Tasmanian Premier David Bartlett has made a decision to attack the credibility of Dr Alison Bleaney as part of his campaign for re-election. In doing so Bartlett has confirmed for all to see the authoritarian element that appears now to be dominant in his conduct.
More significantly, he has confirmed the antipathy of his government to matters of public health and welfare when they run counter to the interests of capital. Alison Bleaney herself has described Bartlett’s attack as “hilarious”, but she is being much too kind.
In any political system, at any time in history, individuals who have the courage, selflessness and principled concern to speak out on behalf of people’s welfare against an entrenched political culture seeking to maintain power and authority and the status quo, have invariably exposed themselves to the full force of the wrath of the political establishment.
Undeniably, many of these individuals have become iconic exemplars of the best that the human condition can aspire to, role models for altruism across time and place, across the boundaries of race, religion, class, culture and political systems.
Their names, in many cases, have survived emblematically, while the powerful vested interests which opposed them lie forgotten, shamed and condemned as representative of greedy and brutal exploitation of the lives of others, as representative of the inhumanity of man against man in the name of personal wealth, ego, status and power.
Some names? Think Socrates, Galileo, Wilberforce, Darwin, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi as a limited list.
So, as it would eventuate, at the height of the Tasmanian election campaign in 2010, we can see the same forces of authoritarianism in stifling debate about major issues of public welfare, in the attack by Premier David Bartlett on the independent work of Alison Bleaney, work undertaken by her, at her own expense and time, with the sole aim of protecting Tasmanians from toxins in their water.
True to the time-honoured power-wired standards of the self-serving vested interests of any political system under pressure, Dr Alison Bleaney has now been subjected to the same kind of unscrupulous and unprincipled attack so typical of undemocratic regimes the world over, now and in the past.
The attack on her is not unusual within the general context of ostracism and condemnation of those challenging conformism to the status quo in any political culture, but in a political system which calls itself a “representative democracy”, it makes a mockery of that claim.
As always in such cases, the focus of the attack is a blatant misrepresentation, designed to attack the person rather than the issues. Socrates was condemned for “misleading the youth”, Galileo and Darwin for challenging religious dogma, King and Mandela for the “crime” of fighting institutionalized and legally enshrined racism, and Aung San Suu Kyi for being a “security threat” as an advocate for human rights. Variously labeled as heretics and as terrorists by those with their hands on the reins of power, their common bond is an abandonment of the chains of vulgar caucus conformity.
Alison Bleaney is to be valued and cherished by Tasmanians precisely because she demonstrates – and has done so now for many years – the importance of independence of judgment, of examination of the evidence, of calling for independent investigation, of asking the questions that need to be asked, and of challenging the vested interests of conformism to corporate exploitation allied with political careerism.
She is to be cherished and supported for her efforts in seeking the truth. All those combined elements in the political establishment who are now conspiring against her work stand low in their own scrambling for self-preservation, for cover from scrutiny and for denial. Whatever they say their credibility is zero.
Premier Bartlett’s attack on Alison Bleaney really does deserve to be the final nail in the coffin of his political career. But even if that occurs, which is improbable, it does nothing to change the prevailing culture.
For Bartlett’s attack also illuminates quite graphically the hollowness at the heart of the Tasmanian political system. It shows that in Tasmania the use of the word “democracy” is a deception. It is a weasel word.
The typical mantra is the call for unity behind the leadership, for trust in the wisdom of the oligarchs and their corporate advisers in the half-light and behind closed doors, to trust the “tactical messages”, the carefully-worded ambiguities, the false promises, the evasions and the small-target policy sketches.
Deviate and get pilloried. That is the “standard” of “democracy” in the Tasmanian polity, the reality of the dumbed-down political culture of careerism, lack of transparency, cronyism and disregard for the public interest. This is the nature of the Tasmanian political culture, unchallenged by a compliant and timid local media, a generally cowed academy and a mushroomed electorate.
The one remaining question of how far this culture has permeated across the Greens as it has within the Labor-Liberal accord is difficult to assess. Political cultures tend to mould participants to the same ways of operating, and some signs are not particularly encouraging, as was seen recently when a Greens candidate for Bass (not Kim Booth) publicly attacked prominent anti-pulp mill activist Bob McMahon for exercising his own independence of judgment to challenge vaguely defined and contradictory messages from the Green side of politics.
It is imperative that the Greens see before them an opportunity to reshape the political culture, not merely to affirm the veracity of the mainstream standard operating procedures of evasion, tactical cynicism, vilification of legitimate political discourse and demands for old-guard restrictions on freedoms of expression.
The attack on McMahon, like the attack on Bleaney, like the attack on Ben Quin by the Liberals in the last federal election, are signs of a political culture trying to confine expressions of informed opinion within the community to strict parameters set by party machines.
The oldest trick in the political handbook is to instill timidity, reluctance and reticence in the minds of people about having an individual voice. John Howard’s term was for the people to be “relaxed and comfortable”, meaning passive, complacent and ignorant. Bartlett’s was “kind, clever and connected”, and “lines in the sand”.
Whenever you hear the phrases like that, or such glibness as “time for unity” or “trust us”, and whenever you hear attacks on the person as responses to analysis, challenge or question, then it’s time to smell a rat, because democracy cannot exist in a society where freedom of discussion is inhibited or eliminated by the call to follow the old line of caucus conformity to policy positions determined by others, somewhere else, in another place.
The result of caucus conformity is the abandonment of independence of judgment, and there’s nothing democratic about that. In fact, in the final analysis it is the abandonment of democracy itself, and its replacement by something else. That “something else” can be nothing else except a political form which takes as its central premise a legitimacy framed in this way: – “What are the people for but to support the prince in his endeavours”.
My guess is that we are further along that path than we know.