Lionel Murphy Memorial Lecture2005

(MP3 Audio of Address)


Recovering the Human:

The Disappearance of People

In the 21st Century


Shane Elson

 25th October, 2005

Ninde dana Quarenook


Thank you for that warm welcome. Thank you also to the Lionel Murphy Memorial Lecture Committee for inviting me to deliver this address. I hope my humble offering does justice to Lionel Murphy’s legacy.


I want to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land upon which we meet and pay respect to their heritage and struggle and attempts to resist the imposition of white culture and the accompanying loss of their own unique cultural and value systems.


I would also like to acknowledge an empty chair and dedicate this address to a friend and in some ways mentor, Paddy Dalton, who passed away after his own personal battle this year.


I have a confession to make. I suffer from a number of personal deficits that will, necessarily, limit my comments tonight and I hope you will bear them in mind as I speak.


I’m from Tasmania. I’m a white, working class, protestant, middle aged male. I’m happily married and I tend to fits of depression, intolerance and idealism. So forgive me if I wander off on a few tangents as I try and expand my theme.


The Lionel Murphy Memorial Lectures pay tribute to a man who, as I read him, was someone who felt deeply the humanity of the people around him and even extended to those he didn’t know personally.


Who knows what occurs in the heart of someone as they grow and how their life experiences shape them for their unfolding future. All we can do, because we can’t see their heart and soul or know the workings of their mind, is watch their actions and listen to their words and see if they correlate.


During the height of the Vietnam War, Murphy addressed the senate and once more voiced his opposition to Australian involvement in it. Throughout his career as a politician he made constant reference to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1946) and according to Murphy, the only way Australia could conduct it’s internal social business and its external foreign relations policies was by reference to universal principles that upheld the dignity and humanity of all people, no matter what their standing.


In a speech to the Senate in February 1967 Murphy said, “Principles are not like clothing, to be changed whenever it seems convenient” (Murphy in Hocking, 1997: 103).


Murphy once said the “great principles of justice … are not strictly observed. The people who suffer in our society are obvious – Aborigines, migrants, women and those who are physically and economically disadvantaged. Their complaints are not revolutionary, all they ask is that the great principles of justice be applied to them” (in Hocking, 1997: 250)


I hope to explore during our short time together what I’ve called Recovering the Human, because, to me, one of the hallmarks of the dawn of this century is the way in which we, as society are allowing the human to be stolen. That is, as I see it, we are witnessing the Disappearance of People in the 21st Century.


Don Watson (2003: 5) begins his Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language by saying, “There can be no respect for truth without respect for the language.” He goes on, “Only when language is alive does truth have a chance.”


In 1984 George Orwell’s character, Winston Smith, is castigated by one of his colleagues, Symes, who tells him,

You haven’t an appreciation of Newspeak, Winston … Even when you write it you’re still thinking in Oldspeak. I’ve read some of those pieces you write in The Times occasionally. They’re good enough, but they’re translations. In your heart you’d prefer to stick with Oldspeak, with all its vagueness and it useless shades of meaning. You don’t grasp the beauty of the destruction of words. Do you know that Newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year? (Orwell, 1954: 45)


John Pilger writes in The New Rulers of the World that his experiences during the Vietnam War as a reporter led him

to question the nature of power imposed from a distance, not just by those above the clouds [a reference to the B52 carpet bombing during that war], but by impeccable, faraway figures who order the mass killing of people, and by those who justify their crimes by representing the victims as terrorists, or merely numbers, without names, faces and histories, or as the inevitable casualties of a superior mentality” (Pilger, 2002: 99).


Writing in The Unconscious Civilisation John Rawlson Saul (1996: 125) states, “… power without responsibility is a basic form of illiteracy or ignorance.”


In the most recent Neighbourhood Watch newsletter (20/10/05) for “Area LTB 15” - which is apparently where I live - there is a “crime report” which lists the “date, time, street and offence” said to have been committed in our area. Under the list for August it simply says, “2 Offenders processed”. Under the September list it says, “8 Offenders processed”.


I make mention of this Neighbourhood Watch newsletter because it illustrates quite well, what might be termed “the great forgetting”, that process whereby, as Susan Sontag (1988: 89) puts it,

reality has bifurcated, into the real thing and an alternative version of it. There is the event and its image. And there is the event and its projection. But as real events often seem to have no more reality for people than images, and the need for confirmation of those images, so our reaction to events in the present seeks confirmation in a mental outline with appropriate computations, of the event in its projected, ultimate form.


Central to my argument is the notion of the Human. What do I mean by this? Quite simply I use the term to refer to the whole person. That is, rather than trying to break the person down into their component pieces or representations - their gender, their ethnic origin, their nationality, their sexuality, their religion, intellectual capacity, social status or any of the other markers we look to for reference - I want to refer to people in their totality, wholly full and inclusive of all their being.


As is often said, first impressions are important. Why? Because this first impression is the beginning of understanding but only if we choose to remain open to the potential of the ‘other’ and allow ourselves to be exposed in our ignorance to this potential. I therefore want to refer to people as Human in their totality.


In Jenny Hocking’s (1997:15) biography of Murphy she notes that he had, from the time his elder brother, Keith, died, “a growing … awareness that human sanctity must co-exist with human fallibility”.


People are not just “offenders” any more than they are just “mothers”, “brothers”, “asylum seekers”, “terrorists”, “workers”, “consumers” or “radicals”. Each person is, I believe, and as affirmed by the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 1, “… born free and equal in dignity and rights. [We] are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of …” tolerance and acceptance.


In the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights (1981), similar sentiments are found. In Article II of the Declaration it says,

 Every individual and every people has the inalienable right to freedom in all its forms - physical, cultural, economic and political - and shall be entitled to struggle by all available means against any infringement or abrogation of this right; and every oppressed individual or people has a legitimate claim to the support of other individuals and/or peoples in such a struggle.


You see here a shift in this Declaration. A shift from the passive nature of the Western version of the ‘order of things’ found in the UN’s Declaration, to a proactive stance in the Islamic version. This is something I will return to later on because I think it is here that we find the encouragement to challenge what Pilger has called the “nature of power imposed from a distance”.


A great feature of this “power imposed from a distance” is that it allows for the disappearance of people quite easily. This feature didn’t begin with the Vietnam conflict but that war did give allow for the invention of that ‘great’ term for the disappeared. The dead became “collateral damage”. A much better illustration of the power to disappear is hard to find.


Another good illustration of ability to disappear people is to be found by going back to the start of this century and looking at the first large scale example of the current age, that small group who have become known as the “queue jumpers”, the “illegals”.


To the average consumer of what is loosely referred to as “news and current affairs” in this country, this group was not a small number of under-resourced, under-funded and under-nourished escapees from oppression. They were, if you believed the government and media spin, a marauding rabble of dangerous rapists, terrorists, pillagers and murders. It didn’t matter that many of them were in fact women and children. It didn’t matter that the vast majority would, eventually, be granted the asylum they sought. It didn’t matter that they had to be “rescued” from leaky boats and rip off merchants who, it transpires may well have been funded, in part, by our own government.


John Howard’s, words at the Liberal Party Election launch in 2001 echo in the ears of some of us. You may recall he declared, “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come” (Marr and Wilkinson, 2003: 245-246). The fact that the Australian Labor Party held the same policies in relation to “illegal immigrants” (Raper, 2002) and was the chief protagonist within previous white Australia debates (Jupp, 1995) once more calls into question the idea of “choice” at the polling booth.


As you would recall there was considerable public debate over the appropriateness of  the government’s handling of the so called “refugee crisis” in the lead up to that election and afterwards through the Senate Select Committee Inquiry into a Certain Maritime Incident and beyond to this day.


Letters to Editors and talk back programs revealed a division of opinion on the issues and was, in my opinion, allowed to foment a totally unnecessary “moral panic” (cf. Thompson, 1995: 45-46) which authorised quite negative and, at times, racist (both overt and covert) comments to be made about this mostly desperate group of human souls.


For instance Foreign Minister Downer was able to talk about “civilised people” not throwing their children overboard (Anti Discrimination Board of New South Wales, 2003: 47) by invoking what Ghassan Hage describes as the (mythical) “essential Goodness of Australia” (Hage, 2003: 77). In Hage’s discussion of “goodness” he proposes that “we” as Australians, during this period were actualized as not only “good” (Hage, 2003: 74) but that “we” (as opposed to the “other”) are capable of recognising “bad” people, and “bad” (or by Downer’s implication “uncivilised”) people would throw their children overboard while we, as “good” people could never carry out such acts.


What occurred, if we follow Hage’s logic, is that human beings were replaced with code words. People and their innate humanness became ciphers. Shortcuts to understanding if you like.


Interestingly the Macquarie Concise Dictionary defines, in part, a cipher as “4. something of no value or importance. 5. a person of no influence”. However, as we know these ciphers were anything but unimportant and uninfluential.


They were important so long as their unimportance as humans could be demonstrated and this perception of them maintained. They were influential so long as their uninfluential-ness was able to be denied.  As ciphers, the asylum seekers had value only as great as their agency in the larger scheme of the government at that time. The asylum seekers were constructed within the public debate within certain discursive boundaries. These boundaries allowed for ‘authorised’ discussion within a limited context and set of codes and anyone who challenged the boundaries or codes, by reference to the authorised discourse, could easily be labelled ‘un Australian’.


The government, through its various Ministers at the time, held fast to the authorised discursive constructions and Reith and Ruddock in particular became the ‘point men’ for the government’s use of them. In the main these discursive constructions were put forward to defend the government, military and bureaucracy in their handling of the matter. These discursive forms constructed the refugees as “illegal immigrants”, “queue jumpers” or as, we know, even potential terrorists (Marr and Wilkinson, 2003: 151).


During the public release of the “evidence” in the so called “children overboard affair” – a series of photos taken of people in the water – Philip Ruddock, the Minister for Immigration at the time, said that the “evidence” (which was later proved to have not shown children thrown overboard at all) demonstrated “some of the most disturbing practices” he had seen (Marr and Wilkinson, 2003:186). These comments have been interpreted as revealing a xenophobic “we don’t want people like that here” attitude within the government (Hage, 2003: 30).


You may have seen a most recent example of this type of construction in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. A series of pictures from Associated Press emerged, one of which showed a black man with plastic bag in tow, waist deep in the water. He was described as a “looter”. An almost identical picture featured a white male and female dragging similar plastic bags after them. They, on the other hand were described as “finding bread and soda” (Associated Press, 2005, Agence France-Presse, 2005). I ask you, which one of these begs your pity and is therefore humanised at the expense of then other?


Returning to event here in 2001, by allowing the media to focus on Reith, Ruddock and Downer, the government was able to position itself in case of what might be termed “electoral blowback”. That is, while the focus remained on the potential for the government, or at least some of its ministers, to be seen as xenophobic or racist the microscope was never turned on the community’s latent racism. Racism is not a stable term but as Hollinsworth (1998:70) points out no matter how you carve the term up, “racism in Australia … operates covertly in interwoven ways which stigmatise and exclude … ‘non-whites’.”


As Jaques Ellul (1965) notes, the best propaganda, or as we call it these days, ‘image management’ or ‘public relations’, is that which utilises pre-existing attitudes of the community to which it is directed. In the case of the run up to the 2001 election we were constantly reassured from the centres of power that “we” are not a racist society. Howard told us that ad nauseam as did the shock jocks, the commentators and the various ‘community leaders’ who were asked to comment on the issue. This is exactly as Cowlishaw (in Hollinsworth, 1998: 70) observes. She writes that racism

is organically connected to processes which have a stated purpose of achieving social equity. Thus, practices which support racism are more commonly associated with the denial of racist beliefs than with the expression of racial hostility because essentialising racial categories are invoked and reproduced in various bureaucratic and institutional forums, even when the stated intention is to ameliorate racial inequality.


What becomes obvious when looking at the events leading up to the November 7th election in 2001 is how the protection of the “corporate” image of the military and government became far more important than dealing with people, human beings, in distress (Peek, 2002: 116-125).


What really mattered in this period was that in no way could these people be allowed to be portrayed as fellow human beings. It really didn’t matter what they were called as long as the images we saw and the voices we heard were of some alien like face that could be framed as if to present a risk to “our” way of life. The ‘otherness’ of these fellow humans was highlighted, for example, in the lie told about them supposedly throwing their children overboard and it could be found in the repeated images of children huddled together with unkempt men on the boats and so on.


In the Sydney Morning Herald on the 4th April 2002 it was revealed that the government, Reith and Howard’s office in particular and the senior bureaucrats handling the job for them, Jenny McHenry and Ross Hampton, two highly paid public servants, had conspired to hide from the public the humanity of what was occurring just off our Northern Shores.


One of the witnesses to the Children Overboard inquiry, the Defence Department’s Director General of Communications Strategy, Brian Humphreys, told the inquiry that Ross Hampton, Reith’s press secretary, had ordered him to ensure that no pictures which “humanised or personalised” the asylum seekers were to be released (Skehan, 2002: 5).


Instead of trying to build up our sense of worth as a tolerant and accepting nation, our government and media was quite content to foment a public humiliation not only of the souls in and on the water but also of anyone who offered some support, no matter how limited that might be.


The Alan Jones’ and Howard Sattlers, the John Laws, Stan Zumaneks and the Ron Casey’s of the airwaves exploded into vitriol at the merest mention that this group of deflated, defeated humans could possibly find support from within our nation. The spirit of mateship and the “fair go” was jettisoned in the name of racism, prejudice and fear mongering.


Where were our principles? Where was our sense of justice? Were did we go so wrong? For all of the talk about mateship, egalitarianism and the ‘fair go’, we fell short of any mark of civilisation as a nation during this period. For what aim? One can only assume it was for some short term political goal - the re-election of the Howard government. At least that is the most often talked about theory.


I want to propose, somewhat provocatively, that to remain content with this level of examination is to overlook the obvious. I want to propose that the exercise we saw in the lead up to the 2001 election was as much about us as it was about the refugees and asylum seekers. I believe that in part if not in whole, the exercise was about manipulating our national identity and seeing how far our own view of ourselves could, at the macro level, be challenged. In other words, how could this ‘otherness’ and the need for the intervention of a punitive security state be justified?


How does this process work? How do we begin to lose our sense of humanity and the realness of other people? I don’t think it occurs overnight. I think it is a lifelong process and that from our youngest days we are exposed to situations and the pre-conditions under which we, as self actuated adults, respond to the world around us. A short illustration from my own experience might help demonstrate this. When I was young there were three people who stand out as the quintessential “other” and from my earliest memory I can recall them.


One was a “bob a job” man who would come around and help out around the house. He would mow the lawns and trim the hedges. He would help dad paint the house and do errands for mum. Ours was a working class family and this bloke was certainly no household servant but he was reliable, honest and I assume cheap. He also suffered from a cleft lip and being born in an age where there was no surgery for babies with this type of structural deformity, his mouth was rather deformed. This meant he spoke in a peculiar and not easily understood fashion.


I recall how my mum used to mimic him from time to time when re-telling tales about him to others. She could do him to a tee. One day when he was visiting our place and having lunch with us as he did, I thought I’d try out something I’d been practicing in secret. I can’t recall what I said but I do recall the look on everyone’s faces as I put on my best cleft lip accent and began chatting. What happened next, I think needs no re-telling.


The second person in my town that I can recall as having an impact on me was a man who, without malice, I recall looked somewhat like Lurch who I encountered many years later on the Addams Family TV series. This man seemingly roamed the streets and my parents told me not to go near him as he was “different”. Different than what I didn’t comprehend at the time. Just different. The voice of authority and power had spoken and as a child that was enough for me.


Some years later I saw this particular man hand in hand with a woman and I mentioned this to my parents who immediately obtained that strained, “oh my god we hoped he wouldn’t ask that” look on their faces. So I didn’t ask. What did transpire was that this man and his girlfriend were engaged and that, according to the gossip I heard at the time, it was ‘good’ that she couldn’t have children. I realise now that she had been a victim of the practice of sterilising intellectually disabled girls, with or without their consent.


Now don’t get me wrong, my parents aren’t bad or malevolent people. Neither are they cruel or harsh. I say that not to defend them but to remind us of Justice Murphy’s words that “human sanctity must co-exist with human fallibility”.


Many years after these events took place having a son with a disability has opened my eyes to the wonders of “the other” that I first recall encountering in the three people I’ve just mentioned. To have your own flesh born ‘different’ is, at least to others, an interesting thing to occur.


Now I use the term ‘different’ not as my own word but as a reminder that the ‘other’, who ever they might be, is always portrayed as ‘not quite right’. This ‘not quite rightness’ and its recognition by us allows for the ‘great forgetting’. The forgetting of the Human and therefore gaining the ability to make that person disappear. If not literally then at least figuratively.


That disappearance might be into institutions such as asylums or desert detention camps. Or it might be into the bureaucratic nightmare we now euphemistically call “human services”. We have gotten rid of some of the physical structures but the conditions under which people are categorised still remain. The physical institutions, are now modernised and architecturally designed so as not to offend community sensibilities. However, a new building cannot change the mental codes which establish and maintain the pre-conditions under which people can still be ‘disappeared’.


I said a moment ago that my parents weren’t mean and bad people. Neither do I think that of most of my fellow Australians – at least the ones I’ve encountered - are bad or mean. What I do think though is that the pre-existing attitudes of a society can be manipulated, not necessarily in a conspiratorial way, but rather as an easy way of compressing thought processes. With the development of modern media systems the task of compressing these thought processes is much easier. As someone once said, ‘the media can’t tell us what to think but it can tell us what to think about’.


The media operate according to a set of codes. These codes are unspoken and through constant exposure these codes become normalised. That is, we interact with the media institutions and come to understand how they work by learning the codes and then using them as mental shortcuts. The only way these shortcuts work is by allowing ourselves to be captured, as it were, by them. In order for the ‘correct’ interpretation of media stories to be made, and therefore sense of them to be allowed, we need to conform to the demands of the codes and accept them. Alternative readings of the codes are difficult to obtain and take some effort to, firstly, become aware of them and secondly, to permit them legitimacy.


To illustrate this point I want to move forward, post September 11 to the ongoing war and occupation of Iraq and the new so called “anti-terrorism” movement that is sweeping the so called “developed world”. Let’s recall some of the incidents that occurred very early on in the invasion of Iraq.


The Hotel Palestine in Baghdad came under fire in April 2003 as did the Al Jazeera building while at the same time  2000 pound bombs were dropped on civilian areas. The story we were fed was that the reason the hotel was fired on was that ‘snipers’ were targeting US soldiers. The Al Jazeera TV studio was destroyed by ‘accident’ we were told and the 2000 pound bombs were dropped, according to the military, because of reports that Saddam and his sons were in the area.


However, the so called "smart bombs" killed civilians not Saddam or his sons. Furthermore, the Pentagon spokespeople told us that they couldn’t confirm if it was their weapons that targeted the hotel or Al Jazeera. However, journalists at both locations who survived the attack said they know exactly what happened - that US forces opened fire. "Errant" fire the officials told us.


I thought tank shells were just "dumb" weapons - lumps of steel tipped lead (or as we now know from official sources, steel tipped depleted uranium shells) that basically follow the trajectory they are fired on. I mean, if you see the tank aim, a puff of smoke and a building starts to crumble around you, it’s pretty likely that you were fired on.

The images of the ‘shock and awe’ campaign were closely monitored. As I say to my journalism students, try and recall the images you saw. Who produced them? What did they show? Who were portrayed as the ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’?


What the masters of war don't want us to see are images like those shown by SBS last week of US soldiers burning the bodies of two Taliban soldiers killed by means not yet revealed. What cameraman, Stephen Dupont, has revealed is the lie that underpins the so called ‘war on terror’ and reveals that “power without responsibility is a basic form of ignorance and illiteracy” (Ralston Saul, 1996: 125)


What the US and our government don't want is people on the ground who see their job as telling the story in a detached and "balanced" way. Our government cannot permit the dissemination of these type of "bad PR" images. After all propaganda is what ‘they do to ‘us’. ‘We’ just tell the facts. The masters of war don't want the "fourth estate" looking over their shoulders. They want compliance and collusion. After all look what a few pictures, some short news films and tape recordings did for the support of the Vietnam War!


Let’s have a look at a manufactured hero that surfaced in the early days of Operation Oil. Sorry, “Operation Iraqi Liberation”. That of Private Jessica Lynch.


You may recall that Private Lynch was attached to a unit that we do know became separated from the convoy they were in somewhere near the city of Nasiriya (Kampfner, 2003). We were told that some sort of gun battle had taken place and she had been wounded and captured. During her capture she was supposedly raped, beaten and brutalised. The US sent in Special Forces to rescue her and in the process these special forces destroyed the hospital Lynch was in.


As the truth came out almost all of the story told to us was a lie. It seems the only bit that was true was that her unit had become lost, that there was some sort of gun battle and that she did indeed end up in hospital with broken bones and some cuts and bruises.


The spin put on this event by the US military and disseminated by the mainstream media was not to enlighten us or give us a glimpse of the real war. Rather it can only be interpreted as propaganda to defend the indefensible. As a BBC (Kampfner, 2003) documentary exposed, the whole Jessica Lynch story was an exercise in media management by the US military.


Part of this process involved making sure the real Jessica Lynch was lost in the miasma the spin doctors created. The process involved constructing a new Jessica Lynch from the bare bones of the story. Not only her but her family, her history, her military record and the accident that killed her comrades and left her battered and broken.


Reality became, as Sontag points out, bifurcated, and any deviation from the authorised version could expose the real reality of the humans affected by the events. Private Lynch was not the only one involved of course. The rest of her unit, those who died, they were easily forgotten. The doctors and nurses who, as truth revealed, offered aid and went out of their way to help her, they too were easily forgotten. In fact, all the characters in this story were disappeared and replaced by coded ciphers whose only value was in relation to the ‘war’ story they appeared in.


But we have our own wars going on here at home. Right here in Gippsland no less. Those battles are fought out each day by the carers of those with disabilities.


A few years ago I was at a disability conference and during one of the coffee breaks I got into conversation with another bloke. I'll call him Bill. 


Bill was in his seventies and a widower. He told me his story with tears in his eyes. His wife had passed away a few years prior to my meeting him and since then he had taken over the fulltime care for his 40 year old daughter. She was born with a severe intellectual disability and had physical disabilities as well. She could not be left unsupervised for extended periods, had fits of violence, was overweight and suffered from a range of medical conditions that required constant vigilance.

Bill was tired. He told me that until he retired he had never known the life his wife had lived as, until then, she had to bear the full load of caring for their daughter (not to mention their other children). Bill was alone and his own mortality was staring him in the face. I can still see the tears in his eyes as he asked me, "What will happen when I'm gone?" What could I say? What can we say to all the Bills and Bettys who care for their loved ones as they negotiate the world we have allowed to emerge around us?

In September 2003 John Howard attended the National Carers Conference in Canberra. He delivered the opening address and said, in part, "I want to address some remarks to the Government's approach to the enormous contributions that Carers make to the stability of our community. Social stability and social cohesion and caring for people is an integral part of Australian society".

I found this to be an extraordinary turn of phrase. I'll repeat it. "Social stability and social cohesion and caring for people is an integral part of Australian society".

What Howard does here is turn the emphasis away from notions of collective responsibility for those who are less fortunate than ourselves and turn it back on the individuals unfortunate enough to have to care full time for their loved ones. He says to Carers, you make an enormous contribution but that is what we expect from you as members of a stable, cohesive society. Howard has said to those who look after the most vulnerable and needy, as good Australians, it is your duty to care for your loved ones.

This is nothing new and is nothing less than what we should expect from a man steeped in the principle that individualism and trying to provide the greatest return for your energy will form the basis on which collective action will emerge to benefit everyone. What might be termed the ‘trickle down of tears’ effect.


In Howard's limited and blinkered view of social processes, he ascribes success to individual drive and motivations and social processes as governed by the 'invisible hand' of mutual exchange unhindered by government or other interventions. In short, if left to our own devices, society will become better and all will benefit. I wonder what benefits Bill has received over the last 40 years or so?

There are 600,000 families in Australia who care for at least one member with a disability and who are not able to access adequate care for their loved ones which means that the family (in most cases the mother) is the primary carer. These carers don't work a 38 hour week with sick pay, holiday pay, superannuation or other perks. They work 365 days a year, on call 24 hours a day for the measly sum of $43 per week in Carer's Allowance. AWAs don’t come much harsher than that!

The Federal Budget is supposedly in surplus to the tune of some $7 billion but this would be turned into a budget deficit of over $20 billion if full time, unpaid family carers took the drastic action of 'dumping' their loved ones in care (if it was available in the first place).

So how do we respond with the Carers to John Howard's call to remember that "Social stability and social cohesion and caring for people is an integral part of Australian society"? How do we enter into the life of the Bills and Bettys who, while aging themselves, are faced with the terrible knowledge that when they do pass away, their loved one will be left to the devices of the state? 


Under Howard's scheme it would be other family members who would take up the caring role. Brothers, sisters, uncles or aunts, Howard would trumpet, need to remember that if they want to be responsible members of Australian society they should take up the slack in the system. But I ask you, how would you feel if one day an adult with profound and multiple disabilities was thrust upon you and you had to rearrange your lifestyle to suit their needs Would you do it?

Here are some statistics to help you understand where Howard and Costello got at least part of their 2004 budget surplus from.

Over 3.6 million Australians (or 19% of the population) have a disability with handicap. Of this group 2.3 million have their primary care provided by an unpaid family carer including the provision of accommodation. Over 71% of all these carers are women and 78% of all primary carers are of workforce age (18-64). Unpaid families provide over 91% of all accommodation support for people with disabilities and while our government spent $3.7 billion on Aged Care accommodation in the '99-'00 budget they provided only $1.2 billion for disability accommodation (Tops, 2003).

As long as the systems under which we are forced to live offer no respite or opportunity to even think about the possibilities of a different way of organising our social and economic relations, then Howard and the ruling class (of all political shades) will continue to regard carers as nothing more than slaves.

A young boy with a disabled brother once told his mother about a dream he had. In the dream he had a fireworks rocket and when it exploded in the air the falling sparks took away everyone's disabilities. What a beautiful and truly aspirational dream this is. It reminds me of Martin Luther King’s (1963 / 2005) “I have a dream speech” in which he said, “we cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one”. We cannot be satisfied while the weakest members of our community are denied the dignity to live their lives as real people, full people. Human beings. The measure of our humanity will be found in the ways we activate the dream of that son and brother and seek actively, diligently and without compromise, to recapture the Human and return people to the centre of our social conversations in the 21st Century.


It’s here that I want to return to the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights and it’s demand that all “shall be entitled to struggle by all available means against any infringement or abrogation” of their human rights.


In order for us to forget that the asylum seekers of 2001 were real people we had to be fooled into thinking and believing they were something else. Something else other than fully human. They were, as I said earlier on, described as anything but human in a concerted effort to deprive us - hear that - deprive us, of the opportunity to react as fellow human beings.


That deprivation was fomented by a concerted media campaign that was directed from the highest office of the land. There can be no denying that. That trend has not abated. Whether it’s the lies about the reasons for invading and occupying Iraq and Afghanistan; whether it’s the lies about children thrown overboard or the abrogation of responsibility towards the most disadvantaged, makes little difference. We have allowed our social psyche to bifurcated by a false view of reality. As Don Watson notes in Death Sentence, we are informed by a media system that is, primarily, an entertainment medium (2003: 63). Alex Carey goes further and declares that our media system is little more than a conduit for preformed messages that come straight out of the advertising agencies (1995: 128). These agencies are expert at reaching us at an emotional level. That is, at the level of our most humanness.


One of the most effective means to reach us at the most human level is to use, as Edward Bernays, one of the ‘fathers’ of modern public relations, a “campaign message” that matches “the campaign objectives with those fundamental human desires which can be satisfied by the campaigns success” (Bernays, 1955:16). However there is a contradiction here. That is, what is meant to be the ‘success’ of these campaigns?


In the case of the ‘children overboard affair’ the obvious answer is to get the Howard government re-elected. But as I said earlier I think the point of that exercise was to test us and see how far we could be pushed to adopt a particular point of view without resistance. I suggest that the campaign, if it was just so, was a categorical success. But as any military leader will tell you, one success is not enough. Winning a battle is not winning a war. And that, my friends is exactly what we are in. A war for the hearts and minds of people.


A war that goes back thousands of years. A war that is always hidden but sometimes revealed in the activity of physical wars. The battle is between competing ideologies whether they be expressed as religious belief systems, political systems, economic systems or competing principles of social organisation. No matter how they are fought, the battle continues to rage.


I don’t want end on a pessimistic note. I want to offer some views on how we can reinject the Human into the public sphere and how we could engage in the process of putting people, real people, back into the picture.


Before I begin to wind up, a warning. Only a few brave souls engage in the battle against the removal of the Human. The paths of history are littered with the corpses of those who fought hard, who engaged in the battle and were defeated. Not all were overwhelmed. Most were defeated by the enemy of time. They simply died without seeing the fruition of their work.


Not only do we battle time we also battle the demons that inhabit all the dark places of our own souls. We must own our human fallibilities and failings. And while we are dealing with that we will also come face to face with the wrath of others. We will face public humiliation, challenges to our integrity and embarrassing situations.


We will be called to step beyond our comfort zones. After all, you can’t walk a mile in the shoes of the ‘other’ without suffering the same ciphering processes as them. Finally, you can’t engage in the battle without being prepared to become an agitator. A bona fide, everyone knows you as, cant escape from it, agitator.


How do we, then, agitate and for what purpose?


I’ve so far avoided reference to what is more and more obviously, even to this ‘unconscious civilisation’ a class analysis of the conditions under which people are disappeared. On one level it is irrelevant. On another level it is extremely important. However, I must ask, who benefits and who loses when people are made to disappear?


The answers to this are many and varied. Among the winners are the multinational military industrial complex with its ever expanding incarceration operations. The huge bureaucracies and academic research agencies which promote militarism and punitive responses. We have an army of psychologists and psychiatrists and battalions of chemists working on “humane” ways of chemically sedating people. We have engineers designing news ways of housing ever increasing numbers of prisoners. And, of course, we have the entertainment industry cashing in on all this. As I recall a Hollywood deal was almost clinched but abandoned when the real Jessica Lynch story emerged.


From the institutional winners we can move to the personal and those who, by virtue of their forgetting, are allowed to escape the burden of trying to understand or comprehend the ‘other’ and from them to whole societies who are allowed to forget and thus avoid their responsibilities within a global human rights system.


Of course, the only losers are those deemed to be other than Human.


In order to fight back against this forgetting and disappearing we must first and foremost, acknowledge our own part in it. We must acknowledge that we are as fallible and prone to ignorance, prejudice, racism and all the other ‘isms’ as anyone else. We must also recognise within ourselves the fact they we cant win any battle alone. We need to join others.


In joining others we will encounter prejudice, ignorance, resistance and a whole range of other ‘isms’ appropriate to our personal circumstances. However, if any group is to have even the slightest chance of changing the current social systems, the individuals within that group will have to sacrifice some of their own ego and ‘isms’.


The group will need to build trust and trust comes only with testing. Therefore the group must become active and develop strategies to progress it’s claims. The individuals within the group must educate themselves in modern media methods and engage with their community at that level. The individuals must also be prepared to stand back and let others have a go, even if it means things aren’t done the way they would have them.


Finally, the group must stand up at all times and declare its solidarity with those for whom it advocates. That solidarity may lead to confronting situations. It may mean individuals are injured and it may mean some will drop out. All that is fine and is the course of causes down through history.


I want to conclude with reference to how Lionel Murphy was able, through his judgements, to place people back into the story.  It’s the story of Percy Neal and his spitting.


Percy was the Chairman of the Yarrabah Community Council in Queensland and was charged with assault and sentenced to two months jail with hard labour. This was later revised to six months with hard labour when Neal appealed and the magistrate refused his appeal.


Mr. Neal had gone to the White community store manager’s home to take issue with him after an earlier incident involving other Aboriginals. It began with verbal abuse and ended with Neal spitting through the screen wire door. The White police were called and Neal was charged under White man’s law.


While Murphy agreed the incident was “unpleasant, nasty and perhaps frightening” (Murphy, 1986: 130), he argued that Mr. Neal was within his rights to argue the point about the management of the community (which was predominantly under the control of White managers).


In giving his judgement, Justice Murphy noted that the sentencing magistrate had referred to Mr. Neal as an “aggressive agitator” and as such, in Justice Murphy’s opinion, constituted a judgement based on the political aspects of the incident rather than the applicable law.


In Murphy’s judgement he notes that “these remarks were not only patronising and insulting, they also made clear that anyone who agitated for change, ‘in any shape or form’, in the Aboriginal communities, would be under a disadvantage” (Murphy, 1986: 133).


This, Murphy inferred, was racism which “is not allowed to operate within the judicial system”. Murphy (1986: 133-134). Justice Murphy went on to note

if he [Percy Neal] is an agitator he is in good company. Many of the great figures of history have been agitators, and human progress owes much to the efforts of these and the many who are unknown. As Wilde aptly pointed out in The Soul of Man Under Socialism, ‘Agitators are a set of interfering, meddling people, who come down to some perfectly contented class of the community and sow the seeds of discontent amongst them. That is the reason why agitators are so absolutely necessary. Without them, in our incomplete state, there would be no advance towards civilisation’. Mr. Neal is entitled to be an agitator.


Ladies and gentlemen, we too are entitled to be agitators. Lionel Murphy’s judgement in this case, while unable to remove the markers of Mr. Neal’s Aboriginality, did place him in the centre of the judgment as a Human, full and complete and thus recover him from potential disappearance.


Lionel Murphy’s judgement in the Percy Neal case also gives us permission, I believe, to agitate for change and to take our place alongside the Mr. Neals, the asylum seekers, the Jessica Lynchs, the disabled and the Bills and Bettys and indeed, all those denied their basic human rights and question the nature of power that seeks to remove people and replace them with empty ciphers. In my heart I know I would, “prefer to stick with Oldspeak, with all its vagueness and it useless shades of meaning” (Orwell, 1954: 45) simply because it allows me a depth not available to those who prefer a Newspeak with its every decreasing vocabulary.


We can recover the Human, I believe, but it will come at a cost. The question that constantly confronts us is, will we honour the legacy of Lionel Murphy and continue in the long traditions of agitators who worked tirelessly for a better world.


Thank You.


Shane Elson

25th October 2005

Ninde dana Qarenook




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