Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The Right to Silence Others


Something has been playing on my mind lately -- to what extent does the government, or indeed any organisation, have the right to silence its employees or members? So often we find in the media that some decision "isn't going to be talked about", or that the decision was "a party matter". What does that even *mean*?

Some things, it is clear, should remain private because people's rights are at stake. Issues such as national security, commercial confidentiality, anonymity etc should be preserved. However, it seems like silence is often taken much, much further than these demands would indicate.

Presenting a united front is a powerful marketing tactic. So much of politics today is about media presentation. Our chief access to politics is through the media, with almost no direct contact with the powers that be. We pay our taxes, sometimes we will interact with local government, but our understanding of decisions made at the state and federal levels -- the parliamentary levels -- is always a second-hand affair. Given this, it is perhaps understandable that one of the primary goals of a political party is to present an attractive media image.

The goals of the government are twofold - one to do good, and the other to appear good. While Plato in his Symposium might have concluded that it is better to do good than to only appear good, politics is not played by the same rules. We cannot rely on politicians' navel-gazings to lead them to the path of acting properly, for, as they say, no man is without sin. It is simple naivety to give politicians power without also placing restrictions on their behaviour. Checks and balances, as they are called.

However, the system as in place is largely self-regulating. While the worst excesses of government become known through whistleblowers, or un-hideable effects of policy, much of what goes on is done behind closed doors. The Australian Liberal party has used this to great effect. By presenting a united front, the liberal party appears stronger and more in control than their Labour counterpoints. The Australian voting public rewards the image, because their only knowledge is of the image. One can hardly blame them for disconnecting with politics and the issues when they are treated with such contempt by both the government and the media, who cannot escape blame for playing ball.

To alleviate the problem, a more open government and a more critical media, by returning power to the people in the form of giving them the proper information to make an informed decision, could return this country to a level where intelligent debate and issues-focused voting are the norm.

At the end of the day, voters have been able to afford their own complacency. However, by burying their heads in the sand to such an extent, and by declining to assert their intellectual power to force politics to take place in real debate in the public sphere, they run the risk of either being caught by surprise, or of failing to take fullest advantage of government spending. The public often fail to see the value of demanding intellectual rigor from their leaders, perhaps because they have never tried it.



Blogger Bill Cooper said...

Here in Vic with our rather severe defamation laws, the voicing of free speech publicly can be an expensive thing to do. I am not a fan of Andrew Bolt however the success of the defamation action by Magistrate Popovic should be cause enough to revisit our laws.I have no desire to live or even see America, however their defence of their freedoms especially freedom of speech is something that I envy. I wish that we had such guranteed freedoms.I know there is a cost to them, again just look at look at America. However if we could have similiar laws and rights here I feel that public debate would increase and improve. We may not get the politicians we want but we may be able to say freely and publicly what we think of them.

5/10/2005 08:39:00 PM  
Blogger MelbournePhilosopher said...

It's a frightening irony that here in Australia we have in many respects a more open attitude to what others have to say, yet it is the U.S. who has the right to free speech enshrined in the constitution.

You are of course, spot on.


5/12/2005 03:17:00 PM  

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