It is the time of the anonymous informer and the chilling threat, reminiscent of Watergate, that dissent is unpatriotic and giving aid to the enemy. The logic of the government appears to be that the only way we can preserve our freedom and liberty from the efforts of terrorists to destroy them is to temporarily destroy them ourselves. But true security comes from our being a free society blessed with constitutional democracy and a Bill of Rights - rights that if lost cannot be easily recovered.
An alert Congress would check the administration's grab for greater power than the Constitution permits. It would hold hearings and inform the people of the dangers they faced. Unfortunately, Congress today is shirking its constitutional responsibilities. There are no Sam Ervins in the Senate now. Instead of offering leadership, our congressional representatives defer to the White House in an attempt to show they are as patriotic as the president.
The lesson of Watergate should teach them that a president free to assert excessive power could, even unintentionally, irreparably harm our democracy. Benjamin Franklin wisely wrote, 'They that would give up essential liberty to attain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.'
A couple of people have posted comments wondering why the popular reaction in Australia has been so muted in comparison to Britain or even the US. There are a couple of standard answers floating around:
- the incompetence of the federal opposition
- a heavily concentrated and uncritical media duopoly
- the absence of heavy hitters like Robin Cook prepared to criticise the war
We should add to that list the war's minimal impact on Howard's famous 'ordinary Australians' and the lack of a rights tradition. US Attorney-general John Ashcroft may be Darryl Williams' hero but there is no sign of an intrusive anti-terrorist campaign. The Senate's opposition to the Williams terrorist laws did a great deal to ensure there can be no such campaign. There have been no Australian casualties in Iraq. idiocies like the US travel restrictions and library searches are not happening.
The historic emphasis in Australian democracy has been on the supremacy of parliament. When an enforceable bill of rights is mentioned both coalition and labor politicians race to stand on a table and scream. We are now the only Westminster democracy without a statutory or constitutional charter of rights. Human rights just is not a major issue and will not be until one of the major parties starts campaigning for it.
Before we beat ourselves up too much for the opposition's quietism and the citizenry's apathy we should recall that the Senate threw out the more dramatic legislation, in the face of a government allegation that rejecting its proposals would give aid and comfort to terrorists. The national style of disengagement may mean that political claims based on human rights go nowhere. It also means that speeches about the nation in danger do not cause our MPs to race lemming-like to the government's side. We should also not forget that the Australian people rejected conscription in time of war. Twice. Or that we rejected the Communist Party dissolution bill at the height of the Cold War hysteria.
Perhaps we know something about Benjamin Franklin after all.