Margo Kingston

Margo Kingston

Co-publisher and editor-in-chief at No Fibs
Margo Kingston is a retired Australian journalist and climate change activist. She is best known for her stint as Phillip Adams’ ‘Canberra Babylon’ contributor and her work at The Sydney Morning Herald and #Webdiary. Since 2012, Kingston has been a citizen journalist, reporting and commenting on Australian politics via Twitter and No Fibs.
Margo Kingston


By Margo Kingston

May 10, 2013

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.’ – Freedom Wars: The George Brandis speech

I used to be quite close to George. We were both small-l liberals, not surprising because we grew up under Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen and studied law at Queensland University at the same time, a time of the right-to-march protests. For Queenslanders of our era, free speech and political freedoms are fundamental because we’ve lived under a government that didn’t believe in either.

George is a Menzies scholar, and I asked him why Sir Robert, a true believer in democratic values, had banned the Communist Party. I learned that he had tried very, very hard not to.

We fell out when he signed a stat dec denying he had called Howard a ‘lying rodent‘. I was shocked because I knew he had called him a liar and a rodent. Still am.

In retirement I eschewed anger, and was surprised how deeply angry I became while watching his free speech interview on Lateline. Luckily I’ve also learned not to write in anger, so I spent the week publishing extracts from my book which detail some of the relentless attacks on free speech and political freedom which were a hallmark of the Howard Government. That’s what the book is about, really, and that’s why, after voting Liberal in 1996, I became a Howard-hater.

How could George forget? I mean, he was one of those who fought Howard’s attempt to trample our freedoms in his anti-terror laws! How could he forget?

I think he has to forget because he has ditched his core values to survive in a Party which has slowly and surely eliminated the moderate, Menzies branch of the broad church. He has had to prove he’s not one of those limp-wristed small-l liberals any more.

The other reason for personal anger was his assertion that Bolt and Albrechtsen were the only journos who supported free speech. I have written about and campaigned for free speech all my working life, beginning with Labor’s attempt in the early 1990s to ban political advertising during elections. I have also opposed racial vilification laws on free speech grounds, and campaigned to maintain media diversity to protect free speech. It is true that many journalists, including me, support media reform  for reasons eloquently stated by Press Council chief Julian Disney (see here  and here).  We support reform because we believe in free speech, and the Brandis smear against journalists who want reform made me feel sick.

So, having sorted out the reasons for my personal anger, I planned to write a considered response to George today. This morning, before the bombshell news that Bolt and the IPA were asking Australians to donate to an IPA free speech fund, Google revealed that I had already done so.

My reply is a 2004 speech to the Sydney Institute, the same organisation which hosted George’s ‘freedom wars’ speech.

George, I am still a small l liberal. I guess you had to black out your party’s horrific free speech and political freedom record under Howard so you can sleep at night in your new skin. Good luck with that.

Not Happy, John! Reflections of a Webdiarist

By Margo Kingston
August 11, 2004

The day after Mark Latham was elected ALP leader by a whisker, I had a coffee with a Liberal MP stunned by his ladder-of-opportunity victory speech. “We’re in trouble,” he said. “Latham has updated Menzies’ ‘Forgotten People’.”

I think this is the Menzies quote which so resonated with Latham’s metaphor of the ladder of opportunity, and which has been so thoroughly corrupted by the neo-liberal political philosophy which now commodifies and degrades us all:

When the war is won, for every hundred boys and girls who now pass into higher schools and universities there must be a thousand. Lack of money must be no impediment to bright minds. The almost diabolical skill of men’s hands in the last forty years must be supplemented by a celestial skill of men’s minds and a generosity of men’s hearts if we are not to be destroyed by the machines of our creation. In common with other members of Parliament, I must increasingly realise that my constituents are not seventy thousand votes, but seventy thousand men and women for whose welfare and growth I have some responsibility. To develop every human being to his fullest capacity for thought, for action, for sacrifice and for endurance is our major task; and no prejudice, stupidity, selfishness or vested interest must stand in the way. (‘The task of democracy’)

I then read all of Menzies’ 1942 Forgotten People talks on 2GB radio in the depths of World War 2, where he set out the political philosophy upon which the Liberal Party was later formed. I was moved to tears by some of what I read, both by its old fashioned idealism and its extraordinary relevance to today’s world. He devoted several talks to democracy – ‘its nature, its sickness, its achievements and its tasks’. He explained what he believed the values were that we were sacrificing so much for, and sought to inspire Australians and their leaders to live by and honour those values when the war was won to make the oceans of blood spilt worth it, for all of us.

Menzies saw democracy in almost spiritual terms, and its custodians, our elected representatives, as charged with a sacred duty to preserve and enhance it. He was a builder for the long term of a frank and fearless public service and of a world class university system open to all Australians with the capacity to make use of it.

Early Liberalism, devoted to wresting absolute power from kings and Queens, wholly distrusted the State, and saw the rule of law as the citizens’ protection against its excesses, and maximisation of human freedom from State interference as its defining goal. Later Social Liberalism, which Menzies’ quote epitomises, married individual rights with the belief that part of the State’s role was to maximise equality of opportunity, and thus substantive individual freedom. As he said in ‘Has Capitalism failed’:

In envisaging the future world after the war, we should not seek to destroy this driving progressive element which really represents one of the deep-seated instincts of man, but should seek to control and direct it in the interests of the people as a whole. We shall do much better if we keep the good elements of the capitalist system, while at the same time imposing upon capital the most stringent obligations to discharge its social and industrial duty. The old conservative doctrine that the function of the State was merely to keep the ring for the combatants has gone forever.

He was wrong. We never learn, do we. (See  Muddying the waters between guardians and traders.)

Extracts from Menzies’ Forgotten People talks became embedded in my book Not happy, John! Defending our democracy, thanks to the kind permission of Menzies’ daughter. I sought to prove that far from being the torch bearer of Menzian Liberalism, John Howard has destroyed it from within, and in so doing has plunged our democracy into a crisis which only the people of Australia, working together, can now salvage.

I thought – wrongly as it turned out – that I would be asked in interviews to justify my belief in Menzies’ Liberal vision in the light of what many see as the indelible stain on his credentials as a champion of Australian liberal democracy, banning the Communist Party in 1950. After all, Menzies, a devotee of John Stuart Mill, said in ‘Freedom of speech and expression’:

The whole essence of freedom is that it is freedom for others as well as for ourselves: freedom for people who disagree with us as well as for our supporters; freedom for minorities as well as for majorities. Here we have a conception which is not born with us but which we must painfully acquire.

Why is this freedom of real importance to humanity’ … What appears to be today’s truth is frequently tomorrow’s error. There is nothing absolute about the truth. It is elusive. If truth is to emerge and in the long run be triumphant, the process of free debate – the untrammelled clash of opinion – must go on.

There are fascist tendencies in all countries – a sort of latent tyranny … Suppression of attack, which is based upon suppression of really free thought, is the instinctive weapon of the vested interest … great groups which feel their power are at once subject to tremendous temptations to use that power so as to limit the freedom of others.

The easily forgotten truth (is) that the despotism of a majority may be just as bad as the despotism of one man. Fascism and the Nazi movement … elevate the all-powerful State and makes the rights of the individual not matters of inherent dignity, but matters merely of concession by the State. Each says to the ordinary citizen, ‘Your rights are not those you were born with, but those which of our kindness we allow you.’

Power is apt to produce a kind of drunkenness, and it needs the cold douche of the critic to correct it … The temptation towards suppression of thought and speech is greatest of all in time of war because at such a time people say, “Let us have strength!” – all too frequently meaning, by “strength”, suppression; whereas the truth is that it requires more strength of character to sustain adverse or bitter criticism than to say, with a grand gesture, “Off with the critic’s head!

Hmmm. I had a chat with Queensland Senator George Brandis, one of the seven true-to-label MPs in the Federal Liberal Party. He produced some fascinating research about Menzies’ attitude to banning the Communist Party which, far from proving Menzies a hypocrite, proved the depth of his principles and the extraordinary circumstances which saw him forgo them in the case of the CPA.

On 24 May 1940, the Menzies Government imposed a ban on some CPA publications, and later declared it an illegal organisation under wartime powers. The decision was uncontroversial, as the Soviet’s non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany had precipitated the war.

Yet Menzies had tenaciously resisted the ban, twice rejecting recommendations to Cabinet before finally signing off. The War Cabinet initially decided ‘it was inadvisable to declare the party an illegal organisation’, rejecting a joint recommendation from all three defence services. (Paul Hasluck, ‘The Government and the People 1939-1941′, Canberra, Australian War Memorial, 1952, pp 582-94.) Instead, Menzies established a committee of the defence services, the police and the Department of Information to re-examine the question. That committee also recommended a ban, but Menzies again said no. The Cabinet submission records that Menzies’ reluctance was due to ‘the danger of infringement of the rights and privileges of innocent persons should approval be given to principles without regard to the details and methods of implementing them and the provision of safeguards to prevent their abuse’.

Menzies insisted that a ministerial sub-committee consider the course of action to be followed before finally agreeing to the ban.

In 1942, after the Soviet Union joined the Allies, the Labor Government withdrew the ban, again without controversy. (Leicester Webb, ‘Communism and Democracy in Australia: A Survey of the 1951 Referendum’, Melbourne, Cheshire, 1954, pp. 6-7). At the 1943 election, only the Country Party, led by Arthur Fadden, campaigned for a ban on the CPA (Ulrich Ellis, ‘A History of the Australian Country Party’, Melbourne University Press, 1963, p. 274).

The first Federal Platform of the Liberal Party, founded by Menzies in 1944, did not seek to ban the CPA, and at the 1946 election again only the Country Party campaigned to do so.

Menzies made his attitude clear in a Parliamentary speech on May 15, 1947 to a motion that the Chifley government hold an inquiry into the CPA:

One reason why I have repeatedly expressed the view that these people should be dealt with in the open is that I have complete confidence in the basic sanity of our own people. If we deal with these people openly we shall defeat them; but we cannot deal with them openly unless their operations are known, unless they themselves are known. (House of Representatives Hansard 15 May 1947 pp. 2460-1.)

In contrast, the Country Party’s John McEwen demanded that members of the Communist Party be dealt with “as traitors”.

Menzies’ turnaround was forced upon him by domestic political necessity coupled with profound world events, including war-like actions by the Soviet Union. Domestically, his Coalition partner’s strident campaign to ban the CPA was joined by an internal rival, Richard Casey, who sought to take over the Liberal leadership by citing Menzies’ refusal to ban the CPA as a sign of weakness.

Fast forward to the rise of One Nation and the Government’s attempts to deregister it in the Courts through secret funding from big business while refusing to openly debate the merits of its policies (see  Unmasked Howard gets amnesia on Hanson).

And then to John Howard’s post-Tampa legislation, drafted in his office, which sought to exempt all Commonwealth officials from the jurisdiction of our courts in relation to the boat people, even for murder (see A legal minefield). Only WA Liberal Judi Moylan abstained, citing Howard’s failure to allow any time to consider its ramifications. When Beazley said no, he was cursed with Howard’s accusation of weakness throughout the 2001 election campaign for forcing the PM to amend his plans, and the false claim that some boat people were terrorists.

Fast forward to Howard’s post election response to September 11, to rush through Parliament draconian limitations on fundamental civil rights of liberal democracy through anti-terrorism laws which defined political and industrial protests as ‘terrorist acts’, and allowed the Attorney-General to unilaterally ban political organisations without reference to Parliament. And to his ASIO laws, which allowed unlimited, secret detention and interrogation of people not suspected of terrorism without access to lawyers or even notice to their families.

Only desperate brinkmanship from the true Liberal remnants – Brandis, Moylan, Marise Payne, Petro Georgio, Brett Mason, Christopher Pyne and Bruce Baird – forced Howard to water down his terrorism and ASIO laws. The only power which gave them the clout to outstare Howard was that he did not have the numbers in the Senate, and that Labor, under siege from Howard for standing up for fundamental liberal values and proper checks and balances on untrammelled executive power, was bolstered by leaked threats from dissident Liberals that they could cross the floor in the Senate. (See Webdiary reports Coming soon: too many terroristsToo many terrorists: Part twoCome in, Big BrotherTake em on, BeazleyLiberalism fights back on terror lawsMomentum against Terror AustralisCrisis of conscienceThird Way terrorPayne and gain and ASIO: Right beats might, again!.)

Howard then proposed that the Senate’s power to veto legislation be abolished, which would have ended the only effective Parliamentary review of executive government decisions, and the last leverage of true Liberals in the ‘Liberal’ Party. (See Howard’s Senate strip: All power to him.)

And he’s still at it. Just last week in a Senate report Payne and Mason joined with Labor to condemn proposed ‘consorting with terrorists’ laws as potentially criminalising legitimate social and religious festivals, the giving of legal advice, and investigative journalism. They said the government had not even proved the case for any need for the new laws!

Howard has presided over the collapse of consensus in the political class that civil and human rights are not to be tools for party political gain, or to be torn away from citizens through cheap and cynical scare campaigns putting unbearable political pressure on a responsible opposition. This shaming of the Menzian Liberal tradition has included a pre-fascist fetish to attack minorities and feed the community’s fear of difference.

In this regard, I’d like to quote the 1942 Menzies talk I found the most inimical to John Howard’s idea of leadership in times of war. In ‘Hatred as an instrument of war policy’, Menzies protested against Government advertising urging Australians to despise the Japanese:

It appears to proceed from a belief that the cultivation of the spirit of hatred among our own people is a proper instrument of war policy.

The real question is whether we should glorify such a natural human reaction into something which ought to be cultivated and made a sort of chronic state of mind. In a Great War like this, bitter moments are the portion of many thousands of people, and one must respect that bitterness and its cause. But if we are to view war problems from a national point of view and – what is even better – from a world point of view, then we must inevitably conclude that if this war with all its tragedy breeds into us a deep-seated and enduring spirit of hatred, then the peace when it comes will be merely the prelude to disaster and not an end of it.

… Is it thought that Australian civilians are so lacking in the true spirit of citizenship that they need to be filled artificially with a spirit of hatred before they will do their duty to themselves and to those who are fighting for them’

… Peace may be all sorts of things – a real end of war, a mere exhaustion, an armed interlude before the next struggle. But it will only be by a profound stirring in the hearts of men that we shall reach goodwill.

… It does not mean that in some dreamy or philosophic fashion we are to forget that the salvation of mankind requires that this generation of ours should be ready to go through hell to defeat its devils. But it does mean that we should refuse to take the honest and natural and passing passions of the human heart and degrade them into sinister and bitter policy. We shall, in other words, do well if we leave the dignity and essential nobility of our cause unstained and get on urgently with the business of so working, so fighting, and so sacrificing ourselves that the cause emerges triumphant and the healing benefits of its success become available as a blessing not merely for us but for all mankind.

When did Menzies’ wisdom lose its force in the Liberal Party’ When did his spirit die’ And how do we revive it, for the sake of all Australians’

In the 1997 Menzies memorial lecture in London, Howard said:

Menzies had a deep respect for the political freedoms and personal liberties, the parliamentary democracy, the rule of law, and a free press that were Britain’s great gift to Australia. It is no exaggeration to say that these principles constitute the foundations on which Australia’s strengths as a nation are built.

I seek to prove in my book that Howard has betrayed all of these foundational principles to such an extent that he could, if he wins again, destroy them through his belief that the ends always justify the means. While he mouths these empty phrases to justify opposing a bill of rights for Australians, more and more true Liberals are now calling for one as the only protection left for our civil rights and freedoms.

The current weakness of our democracy is clearly shown in its failure to hold Howard to account for his misleading and deceptive conduct in taking Australia to its first war of aggression – Iraq – against the wishes of the Australian people. The British and American parliaments and media have comprehensively shown us up.

My belief in strong democratic institutions, the rule of law, the separation of powers, and ethical in government were forged by my experience as a Queenslander, a police state under the rule of Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen. I am a small l Liberal, greatly distrustful of State power and extremely mindful of the need for legal protection against its abuse. It is no coincidence that some of the strongest advocates against Howard’s pre-fascist policies come from Queenslanders, including Senators Brandis and Mason and Tony Fitzgerald QC, a traditional liberal destined for the High Court until he did his duty as Royal Commissioner into Queensland police corruption. At the Sydney launch of my book, Tony said:

In a speech last year, the author Norman Mailer described democracy as ‘a state of grace that is attained only by those countries which have a host of individuals not only ready to enjoy freedom but to undergo the heavy labour of maintaining it’.

Australians generally accept that democracy is the best system of government, the market is the most efficient mechanism for economic activity and fair laws are the most powerful instrument for creating and maintaining a society that is free, rational and just. However, we are also collectively conscious that democracy is fragile, the market is amoral and law is an inadequate measure of responsibility. As former Chief Justice Warren of the United States Supreme Court explained: “Law ‘.. presupposes the existence of a broad area of human conduct controlled only by ethical norms.

Similarly, democracy in our tradition assumes that a broad range of political activity is controlled only by conventions of proper conduct. Especially because individual rights are not constitutionally guaranteed in this country, justice, equality and other fundamental community values in Australia are constantly vulnerable to the disregard of those conventions.

Mainstream political parties routinely shirk their duty of maintaining democracy in Australia. This is nowhere more obvious than in what passes for political debate, in which it is regarded as not only legitimate but clever to mislead. Although effective democracy depends on the participation of informed citizens, modern political discourse is corrupted by pervasive deception. It is a measure of the deep cynicism in our party political system that many of the political class deride those who support the evolution of Australia as a fair, tolerant, compassionate society and a good world citizen as an un-Australian, ‘bleeding-heart’ elite, and that the current government inaccurately describes itself as conservative and liberal. It is neither.

It exhibits a radical disdain for both liberal thought and fundamental institutions and conventions. No institution is beyond stacking and no convention restrains the blatant advancement of ideology. The tit-for-tat attitude each side adopts means that the position will probably change little when the opposition gains power at some future time. A decline in standards will continue if we permit it.

Without ethical leadership, those of us who are comfortably insulated from the harsh realities of violence, disability, poverty and discrimination seem to have experienced a collective failure of imagination. Relentless change and perceptions of external threat make conformity and order attractive and incremental erosions of freedom tolerable to those who benefit from the status quo and are apprehensive of others who are different and therefore easily misunderstood.

(Yet) we are a community, not merely a collection of self-interested individuals. Justice, integrity and trust in fundamental institutions are essential social assets and social capital is as important as economic prosperity.

In order to perform our democratic function, we need, and are entitled to, the truth. Nothing is more important to the functioning of democracy than informed discussion and debate. Yet a universal aim of the power-hungry is to stifle dissent. Most of us are easily silenced, through a sense of futility if not personal concern.

My book is an attempt to persuade Australians that there comes a time when political disagreements must be put aside to fight together for the one thing we all agree on – a vibrant liberal democracy in which politicians represent the public interest, not their own or those of their donors and benefactors, and in which every Australian, through the People’s House, can have a say in the determination of our future.

Since the 2001 election, Webdiarists of most political inclinations – left, liberal, conservative and nationalist – have discussed the grave and growing threat to our democracy posed by the Howard regime. The rise of refugee activism has brought voters of many colours together in a campaign which, while reviled by the majority, has grown and strengthened and become more determined over time.

The release last weekend of the plea from 43 of our top retired defence, diplomatic and public service leaders – Australian elders – calling for truth in politics and for Australia to put its national interest before subservience to the USA, is further proof of this trend towards Australians coming together to defend our democracy.

Since the launch of my book, I met Liberal Party elder John Valder, who adopted the book’s title to convene a ‘Not happy, John!‘ campaign to rid the people of John Howard in Bennelong. He is the first establishment Liberal I’ve got to know well, and to our surprise we both like each other and have more in common than not when it comes to our values. We have appeared together at a public meeting called to discuss how Australians can reclaim our democracy.

In Not happy, John: angry outsiders take on Howard Michelle Grattan wrote of the extraordinary stands being made by Brian Deegan, Andrew Wilkie and John Valder in the lead up to this election, the most important in my voting lifetime. She quoted Bob Montgomery, professor of psychology at the University of Canberra, on why the unlikely trio have done so: ‘They have in common, Montgomery says, the phenomenon one sees through history, “of people willing to take a stand that may be costly for them but satisfies their need for integrity”.’

Since the book’s release, I have received dinner invitations from people I would never otherwise have met from walks of life I have never encountered. The topic: how to join forces to fight for the Australian values which make us special and which are close to being lost forever.

Now is the time to begin that fight, together, and many Australians who’ve never before been involved in politics are looking around to spot others with defiance in their eyes also prepared to take the time and bear the cost of doing what they can to remove the Howard regime, give the Liberal Party the chance to rediscover the traditions and values which made it great, and create a mass movement to insist that liberal values are brought back into the mainstream of Australia’s faltering democracy.

For all its faults, and there are many, I believe the election of a Labor Government and a strong Senate will give the people a breathing space to mobilise to make the health of our democracy a crucial issue during the term of the next government and at the next election.

I’d like to end with a quote from Menzies I published in my book:

Menzies, 1942:

What, then, must democracy do if it is to be a real force in the new world’ ‘ It must recapture the vision of the good of man as the purpose of government. And it must restore the authority and prestige of Parliament as the supreme organic expression of self-government.

… The truth is that ever since the wise men gathered about the village tree in the Anglo-Saxon village of early England, the notion of free self-government has run like a thread through our history. The struggle for freedom led an English Parliament to make war on its King and execute him at the seat of government, confined the kingship itself to a parliamentary domain, established the cabinet system and responsibility, set in place the twin foundation stones of the sovereignty of Parliament and the rule of law on which our whole civil edifice is built.

The sovereignty of Parliament. That is a great phrase and a vital truth. If only we could all understand it to the full, what a change we would make! Sovereignty is the quality of kingship, and democracy brings it to the poor man’s door.

I visited a friend after Bush declared ‘mission accomplished’ in Iraq, at a time when the lies, the spin and the psychological assaults inflicted by the Coalition of the Willing’s governments on any public servant who told the truth were becoming horribly clear.

My friend said, ‘Margo, we usually find out thirty years later that they lied to us to send us to war. What happens when we find out almost instantaneously’ And what happens if nothing happens”

I answered: ‘I guess it would mean that we don’t treasure our democracy any more, and that means it will die.’

The IPA has set up a #pressfreedom fund at @adele_ferguson and @pennell who are being sued by Gina Rinehart to reveal their sources are deeply touched by their support. Except the support is not for them but for Andrew Bolt.

Richard Ackland

Brandis has huge job being seen as a freedom fighter

Silence says a lot on free-speech stance

Jonathan Holmes

Correcting the record on ‘The Freedom Wars’