Address by The Hon John Dowd AO QC at the Centre for Pacific and American Studies, University of Tokyo delivered 23rd June 2011
It’s an honour to be here in Baden Offord’s class. I have long respected his skill as a Professor and an Academic and I’m here to make sure that he comes back to Southern Cross University because your University can’t have him. And the answer to what Baden said about a lawyer and a politician, in his introduction, is that lawyers don’t make good politicians. But I tell you that if you happen to be a politician by nature, law is a useful skill to have.
Whether in Australian or in anywhere in the world, the art of the politician is to articulate or express the prejudices, the inner thoughts, of his audience because the audience then says, I agree with him, he’s a good man and I will vote for him. All you have done is cause people to agree with themselves but the politician gets the benefit.
So in the half century that I have been involved in politics I have watched the media and politicians manipulate the prejudices of their audience by putting up fears and terrors to in fact make people believe in the politician. In Australia we had what we called the yellow peril, back in the 1950s and 1960s we were scared of the people whose faces weren’t white coming to attack Australia. It was nonsense but that was what was used as prejudice to influence voters.
We then were told about the Red Peril which was how we described communism which was going to come down through Korea, though South East Asia, through Vietnam through Malaysia to attack Australia and indeed when I trained as a national serviceman, we were trained on the assumption that we were under threat from South East Asia.
Then we were told about the evils of nuclear war and everyone was afraid of nuclear war and anti uranium sentiment was developed partly by the politicians and partly by the newspapers.
Next we were told about the War on Terror by an American President who couldn’t even pronounce terror.
And then that great entertainer Al Gore told us that we were all going to drown because of climate change.
And now fear is being created by the fear of refugees coming to Australia by boat. This has become a big political issue.
The fact is Australia doesn’t have a problem with refugees, we receive such a small number compared with Europe. We could easily accommodate many more than are now coming by boat or by plane. But it’s a political issue whipped up, partly by the parliamentary opposition no matter who is in power, as a political issue to try and engender fear in Australia.
Australia, in fact, is the best country in the world in terms of taking resettlement refugees. The largest quota of resettlements is the USA with about 55,000, Canada with about 14,000, Australia with exactly 14,000 and then after that, there’s just a few European countries. In fact, for our size, Australia is number one for taking resettled refugee that is persons processed by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. But most Australian’s don’t even know how good they are at taking refugees.
Australian’s live in 10 cities and 80–85% of the population live in those 10 cities mostly around the coastline. Australians are the third most urban educated affluent people in the world. There’s only two ahead of us, which is Iceland, which is bankrupt, and Belgium which is divided but makes very good beer.
Australia is as near to a classless society as you can get. We don’t have an aristocracy, we don’t have people who are important in a society except in terms of how much money they’ve got or how big a business they own.
The Australia into which I was born was 95% Anglo Celtic, that is from the United Kingdom. I didn’t meet my first Chinese until I was 12. I’d never seen one before and he had been in Australia for 3 generations. Now one quarter of Australians were born overseas or their parents were born overseas. In my home state of NSW, we’re about the sixth oldest in the world in terms of a continuous legal system. It started in 1824. Most countries of the world have only come into existence since then. We had very few divisions within our community, indeed the only serious division in our community when I went to school was between Protestant Christians and Catholic Christians. We had no one else to fight with. That has now gone as an issue.
Australia, like Japan, is a constitutional monarchy. The monarchy in Australia, however, is largely irrelevant to the life of most Australians, unless there happens to be one of the royal family getting married or divorced or, as they do regularly, and it helps to sell magazines. But politically we acquired the British genius of having a head of state with almost no power, which means all power is centred in the Government which is created inside the Australian parliament.
We, however, are not bound, only by a written constitution. It is not the only source of our law. The source of our law is the English Common Law which came with the British settlers, but was since developed by us. The Australian Constitution largely is a demarcation document to separate the states from the central government.
We are not a centralised power under a central government and constitution, we are a genuine federation with some powers allocated to the Commonwealth and some powers to the States, and that distribution is good for our stability because there is a balancing of power.
But in World War II the Commonwealth, the central government, took the income taxing powers from the States and at the end of the war didn’t give them back. Once you have fiscal, financial, control, you control the country and thus powers are gradually moving toward the central government.
We like the other federations namely Germany, Canada, the United States and Switzerland are genuine federations and stable politically. Australia is the most stable political country in the world because doesn’t matter who gets elected, the country just keeps going, generally in the same direction.
Our political parties grew up over the course of the110 years of Australia’s existence as a nation. The main party in existence before Australia was founded and has been operating continuously since then, has been the Australian Labor party which is currently almost in power in Canberra.
The government is only in power because of the support of 4 or 5 independents most of whom are not as bright as the average member. The non-Labor parties have changed and formed and reformed and now comprise a Liberal Party, which is really conservative and a National Party, which is even more conservative.
Politics, however, and political parties, however, are dying in Australia. The Labor party is largely controlled by the Trade Union movement which helped to create it and that in turn is run by a small group of people who make all the decisions. Those decisions have nothing to do with the ordinary rank and file members of the party. If you want to read further, there’s a book called “Power Crisis” about the ownership of power generation stations written by a former New South Wales Labor Government Minister called Rodney Cavalier who wrote about the collapse of the political party system, primarily in the Labor party but followed, to some extent, by the Liberal party.
There’s no point in going to a party meeting when you have no power and when you are missing out on watching “American Idol” or “Australia’s Got Talent” on television.
About 40 years ago Australia started doing public opinion surveys on who’s a good leader and who wasn’t and since that time, most political parties form their views based on public opinion surveys on whether this is a good political issue or that is a good issue. So you don’t get political issues other than popularity issues and politicians shape their opinions based on that very superficial basis.
The only party that has a distinct profile, of course, are The Greens and the Green party, they’re in favour of hugging trees and hugging whales, rather than social change. But their actual policies are in fact about state control and controlling society so they are actually to the left of the Labor party. I might add, by the way, being of Southern Cross University, we are the biggest whale hugging University anyway and we know every whale that gets away from the Japanese fisherman, by name and DNA.
But the key to the stability of Australia is our universal education system and the fact that we are an affluent society and more interested in sport than we are in politics.
Australia also has an important success story which is that it has compulsory voting. Compulsory voting means that we can’t be taken over by the Christian Right and the Gun Lobby as happens in the United States, where voting is optional. This means that under our system, because it’s the English Westminster Parliamentary System with variations, we can change Prime Ministers by a simple vote of the Parliament or a simple vote of the Party that he or she leads. Indeed one year ago today I was in Canberra, I stepped on a plane that was the Prime Minister’s plane, flew to my University in Lismore in rural New South Wales. When I got on the plane, I had one Prime Minister when I stepped off the plane, I had a new Prime Minister and all that happened during the flight was the attendant came and said Julia Gillard had been elected Prime Minister and that’s all, we went on talking.
Australia’s voting system in the governing chamber, the House of Representatives, is a preferential voting system so that the person that is elected in seat does have on preference, the support of a majority of the votes in that electorate. One of the main alternative voting systems, the English first past the post system means that the person elected may only have 20% of the votes in that constituency. Ours is therefore more stable because of that. The preferential system means I vote 1,2,3,4 up to 10 and if my candidate is not elected my vote goes to my second preference or to my eighth preference because they eliminate until there are 2 left. First past the post, on the other hand, is where the candidate with the most votes is elected even though that candidate may only have 20% of the votes, with 80% against.
One state of Australia, South Australia, was the first state in the world to give women the vote. The first nation to actually allow women to vote was New Zealand.
In one state election in Australia, the government won by a one seat majority and in that seat the candidate was elected by a single vote. After a challenge they then had a new election in that one seat and the candidate won by a majority of one again. But the grapes in that state all the time kept producing some of the best wine in the world irrespective of who was in power
The future for Japan and the future for Australia is in the education of our young people. Change will occur because of communication amongst young educated people using social networks and electronic communication. As we are seeing in the Arab Spring right across North Africa and the Middle East, it is the young people that are destroying totalitarian systems, authoritarian systems run by old men. Young educated people are changing societies that have needed change for many years.
So that young people of Japan should communicate with other Liberal democracies and exchange views with young people to make sure you’re at the forefront of change to take away control of your countries by old men like me. But watch that you are not manipulated by the answers to simplistic questions on an opinion survey Make your own decisions; don’t have government by superficial public opinion.
For your attention, Arigato.
Questions from the Audience:
One of the things that we have been discussing, or one of the questions that was coming up is when you travel around the world, you have had a lot to do with East Timor and with Indonesia and great other parts of Asia, do you think Australia as it has changed so much as you’ve said over the last 30-40 years, do you think Australia is part of Asia?
Australia doesn’t yet understand itself. We are not South East Asian, we are not Pacific, we’re not European but we are very close neighbours of Asia the Pacific and South East Asia, we are a major economic player in the area and we’re part of a trade network with which we are very pleased. We need to be friends and good neighbours as well as trading partners of this region and that’s what I hope we are doing while we find out who we are.
Just a supplementary comment- I drive a German car, my wife and children drive Japanese cars.
Thank you for the wonderful speech you gave just now. I have two questions.
The first question is about – you talk about fear among society in Australia especially in terms of politicians, the fear of terrorism. So my question is which fear do you think is more significant and why do you think so? Because from Mr Baden Offord’s lectures we know that Australia is a very multicultural society with lots of racial problems sometimes or insecurities because of the many migrants there. So what do you think is the most prominent fear?
That Australia will lose the cricket Ashes to England next time. That being translated means Australians don’t worry about very much at all but sport is important. It doesn’t mean we don’t care, but we don’t worry a lot other than about cricket and rugby, and our cost of living. We actually don’t have many racial problems.
The second question is about the politicians in Australia who make their decisions based on the public opinion surveys which you say is very superficial and that raises the question –in the later part of your speech you talk about how we should make decisions based on our own judgment. We are students from the University of Tokyo, we are often told that we don’t need a leader to solve the country’s problems. So what do you think will be your advice to us to be a better decision maker?
You have a duty to analyse every question. You are students at this University and as such are Japans’ future leaders. Your opinion should not be the superficial opinions of “you believe in this or that?” “Is climate change going to drown us all in 10 months or whatever” You have been educated to think and to think carefully and to not try and be popular. Popularity is a very fickle mistress.
I was leader of my state party which was a conservative party but I was on the left of the conservative party. As a leader rather than to compromise, I stuck to my own views on some issues. It is much better in life to fail for the right reason than to succeed for the wrong one.
Thank you for the insight into the Australian political system. You mentioned in your speech how political parties are dying in Australia and that politicians submit themselves to public opinion. I believe that that is a problem that applies to Japan’s politics. What do you think that Australia as a nation can do to overcome that situation to create a better political world.
I don’t have an easy answer to that. It is a bigger problem in Japan because you have too much political party influence over the individual parliamentary members and you have party discipline which gives a small number of people too much control so within your political parties you personally have to join them and try to influence the democratisation of the parties. Parties are too centrally controlled and that gets all countries into problems when too small a number are more concerned with their power and influence then they are doing what’s right.