Australian Democracy and Inaction

Am I the only one worried by the obvious coup on democracy in Australia orchestrated by the Liberals and Rupert Murdoch? I’m OK with business interests and the circus of politics… but I can’t help but get a bit worried when democracy becomes an obstacle to political ambition corporate desire.

I grew up in a series of authoritarian regimes. I was born in a place where politicians and the state bureaucracy were so bloated with corruption that they had become a mechanism of it. I lived through a brief moment of journalistic freedom, the TV showing images confirming things the public already knew – crumbling infrastructure, military abuse, failing food distribution and graft. I also remember that instead of despair, people in that moment speaking of transparency as cause for hope: “Now that they admit it, maybe something can be done about it…” A short time later, I remember watching tanks roll on parliament, and a coup that replaced years of complacent corruption with a regime ordained by the International Monetary Fund (‘our’ IMF) that set the foundation for an oligarch driven autocracy. We saw anchors and journalists use their final moments of broadcast freedom to warn the public about the authoritarianism to come before the new regime ensured that press licences were dependent on the ‘right’ kind of reporting.

My family brought me to Australia. Democracy. In contrast to what I saw as I grew up, it was amazing to see politicians who were afraid of the power of the electorate. Who had to explain themselves in front of the public and who were, as a matter of national sport, routinely scrutinized, critiqued and even mocked. It was amazing to me that their actions were the business of the public and it was part of a citizen’s nationalistic duty to remind politicians that they were public servants, not lords and rulers.

I love democracy and I’m deeply patriotic towards an Australia that showed me an alternative. But nearly 25 years later, I’m watching that democracy being intentionally unraveled and I’m seething.

Press is key to the culture of political scrutiny. It’s been essential to Australian democracy. And Australia had a truly admirable independent press tradition. When I arrived in Australia the SBS and the ABC functioned as essential checks to political power. My first job was delivering newspapers and I threw approximately seven independent Fairfax papers (The Age) into people’s driveways for every one paper from the Murdoch group (Herald Sun and the Australian). There were racists in Australia, and special interest had power but it felt like reason held sway.

Under the Liberal (Australian conservative) government we saw the dilution of the public broadcaster. The SBS was established to represent Australian diversity, and under Prime Minister Howard we saw mainstream commercial interest assert itself in 2006 with the limitation of funding and introduction of on-air commercial advertising with tight restrictions. Over the years we see those restrictions unravel. Investigative journalism is curtailed through budget strangling and in 2016, under the auspices of conservative Prime Minister Turnbull, the SBS current affairs broadcaster is merged with the privately owned Viceland – a company partially controlled by Murdoch’s News Corp.

Perhaps the most audacious examples of recent undermining of democracy come from the story of an institution central to the Australian democracy since the start of broadcasting in 1932: the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). Assaults on the broadcaster were many throughout the years but the last 5 years have been truly unprecedented. The audacity is shocking. In the context of the global war on truth and the right-wing revival, Australian pollies are increasingly acting like authoritarian rulers.

Imagine: A far right government is elected with the help of News Corp. (Fox News) who champion a transparent commitment to business and religious conservative interests over those of the general public (Abbott). The independent broadcaster reports on its policies, scrutinizes its links to business and covers public discontentment. The government accuses the broadcaster of bias, an independent review is commissioned and the results absolve the broadcaster completely. Ignoring the report outcomes, the government instigates a reshuffle of the board to address a non-existent bias. News Corp acts as public relations as new board is instated and funding is cut. Somewhat muted, the ABC continues to do its job. Conservative government changes face (Turnbull), focusing more on business interest and less on Christian values, continues to pander to a wealthy elite. In the context of massive international discoveries of tax fraud and tax havens for the wealthiest people in the world, the ABC publishes a series of investigative pieces on corporate tax in Australia. The articles are initially suppressed by the newly appointed board. Journalists from a long critical tradition of reporting speak up internally and start investigations that eventually reveal foul play on behalf of the government appointed board. ABC chairman resigns and the managing director is sacked as staff threaten to walk off the job due to undue interference. Leaks reveal the chairman was taking instruction from the government to punish reporters who published tax cut stories and other work critical of the government . While that’s going on, another independent news organization folds, and News Corp (again, Fox News) changes its format to take advantage of the void and intensify political involvement. Supported (if not galvanized) by Murdock, the conservative government changes face again (Morrison). This same government states that the board (that IT APPOINTED) is in shambles and bypasses the legislated protocol for election to the broadcasters board to directly appoint a group of unqualified and extremely partisan appointees. The ABC journalistic staff again walk off in protest while the government, which has seen more face changes than any other in recent history, tells them to stop focusing on themselves and get back to work.

The government openly re-framed the public broadcaster because it didn’t like them honestly reporting on their actions. That’s a big deal.

Plus there’s a certain irony in this government telling the ABC to be less self focused after three leadership spills and more infighting than anyone has ever seen. Doubly so since the ABC made the point first – it’s the schoolyard “no I’m not, YOU are” argument, from our politicians!

I have spent a fair bit of my adult life wondering how the mess of corruption I grew up in might have happened. How did people willingly give away their political power? Where does the slippery slope begin? Over the last few years we saw the rise of private propaganda firms like Cambridge Analytica demonstrate that the subversion of democracy is possible. The key is control of the stream of information. This is a lesson global autocrats already know well. The scary thing is it seems like politicians in liberal democracies are paying close attention. We are entering a situation where public opinion is no longer feared, it is manipulated. Accountability is no longer required. The situation with the ABC demonstrates that the Liberal government doesn’t want a media that delivers transparency, it wants a media that delivers propaganda.

What do you care about? Good environmental policy? Humane treatment of refugees? Healthcare? Education? LGBTQI liberties? Women’s rights? Home affordability? None of that matters in an autocracy. Without a good press, autocrats and business interests decide.

There is no cause more pressing than this one.

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