By Margo Kingston
May 8, 2013
Margo: In this chapter from my book, I detail the unprecedented mauling of press, parliamentary and citizen’s freedom in Parliament by Howard when George Bush came to Canberra in 2003. Brandis was in the thick of it, and made no protest. My contemporaneous report of the events is Parliament meets Bush: A day in the life of our faltering democracy
Political systems have much more frequently been overthrown by their own corruption and decay than by external forces
Robert Menzies, ‘The Sickness of Democracy’, from The Forgotten People radio broadcasts, 1942
The anti-democratic hustle
On 8 October 2003 John Howard’s government lied to the Australian people to obtain their Parliament’s consent to hold a special joint sitting for President George W. Bush. Manager of business Tony Abbott told the people’s House:
‘The government has decided to deal with the visit of President Bush in precisely the same way that the Keating Government dealt with the visit of President Bush Senior on 2 January 1992. As well as the formal Parliamentary proceedings, there will obviously be an opportunity for all members of this Parliament to mix with President Bush, and very possibly to meet him.’
Senior ministers would hold talks with the President, Abbott said, adding, ‘Of course, there will be similar opportunities for the Leader of the Opposition and senior shadow ministers. This Parliament spends a lot of time dealing with what might be described as politics as usual, but it is important to put politics as usual aside for this day.’
The 1992 speech by Bush Senior was the first time any foreign head of state had addressed our Parliament. There is nothing in the Constitution to allow it and no precise rules in place. But his visit had gone well. Australians had generally supported our participation in the UN-endorsed coalition to drive Iraq from Kuwait, and the man who’d masterminded it arrived as a largely uncontroversial figure. ‘Politics as usual’ was put aside by making Bush Senior’s stay a state visit. He was welcomed at Kingsford Smith Air- port on his arrival in Australia by the Governor-General, Bill Hayden, with Prime Minister Keating in attendance; there was a state dinner hosted by the Governor-General at Government House, a non-partisan parliamentary dinner hosted by Keating, and meetings with government, Opposition and even farm lobby leaders. The President mixed equally with all our representatives after his speech to show his respect for the honour we, their electors, had extended to him; and he treated our media congenially and with even- handedness throughout.
Australian Prime Minister: Thank you for coming. And just before I invite the President to say a few words, just to outline, first of all, the structure of the press conference so we can operate smoothly . . . I hope we’ll be able to take a roughly even amount from both the Australian and visiting press . . .
American President: My [opening] remarks, Mr Prime Minister, will be very brief. And I simply want to, once again, thank you, thank all of our official hosts, and thank the people of Australia for the warmth of the reception on this visit . . . And I’ll be glad to take my share of the questions.
At that joint press conference Australian journalists asked Bush Senior about half of the twenty-two questions he fielded. Presumably when Abbott told Parliament that this next Bush visit would proceed in ‘precisely the same way’ both our press gallery and elected representatives felt reassured.
The anti-democratic sting
Contrary to Abbott’s pledge, the government already knew that, unlike the visit by his dad, the visit by Bush Junior would NOT be a state visit, but a partisan ‘working’ one, as a guest NOT of the governor-general, our head of state, but of John Howard. The President would NOT ‘very possibly . . . meet’ our parliamentarians, or even ‘obviously . . . mix’ with them. He would NOT ‘of course’ meet senior shadow ministers. He would NOT hold a press conference.
The government knew all this weeks before Abbott misled Parliament to obtain our consent.
Documents I obtained from the Prime Minister’s Department under a Freedom of Information request show that at a planning meeting with John Howard’s department on 17 September 2003 a member of Bush’s Advance Team said that the ‘visit was to be short – just the basic wreath laying in the Hall of Memory – no official state visit, no ceremonial greeting, gun salute etc’. A draft itinerary dated the same day – and which remained largely unchanged – provided for no meetings with Labor shadow ministers and no mixing with or meetings between parliamentarians and Bush.
The visit was always going to be the George ’n’ John Show, with Bush shadowed by Howard at all times so that he appeared in practically every image captured of the President. There’d be no public opportunity for any Australian to voice their opposition to his foreign or trade policies directly or question his plans for our ANZUS future. Rather than seek to unite all Australians behind our most important ally via demonstrable expressions of our true shared values – engaged debate, freedom of speech and of the press and democratic inclusion – Howard would prevent almost everyone who disagreed with him from speaking with Bush at all.
I reckon that if our parliamentarians had known that it was going to be ‘politics as usual’ – only much worse than usual – there’d have been uproar in both our Houses. The Senate had already censured Howard twice over Iraq, and many non-government MPs may have refused to attend Bush’s speech at all.
Doubtless that’s exactly what John Howard reckoned, too.
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‘Still Not Happy, John!’ is published by Penguin.
You can download it as an ebook by clicking here.