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Democracy, step this way...

By Peter Fleming

Two months ago, Mr Howard, in a fog of ironic blindness, lamented in a speech the rise of a "culture of aggression...a less civil approach to personal dealings" which he has noticed in Australia under his term of leadership.

In the same week, SBS television's Dateline programme showed footage of the Prime Minister driving right past Mrs Habib at the gates of Channel 7, when she wanted to hand him a letter about her illegally detained, kidnapped and tortured husband.

Presumably Mr Howard doesn't know the story of the Good Samaritan; no doubt one of his advisers failed to tell it to him.

Can't Mr Howard and his ilk see that much of the rising aggression is provoked by the perception that they have locked themselves behind a barrier of duplicity, so debasing words that words are no longer seen as enough?

I'm reminded of The Goon Show, when Harry Seagoon would become infuriated. What did he do? Begin - furiously - to write a letter to the Times. There have been periods in Australian, English and American cultures when force of argument - force of truth - has been seen to achieve results by evoking shame in the fraudulent.

But nothing nowadays seems able to budge these sham leaders out of their complacency, now they know that the idea of ministerial responsibility - in other words, democratic accountability - is dead.

It used to be that an otherwise "good" minister who made a mistake would admit it, and go to the backbench. He or she was admired for the admission, for the sacrifice, and after a while, the public would accept his or her re-instatement. This process reassured the public that the political system was just like any other human institution large or small: fallible, noble and thus repairable.

But now what do politicians waste their time defending? The indefensible. The shameful and the shameless. There was no more sickening episode of duplicitous cruelty than Philip Ruddock's interview on Dateline, July 7, concerning Mr Habib. How could it be that Pakistan handed Mr Habib over to Egyptian torturers, and Australia not know where he went, or why, or at whose request (the United States, as the evidence demonstrates)? This is what the interviewer Mark Davis wanted to know. (This is what any human being would like to know!) "Egypt hasn't confirmed to us that he was held there... I'm not in a position to say when I or members of the government may have known..." Etc, etc, etc.

Mr Ruddock, who on a personal profile television programme a year ago said that he wanted to be seen as a model of Christianity, should look to his own scriptures for salvation from his self-dug dunghole: what does it profit a man to gain the American alliance and yet lose his soul?

If Mr Howard believed in the values he espoused two months ago, Mr Ruddock would be on the back bench overnight. Without ministerial responsibility, government is corrupt. That's the truth. That's what we've got.

And of course there is Mr Howard's close mate, good old George Bush: "We do not condone torture. I have never ordered torture. I will never order torture," (Dateline July 7). No, George, we all know you'll make sure you never order it.

Now the duplicity continues over the reports on the CIA's "intelligence failures" before the Iraq war. The American and the English investigations have both found their intelligence organisations failed. So what? Does Messrs Bush and Howard think we have forgotten that there were UN weapons inspectors in Iraq at the time the war was forced upon us? Will we forget that Hans Blix reported to the UN that information provided by such organisations, and tested by on-the-ground searches, had proven false in the time the inspectors were inside Iraq? Will we forget that the Niger uranium claims - and pretty much the whole "nuclear threat" case with them -were demolished before hostilities commenced?

Will we forget that Tariq Aziz, a far from admirable figure from the other side, said the truest words on offer prior to the outbreak of war: "The only time running out is the time it will take to find there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq."

There was plenty of evidence before the war that the intelligence may have been wrong. Governments in America, England and Australia nonetheless went ahead with their illegal invasion. The recent inquiries have been a yet more smokescreens, or as it should be more rightly called nowadays, "wordscreens".

Drive on, Mr Howard - Mr Bush, Mr Ruddock, hop in. No doubt the appearances of civility and politeness will continue inside the air-conditioned comfort of the prime ministerial vehicle. Step this way, democracy, into your cage.

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