Hail to the Chief

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John howard fancies himself as an international player. The Australian leader occasionally seeks out the neighbors, such as Indonesia's Megawati Sukarnoputri and New Zealand's Helen Clark. But Howard walks taller in the company of men like Dick Cheney, Colin Powell and Rupert Murdoch. Why tiptoe around the garden talking about people smugglers and fire-blighted apples when you can be at the cutting edge of debate about globalization and the war on terror? When it comes to dialog in the South Pacific, Howard usually sends a proxy to regional forums. Yet after almost six years of stable and reformist government, Howard and his henchmen are beginning to resemble the autocrats of the South Pacific with their disdain for national institutions, looseness with the truth, hostility to the weak, bullying of bureaucrats and paranoia about the free flow of information.

A report tabled in Parliament last week revealed that the Howard government had falsely claimed during last year's election campaign that asylum seekers intercepted by Navy ships near Christmas Island threw children overboard to try to gain entry to Australia. "I regard this as one of the most disturbing practices I've come across," Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock said. Defence Minister Peter Reith weighed in: "It is an absolute fact, children were thrown overboard." Border protection was the hot issue of the campaign: Howard declared the country would not be cowed by "emotional blackmail." Within days, however, the military told government advisers that there was no evidence children had been thrown overboard.

Perhaps the key players-Howard, Reith, Ruddock-were not told this at the time. Perhaps bureaucrats lacked the nerve to tell them. Or did the ministers close their eyes and cover their ears? Three weeks after the incident, Brigadier Michael Silverstone, whose command is responsible for asylum-seeker boats, told Reith: "The video does not show a child being thrown into the water." "Well, we'd better not see the video then," responded Reith, according to the brigadier's record of the meeting. A Senate committee is to question officials over the affair, but it won't find evidence of ministers energetically seeking out the truth, or clearing up any misconceptions the public might have formed. Citizens will forgive a mistake made in the first rush of breaking news; anger, resentment and cynicism, however, will linger when scant attempt is made to put the record right. Tellingly, the government has expressed few regrets about this episode; nor has it apologized to the detainees who were falsely accused, more recently, of sewing together children's lips during hunger strikes.

The demonizing of the boat people was a political winner at home for Howard. But the government's hard line is also intended to hurt gangsters in Asia who profit from transporting would-be immigrants. While detention centers like the one at Woomera, in the South Australian desert, are part of a strategy to make Australia a less enticing destination, the slow processing of refugee claims and the detention of children merely break the spirit of the detainees (who, yes, have broken the law). And Howard's so-called Pacific Solution of bribing Nauru and Papua New Guinea to process boat people corrupts Australia's poorer neighbors.

Using the cover of the war on terrorism and the need for increased national security, the government is now proposing to increase jail terms from seven to 25 years for those who reveal state secrets. But the Espionage and Related Offences Bill could also see public servants jailed for releasing information like details of Cabinet discussions and M.P.s' expenses. No wonder the civil service is toeing the line: Whistleblowers beware! Leaks can be embarrassing and politically destabilizing. But they also help inform the public about official wrongdoing, profligacy and corruption.

People who publish leaked information could also face the slammer. Attorney-General Daryl Williams says that the law is aimed at those who prejudice national security. He promises to introduce safeguards. But it's not a great time to take Howard or his team on faith. Last week, via Sydney's Daily Telegraph, Australians learned that the Defence Signals Directorate, a government security agency, had intercepted telephone conversations between citizens and the ship Tampa after it rescued a boatload of illegal immigrants last August. Did the government misuse the information to pursue its political ends or target its maritime union foes? In the region's sham democracies, it goes on all the time: little despots high on power, estranged from the truth, killing trust. Whether or not the spying claims are true, "Honest John," who aspires to soar like an eagle, looks more like a galah. n

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