Are we asleep at the wheel?

It is easy for all of us to be critical of our governments and of our media. But in a democracy we elect our governments and the media feeds us what we like to consume. When we elect leaders without pity, when our judges fail to show pity, when our civil servants act without pity, or when our media pursues ratings by denying pity and love, there is every chance that they are reflecting us back to ourselves. When there is a major failing by government to live up to our public morality, there is every chance that we have all been infected to some extent, adopting the utilitarian calculus that the ends justifies the means, that nothing is good or bad in itself. It depends only on the political or economic consequences.

A senator can change parties after election pleading that there is no real difference between the party policies. If that is so, surely political morality dictates that you stay with the party to which you were elected until the next election when you seek to make the move. But self-interest is equated with common sense, and the attempted move is justified if it succeeds. Paul Keating once advised that in any race you should always back self-interest because you know it is trying. In the corporate sector, middle-order managers wonder why they should be honest when directors misuse company property for their own personal benefit.

When retiring as a teacher at the Australian National University in 1975, Manning Clark asked if it had all been worthwhile. He recalled attending the requiem mass at St Christopher’s Cathedral in Canberra the previous year for his friend Eris O’Brien:

The procession after the service reminded me of the Catholic, Protestant, and the Enlightenment—symbolising what one had thought our history was about, in part. But there was a sequel. Outside the church, as that bell tolled its melancholy dirge for the dead, I was seized with that dread which has never been far from me in the last ten or so years: that the bell was tolling a requiem for the only vision of life with which I had any bond. I feared that all these three ways of looking at the world, and the men who believed in them, were about to be replaced by men who believed in nothing; men with the appetites of the sybarite and the morals of the Pharisee; men who were not touched by the story of the prodigal son, or Schiller’s great ‘Hymn to Joy’, or Mozart’s Magic Flute, or Karl Marx’s point about moral infamy, or the teachers of the Enlightenment on tenderness, or Steele Rudd’s Dad, or Henry Lawson’s Christ figure—men without pity, with that great hell in the heart, of not being able to love or be loved.

This quote haunted me over the summer after I spent an afternoon watching the Cole Commission on the Oil for Food Program. As the historian and preacher, Manning would have no interest in publicly pursuing the government on this matter, and that is not my role. Rather, we need to reflect on how we as a society allowed this state of affairs to develop. Unlike the Bush administration, our government joined the Coalition of the Willing in Iraq with a restricted purpose: to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction and to remove the threat to international security, especially the threat to our ally, the United States.

Regime change was an additional item on Mr Bush’s agenda. As a people we permitted our government to do the moral handstands, signing up to the Coalition without signing up to all the objectives given for war by the leader of the Coalition. While Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld wanted regime change in Iraq at any cost, Mr Howard told us, ‘I couldn’t justify on its own a military invasion of Iraq to change the regime. I’ve never advocated that.’ We signed on, in part, paying our dues for our alliance with the US. At the same time, our government (with the support of the Opposition and the nonchalance of most of us) wanted to maintain high wheat sales to the Iraqi regime when everyone knew that to do business in that part of the world you had to pay kickbacks.

Our collective moral torpor and national irresponsibility were reflected in the nonchalant acceptance of assurances from our government that all would be well with our wheat sales to Iraq even though we were gearing up for war with Iraq. In return for our government’s strong language against Iraq following its failure to permit thorough weapons inspections, the Iraqi government expressed concerns about the contamination of our wheat. We said they had WMD; they said there were iron filings in our wheat. There were neither. The Australian Wheat Board was able to put the sales back on track, with the government telling us the issue ‘has been resolved, which is excellent news for the Australian Wheat Board and for Australian wheat farmers and their families’. Mark Vaile told Parliament that this ‘certainly vindicated the federal government’s faith in the AWB and its ability to successfully manage its commercial dealings with the Iraqi Grains Board’.

In hindsight, were we not all asleep at the wheel while the ship of state sailed through these precarious amoral waters? Commissioner Terence Cole and Opposition Foreign Affairs Spokesman Kevin Rudd will presumably get to the bottom of particular ministers’ blame. But what about the blame on all of us? Barnaby Joyce tells us that even backpackers knew that you had to pay bribes to do business in that part of the world. Commercial reality accommodates some level of such payments. But this was not just any regime in receipt of kickbacks. Our government was convinced that this government was developing weapons of mass destruction. Our government was adamant that there was a need for strict sanctions or war. Our government and anyone else watching were convinced that the Iraqi regime was rorting the oil for food program. But we all turned a blind eye when the AWB told us that all was well. Mysteriously our sales were restored to normal. Not one member of our parliament, and not one of us as far as I am aware, not one straightener and not even one enlarger, stood up and asked, ‘How can this be? Is Mr Hussein naïve?’ We were all consoled back in September 2002 when Mr Vaile told parliament:

The way the dispute about quality which had delayed the unloading of several Australian wheat shipments to Iraq was resolved demonstrates the sound commercial relationship between AWB Ltd and the Iraqi Grains Board. We will continue to work closely with AWB Ltd to help maintain and increase its existing market share in Iraq.

When it comes to our national interest and the prospect of increased wheat sales for our farmers and their families, alas we all stand condemned like ‘those men who believed in nothing; men with the appetites of the sybarite and the morals of the Pharisee’. It is not that we lack pity or love. Our pity and love were extended by invitation of our leaders to our wheat farmers and their families, but to them alone. In so doing we all turned a blind eye to the processes needed to maintain sanctions in place and to ensure that one thought to be a murderous dictator intent on destruction beyond his national borders was deprived of the resources needed for his exploits. While we pursue those government ministers asleep at the wheel of the ship of state, let’s also castigate ourselves and remind ourselves that it is only a materialistic, utilitarian people which is collectively able to work the public conscience into such a state of submission that the nation is able to trade successfully with a despot while convincing itself that necessary and justified sanctions are honoured and all is in readiness for war. Then, even before the war is over, our prime minister is able to tell us that ‘the oil for food program has been immorally and shamefully rorted by Saddam Hussein, who has used the proceeds of it to acquire his weapons capacity and support it’. Our money, our neglect; Saddam’s immorality, and Saddam’s shame. Our disjunction between political and commercial reality on the one hand and public morality on the other ultimately reveals a great disrespect of ourselves. We forfeit the civic virtues when we embrace the credal ‘Whatever it takes’. Our pragmatism finally starts to work violence on us, as well as on others.

At the 1988 Yale Conference on Australian Literature Manning lamented:

A turbulent emptiness has seized the inhabitants of the ancient continent. No one has anything to say. Like other European societies, Australians once had a faith and a morality. Then they had a morality without a faith—the decades of the creedless Puritans. Now most of the legal restraints of the old morality have been taken off the statute book. Everything is up for examination.

The pragmatic, consequentialist ethic in contemporary Australia has long wreaked havoc on outsiders not meriting our respect, but now it is turning on us. We are losing respect even for ourselves. Take the situation of parents who at the last minute feel helpless that their son or daughter may be caught up in a drug ring operating out of Indonesia. They or an intermediary contact the Australian Federal Police and seek assistance, wanting their child stopped at the airport or at least given a warning. We now know that the Australian Federal Police are instructed to co-operate with the Indonesian police up until the time that charges are laid, even if there be a real risk that the death penalty will be imposed. Being a civil-law country and not a common-law country, Indonesia does not lay charges until the end of the investigation process. In common-law countries like Australia, charges are laid much earlier in the investigation and prosecution process. If Indonesia were a common-law country like Australia, the AFP would be much more restricted in their capacity to co-operate with the Indonesian police when an Australian citizen could be facing death.

But there is something even more troubling than our police pursuing the forensic advantage of delayed charging of suspects in countries like Indonesia. In the recent case of the Bali Nine, a judge of the Federal Court of Australia commenced his judgment suggesting there was a need for the Minister ‘to address the procedures and protocols followed by members of the Australian Federal Police (AFP) when providing information to the police forces of another country in circumstances which predictably could result in the charging of a person with an offence that would expose that person to the risk of the death penalty in that country’.

The Minister and the AFP Police Commissioner, Mick Keelty, have said that they see no need for a review of the protocol and processes. The Commissioner has gone one step further and said that there is nothing the police can or ought to do in response to a parental request for assistance. According to Mr Keelty, if anyone connected with the police did respond positively to the parental request, that person would be acting ‘dishonourably’ and ‘corruptly’. Mr Keelty has told Parliament: ‘What does that say to the parents of the other children who did travel—that because someone had a mate in the police, they got rescued but their children are subject to the circumstances of the Indonesian judicial system? It is simply a nonsense to even project that as being a way that the AFP should operate.’ Bob Myers, the barrister and family friend who had contacted the police on behalf of the parents of Scott Rush, lamented: ‘Certainly I know with hindsight now you can’t rely on our agencies, Australian agencies, to help us out in a crisis of that sort.’ All right-thinking people applaud the efforts of law enforcement authorities taking a strong stand against those who exploit and profit from others’ addiction to illegal and harmful drugs. But some of the most honourable and non-corrupt law enforcement officers are those who can take young people aside and warn them off. This cannot be done in every circumstance when an anxious parent seeks assistance as a last resort. But our sense of legalism is too stretched when the Police Commissioner can proclaim that any such instance of this would be dishonourable and corrupt.

We can maintain a respect for the noblest human aspirations, including parents’ desire to protect their child, a friend’s desire to help a mate, a free and confident nation’s desire to spare even their foolish, selfish citizens from the firing squad. The federal police should be empowered to do their job, but their desire to track down criminals and their willingness to sacrifice the life of our citizens should not permit co-operation with other police beyond what would be permitted were the other police in a common-law country where charges would be laid earlier than they are in countries like Indonesia.

The distinguished Victorian Supreme Court judge Murray McInerney told me when I was admitted to the Bar 30 years ago that there was no finer citizen than the good police sergeant in a country town who was able to keep the peace, not primarily by enforcing the law but by having a quiet word to the young fellows around town. There must be a place even in our federal police for co-operation with parents and citizens of good standing wanting to avoid the firing squad for their children and their friends’ children.

In ‘Trying to Tell the Story’, Manning Clark confided: ‘I wanted to tell a story of hope—that those who had the courage and the strength to face the truth about the human situation had a chance to be kind and tender with each other. Australia need not always belong to the tough. Australia could and should belong to lovers and believers.’ 

Frank Brennan sj ao is an adjunct fellow in the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at the ANU, professor of law in the Institute of Legal Studies at the Australian Catholic University, and professor of human rights and social justice at the University of Notre Dame Australia.

The full text of this lecture, sponsored by Manning Clark House in Canberra and delivered in March at the National Library of Australia, can be found at



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