Keeping Conroy out of bed with Rinehart

Mining magnate Gina Rinehart has many Australians worried about the future of Australian democracy after increasing her shareholding in Fairfax Media to just under 15 per cent. This, they believe, is just the beginning of her attempt to spoil the tradition of independent journalism we'[ve enjoyed as readers of the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

Former Age editor Andrew Jaspan summarised his fears in the newsletter of the group of eight universities' topical ideas website The Conversation, which he now runs.

In a 1979 polemic called 'Wake up Australia', Gina's father, Lang Hancock argued: 'We can change the situation so as to limit the power of government', before concluding: 'it could be broken by obtaining control of the media and then educating the public'.

The obvious response to this is that the government can and should do more to limit the power of wealthy Australians seeking to dominate debate. This is being done, but only to an extent. Communications Minister Stephen Conroy admits there is a need to strengthen regulations to ensure media diversity, but is essentially quite relaxed about Rinehart's move on Fairfax.

'It has always been the case in Australia over my lifetime in politics that a small number of families have had a controlling interest in the majority of the media in this country,' he told ABC Radio.

Conroy has cultivated good relations with at least some of these families. Two years ago he enjoyed a game of golf with James Packer on the day the government announced a $250 million licence fee rebate for free-to-air television stations. The stations subsequently reaped further huge rewards from the success of the extra digital channels the government allowed them.

Despite the UK Government's current hard line against Murdoch, it is unlikely politicians will ever take decisive action to limit the power of the dominant media owners because their electoral success is linked to positive media coverage. i

If we accept that politicians cannot be trusted to regulate the media without fear or favour, we must consider taking certain fundamental aspects of media regulation out of the hands of government altogether. This could be done by making media diversity subject to a charter of human rights. 

Obviously we do not have a human rights charter, and are unlikely to have one in the immediate future because the Government rejected the recommendations of the Brennan committee in 2010.

But media diversity is indeed a human right, and the Government's weak performance in legislating in this area represents a powerful argument for Australians to insist upon revisiting the human rights charter that was proposed.

Pope's advice for Gillard and Abbott

We expect our politicians to be engaged with the electorate, often assuming this equates to constant participation in public debate in the media. 

It’s as if there is a mathematical formula allowing us to measure their ‘cut through’ according to the total number of words they utter in public. That is, a greater number of different words, repeated frequently, amounts to more effective communication. 

On the contrary, it’s more likely that less words will engage people more effectively. Thomas Merton said in his 1956 classic Thoughts in Solitude that silence ‘teaches us to know reality’. He warned that words not informed by silence can ‘defile’ reality. That is certainly what underlies practices such as meditation and yoga, which help us to listen to silence so that we can connect with the world around us from the core of our being.

It was also the key point of Pope Benedict's World Communications Day message that was released last week. He said that silence and words are ‘two aspects of communication which need to be kept in balance’ if ‘authentic dialogue’ is to take place. 

The Pope’s insight could usefully serve as advice to the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader from political strategists charged with explaining why they are failing to connect with voters.

‘In silence, we are better able to listen to and understand ourselves; ideas come to birth and acquire depth; we understand with greater clarity what it is we want to say and what we expect from others… we avoid being tied simply to our own words and ideas without them being adequately tested.’i

Applying this principle to political rhetoric, we might hope that punctuating words with silence will allow leaders to move beyond ‘Stop the boats!’ and other blunted and hollow mantras towards an understanding of the real fears and hopes of the Australian people. On this issue, there is little doubt that the weight of words has distorted and defiled reality.

The Pope refers to communication as ‘a kind of “eco-system” that maintains a just equilibrium between silence, words, images and sounds’. These are the ingredients which, in right measure, could allow the hitherto elusive ‘real Julia’ to appear in time for the 2013 election.

Time to change our racist constitution

Last week the expert panel chaired by Indigenous leader Patrick Dodson and national reconciliation advocate Mark Leibler presented Prime Minister Julia Gillard with its report titled Recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in the Constitution. 

The panel proposes recognition of the prior occupation of Australia by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and acknowledging their continuing relationship with their traditional lands and waters, and their cultures, languages and heritage. 

The report reveals that many Australians do not even realise that explicit racism is among the principles and ideals in the Constitution, and how significant this is because they continue to provide the foundation for the work of our lawmakers. 

Aside from the pointedly scant acknowledgement to the Indigenous Australians that were regarded as a 'doomed race', the most blatant example of racism in the Constitution — the exclusion of 'Aboriginal natives' from the census — was removed in the 1967 referendum.

But racism remains elsewhere, such as in the part of section 51 that gives Parliament the power to make laws for 'peace, order, and good government' with respect to 'the people of any race'.

Other traces of racism in the Constitution are more symbolic than practical, but this is significant because symbol can be as potent as practical possibility. There is section 25, which says people who are excluded from voting based on race cannot be included in the tally when seats in the Lower House are divided up. Removing that would have no practical effect, because nobody is excluded from voting on racial grounds any more. 

It seems that those who've been aware of racism in the Constitution and prepared to tolerate it, have taken the same 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' approach that is commonly used to justify maintaining the monarchy. This effectively blesses the attitude that it's acceptable to regard Indigenous Australians as second class citizens in theory as long as we treat them as equals in practice. 

Perhaps we allow this because of a not always well placed pride in the pragmatism that we often think of as a laudable national characteristic. But it is racism.

Surely the right thing to do is to consult Indigenous Australians, as the expert panel itself has done.

As a sample of Indigenous opinion, last week's media release from the  National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council (NATSICC) suggests the constitutional status quo does not even pass the pragmatism test. Chair Thelma Parker says justice for Indigenous Australians will be subject to political whim until their rights are enshrined in the Constitution.

'Currently we feel as if the goal posts are constantly shifting due to the ability to change Statute Law and legislation relatively easily via Parliament and often without consultation with Indigenous people. The Constitution, however cannot be changed without the will of the Australian people. That is the strong foundation that we are talking about.'

Unfortunately the implementation of the proposals of the expert panel will itself be subject to political whim, and opposition leader Tony Abbott has already indicated that, in broadly welcoming the report, he has 'some reservations about anything that might turn out to be a one clause bill of rights'.

Thatcher's blame game

Over the holidays, many cinema goers have seen The Iron Lady, the affectionate and mostly sympathetic portrayal of Margaret Thatcher, the divisive British prime minister who held office between 1979 and 1990.

She was credited with turning around the economic fortunes of the United Kingdom, and giving Britons reason to be once again proud of their nation. But unemployment and poverty increased markedly during the Thatcher years, and the gap between rich and poor widened significantly.  

Thatcher always defended her social policy, and insisted it was up to the poor to help themselves. She believed the poor choose poverty, and said as much in a 1988 speech to the Church of Scotland General Assembly on the theme that Christianity is about spiritual redemption, not social reform. 

'We are told we must work and use our talents to create wealth. "If a man will not work he shall not eat" wrote St Paul to the Thessalonians... Any set of social and economic arrangements which is not founded on the acceptance of individual responsibility will do nothing but harm. We are all responsible for our own actions. We can't blame society.'

The idea that the poor can be cast adrift to sink or swim in the market economy, and do not need any protection from the state, is consistent with the thinking that brought on the GFC and the eurozone crisis. In a recent article in Thinking Faith, the Irish Jesuit professor of philosophy William Matthews alluded to Thatcher's role in the initiation of the 'contagious ethos of the deregulation of finance from political control'.i

'This school of thought was convinced that a free global market economy would make the world a much better and prosperous place for all. What resulted over time was a dysfunctional shift in power relations with the financial world gaining unprecedented control.'

Matthews suggests Thatcher and the other architects of the free market system that allowed the calamitous binge behaviour that led to the current crises, should be held responsible in the way that engineers are culpable when their misjudgments lead to injury or loss of life.

'We are now suffering from the consequences of their carelessness. You never design an air traffic control system or a nuclear power station without the highest level of built-in safety features. To ignore those features and cause public harm could result in prosecution.'

Perhaps the best comments on Thatcher and the current public adulation she is enjoying are those of Meryl Streep, the actor who plays her in the film. Speakingon the ABC's 7.30, she made it clear that she 'still disagree[s] with many, many, many of [Thatcher's] politics', but that the politics need to be put into perspective with Thatcher's humanity.

Comparing her role as Thatcher now to playing Lindy Chamberlain many years ago, Streep said:

'Maybe there's a pattern in my life that I want to sort of defend the humanity of people that we've made into emblematic figures of one sort or another, figures of hatred or saints.'