Home Red Tape August/September 2004
Not happy, John!By Helen Richardson
Not Happy, John! Defending our democracy
Margo Kingston is a political commentator for the Sydney Morning Herald and runs Webdiary off the SMH's website.
The argument behind Not Happy, John is that democracy itself is under attack by what Kingston calls Big Business, Big Media and Big Government.
While she is probably sceptical about all modern governments, Kingston contends that John Howard has taken this disenfranchisement of the population to new heights.
Howard has achieved this by "rigid control, populist manipulation, outright misinformation and deceit".
She says John Howard is part of a "gang of radical, populist economic opportunists" that see democracy as getting in the way of the "real elites" - Big Business and Big Media".
The most interesting parts of the book are where Kingston dissects how Howard has hoodwinked the Australian people about refugees, the Iraq war and our new "best friend" status with the US.
It is fascinating to read how Howard turned the visit to Australia by George W Bush into a "working visit" hosted by himself rather than a state visit that would have been hosted by the Governor General.
Even though it is part of our Westminster system (so lauded by Howard during the referendum debate) Howard was not going to have a bar of it if it meant that the Governor General, not Howard, would get all the photos with Bush.
Calling it a "working visit" also meant that Howard could make decisions on it without recourse to parliament. He could also host the private Bush barbecue and choose his own very select guests. Notoriously neither the Leader of the Opposition nor the Governor General was invited.
The book is also particularly effective in describing the scandal in closing down Parliament House for a day so that Bush could address a joint sitting.
Kingston notes that parliament via our constitution is run by the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President of the Senate, not the government of the day.
Howard, she argues, had no right to let the Americans dictate who could or could not enter our parliament.
When the fracas erupted over Bob Brown asking George Bush a question and Kerrie Nettle trying to present Bush with a letter, Kingston notes:
"'It is ironic that Australian news had to get copies of the CNN footage to show what went on in our parliament."
Apparently CNN had managed to get a camera into parliament because the strict security that was applied to all invited Australians entering that day was not applied to the Americans.
The book also examines the issue of cross media ownership rules and Howard's attempt to legislate to water these down. If he succeeded it would make it easier, she argues, for the big players, Murdoch and Packer, to finally swallow up smaller news outlets such as Fairfax.
This, if it eventuated, would clinch even more firmly the link between Big Media and the government and restrict independent voices.
"You ain't got democracy if the public doesn't know what's going on," she writes.
Kingston concludes: "What's happening is our governments no longer see themselves as trustees for the common good - the stewards of our shared future - but as business executives."
This book is written in an easy to read, accessible style; it is salutary to look back over Howard's term of government and see just how cleverly he took the Australian people for a ride.