It’s fashionable these days, especially in journalistic circles and on social media, to mock Tony Abbott. The sneering extends to the Prime Minister’s occasional use of hyperbole. Yet little, if anything, is said when left-of-centre commentators resort to exaggeration to criticise their political opponents.
In February, Abbott was mocked for using the word “holocaust” in its original, pre-1970s, meaning; that is, destruction by fire. He was referring to job losses in the defence industry during the previous Labor government. The Prime Minister did not make any direct or implied reference to the Holocaust, a term that became common from the 70s to describe Nazi Germany’s genocidal murder of the Jews of Europe. Even so, as Abbott quickly conceded, his word selection was unwise.
Then, last month, Abbott referred to Bill Shorten as the “Dr Goebbels of economic policy”. The Prime Minister immediately withdrew his comment, which was clearly hyperbolic. However, in fairness to Abbott, Labor and Greens parliamentarians in recent memory have made references to the Holocaust and the Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels in the political debate.
Heated discussion is invariably replete with overstatement and false historical comparisons. The same, alas, is true with respect to some professional commentators who should know better.
Take historian and journalist David Marr, for example. This is his final observation at the end of the ABC’s Insiders program last Sunday: “A lot of praise has been heaped on Malcolm Fraser in the last week and he deserves a lot of it. But Malcolm Fraser took Australia to the brink. He put democracy at risk in this country … it must not be forgotten that he came to power in a coup d’etat.”
Clearly there are arguments for and against governor-general John Kerr’s decision on November 11, 1975 to dismiss Gough Whitlam’s Labor government and install Fraser as caretaker prime minister. But Kerr’s action could hardly be called a coup d’etat.
Kerr was faced with two stubborn leaders who were intent on prevailing over each other. The Coalition had blocked supply in the Senate and would not resile from the decision. And Labor was intent on governing without supply.
When Whitlam would not call an election to resolve the impasse, Kerr dismissed Whitlam and installed Fraser as caretaker prime minister on the condition that he call an election. At the polling booth on December 13, 1975, Fraser won one of the biggest majorities in Australian political history.
It is understandable that left-wing commentators want to rail against Fraser for having brought down Whitlam. But their disappointment at the political outcome in 1975 does not make the occasion a coup d’etat.
Labor was not toppled by force in 1975. Moreover, Kerr’s decision was not in any sense illegal. It was regarded as constitutional by at least two High Court judges at the time — Garfield Barwick and Anthony Mason. As David Smith documented in his book Head of State, in the period leading up to the Dismissal Labor had attempted (unsuccessfully) to block supply on no fewer than 170 occasions.
So if, in Marr-speak, Fraser engineered a coup d’etat in 1975 then Whitlam threatened a coup d’etat on many occasions before then. But, of course, Marr focuses on the former and goes into denial about the latter.
Fairfax Media, along with the ABC, led the charge in criticising Abbott’s fleeting reference to Goebbels in his attack on Labor’s economic policies.
Yet, on March 24, The Canberra Times (part of Fairfax Media) led its comment page with the following heading: “Did Nazi spin doctor provide strategy template for govt?”
Underneath was a letter written by John Milfull, whose academic expertise includes Germany in the 20th century. Milfull came to The Canberra Times not to criticise hyperbole but to embrace it. This is how his missive began: “The grand master of spin, Joseph Goebbels, might well be the source of the federal government’s strategies in opposition. If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”
Now, no editor is responsible for letters that a newspaper receives and it makes sense to publish the views of as many readers as possible. Yet editors are responsible for the decision to run correspondence and its placement. Highlighting a letter indicates, at the very least, that the editor believes it is worthy of attention.
So the powers that be at The Canberra Times decided that it was worth not only publishing, but also highlighting, a letter from a historian specifically linking Abbott with Goebbels and suggesting that Abbott’s aim is to “repress dissent”.
This was no spur-of-the-moment debating point. Rather, this was the considered view of someone who proclaimed his formal title of professor.
Indeed, The Canberra Times has form on this issue. On November 19, 2007, it ran an article by Australian National University academic Bruce Kent, who alleged that there was a worrying similarity between some of the policies of the Howard government and those of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. Kent went on to link John Howard with mass murderers such as Hitler, Himmler and Goebbels. Once again, this was a considered entry into the public debate by a seemingly qualified commentator.
Soon after the publication of Kent’s letter, Howard led the Coalition to defeat in the 2007 election. Soon after what Marr likes to call the “coup” of 1975, Fraser led the Coalition to victory at an election.
At a time of reflection, you would expect the likes of Marr and Milfull to know that coups are not followed by free elections and that democratic politicians do not repress dissent. Indeed, the feature of democratic politics is that criticism of governments is a constant factor of daily life.
Anyone arriving in Australia during the past couple of weeks who picked up their views from the ABC or The Canberra Times could well have got the impression that the country experienced an undemocratic coup in 1975 and is ruled by a Hitler admirer today. Unless, of course, such visitors have a hyperbole-detector in place.