of the Liberal Party.

This government, which, of course, has been re-elected, is not in truth a Liberal government; it is a reactionary government. When the Senate is handed to this government on a platter on 1 July 2005, this government will be triumphant. We have seen already in the public debate some of its expectations and some of its plans. It will get serious from that point on about its blueprint for Australia and the Australian people—an agenda which, as we heard from the senator who just previously spoke, has been frustrated by the actions of this chamber. Yet despite the refusal of this chamber to pass some of its more draconian pieces of legislation, the government should not be undersold in terms of the manner in which it has persistently sought to transform the political culture of this country.

Since 1996 it has managed to redefine key concepts in the national political lexicon and debate. While pretending to advance the rights of individuals, especially under the mantra of the right to freedom of choice, this government has engaged in an extensive program of social engineering. Its interventions in the lives of individuals and the workings of civil society are unprecedented in their scale and scope. This is a government that is engaged in social engineering on a massive scale. In the name of taming the powers of elites, this government has sought to impose a new public morality based on its own versions of conservative elitism. It has sought to impose on the Commonwealth, as a matter of policy, a new ideology of intolerance and authoritarianism dressed up as libertarianism—that is, this government is a wolf in sheep's clothing.

The Howard government has viciously attacked trade unions and workers, and it has undermined the capacity of workers to organise and defend their living standards. Now it plans to finish the job. However, it has underestimated the resistance of Australian workers, who will fight to defend their rights to organise. It has cold-bloodedly exploited racial prejudices and the politics of resentment. It has sought to demonise and exclude asylum seekers, and it has sought to tear away the rights of Indigenous people.

This is a government that has deliberately and coldly flaunted the principles of Public Service independence and of transparency and accountability in public administration. This is a government that has attacked the independence of the courts and has sought to denigrate the judiciary. It has undermined our cultural institutions, such as the ABC. It has tried to intimidate the ABC in terms of its news reporting. It has locked out from services and from recognition the very people who need government the most—the poor, the disadvantaged, the young and the weak—and when this government is able to secure control of this chamber this is the agenda which we will see pursued.

This is a government hell-bent on pandering to the prejudices that lead to the exclusion of significant numbers of citizens from the processes and benefits of government itself. In higher education, in schools, in social policy and even in the funding of scientific research this government has intervened in the details of the operation of public institutions to a level of minutiae unparalleled in the history of this Commonwealth and unthinkable just a decade ago.

This is a government that describes Malcolm Fraser as some sort of quasi Marxist. This is a government that has fundamentally turned its back on the traditions of liberalism in this country. It forces state schools to fly the Australian flag and to pursue its own version of education values—or else lose their Commonwealth funding. It wants to force universities to adopt industrial relations practices and governance policies against their own better judgment and contrary to the interests of their own staff and students—again, imposing this as a condition of funding. It wants to fundamentally undermine the principles of academic freedom and of university autonomy. According to leaked reports, the Howard government is now proposing to embark on a new program of behaviour modification, using the levers of welfare and other payments.

There is no doubt that in some communities in Australia there is considerable pressure and that some communities face serious social problems. Equally, there is no doubt that in some communities, particularly Indigenous communities, there has been great progress and people are doing extremely well. The Labor Party takes the view that community partnerships, where they are genuine, are essential for lasting social change. In fact, there could be no sustainable social change without effective participation by communities. Social engineering predicated on a top-down approach will inevitably fail, but that is exactly the policy position that it would appear is being pursued by this government with Indigenous communities.

Through the leaked documents that I have mentioned the government has suggested that it wants a radical overhaul of Indigenous affairs. However, it has not made any policy statement to that effect. No green paper or ministerial statement has been presented. What we have to rely upon here are press reports and the odd political jibe by the government run through its media campaigns which seek to highlight what it regards as the failings of Indigenous leaders. Labor takes the view that, where social partnerships are genuine, Labor will back them. However, I want to emphasise that Labor will not back actions that impose from Canberra, against the will of local communities, measures which are punitive, coercive or discriminatory. In fact, some of the proposals that I have seen and heard of in recent times would appear to me to support the views that HREOC has expressed to be illegal. While the Prime Minister often says that this government is not about changing social behaviour, it seems that this is an edict that does not apply to all Australians. If you are poor, and particularly if you are black, it seems that a different set of rules are being applied by this government under this new agenda than are being applied to Australians at large.

The recent changes to ATSIC have been attacked because they appear to go back to the pre-McMahon days of the administration of Indigenous affairs in so far as they do not give Indigenous people a genuine voice at the table. The social policies being pursued by this government have great undertones of paternalism and hark back to the days of the mission. Mutual obligation, as a concept, as far as I can see applies to both governments and citizens, and it is offensive to make remarks about whether parents wash their children, particularly where public infrastructure for water, electricity, health and education has been so badly neglected by the very government making those comments about the lifestyles of its citizens. This is not partnership; it is about the reinforcement of power and privilege. This is not respect for the individual; it is coercion. This is not the protection of personal liberty; it is the disrespect for the rights of the individual—any individual who happens not to conform to the bland, timorous, compliant citizen idealised and pandered to by the new ideology presented by this coalition government.

I might go back in history for a moment and talk about the foundation stones of the Liberal Party. One can see just how sharply they contrast with the modern version of the Liberal Party. The man acknowledged as the father of the Liberal Party is Alfred Deakin. In 1895, Deakin spoke to an audience in Melbourne on the subject `What is Liberalism?' He described the principles guiding the British Liberal Party which he declared to be congruent with those of Australian liberalism. Deakin said that throughout the 19th century British liberalism had sought to resist and destroy class privileges. He said:

Other great works of Liberalism had been the removal of the religious disabilities of nonconformists and Roman Catholics and the abolition of the laws against trade unionism.

Liberalism, Deakin told his audience, explicitly rejected the adage of `the devil take the hindmost'—or the survival of the fittest. He said that Liberalism was dedicated to protecting and advancing the rights and interests of `the poorest in the community' so that `all should have what was their due'.

Alfred Deakin said that `by fixing a minimum rate of wages and wise factory legislation, wealth would be prevented from taking unfair advantage of the needy' and the needy would `be saved from leading wretched and imperfect lives.' He went on to observe that in Australia the principles of liberalism entailed the introduction of female suffrage and the principle of one man—or one person, we might say today—one vote. The father of Australia's liberal movement said that adherents of liberalism had always to `tread the paths of progress' and `leave the world a better place than they found it'. To anyone familiar with the march of recent Australian history, these words of Alfred Deakin might well sound very strange. The ideas and principles espoused by Deakin do not sit comfortably with many of the views and actions of the modern Australian Liberal Party.

As the political scientist Robert Manne recently observed, the large `l' liberals have forgotten about small `l' liberalism. In an essay in the Age just last weekend, this former editor of the right-wing journal Quadrant described himself as having `come full circle' from student antiracism campaigner of the sixties through the long years as a conservative thinker to a new stance of vehement opposition to many of the policies of the Howard government and those of its allies, the United States and Britain. Suffrage—the right to vote—was identified by Alfred Deakin as a central aspect of his form of liberalism. The rights of citizens to participate fully in the electoral process are fundamental to our democracy and therefore to the principles, I might say, of the Australian Labor Party. Yet this government, led by the Liberal Party, plans to restrict and undermine this absolute right. Senator Minchin was quoted in the Financial Review on 4 November as saying:

I won't retreat from my strong support for voluntary voting.

He indicated that he would push the idea through the party room. The Prime Minister is known to support the ending of compulsory voting. What has stood in his way has been largely this chamber—the Senate. From 1 July next year there will be no impediment. The government will be free to launch attacks on a broad front on this fundamental right. The fundamental right to protect the Australian ballot will be lost by this chamber as a consequence of the change in the numbers from 1 July. Government zealots will try to paint our compulsory voting system as some sort of infringement on the right to freedom of choice. It is no such thing. Nobody in Australia actually has to vote. They are required to turn up at a polling place on election day and to accept the ballot papers handed to them. Whether each citizen marks those papers with a valid vote is entirely up to him or her.

Ending the requirement that voters attend the polling place would fundamentally change the civic and political climate of our nation. It would effectively disenfranchise hundreds of thousands, and possibly millions, of Australians. The United States does not have compulsory voting. At the last presidential election in the United States, there was a record turnout—54 per cent of the adult population. That compares with the 95 per cent of Australians who vote. Those who do not vote are overwhelmingly the poor, the disadvantaged and members of minority groups. These are the people that need government services the most. To disenfranchise the people that need us the most would be an abhorrence in terms of democratic principles.

Voluntary voting disenfranchises the very citizens whose democratic rights are the most limited and who need the assistance of this parliament the most. It robs them of the basic right they have in common with all their compatriots—the right to exercise an equal voice with other citizens. As Alfred Deakin would have it, the principle here is the fine liberal principle of one man, one vote. Voluntary voting would mean that millions of dollars would be squandered on efforts to get people not just to register to vote but to turn out on polling day. In the United States, over $A5 billion was spent on the recent campaign. This is money that could have been put to much better use than lining the pockets of advertising agencies.

But there is, of course, more to this government's agenda on that front. We will see amendments to the Electoral Act to close the rolls on the day an election is declared to reduce still further the opportunities of Australians to participate. We have seen a whole range of other measures aimed at reducing the rights of persons to have assistance, whether they be homeless or disabled. These are all measures that the government has floated in recent times, including the proposal to restrict the right to participate in the ballot by closing the ballot early. It has been estimated by the AEC that it would have an effect on 200,000 voters—predominantly young people, those homeless persons I mentioned and those people who do not own their own homes. Alfred Deakin's principle of one man, one vote would be flagrantly dishonoured by the present Liberal government. So much for its liberalism.

But it is not only the voting rights of the disadvantaged and the young that this government has in its sights. It has plans to introduce an electoral enrolment identification regime that would require citizens to produce a drivers licence or similar form of identification. Once again, the young and the homeless would be affected by this. Many minorities would be particularly affected, amongst them Indigenous Australians. So we have a government here that is aiming at advancing the rights of the wealthy and the privileged, entrenching itself in power and forcing through changes to the electoral laws that will seriously discriminate against those that need parliament the most. With regard to the Indigenous community, which is one of those groups, we have seen that in recent times the government has sought to change the fundamental sympathies of Australians towards reconciliation. Four years ago, a million Australians walked across the bridges of this country demanding of government a commitment to reconciliation. But this is a government that has fundamentally sought to move away from that public sentiment.

In a recent analysis, Professor Mick Dodson said that during his prime ministership John Howard has refused to acknowledge the reality and legality of prior ownership of this land by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, that he has persistently denied the truth about the forcible removal of Indigenous children families and communities, that he has refused to engage in reconciliation and some kind of settlement for past injustices and that he has denied the Indigenous view of history concerning the European occupation of this country. We are seeing from this government a policy which will enhance those disadvantages and do little to change the objective conditions for people in the various communities across this country. To quote Professor Dodson, there is `a deep seated and personal disrespect for Indigenous people, our cultural rights and obligations'. Racism, he says, `has been, and continues to be, a core value of Australian society'. This is being enhanced by this government's policy position. The Howard government's actions and words concerning Indigenous Australians continue to divide our nation on the basis of race. It strikes me that this is an opportunity to enhance reconciliation which this country is now turning its back on—an opportunity which we as people should address and which the Labor Party believes ought be addressed. (Time expired)