This month Readings spoke to author, broadcaster and leading public intellectual David Marr about his new Quarterly Essay, QE26 His Master’s Voice: The Corruption of Public Debate Under Howard.
What prompted you to write this essay?
Years of worry about creeping censorship and thuggish political debate in this country.
What do you think is more disturbing about Howard’s Australia: the suppression of debate and dissent or the lack of concern displayed about this by most Australians?
Hard to disentangle the two. Howard only gets away with it because we let him, and we don’t worry because we’ve never really known how different public life could be if debate in Australia were open, informed, fair and free. So we stumble along together.
You say that Australians’ instinctual trust of authority is behind this lack of concern. Do you think there will come a point where this trust is tested too far – and how far do you think we would let it go?
Suppression works best invisibly. Flamboyant enforcement – like sending Herald Sun journalists Gerard McManus and Michael Harvey to prison – would test the public’s deep trust of authority. So, I hope, would wider public understanding of the pattern that’s evolving here of book banning, abuse, prosecution, secrecy and misrepresentation.
Do you think a change of government would open debate in this country in a meaningful way, or is it too late?
It’s worth a try – but strong-arm intervention in public debate has become the house style of government in Canberra.
You cite a recent survey that reveals Howard is actually out of step with ‘mainstream Australia’ on a number of issues, such as our relationship with the US and the attention paid to the ‘noisy minority’ that is the Christian lobby. Do you think these have the potential to become an issue for voters?
Yes, but not a decisive issue at the polls. The trouble is that Labor and Liberal buckle to much the same pressures and you won’t hear Labor – or not the dominant Right faction of the party – campaigning to end secrecy and to open up public debate in this country.
Has Howard created the climate for Australia’s ‘exaltation of the average’, or is he just highlighting a culture that was already dominant, but less publicly acknowledged?
Since Whitlam’s time, prime ministers have challenged Australia’s old suspicion of difference. Howard exploited it – and we’re a duller country as a result. Of course, he only exults the average when it suits him. There’s nothing mainstream about Work Choices.
What can we do to effectively challenge this erosion of public debate?
First, understand what’s happening. I hope His Master’s Voice will help in that. Nothing can change until we realise what’s going on right in front of our eyes.