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Thursday, January 04, 2007

A Softening of Rhetoric

There has, to coin a cliche, been a `noticeable softening in the government's rhetoric' on David Hicks recently, with Mick Keelty the latest to express concerns. It's not much of a softening, but it's something, and it comes after concerted lobbying by the public, the legal fraternity, and the State Attorneys General. Even with a legal breakthrough, Hicks would face at least two more years imprisonment - unless the Australian government intervenes and brings him back to Australia. Increasingly, I'm beginning to wonder if the magic phone call might just coincide with an election campaign. This is quite a turn of events, little more than five years after the hysterical Tampa-driven election campaign of 2001.

There has been a subtle but noticeable softening of rhetoric from the Federal Government in a number of areas. This first occurred to me when reading Tony Abbott's astonishingly sensible - yes, you read correctly - article on integration a few weeks back. It reminded me a lot of papers and articles published by then-Opposition MPs in the mid 1990s, when Labor was still in power and the dominant rhetoric was moderate rather than extreme. As the Pauline Hanson era told us, peoples' views don't change so much; the acceptability of their views does. It could therefore be argued that governments have a limited ability to change peoples' views for the better, but I disagree. It's by stigmatising the beliefs that make for a poor society that a government can prevent such views from flourishing and becoming mainstream. The proof of this is that the Howard Government has been able to take advantage of the opposite trend, encouraging the propagation of views that keep people paranoid and averse to policies of the previous government, such as reconciliation and republicanism.

Perhaps this new softening represents a change in the political atmosphere (and no, I refuse to stoop to that other cliche, `seachange'). This is a good thing for society. I'm very happy that a Tampa incident would be unlikely to generate the same hysteria that it did in 2001. Politically, it may not be such great news for Labor. It's sometimes been said that Kevin Rudd is trying to out-Howard John Howard - to present a face of pragmatism, moderation and dependability that remains regardless of the radical nature of policies they may be advancing. Where Labor may fall into serious danger is if John Howard tries to out-Rudd Kevin Rudd. Labor is already used to the Government co-opting their policies, especially in social policy areas where Labor is traditionally stronger. Should the government also co-opt a political atmosphere that favours Labor, things could get very tricky.

The saddest thing would be if people fell for it. Without genuine belief, such a softening would be no more than a political gimmick. After all, there are still plenty of things occurring that remind us that consistent violations of human rights - such as the detention of David Hicks - tend have the opposite reaction to what they should. Rather than seek to mitigate, the tendency is to punish in kind. Likewise, those who condemn such punishment are themselves condemned by the same people who use the atrocities committed as a justification for their own behaviour. It becomes a sad cycle rather than a genuine effort to make amends. This week, the execution of Saddam Hussein has been shown as an appalling botched and unethical act - news programmes persist in broadcasting images not only before and after his death, but now, leaked footages of the death taking place. Had Hussein himself broadcast graphic images of torture and execution, he would - quite rightly - have been decried as a monster. Does that make those who do the same any less? We need a government that makes a genuine effort to make such things unacceptable once more.

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