Defending Whistleblowers, Defending Democracy: Canberra Protest Speech
I was delighted to be invited to speak this morning at a protest outside the Canberra courts where David McBride, the whistleblower who exposed alleged war crimes by Australian Defence Force personnel in Afghanistan, was due to face trial. This is the case which led to raids on the ABC and journalist Annika Smethurst immediately after the election. Here’s the text of my short speech.
Thanks so much for coming down today and not letting this moment go unmarked.
Before I say a few words about the threats to democracy and what we can and must do about it, I acknowledge that we are on the land of the Ngunnawal and Ngamberi people, and I pay my respects to their elders, past, present and emerging. I recognise that they never ceded sovereignty over this land and that there is an enormous and blatant irony in us gathering here to talk about democracy and oppression when we, our culture, our government, continue to oppress the First Nations people of this land, and deny them sovereignty.
Perhaps now we can begin to build our empathy for Indigenous Australians, as we see our democratic rights, our civil and political rights, increasingly taken from us.
From within, it’s terribly easy to think of any situation, any system, as permanent. As unbreakable, unchangeable. Democracy, for many people, has seemed so. Especially for us, here in Australia, with our easy-going, “she’ll be right, mate”, attitude. We’re ok here. Nothing’s going to happen. We’ve got our democracy, and nobody’s going to take it away.
It’s well past time we woke up and realised that democracy is incredibly fragile. If we don’t cherish it, work for it, practice it, we will find that those who find democracy constraining to their interests will increasingly chip at it, hack at it, undermine it. They’re constantly doing so, and it is our duty to stand up to them and push back with everything we’ve got.
I want to pay tribute this morning to David McBride, for his courage in doing what he knew to be right, even though he was well aware of what the consequences would be.
I want to pay tribute as well to Witness K and Bernard Collaery, and to ATO whistleblower Richard Boyle, facing 160 years prison. All of them for exercising democratic rights, for exposing wrongdoing on the part of those who govern us and defend us, in order to defend our democracy.
Because the essence of democracy is being able to dissent, safely, constructively, loudly, if necessary. And when those in power start taking away our right to dissent, our democracy is in trouble.
- When those in power are raiding media offices in a way clearly designed to provoke fear and suppress critical coverage;
- When those in power are delegitimising advocacy by civil society groups, attacking charities and unions and campaigning organisations;
- When those in power are criminalising protest, hugely increasing sanctions for non-violent civil disobedience;
- When those in power are threatening whistleblowers with multiple Lifetimes in jail, we know our democracy is in real trouble.
It’s in trouble, but it’s not over. It’s never over while we can still stand here and make ourselves heard. And thank you again for taking the time to come down here to defend those speaking out.
I encourage you all to talk to your friends and families – about this issue and many others. Don’t let anyone say politics doesn’t matter! Remind them, if they do, that democracy is a muscle – use it or lose it! Well, let’s get some exercise and start rebuilding our democracy from the grassroots up.