The rise of fascism as an easy insultSydney Morning HeraldDecember 6, 2005
Hyperbole tarnishes criticism of anti-terrorism and workplace legislation, writes Gerard Henderson.
SO IT has come to this, apparently. The passing by the Senate of the Federal Government's industrial relations legislation, and the likely passing this week of its national security legislation, has led to the creation of the Howard fascist police state. All courtesy of Mark Latham's disastrous performance as ALP leader in last year's election, which led to the Coalition obtaining a Senate majority.
It is quite understandable that the union movement, the Labor Party, church groups and extant members of the industrial relations club oppose the WorkChoices program. And it comes as no surprise that civil libertarian lawyers, artists and the like have taken a stand against the sedition provisions of the anti-terrorism legislation.
Let's face it. If the ACTU leaders Greg Combet and Sharan Burrow are correct about the impact of the industrial relations legislation, then the Coalition will lose the next federal election (whether led by John Howard or Peter Costello). It is all but impossible to imagine a government surviving if it had presided over significant wage reductions and widespread unfair dismissals.
A government could win an election, in the present climate, if it had brought about a situation which had led, say, to the jailing for sedition of such playwrights as Hannie Rayson and David Williamson. Yet such a government would be discredited among virtually all opinion leaders.
The problem with the cases being put by many of the Government's leading critics is that the level of their intensity has affected their judgement. Overstatement invariably creates media attention in the short term, especially when a clear majority of journalists oppose the Government, as is the case on industrial relations and national security legislation. However, if the dire prediction fails to materialise, exaggeration can be counterproductive.
Senior journalists have declared the US "has slid" into "fascism" (Alan Ramsey) and have referred to Howard's "totalitarian grip" over information (Mungo MacCallum).
The playwright Stephen Sewell has claimed that "every Australian" faces "the prospect of being disappeared to who knows where". The lawyer Cameron Murphy has said Australia is becoming a "Stalinist police state". The former diplomat Tony Kevin has criticised Kim Beazley, who broadly supports the Government on national security. Kevin says the Labor leader is taking Australia down the path of "the Cracow and Warsaw ghettos" which "was the first step towards the death camps". And so on.
It's much the same with industrial relations. John Della Bosca, the NSW Industrial Relations Minister, has described the WorkChoices legislation as "fascistic". He seems unaware that the Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini was a supporter of centralised industrial relations and believed in government, business and unions co-operating in a corporate state. Meanwhile the academic Braham Dabscheck has presented a Brave New World scenario in which the population has been reduced to "slaves" who "love their servitude".
I recently briefed a visitor from Central Europe about contemporary Australian politics, including the anti-terrorism legislation and the workplace changes. She was interested in the arguments concerning the Government's policy on national security and industrial relations reform. But her face exhibited amazement when I mentioned that some serious commentators had linked Howard with Hitler and Stalin. To anyone from a nation which experienced the real thing in fascist and communist totalitarianism, the comparison seems bizarre and ignorant.
From time to time, some Coalition parliamentarians have thrown the switch to hyperbole. Amanda Vanstone once compared Paul Keating to the Nazi propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels; in October 2003 George Brandis compared "the methods employed by contemporary green politics and the methods and values of the Nazis". Yet, for the most part, references to fascism are usually directed at conservative administrations.
So a dose of realism is called for. The WorkChoices legislation will leave Australia with an industrial relations system more regulated than that prevailing under Labour governments in Britain and New Zealand. Moreover, the sedition provisions in the anti-terrorism legislation are similar to those that have been on the statute books for four decades during Coalition and Labor governments.
The word "fascist" has become a cliched term of abuse. Real fascist societies, as in Italy under Mussolini and Germany under Hitler, had authoritarian regimes which possessed a state ideology enforced by terror or the threat of terror. The reality of genuine fascism is well depicted in recent books by the likes of Michael Mann ( Fascists), Roger Eatwell ( Fascism: A History) and Robert Paxton ( The Anatomy of Fascism).
If the Government suffers over industrial relations, this will be because the legislation has had deleterious effects, not because of fascism. If there is a backlash to the national security legislation, this will turn on the fact that it has not worked, not because it's Stalinist. Despite the self-importance of some artists, the fact is they are not being targeted by Howard or the Labor premiers. In the war against terrorism, governments in Australia have more important priorities.
We will find out soon enough. For, unlike real totalitarian regimes, the so-called Howard fascist police state will go to the polls in just two years' time.
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