When he talks about the war in Iraq, John Howard sounds like a true Burkean conservative. Prime Ministers of course should listen to the views of the people they represent but in the end they should have the courage to do what they think is right. Forget the opinion polls showing Australians do not want their troops in Iraq as part of a so-called war against terrorism. The cause is just and the Howard conviction strong.

Well might today’s Prime Minister quote what Edmund Burke so eloquently told the electors of Bristol in 1774:

Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

The Australian troops will stay.

There is another quote of that great conservative Burke that might also fit the Howard attitude towards listening to, and acting on, the view of the people:

Hypocrisy can afford to be magnificent in its promises; for never intending to go beyond promises; it costs nothing.

Back in 1996 he was asked in an interview for the Four Corners program “An Average Australian Bloke“, what he thought of the view that politicians should stand for what is right, not what is popular? He answered:

I think… I think on most occasions that is absolutely correct, but it must also be tempered by the recognition that if people express a definitive view, you have to accept that their right to make the decision is superior to yours.

Which is exactly what John Howard, the self described opponent of the death penalty, did earlier in the week when he said this about the death penalty for terrorists who have killed Australian citizens:

The idea that we would plead for the deferral of executions of people who murdered 88 Australians is distasteful to the entire community.

When it comes to hypocrisy, of course, it is hard to go past the Foreign Minister Alexander Downer. He is a world champion at it. This week he too invoked public opinion in defending the contradiction between opposing the death penalty and refusing to interfere when it was not Australian citizens facing death.

Consider this statement from the Foreign Minister on 22 August 2002 which I am grateful to John Kotsopoulos of Victoria for drawing to me attention:

I am deeply concerned by the decision of the Funtua Sharia Court of Appeal in Katsina State in Nigeria on 19 August to uphold the sentence of death by stoning of Amina Lawal, a thirty year-old mother of three, for alleged adultery and bearing a child out of wedlock.

The Australian Government is universally and consistently opposed to the use of capital punishment in any circumstances. The death penalty is an inhumane form of punishment which violates the most fundamental human right: the right to life. If this sentence were to be carried out, it would be received with outrage in Australia and in the wider international community.

I note that there are at least two more avenues of appeal open to Ms Lawal, and that the Nigerian Minister of Justice has indicated that the Federal Government of Nigeria will support Ms Lawalís appeal against the Upper Sharia Court’s decision. The Federal Government of Nigeria has on several occasions expressed its opposition on constitutional grounds to the re-introduction of Sharia law in 12 Nigerian provinces since 1999. The Australian Government supports the Nigerian Government in this stance to the extent that Sharia law can result in cruel and inhuman forms of punishment such as death by stoning and flogging.

Australia consistently raises its opposition to the use of the death penalty with countries employing capital punishment. Death by stoning is a cruel, inhuman and degrading form of punishment and is therefore prohibited under both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Convenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention Against Torture, to all of which Nigeria is a party.

My Department and our High Commission in Lagos are monitoring developments in the case very closely.

So, the selective use of public opinion to justify decision making is not confined to the Prime Minister alone. His Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews has well and truly abandoned the long bi-partisan tradition of keeping race out of the immigration debate with his decision to limit the intake of refugees from Africa as this exchange from an interview with John Laws illustrates:

JOHN LAWS: So your department is saying that Sudanese refugees are overrepresented when it comes to crime?

MINISTER ANDREWS: Well there’s a whole range of things. In addition to that, we have regular reports from the community, from community groups, from police, from others that I get on a regular basis. And what that is showing is an incidence of crime, and incidence of gangs and other undesirable activities.

Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull is another who has succumbed to public opinion to reinforce his policy decision to try and take control of water in the Murray Darling Basin.

“Everywhere you go in Australia”, Mr Turnbull told the press last month, “people would say, if only we could rewrite the constitution today to put the Murray-Darling Basin under Federal jurisdiction.”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey