By Margo Kingston
10 May 2013
In his Cry, Freedom speech this week, Shadow Attorney General George Brandis said this:
‘But at least the debates about freedom of speech and freedom of the press, which we have seen in the past couple of years, have been a sharp reminder to the Liberal Party of its historic mission. For in the freedom wars, there has been only one party which has stood steadfastly on the side of freedom.’
@NoFibs has disproved this claim – indefensible given the Howard Government’s record – in several pieces which detail just some of the relentless assaults on free speech and political freedom by the Howard Government. At all times Brandis was a member of Howard’s team, and a minister in the late years. See our ‘You must remember this, George’ archive.
A new chapter in the 2007 update of my book told the saddest, baddest, meanest story of the Howard Government’s intolerance for free speech which disagreed with it. It’s hard to believe unless you are cognisant of the anti-free speech values of neo-liberalism (see the IPA philosophical rationale in Howard’s blueprint for Abbott to stifle dissent )
In short, the Howard government signed a contract with a small East Timorese NGO to monitor human rights in local prisons. Before the contract, the group joined other local NGOs to sign a statement urging Australia to recognise international dispute settling bodies in the East Timor Sea oil dispute. When Downer was informed, he broke the contract and ordered his department to lie to the group about the reasons.
When the official told to lie, Peter Ellis, protested that this would breach the ethcial duties of public servants, his career was over.
The Skull Beneath the Skin
On 10 December 2004, the ﬁfty-sixth anniversary of the world’s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights after the horrors of the Second World War, Downer announced grants to ten NGOs in the Asia-Paciﬁc. ‘Australia has a proud tradition of protecting and promoting human rights,’ he said. The Timorese NGO Forum Tau Matan would get a grant to ‘monitor and educate community groups and legal ofﬁcials about prison conditions’.
Accordingly, on 25 January 2005, the senior AusAID diplomat in East Timor, Peter Ellis, made a written offer on Australia’s behalf of $65,830, which became a legally binding contract when Forum Tau Matan signed off on 22 February.
While organising local media coverage to hand over the cheque, Ellis saw the NGO statements on the internet. Acting on the orders he’d received when posted to Dili to note the Howard government’s ‘political sensitivities’ about funding NGOs, he scrupulously referred the statements to AusAID’s head office in Canberra. Downer was advised.
Downer hated NGO criticisms of Australia on the Timor Sea negotiations. In a BBC interview back in May 2004, he had complained of ‘hysterical and emotional and irrational claims’ and ‘a whole lot of emotional claptrap which is being pumped up through sort of left wing NGOs’. He meant Oxfam, which in the same month, on the second anniversary of independence, had released a report noting that ‘the Australian Government is reaping more than $1 million a day from oil fields in a disputed area of the Timor Sea that is twice as close to East Timor as it is to Australia . . . In total, Australia has received nearly ten times as much revenue from Timor Sea oil and gas than it has provided in aid to East Timor since 1999.
’In May 2005 Downer, responding to the information dutifully channelled by Ellis, ordered that Australia renege on the contract with Forum Tau Matan because it had signed the NGOs’ statements. In doing so, Australia broke its word and breached the law of contract and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.’
Ellis later recalled that: ‘I was pressured by some individuals, orally and in writing, to provide false reasons to Forum Tau Matan, and to – in effect – maintain a secret blacklist as the basis for future funding decisions. The apparent aim of this pressure was to reduce embarrassment to Australia (or to the Australian Government) from the true reasons emerging. When I objected on the grounds of the honesty requirements in the Australian Public Service (APS) Code of Conduct [and] the Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) and the Financial Management and Accountability Acts – I was urged in writing not to raise the Code of Conduct [in discussions].’
‘Still Not Happy, John!’ is published by Penguin.
You can download it as an ebook by clicking here.
Margo’s ‘You must remember this, George’ reading list: