Election 2016 – Don’t ask, don’t tell

ANU College of Law Professor Desmond Manderson

"Hazel suspected that all the talking had the real purpose of preventing his own questions. He was partly irritated and partly mystified."

There is an episode in the children's classic Watership Down when the rabbits come across a lovely warren full of sleek, well-fed rabbits. Everyone makes them welcome. The burrows are dry and warm. There are no enemies to deal with. There is plenty of food, just lying in the fields for anyone to take. The only problem seems to be that no one asks questions in this little country. No one shows any curiosity about the world around them. Any questions that the strangers ask are ignored or deflected.

Our heroes discover the warren's dreadful secret when one of them is caught in a snare of barbed wire. The farmer looking after the rabbits is slowly harvesting them. The warren is doomed, but they refuse to confront their fate. They would rather eat, drink, and be merry. Tomorrow – well, that was not up for discussion.

Funnily enough, the Slovenian cultural critic Slavoj Zizek makes a similar point. We are bound together by our guilty secrets more strongly than by our public principles, he said. Social "acts of transgression" may be illegal, criminal, inadmissible, "Yet at the same time it reaffirms the cohesion of the group, ie, it calls for an act of supreme identification with group values. Such a code must remain under the cover of night, unacknowledged, unutterable – in public everybody pretends to know nothing about it, or even actively denies its existence. It represents the 'spirit of community' in its purest form, exerting the strongest pressure on the individual to comply…"

By way of children's literature and psychoanalytic philosophy we have arrived at the 2016 Australian federal election campaign, an extreme illustration of Zizek's point. Here too, no questions are to be answered, and all the real problems confronting our society are religiously avoided. Our political parties and the media are bound together in a conspiracy of silence, designed to maintain the illusion that our sleek life can and must just go ahead unchanging forever. Nothing must be said or done to disturb this dreadful complacency. We pick up the resources lying in the fields, no questions asked.

Anyone who saw last week's so-called leaders' debate on the ABC will know what I mean. Few questions were asked. None were answered. And the issues that were not to be talked about vastly outnumbered the issues that were.

The conspiracy of silence brings a society together around the conduct it will not admit to, around the questions that it fears to answer. And this is exactly the pact with the devil made by those over-fed rabbits in Watership Down.

"But one strict rule they had; oh yes, the strictest. No one must ever ask where another rabbit was, and anyone who asked 'Where?' must be silenced. To say 'Where' was bad enough, but to speak openly of the wires – that was intolerable. For that they would scratch and kill."

Where have the refugees gone, hidden behind their shining wires? Say nothing, admit nothing. Quarantine them, and quarantine all mention of them too. Enact laws that prevent doctors from asking questions. Prevent the media from reporting on it. Immigration Minister Peter Dutton is in fact the minister for making sure that no one on either side of politics talks about immigration. That suits the Opposition just fine.

Where has all the coral gone? Don't talk about it – and if anyone else has the temerity to do so, quickly expunge all references to it, in the name of protecting a tourist industry that has far more to fear from global warming than from UNESCO. The Minister for the Environment, Greg Hunt, is in fact the minister for making sure no one on either side of politics talks about the environment – and yes, he's the best in the world at it. That suits the Opposition fine too.

Where has all the money gone? Ignore the issue of multi-national tax evasion except in the most general terms. Never suggest that vast resource companies are doing this country no favours, distorting its economy, ravaging its land and sea, crippling our own capacity to innovate and adapt to a changing world. Assure everyone everything will be all right, if only we keep tinkering around the edges. The Treasurer, Scott Morrison, is in fact the minister for the prevention of reform. As for the Opposition, it is clearly true that what is off the agenda is far more important to both sides than what is on the agenda.

Where have Aboriginal people gone? Indigenous incarceration levels are at their highest, and are increasing the fastest. Unemployment and welfare is rising; school attendance levels are stagnant. Self-harm and suicide rates in Aboriginal communities have more than doubled since 2007. Last summer, nineteen Indigenous people in far north Western Australia, including a 10-year-old girl, committed suicide. Clearly, this must on no account be mentioned. Shush. It can be our little secret. Instead, there is bipartisan support for the Northern Territory Intervention, now nine years old, evidence of its abject failure notwithstanding. Both Labor and Liberal governments even commission spurious "evaluation" and "consultation" reports to shore up their bipartisan complacency. The Minister for Aboriginal Affairs – who even knows his name? – is in fact the minister for making sure that no one talks about that, either. The Opposition couldn't be happier.

Just as Zizek predicts, the "obscene nightly law" that enforces our inaction "violates the explicit rules of community life". He means, for example, Australia's ostentatious public commitment to "the fair go". There is a shocking contradiction in this country between what is said and what is not said, between the public principles and the private code. "Such a code must remain under the cover of night, unacknowledged, unutterable – in public everybody pretends to know nothing about it, or even actively denies its existence."

Omerta, the mafia's infamous code of silence: precisely by binding us to a clandestine, unwritten law, the law of the unspeakable, we are drawn into an emotional trap that we cannot ever admit to, and cannot easily escape from. The longer the secrecy goes on, the tighter the wires that hold us together, and the harder it is to break free.

Australia is being strangled by a "don't ask, don't tell" policy of disastrous proportions. The problems facing this country grow larger every day: environmental problems, global problems, problems of social equity, problems of our moral and political compass. Politicians on both sides not only have no answers; they have agreed, in the interests of perpetuating their worn-out control, to avoid all reference to the problems. Perhaps it will all be OK for another three years, or five. And which politician or commentator thinks ahead further than that, after all?

This long-drawn out and desperately tedious election has left a great many of us "partly irritated and partly mystified". But the silence – our "spirit of community", Australia's very own omerta – is becoming deafening. Say nothing, do nothing, shut up. In the end, what we are witnessing is not just the silence of the rabbits. It is the silence of the lambs.

Professor Desmond Manderson is jointly appointed in the ANU College of Law and the College of Arts and Social Sciences. He is founding Director of the Centre for Law, Arts, and the Humanities. This article was published in The Canberra Times.

Updated:  10 August 2015/Responsible Officer:  College General Manager, ANU College of Law/Page Contact:  Law Marketing Team