Prime Minister John Howard, pictured with Attorney General Philip Ruddock and Indigenous Affairs Minister, Amanda Vanstone. Cabinet secretary Dr Peter Shergold is pictured sitting to Howard's right. They're at a summit organised with 'moderate' Muslim leaders

BOX SEAT: Crikey, the myths are getting bigger

16th September 2005

There was something familiar about John Howard's 14 hand-picked Muslim moderates filing obediently from Parliament House yesterday carrying their prime ministerial riding instructions on how to tackle the mad mullahs in their midst.

So began Hugo Kelly's piece on the Crikey website under the headline 'Whitewashing dissent: How Howard buys ethnic consensus'.

It continued:

Close observers of Indigenous politics knew the formula well.

And while John Howard basks in the PR glow of his tightly-managed Muslim summit, it's worth reflecting on his tactics. It's becoming a standard Howard technique: pick a tame group of ambitious "representatives" of a troublesome minority, give them some limited authority and narrow terms of reference, and watch them reproduce your agenda.

Although the PM assiduously chose moderates for his meeting, some colourful characters slipped through: witness Liberal wannabe Hajji Abdul Rahman (Ray) Deen, the Islamic leader who reckons September 11 was a conspiracy, who was whisked away by Parliament House security officers when he refused to answer questions from waiting media. He may benefit from the media training for Muslim leaders being flagged at yesterday's meeting.

Just how much of yesterday's agenda challenged the PM's comfort zone?

Michelle Grattan asked the question today, and came up with this answer: very little. The 11-point statement was mostly motherhood, and the only significant friction centred on the Muslims' unhelpful insistence that Australia's involvement in the war in Iraq did increase its terror profile.

Now compare yesterday's exercise with this government's handling of Indigenous policy. First, Howard had minister Amanda Vanstone gut, then sack, the elected representative council, ATSIC, which no-one denies had some serious, probably terminal, problems. Then the government appointed a new peak Indigenous advisory body, the National Indigenous Council (NIC).

The NIC is incredibly unpopular within many Indigenous communities, who see its government appointed members as mere vessels for prevailing policy.

Among the council's controversial proposals is a move to dismantle communal land titles. The council's chair, Sue Gordon, has been unable to win authority by asserting the NIC's independence.

One prominent NIC member is Warren Mundine, who is the next President of the ALP. Lately, he's been talking up the Howard Government's Indigenous home ownership plan.

The Government dresses this up as bipartisan politics, but Labor eyebrows have been raised over the fact that their man is happily promoting Howard Government Indigenous policy. So far, no-one is saying much publicly; a sad reflection of the fragile mess the ALP is in nationally. Would Paul Keating or Bob Hawke have allowed an ALP President to develop policy for the Liberal Party contrary to ALP platform? Utterly unthinkable.

It's a warning to Muslims that this government will do what it can to co-opt them under the guise of national unity.

I can assure Kelly his article was not lost on close observers of Indigenous politics.

It was brought to my attention from three different sources.

All had drawn the same parallels.

I forgive Kelly his 'mythconception' on ATSIC (given the rest of the article pretty well nailed it) and pass it on to NIT readers.

It deserves the widest possible circulation.

Sitting on either side of Howard at the summit, of course, were Vanstone and Philip Ruddock, his chief mythmakers in Aboriginal Affairs.

As long as those two are around, you can be assured the myths will be getting bigger.

You can just imagine what pearls of wisdom they dropped on the need for everyone to embrace Australian values safe in the knowledge that no-one, other than the closest observers, would pick up on the parallels to be drawn from the staging of the summit and the emerging disaster of the quiet revolution in Aboriginal Affairs which spawned the NIC.

It's a disaster all right... and the details are slowly emerging despite the Government's best attempts to suppress the details by throwing an iron curtain around the flow of official information from the NIC and Vanstone's and Ruddock's departments.

Witness this paper's attempt to extract any details about how the NIC functions.

And how much have we heard from official sources about the hasty retreat of those remote mainstream offices that replaced ATSIC?

There is something perverse about a Government which seeks to publicly masquerade as an advocate of good old Australian liberal values while busily ignoring those same values to spend a fortune in taxpayer's money stifling public debate.

But rest assured, the gatekeeping and the witch-hunts are not confined to Aboriginal Affairs. It spans the bureaucratic alphabet from Aboriginal to Veterans Affairs.

While Howard, Vanstone and Ruddock strolled the carpet with the muslim moderates in the interests of national security, two Herald-Sun journalists were facing the prospect of being sent to jail for doing their jobs.

This follows their refusal to name a source before the Chief Judge Michael Rozenes of the Melbourne County Court.

The Canberra-based reporters are Michael Harvey and Gerard McManus.

In February last year Harvey and McManus exposed Federal Government plans to reject a promised $500 million boost to war veterans' pension benefits.

The story was hugely embarrassing.

The leak the story was based on set the Government on a witch-hunt to find the whistleblower.

The investigation by the Australian Federal Police reportedly involved trawling through 3,000 telephone extensions and hundreds of mobile phones within the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The investigation led to a 52-year-old career public servant being charged under the Commonwealth Crimes Act.

In a preliminary hearing McManus refused to answer when asked whether he knew the public servant, on the grounds it could incriminate him.

The union, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, is now calling on the Australian people to write to Howard and Ruddock urging all steps be taken to prevent the prosecutions of the reporters from going ahead.

It argues that the case does not involve a matter of national security and the Government is simply pursuing it to save face after an embarrassing leak and to frighten the daylights out of the public service.

The union points out that a journalist's obligation to protect the identity of their sources and their willingness to stick to the fundamental journalistic principle, regardless of the penalty, is critical if whistleblowers are to keep talking to journalists.

Without this protection, journalist access to information would be further restricted in what is an already tightly media-managed environment. They would have to rely on a stream of constant but shallow press releases, Question Time and other political stunts for information. And as a result, people would know less about what their elected leaders are doing in their name.

It reports that there may yet be some hope for the media.

The Australian Law Commission is considering a recommendation to extend the NSW professional confidential relationship privilege in Australia-wide uniform laws. This would provide journalists immunity from contempt charges when they chose not to reveal confidential sources.

But this may come too late to be of help to Harvey and McManus who face the music in a week or so.

That's why the union is calling on people to write to Howard and Ruddock to protest.

It is an important campaign if you believe that news is anything someone else does not want to see in print; the rest being gossip.

Ultimately, however, one suspects it will be futile.

The Howard Government firmly believes in free speech and leaks... just as long as it all supports the Government agenda.

Finance Minister Nick Minchin was running a pretty tough line when he was drawn into the debate last week.

"No-one is above the law and I would also say that deliberate leaking of government information should not and cannot be tolerated," he declared.

Minchin even managed to keep a straight face.

We all know certain people are above the law.

Take Ruddock for instance.

He was silly enough to tape himself conducting a briefing for a Queensland journalist on the confidential contents of an ATSIC Fraud Awareness Unit briefing on the activities of ATSIC Commissioner Ray Robinson and the Bidjara Group of Companies.

The tape became public property, via a leak.

Ruddock was forced to publicly confirm he was the voice on the tape.

Senate Estimates committees have been told that more than 111 investigations into leaked government documents have been conducted since 1997 at a cost of millions.

The Ruddock matter is not among them.

I wish Harvey and McManus luck. They'll need it.

Brian Johnstone is a former media and marketing director of ATSIC and a fortnightly NIT columnist and writer.