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The Hindu (India)
Thursday, August 30, 2007

Indian readers have to understand the Howard Government's increasingly shrill and desperate efforts to blacken Mohamed Haneef's reputation within the context of an increasingly edgy domestic Australian politics. But having done so, India too can draw some important lessons on the meaning and practice of good governance.

One almost feels sorry for John Howard. He has been utterly clueless on how to extricate Australia from the increasingly unpopular Iraq war. He is now reduced to joining the bandwagon of unreconstructed neocons to suggest that it is all the fault of the feckless Iraqis who perhaps after all did not deserve the gift of blood and treasury expended by the coalition of the willing (the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia).

He was reckless in launching a public attack on Senator Barack Obama, a leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, for his Iraq policy. This risked antagonising Congress as a whole as well as the Democratic Party, already the majority party in Congress and a likely winner of the presidency as well next year.

More critically, it risked jeopardising the alliance with the U.S. by reducing it to personal friendship with George W. Bush at a time of rapidly waning political capital for the President.

He was gutless in defending the interests of David Hicks, an Australian citizen caught up in the nightmare of Guantanamo. In the end the innate Australian sense of "fair go" (meaning fairness and equal justice for all) compelled him to cut a deal.

And he risks finding himself jobless in November, the most likely date of the next federal election, losing not just the treasury benches but also his own seat. The Labor Party (which may be less blindly pro-American than the conservative coalition, but prefers the U.S. to the British spelling of its name) has picked an attractive and popular former TV journalist to contest the election against Mr. Howard. And the demographic changes in his constituency have eroded his support base enough to make the contest interesting.

The larger picture is twofold: the entrenchment of negative perceptions of Mr. Howard's brand of "leadership"; and the matching firming of the belief that under new leader Kevin Rudd, the Labor Party is electable.

Mr. Howard looked dead at the start of 2001 for elections due by the end of the year. He happened to be visiting Washington at the time of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. He caught the mood perfectly in responding with instant and total empathy, sympathy, and support for Mr. Bush. So far, so good.

But then he unfurled his election strategy of appealing to the Australians' worst instincts. In what came to be known as the Tampa election, he cruelly exploited a boatload of asylum seekers to instil fear and exploit paranoia about Australia being overrun by foreign hordes, possibly Muslim terrorists. He is believed to be the master practitioner of the politics of dog whistle - where dogs can hear a whistle pitched too high for the human ear to pick up. It is Australian slang for using code words whose literal meaning might be innocuous enough, but whose hidden meaning is all too clear to the intended audience. For example, "Do we want these sorts of people in Australia" can be explained, when pressed, as referring to terrorists, actual or suspected. But when used against someone like Dr. Haneef, by many it will be taken to mean "dark skinned, bearded Muslims who are all terrorists."

Polls have shown the cumulative corrosion of the public's faith in the honesty and integrity of Mr. Howard after a decade of rule on the basis of slippery statements and dog whistling. He is consistently seen as too old, desperate, devious, and deceitful. But as long as Labor had a series of unelectable leaders, the desire for change from the Howard style of politics did not translate into voting preferences for Labor.

Then suddenly in Mr. Rudd, elected party leader earlier this year, Labor had an instant - and enduring - winner. For six months now, Labor has enjoyed a solid, landslide winning lead in all opinion polls. Government ranks could well be decimated. Panic has made them even more desperate, and in frustration they have turned to the familiar tactic of character assassination.

They have tried digging dirt and flinging mud on Mr. Rudd. Each time, the mud has stuck to the throwers, reinforcing people's prejudices about the government being peopled with unlovely characters. The most recent was that four years ago, as opposition spokesman on foreign affairs, while visiting the United Nations an inebriated Mr. Rudd went to a strip club in New York. Shock, horror, St. Kevin is human after all. Instead of Mr. Rudd being burnt in the glare of the blowtorch shone relentlessly on him, the government members risk being swept off the treasury benches by blowback.

In this broader context, Dr. Haneef was too tempting - and seemingly too easy - a target. But they forgot the first rule of muck-raking: if you find yourself in the hole, stop digging. The more furiously the government has dug - the Prime Minister and the Attorney General can be glimpsed hovering above the shoulders of the Immigration Minister - the deeper is the hole it has dug for itself. The latest example was the selective release of Dr. Haneef's interviews by the police. His lawyers have released the full transcripts of the interviews, which showed, firstly, that there were perfectly innocent explanations for all his actions, and, secondly, that the government and the police were being deceitful in the selective release of extracts.

As for lessons, let's begin with the last point. When one side releases extracts, side with the party that wants to release the full document: they are not the ones with something to hide.

Secondly, faced with competing visions of the same event, side with almost any group against the politicians. Like the Bush administration, the Howard Government doesn't do apologies: tough is never having to say sorry for mistakes never made. All of this goes a long way in explaining why politicians are held in such contempt and so commonly reviled. Remember, voting in Australia is compulsory. Hence the pointed message of a popular bumper sticker there: don't vote, you will only elect a politician.

Thirdly, the need for scepticism about claims by governments that they are safeguarding public safety against the threat of terrorism, not jeopardising human rights or curtailing civil liberties. They get away with it, repeatedly and in far too many countries, because we fall into the trap of believing that the government is sacrificing someone else's rights to protect our security. No: they are expanding their powers or covering up their mistakes and embarrassments by whittling away our rights. Eternal vigilance does not come at the price of liberty.

Role of independent judiciary

Fourthly, the importance of an independent and robust judiciary prepared to uphold the rule of law. More crucially against the Indian backdrop, to do so promptly. In India many victims are fortunate to get judicial redress within their lifetime.

Fifthly, the importance of a free, instinctively sceptical and investigative press. The holes in the government's versions of events were instantly picked by inquisitive and questioning journalists who did their homework instead of merely recycling government press releases and background briefing. But in part this too is the result of the press realising that the government is seriously vulnerable this year. Many journalists had become used to being treated like mushrooms by the Howard government - kept in the dark and fed manure every once in a while. No more.

Sixthly, the importance of a robust civil society. As in Pakistan, the legal fraternity challenged the government on fundamental matters of principle, used its well-honed forensic skills to telling effect in shaping the public debate, and demonstrated its commitment to justice in a manner that brings honour to the profession.

And finally, the vital role that citizens can play in engaging with public issues and ensuring that justice is done and seen to be done. No sectarian identification along the lines of race, religion, caste, but solidarity with a human being unjustly hounded by a bumbling police and a mean-spirited government. When can we be confident of like injustices producing similar outcomes in India? Do we dare have the dream?


About the Author

Ramesh Thakur, former CIGI Distinguished Fellow

The opinions expressed in this article/comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.