Opinion: John Howard chose might over the right to speak to the power of Hu Jintau and Beijing


Ex-President Hu Jintau’s humiliating exit from the dais ruled by President Xi Jinping at the 2022 National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party was a reminder of the duplicity and brutality of autocrats, not least one to another.

Democracies should expect no better treatment. The 1930s saga of UK PM Neville Chamberlain believing Hitler would be a man of his word remains the showcase in how honourable democrats can be beguiled by dishonourable dictators.

John Winston Howard is not Winston Churchill and his failure to stand up to Hu Jintau in Canberra cannot be left to his telling alone (“Bob Brown targeted by China: Howard”, The Canberra Times, November 12). Rather than keeping a firm grip on our democracy, Howard handed Hu the helm in 2003 to steer clear of troubled waters.

The speeches to the Australian Parliament of US President George Bush and President Hu were to be given on consecutive days on October 23 and 24, 2003. As a Senator, I consulted the Clerk of the Senate, Harry Evans. He was clear, privately and publicly, there was no provision in the Australian Constitution or in the Senate Standing Orders for non-elected “strangers”, including visiting dignitaries, to give addresses to joint house sittings of the Australian Parliament. If a joint house meeting was to be held, the Speaker of the House would have no authority over those Senators who sat in the House.

However, the grandstanding of such foreign presidential appearances was too attractive for the prime minister to concentrate on such constitutional niceties and my proposal, that the speeches be given in the Great Hall of Parliament, was rejected by both major parties.

In the event, fellow Greens Senator Kerry Nettle and I stood up and interrupted President Bush’s speech after he began defending his illegal invasion of Iraq. I called on Bush to observe the global rule of law and to send home the two Australians in his Guantanamo Bay prison just as he had repatriated the two Americans there. The Speaker of the House, Neil Andrew, failed in his bid to expel us when I pointed out to his Sergeant-at-Arms that there was no provision in the Standing Orders for him to order a Senator out.

Seeing these events, Hu Jintao’s team went into conniptions. They were worried that, with millions watching back home in China, the Greens might raise the issues of the massacres in Tibet or in Tiananmen Square. China’s ambassador hurried to Howard’s office to have me banned from Hu’s speech next day. The Prime Minister of Australia should have made it clear that such a ban was not on in a democracy. Instead he deftly passed the buck down to the Liberal presiding officers of the two Houses of Parliament and they duly buckled to Beijing.

Under a direct threat that President Hu would cancel his speech if I was present, the President of the Senate, Paul Calvert, and the Speaker of the House, Neil Andrew, without consulting me or the Senate, wilted to the Beijing bullying and assured the officials that both Senator Nettle and I would be locked out.

When the day arrived, Andrew also asked Greens member of the House of Representatives, Michael Organ, to take the miniature Tibetan flag off his lapel but Organ refused.

Kerry Nettle and I were blocked at the door to the House of Representatives by plain-clothed men acting little differently to bouncers at a nightclub. Worse was to come.

With the House bells ringing way beyond scheduled time, armed Chinese agents (Australian parliamentary staff were unarmed), who had been stationed at the entrances to the public gallery, were allowed to single out and expel invited visitors including Australians who were of either Tibetan or Chinese origin. These visitors were taken to the glassed-in viewing area for school children above the gallery where they could watch but not hear Hu’s speech.

The implication by Hu that China had “discovered” Australia before the Europeans (no mention of Aboriginal people), raised no concern or discussion from the assembled representatives.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer, later told the ABC: “Obviously they (the Chinese officials) were very preoccupied with what Brown and Nettle had done the previous day. This had shaken the Chinese, there’s no question of that … if Brown and Nettle had done to Hu what they did to Bush, then I think the implications for Australia could have been rather serious.”

For “Australia” read “trade and my comfort”.

Beijing had stared Canberra down and might had proved to be right.

However, right, in the true sense of the word, had been with Harry Evans. A review of the presidential visits led to the Australian parliament abandoning joint house sittings for foreign speech-makers. These days the speeches are given to the House of Representatives and senators are invited to sit in as visitors.

President Bush, who had also had interjections to his pre-Canberra speech in the Phillipines’ parliament in Manila, turned down later requests to address the parliaments of the UK and Canada.

Hu Jintau is history but, unlike John Howard, has no chance of writing it. He has given way to a greater autocrat.

Democracy and the right of ordinary people to speak to power remain as crucial as ever.Bob Brown is former leader of the Australian Greens

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