History Teachers' Association of Australia

Western Australia

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Saving the Village

Bill Leadbetter

The weekend of the Bali bombing was potentially momentous for the history of democracy. Of this, the events at Kuta Beach play only a small part. Of greater moment in this context was the vote of both Houses of the United States Congress to authorize President Bush to take whatever steps he deems necessary to deal with Saddam Hussein.

The precedents for such a vote are not good. There are, no doubt, compelling arguments as to why the Chief Executive ought to be entrusted with discretionary power of this nature. But, in the long history of democratic institutions, this has happened before. During the last and chaotic century of its existence, the Roman Republic developed a political tool to deal with crisis, whereby the elected magistrates were authorized to take whatever means were required to safeguard the security of the state.

This decree – the so-called senatus consultum ultimum – was used on a number of significant occasions. It was employed to suppress the reform movement of Gaius Gracchus and the alleged conspiracies against the state of Saturninus, Lepidus and Catilina. It was one of the tools whereby executive authority became increasingly concentrated into the hands of an increasingly small group of men. Out of such processes, autocracy emerged, flowered and entrenched itself. One hundred years later, Tacitus wrote bitterly that Augustus had won universal goodwill through the guarantee of "the enjoyable gift of peace". The trade-off between security and liberty had become absolute, and absolutism had resulted.

There is an enormous temptation in democratic states to concentrate executive authority in response to crisis. The concepts of martial law and emergency rule by decree are built into many democratic constitutions as escape clauses in times of especial danger. We are all conscious that life is different – more focused, more disciplined – in wartime. It is also true that, as Hobbes observed in Leviathan, the purpose of the state is to guarantee the security of the citizen. A state which fails to do so, or which (even worse) threatens that security itself, has failed and its legitimacy is questionable.

In these circumstances, however, we are often asked to accept curtailments upon out liberties. The universal legislative response after September 11th was the enhancement of the secret power of government, and its ability to suspend even our most ancient legal rights in pursuit of security from terror. This, essentially political, response, is as unimaginative as it is predictable. It treats democracy and security as locked in a zero-sum trade-off.

Yet one thing that the Cold War proved is that one cannot defend democracy by mortgaging liberty. We look back in horror now at the days of McCarthyite finger-pointing. The footage of the hearings of the House Anti-American Activities Committee bears out just how alien and antidemocratic its proceedings were. It is not merely the reporting of innuendo as fact and the guilt by association which appalls, but more so, it is the self-righteous and hectoring tone of these self-styled guardians of democracy. In Australia, we look back with pride at this country’s refusal to ban the Communist Party. In that debate, and in that referendum, this country took a stand that the best way to defend democracy is through democracy itself.

Democracy, historically, has been a fragile flower at times, in the face of emergency situations. Governments, even democratic ones, have often been eager to talk up a sense of crisis and emergency since that tends to make them more secure from internal change. Who would want to change governments in a time of international crisis ? Sometimes, however, that crisis is more imagined than real. Weimar German democracy was dead long before Hitler cremated it in the flames of the Reichstag. In 1930, Chancellor Brüning invoked Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution which gave has Cabinet the power to rule by decree, power which was then exercised by his reactionary successors, Franz von Papen and General Kurt von Schleicher. When Hitler came to power, executive authority had been the only effective authority in Germany for three years.

This address takes its title from a famous apocryphal military saying: "In order to save the village, it was necessary to destroy it". The ancient propositions that one safeguards liberties by curtailing them; that free speech, for example, is best guaranteed through rigorous censorship, or that freedom of association is best maintained through massive covert surveillance – is in fact one which is refuted by history. One of the great ironies of Australian political history is that the Menzies government actively encouraged many immigrants – some of whom had in their time been active collaborators with the Nazis – to spy on emigré community organizations in Australia. The result was that they established their own paramilitary training camps and came close to taking over the NSW Liberal Party.

If one cannot trust the security/democracy trade-off to defend democracy, what strategy remains? The best response remains education. Education is the sentinel of democracy. Education generates a citizenry acutely aware of its rights and responsibilities, and which participates thoughtfully and critically in the political process. But it is more than a little simplistic – and smacks of the liberal knee-jerk – to invoke a magic word like "education". Often the word is used as a kind of social panacea; the public equivalent of kissing a problem better. We need to be a little more sophisticated here.

There was no little rolling of eyes in the educational community a few years ago when John Howard complained that schoolchildren had no idea who the first Prime Minister of Australia was. That seems to indicate that education for democracy means kids learning the right stuff about it. But this is a road which we have walked down so often we don’t need signposts. The "Discovering Democracy" kit grew out of the plethora of inquiries which began with preparation for the Bicentennial, fifteen years ago. It is not more content that we need. We have it already: sophisticated, purpose designed and relevant.

Nor do we need to articulate more outcomes. A careful reading of both the Agreed Values Statement and the Overarching Outcomes Statement in the Curriculum Framework (not to mention the values strand in Society and Environment) reveals that education for democracy has been carefully and soundly embedded in the foundation document for education in this state. What is most difficult, I think, as teachers, is to find ways which are meaningful and engaging to teach the content which is there and progress students towards the outcomes which are desired, and to allocate limited classroom time in which to do it.

This is especially acute in Primary education, where schools devote resources to meet centrally determined benchmarks in literacy and numeracy. It is a pity that the same thought has not been put into civic literacy and social numeracy, and that neither seem to carry the same public weight as priorities. For education to be the genuine defender of democracy, the reality must match the rhetoric. The classroom teaching must be done to a proper degree, rather than as a formality. For if education for democracy is not taken seriously, then the danger is that students will not take democracy seriously. And thaqt is the first step towards trading it away.


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