After months of increasing tension between Iran and the US, on Tuesday the Morrison government committed a warship, surveillance aircraft and about 200 troops to a US-led convoy to protect ships passing through the Strait of Hormuz.
But why is this small passage – just 39km across at its narrowest point – so important to the international oil trade and why has it become the stage for the growing conflict between the two powers?
And, more to the point, where is it?
Click through our interactive below to get everything you need to know about the Strait and the events that led to Australia’s involvement.
Just when we thought Australia was getting serious about shifting priorities away from the Middle East to its own neighbourhood, the prime minister has announced another Middle East step up. Australia has committed a warship, surveillance aircraft and defence personnel to help keep the Strait of Hormuz open for shipping.
Australia has a defence force of about 60,000 full-time uniformed personnel and 25,000 in the reserves. So this commitment of about 2,250 personnel is sustainable, for now, as long as security challenges closer to home don’t rapidly escalate.
This also means the operational tempo of border protection or any of the other ongoing operations is not expected to decrease as a result of this commitment. Some of these elements, notably Operation Manitou, will perform more than one role.
Operation Manitou is the Royal Australian Navy commitment of one warship to the Combined Maritime Forces (with 32 participant nations) that operate in and around the Persian Gulf. Australian warships have been doing this on rotation for the best part of 30 years.
Similarly, the Royal Australian Air Force P8 Poseidon surveillance aircraft have been operating intermittently out of the Persian Gulf for years. The extra defence planning personnel announced likely will be drawn from a pool already assigned to support Australian operations, notably attached to US military headquarters semi-permanently based in and around the Gulf.
To be fair, it is not a token contribution. The warship and P8 are capable platforms that have made a tangible difference in the past in countering piracy, smuggling and related security concerns in the Persian Gulf. And, as the prime minister reminded us, the Gulf is the source of much of Australia’s oil.
So, while not a token contribution in one sense, it is not a significantly onerous addition to what Australia has been contributing there for a long time.
However, in international diplomacy, words matter, and small contributions can have significant effects. No doubt, Australian policymakers were mindful of making a contribution that would satisfy the US after declining Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s suggestion to base intermediate-range and potentially nuclear-armed ballistic missiles in Australia.
While Australia can sustain this new commitment without a significant surge, there is growing recognition that committing forces to operations in the Middle East detracts from the ability of the ADF to focus on high-priority areas closer to home.
The 2016 Defence White Paper referred to three strategic defence interests. These are: a secure and resilient Australia; a secure nearer region (including the Pacific and Southeast Asia) and a stable Indo-Pacific region; and a rules-based global order.
But China’s increasing illiberalism and regional assertiveness across Southeast Asia and into the South Pacific have generated considerable unease over spreading ourselves too thinly.
My own geostrategic SWOT analysis for Australia points to the need for a more holistic consideration of issues related to looming environmental catastrophe (affecting biodiversity and societal sustainability), a spectrum of governance challenges (such as cyberterrorism and organised crime) and great power contestation.
That paper calls for, among other things, a national institute for net assessment to weigh up how best to respond.
In essence, the prime minister has deftly handled the call for a commitment in solidarity with the United States. But the Strait of Hormuz issue is only one of many looming security challenges. Its emergence at the top of the news pile points to the need for a significant and far-reaching re-examination of our defence and security posture and priorities.
Former deputy prime minister Tim Fischer, who has died aged 73 of cancer, leaves a political and personal legacy as a man of courage, conviction and congeniality.
The support that Fischer as National Party leader gave was crucial in John Howard’s success in achieving his ground-breaking gun control measure after the 1996 Port Arthur massacre.
While the issue tested Howard, for Fischer it was extraordinarily tough. Howard recalls: “He never tried to talk me out of it but he made it plain how difficult it was going to be in certain parts of the bush”.
Fischer remained resolute despite the fury of many among his party’s base, where hostility lingered for years.
When Fischer became leader in 1990, with the Coalition in opposition, quite a few observers doubted the party’s choice. (They included this writer; Fischer delighted in recalling that misjudgement.)
He defied the sceptics, managing his party and the Coalition relationship to the benefit of each, despite the challenges, which included not just gun control but the Wik issue, constant sniping from the Queensland part of the party, leadership rumblings, and the electoral threat posed by One Nation.
“The boy from Boree Creek” was born in the Riverina, and educated at Boree Creek Public School and then at Xavier College in Melbourne. He was conscripted in 1966 – subsequently saying his birthday being selected in the ballot proved a “great door opener” – and he served in Vietnam.
His long parliamentary career spanned state and federal politics. In 1971 he entered the NSW parliament; in 1984 he won the federal seat of Farrer.
Grahame Morris (who became Howard’s chief of staff) remembers as a young country reporter covering Fischer’s appearance at a hall in the town of Grong Grong, in his first state campaign. The speech seemed to take forever, because Fischer had a dreadful stutter – which in later years he managed to control, although it left him with an unusual speech pattern.
“That a fellow [who started] with a pronounced stutter became deputy prime minister and an effective communicator is remarkable,” says Morris, a friend of Fischer over decades.
Cabinet colleague Peter Reith said once, “You don’t so much listen to what Tim has to say as imbibe it”.
In the Howard government Fischer was trade minister, a powerful economic bastion for the National party in those days. But his time in office was limited. He stepped down from his party’s leadership (and the ministry) in 1999, largely driven by family factors – Harrison, one of his two young sons, had autism.
When he went to tell Howard of his decision, the PM tried to talk him out of it. Fischer, feeling he was losing the argument, played his winning card – revealing he had already told a journalist on a VIP flight from New Zealand earlier in the day. He left parliament in 2001.
The citation when Charles Sturt University awarded him an honorary doctorate in 2001 captured much about his personality: “Tim’s life has been about dogged adherence to goals. It has also been about risk-taking, grabbing opportunities and perseverance.”
The highlight of a busy post-politics career was serving as Australia’s first resident ambassador to the Holy See, a post to which he was appointed by Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd.
Among a myriad of interests and activities, including writing several books, Fischer’s special passion was trains, which saw him leading tours at home and abroad and, while at the Vatican, organising the Caritas Express, a steam train trip from the Pope’s platform to Orvieto in Umbria .
Last month Fischer was among those aboard a one-off passenger train, raising money for the Albury Wodonga Cancer Centre trust fund, that travelled to tiny Boree Creek, where a park was named for him. “It’s nice to be going home, on a special train,” he said.
Amid the tributes to former deputy prime minister Tim Fischer and the stories of his authenticity, courage and quirky interests – like trains and military history – what has struck me most are the examples of his personal kindness.
One of those stories is how Fischer helped a desperate Laotian refugee who in 1986 pulled a gun at the Immigration office in Albury, near Fischer’s office. It turned into a siege. Fischer walked in alone and defused the situation. He then travelled to Thailand in an attempt to get the man’s family out of the refugee camp in which they were stuck.
There are many similar stories – from army mates, farmers, journalist and politicians of all parties. I experienced Fischer’s personal kindness several times.
The first was when I was appointed chief economist at Austrade in 1999. That made Fischer, who was the federal trade minister as well as deputy prime minister, my boss.
My appointment was heavily criticised in The Australian newspaper – presumably because my previous job was with the Australian Council of Trade Unions. It called my appointment “payback” for Fischer’s chief of staff, Craig Symon, getting a senior executive role at Austrade.
I was a bit worried. But then I got a phone call from Fischer. “You got the job on your abilities as an economist,” he said to me. “If you get any political crap, let me know.”
Austrade staff loved working for Fischer. Every time he made a speech at a public event, he would single out an Austrade employee and recall something good they had done. It it made the person feel like a million bucks.
The second was when my book The Airport Economist was published, in 2008. Fischer took a copy to Thailand and gave it to the Thai prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, an avid reader of economic literature.
At a later APEC summit, when world leaders were asked their favourite book, Abhisit replied: “The Airport Economist.” Straight away the Bangkok Post published the book in the Thai language. We had a book launch at the Bangkok Stock Exchange with Australia’s Ambassador to Thailand and Thai TV anchor Rungthip Chotnapalai. The book became a best seller in Thailand, all thanks to Fischer.
An unsung hero of Asian engagement
Fischer is in many ways the unsung hero of Australia’s changed attitudes to Asia in the 20th century. Labor’s legends Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating are all known for championing Asian economic engagement. But Fischer also played a huge role in cementing relationships. He laid his Akubra hat on negotiating tables in most of Asia’s capitals, spruiked deals and hammered out treaties.
A veteran of the Vietnam war, his army days no doubt affected how he thought Australia should view our neighbours. His passion for improved ties with Asia generally, not just in trade, was genuine and authentic. He loved Thailand and Bhutan in particular.
He was in some ways, part of a tradition of Country/National party leaders who pushed Australia towards Asia, largely for economic reasons. For example, John “Black Jack” McEwen negotiated the Commerce Agreement with Japan in 1957, just 12 years after World War II. In the 1970s, Doug Anthony also championed our interests in Asia. Fischer similarly saw Asia as “Our Near North” rather than that quaint old term “The Far East”.
Fischer had his blind spots, to be sure. He failed to appreciate the High Court’s Mabo and Wik decisions, for example. He was a sucker for conspiracy theories at times. But you can’t have everything.
His political career was long, beginning with election to the New South Wales parliament at age 24. But his ministerial career was quite short – just three years. In 1999 he quit his ministerial posts, and the leadership of the National Party, to spend more time to his family – especially his son Harrison, then aged five, who had been diagnosed with autism.
But the impression Fischer made makes it seem he spent much longer at the top. He was like cricketer Mike Whitney and rugby union player Peter Fitzsimmons. Neither played many tests for Australia but they sure leveraged that time into successful subsequent careers. Fischer did the same.
Now the train has finally left the station.
Tim Harcourt, J.W. Nevile Fellow in Economics and host of The Airport Economist, UNSW
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has confirmed that Australia will lend military support to protect shipping in the Middle East.
The commitment has been long expected, with Australia sending a frigate, an aircraft and some headquarters staff as part of a US-led coalition in the Strait of Hormuz, amid deepening tensions between the US and Iran.
So what is this conflict about, what is Australia’s involvement, and what are the risks associated with it?
What is the Strait of Hormuz?
The Strait of Hormuz is a narrow body of ocean connecting the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. Its width varies, but at its narrowest is 39km. It is the main passage for transporting oil from the Middle East out into the Indian Ocean and beyond; a fifth of the world’s oil is shipped through this strait. This includes 15-16% of crude oil and 25-30% of refined oil that is destined for Australia.
Iran and Oman border the Strait of Hormuz. As the littoral states, they have sovereignty over the waters in the Strait of Hormuz, but that sovereignty is subject to navigational rights enjoyed by all states. Ships from all countries have the right to move continuously and expeditiously through these waters without interference from either of the coastal states.
What is the conflict between Iran and the US about?
In recent weeks, Iran has seized the Stena Impero, a British-flagged commercial tanker, as well as a US drone. It also boarded but released a Liberian-flagged, British-owned vessel. These actions have heightened concerns about navigational rights through the strait and the consequences for global oil supply.
Shipping has previously been threatened within the Persian Gulf and along the Strait of Hormuz, especially during the Iran-Iraq war. This conflict was also known as the Tanker War because of the threats to commercial ships transporting oil out of the Gulf. It resulted in the United States and other neutral states providing naval escorts and conducting convoys to protect shipping.
What is Australia’s involvement?
Australia has announced it will be joining an “International Maritime Security Construct” that is focused on ensuring the freedom of shipping lanes and commercial navigation.
This international presence is intended to respond to incidents and threats as they occur during passage through the strait. The prime minister has announced that Australia’s involvement is limited in terms of time and resources and emphasised the importance of de-escalation.
A legal difficulty for Australia is that this sort of convoy relies on a doctrine that is associated with the law of naval warfare, and so would usually only apply if there is an armed conflict between states. Australia is instead maintaining the view that its warships are also exercising their navigational rights through the Strait of Hormuz.
The new mission is cast as an enhancement of previous contributions to counter-terrorism and counter-piracy operations. However, these operations have been directed at non-state actors, rather than the naval forces of another country. Iran may claim that their presence constitutes an unlawful threat of the use of force.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson instead decided to join the US-led mission. In joining this effort, Australia has emphasised the importance of its multilateral nature. This matters when it is recalled that the oil tankers concerned are typically flagged to a wide variety of states, are owned by nationals from other states, might be chartered by companies from different states and are frequently crewed by nationals from diverse states.
As a result, far more countries than just Iran, the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia have stakes in these issues.
How does it affect the global oil trade?
The prospect of oil tankers being seized in the Strait of Hormuz will likely increase the insurance premiums on shipping. In addition to seizing ships, Iran has threatened to close the strait.
Concerns also exist that Iranian military forces might hinder passage, or might go so far as mining the strait. Any of these scenarios poses a risk to global oil supply and even the prospect of these actions causes a jump in crude oil prices.
Given that over 90% of the world’s traded goods are carried by ship, every country has a strong reciprocal interest in ensuring freedom of navigation. Iran is using one of the main political tools it has at its disposal to exert pressure in response to current US policies.
Preventing escalation should be the prime concern of all actors and would be the most mutually beneficial outcome.
Australia will commit a frigate, an aircraft and some headquarters staff to an American-led freedom of navigation operation in the Middle East.
Scott Morrison, announcing the long-expected commitment at a Canberra news conference on Wednesday, stressed this was an international mission, but so far the United Kingdom is the only other country to have signed up.
Under questioning, the Chief of the Australian Defence Force, General Angus Campbell, said the operation would be United States-led. But Campbell avoided spelling out in detail the rules of engagement in the event of being involved in an incident, other than referring to legal obligations.
Iran has seized ships in recent months, amid escalating tensions.
This week, an Iranian oil tanker was released after being detained by the British overseas territory of Gibraltar on suspicion of taking oil to Syria. The US tried unsuccessfully to have Gibraltar extend the vessel’s detention.
Morrison said Australia had made very clear both to the US and the UK “that we are here as part of a multinational effort”.
“This is a modest, meaningful and time-limited contribution …to this international effort to ensure we maintain free-flow of commerce and of navigation,” he said.
“Australia will defend our interests, wherever they may be under threat, we will always work closely with our international allies and partners.”
Morrison emphasised that the safety of shipping lanes was vital to Australia’s economic interests.
The government had been concerned over incidents in the Strait of Hormuz, he said. “30% of refined oil destined for Australia travels through the Strait. It is a threat to our economy.”
The Australian contribution will be
a P-8A Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft for one month before the end of 2019;
an Australian frigate in January 2020 for six months; and
ADF personnel to the International Maritime Security Construct headquarters in Bahrain.
One complication for Australia in finalising the commitment was the fact there was no Australian frigate in the area, with the next deployment not due until January.
Australian ships participate in counter-piracy and counter-terrorism operations in the Middle East.
The Americans were very pressing in their request to Australia to join the force, including in public statements during the recent AUSMIN talks.
Morrison has emphasised Australia wants to see the de-escalation of tensions in the area and separates its commitment to the freedom of navigation operation from America’s other activities in relation to Iran.
Given Pell’s seniority in the Catholic Church as a former Vatican treasurer, the case is also of worldwide significance. The appeal involved complex legal principles. Here is what you need to know to understand the judgment.
What happened before this appeal?
In December 2018, a jury unanimously found Pell guilty of five sexual offences against two 13-year-old boys, committed while Archbishop of Melbourne. As detailed in the sentencing remarks of County Court Chief Judge Kidd in March 2019, Pell was found guilty of one count of sexual penetration of a child aged under 16 through forced oral sex, and four counts of an indecent act with or in the presence of a child aged under 16.
The first offences were committed in the sacristy of St Patrick’s Cathedral after mass in December 1996. The final offence was committed against one of the boys around one month later. Both victims were choirboys and recipients of choral scholarships at an elite school.
In reaching a verdict, the jury relied on detailed evidence of one of the victims about what Pell said and did, and when and where it happened. The other victim began using heroin at age 14 and died of a heroin overdose in 2014, aged 31. This man’s death prompted the surviving victim, aged in his early 30s, to approach police in 2015.
Is it normal for survivors of child sexual abuse to delay disclosure?
A 2013 study of 487 men whose mean age of onset of abuse was 10, found the mean age when first telling was 32.
Is it a problem that the prosecution relied on the complainant’s evidence?
No. Child sexual abuse typically is inflicted in secret, without other evidence, so prosecutions often depend heavily on complainant testimony. The law recognises this: evidence does not have to be corroborated, and the judge must not warn the jury it is dangerous to act on uncorroborated evidence.
Juries make judgments based on the complainant account’s credibility, consistency, detail and truthfulness, and responses and demeanour in cross-examination.
It also argued that it was not possible for Pell to have been in the sacristy either at all, or by himself; it was not possible for the boys to have been in the sacristy unnoticed; and the robes he wore made it impossible to offend in the way claimed.
What was the Court of Appeal required to do when considering this argument?
The law is complex, and whether a verdict is “unreasonable” depends on legal technicalities, not intuitive instincts. Four legal principles need to be understood here.
First, and most important, there is a very high threshold for a court to overturn a jury’s guilty verdict for being unreasonable (see, for example, M or Baden-Clay). This is because, in Australian law, the jury is the constitutional tribunal of fact responsible for deciding guilt or innocence. A verdict will only be overturned in exceptional circumstances showing a clear miscarriage of justice.
Second, the test is whether, on the evidence, it was open to the jury to be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt the accused was guilty.
To win the appeal, the appellant must show the guilty verdict was not open to the jury. It is not sufficient for the court to find a jury might have had reasonable doubt. The evidence must mean no reasonable jury could have returned a guilty verdict; it must have “obliged” them to reach a not guilty verdict.
Third, the appeal court does not retry the case – again, because the jury is the tribunal of fact. The court must independently assess the evidence, but to determine whether the guilty verdict was open to the jury; not simply whether the court itself has a doubt.
Fourth, if a complainant is credible and reliable and the account is detailed, consistent and plausible, it is difficult for an appeal to succeed. On plausibility, courts have accepted that sexual offending can be brazen, influenced by the abuser’s arrogance, power and belief the child will not make a complaint.
What did the Court of Appeal say about this?
The judges rejected it by a majority of two to one. They found the guilty verdicts were reasonable, because they were open to the jury on the whole of the evidence.
The court said there was nothing about the evidence that meant the jury must have had reasonable doubt. It was not enough that one or more jurors might have had a doubt. Moreover, the court did not itself have such a doubt.
The complainant was found to be compelling, clearly not a liar or fantasist, and a witness of truth. He did not embellish the evidence or tailor it to the prosecution. He adequately explained things he could not remember and his explanations had a ring of truth.
What can happen now?
Pell can seek special leave to appeal to the High Court. If the High Court denies permission, the matter is finalised; if given, it will later deliver a final judgment.
Save for a successful appeal in the High Court, Pope Francis will likely expel Pell from the priesthood. The family of the second survivor is suing him and or the church for civil damages, as may others. Pell will remain in jail.
It is exceptionally difficult for survivors of child sexual abuse to bring successful criminal complaints, especially against powerful offenders. This judgment may encourage other courageous survivors to make complaints.
Yet many systemic reforms are still required to better facilitate prosecutions of child sexual offences.
Alan Jones’s political power is to a large extent based on a self-fulfilling prophecy: politicians believe he can shift votes, so they pay homage to him, which adds to the impression that he can shift votes.
This perception of power, in turn, gives him actual power.
Fifteen years of research and I haven’t found Alan Jones to be that much more influential with voters than ABC Radio or The SMH. He is only powerful because politicians think he is.
So if evidence that he actually shifts votes is hard to find, how did this phenomenon develop?
Developments in media-political relations over the 34 years that Jones has been broadcasting give some pointers.
He was a pioneer in what has become known as the outrage industry. He rants and raves in extraordinarily fluent broadsides, captivating in their aural power and – to a listener of a certain type – intoxicatingly persuasive.
This listener is typically in the autumn of life and living in the western suburbs of Sydney, where a tough life has bred cynicism about politicians, bureaucrats and big companies.
Early on, Jones tapped into this sentiment, becoming the champion of what he called “Struggle Street”, although he himself lived in an apartment overlooking Circular Quay and the Opera House.
His ratings rose and so did his perceived capacity to win over the hearts and minds of Struggle Street.
By the late 1990s, companies that were on the nose with the public, like Telstra and some of the banks, began to see that he might be able to change public attitudes towards them, if his commentary about them could be made to look like his honestly held opinion.
In fact these commentaries were paid for, but this was not disclosed to the audience, and so in 1999 Jones, along with several other high-profile talkback hosts, were caught up in what became known as the cash-for-comment scandal.
Despite adverse findings against him by the regulator at the time, the Australian Broadcasting Authority, belief in his power to sway audiences remained undiminished.
A few weeks after these findings were announced, he hosted an event for then Liberal Prime Minister John Howard, and dined with the NSW Labor Premier, Bob Carr, to discuss matters of government policy.
The following week, Carr sent his Police Minister-designate, Michael Costa, to discuss policing policy with Jones.
At Radio 2UE, where Jones was then working, the revenue generated not just by conventional advertising but by the cash-for-comment arrangements, had made Jones’s position there impregnable.
And when he switched to 2GB in 2002, he became an instant rainmaker for his new station, and equally impregnable there, free of management constraints and therefore in a position to play favourites and create enmities with whomever he chose.
His core audience – those on “Struggle Street – were then given special attention by the prime minister, and came to be known as “Howard’s battlers”.
For the entirety of his prime ministership, from 1996 to 2007, Howard made a point of cultivating Jones, and became a favourite. A former colleague of Jones, Mike Carlton, has been quoted as saying that there was allegedly an operative in Howard’s office dedicated to working on what were called “Jones issues”.
Whether this was true or not, Howard became a regular guest on the Jones program, saying it gave him a chance to speak directly to the Australian people rather than having his message filtered by sceptical journalists.
A prime ministerial imprimatur of this kind is calculated to increase perceptions of political power.
Then, just as Howard was departing office in 2007, the phenomenon of social media was gaining momentum in Australia.
It turbo-charged the outrage industry, and Jones was skilled up to take advantage of this new libertarian free-for-all.
He had already been found in 2005 to have breached the radio industry code of practice by inciting violence against people of Middle Eastern ethnicity in a series of incendiary broadcasts leading up to the race riots at Cronulla that year.
But as usual, the broadcasting regulator, now called the Australian Media and Communications Authority, contented itself with entering into a “dialogue” with 2GB.
Then, in 2012, he gave encouragement to the idea that Julia Gillard should be put in a chaff bag and dumped at sea. Once more there were no consequences.
And now, in 2019, he is encouraging Scott Morrison – already known as the 2GB Prime Minister – to shove a sock down the throat of the New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
Three strikes, but still not out.
Finally, however, there is a sign the 2GB management might have begun to ask themselves whether Jones has outlived his profitability.
They have warned him that one more rant like that and they will terminate his contract.
It cannot just be that a swag of big advertisers have abandoned the Jones program. This has happened in the past when he has committed some atrocity, but they drift back after the hue and cry has died down.
However, last year Jones cost the station A$3.75 million in defamation damages, plus millions more in legal costs after he wrongly and persistently accused the owners of a quarry in the Queensland town of Grantham of causing the deaths of local people who died in the 2011 floods.
At the time of writing, Macquarie Media, which owns 2GB, is being purchased by Nine Entertainment, which already owns the Nine TV network and the big mastheads of the old Fairfax company, The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and the Australian Financial Review.
It may be that this takeover will add a reputational dimension to the assessment of Jones’s value to shareholders.
If Jones does finally come to grief, it will be because of considerations like these, not because of any damage he does to the social fabric.
Over the weekend, Prime Minister Scott Morrison launched a new assault on the campaigning group GetUp. At the Liberal Party’s state conference in Adelaide, he said GetUp needed to be “accountable for what they say and do”.
They want to be in the political space, fine, call yourself a political party.
GetUp has been in the government’s firing line for several years now. This isn’t surprising. The campaigning group is typically described as a “left wing” and “progressive” organisation, and the stances it takes on various issues tend to be at odds with those of the Liberal and National parties.
GetUp campaigns on these issues by mobilising its membership in a number of ways. It encourages them to make donations to fund advertisements and other campaign initiatives, to directly contact their political representatives, and to operate on the ground in electorates in the run-up to elections.
It is perhaps this last activity that most bothers the Coalition government, as GetUp targeted a number of sitting Liberal MPs at the last election, including Peter Dutton and Tony Abbott. The group didn’t have a tremendous amount of success, though, with only Abbott losing his seat.
GetUp is already heavily regulated
Australia’s electoral process is not the private fiefdom of political parties. There are a variety of actors permitted to participate in our democracy and become involved in election campaigns. These include lobby groups, charities and not-for-profit campaigning groups, such as GetUp and its new “conservative” counterpart, Advance Australia.
And there is already a regulatory framework in place to ensure there is accountability and transparency around their electoral activities.
Any organisation that spends more than the “disclosure threshold” (currently A$14,000 per year) on “electoral expenditure”, for example, needs to submit an annual return to the Australian Electoral Commission. Information about these so-called “third parties” is publicly available on the AEC’s transparency register.
Groups like GetUp are now subject to even more regulation than third parties, thanks to legislative changes introduced by the government last year. Because of the amount they spend trying to influence elections, they fit into a new category called “political campaigner”. Political campaigners are required to register with the AEC and submit a more detailed annual return than “third parties”, similar to the returns required of political parties.
So, when Morrison calls for GetUp to be accountable like a political party, that’s already the case. However, despite being regulated in a similar way to political parties, they don’t receive the same benefits.
Organisations like GetUp don’t field candidates in elections, for instance, so they can never hope to wield political power in the way that political parties do.
Political parties also benefit from taxpayer funding – the AEC reimburses them for some or all of the expenses they incur in an election, provided they reached a certain threshold of votes. GetUp doesn’t get a cent from the AEC.
Donations to political parties of up to A$1,500 per year from individuals are also tax deductible. This also doesn’t apply to GetUp’s donors.
Stripping away GetUp’s independence
Morrison wants to have GetUp classified by the AEC as related to the Labor Party or the Greens, what the electoral law refers to as an “associated entity”. These organisations have some sort of formal link with a political party, or they
operate wholly or to a significant extent for the benefit of one or more registered political parties.
Having GetUp classified as an “associated entity” wouldn’t actually bring any extra regulation. As a “political campaigner”, GetUp is already subject to the same type of regulation as an “associated entity”.
But this is likely not the point. For the Coalition, labelling GetUp an “associated entity” would make it much more difficult for the group to maintain its much-vaunted status as
an independent movement of everyday people
This may influence how GetUp’s future campaigns are perceived by voters – and would certainly be something the government would talk up at every opportunity.
The AEC has looked into this question three times – in 2005, 2010, and earlier this year. It has consistently found that GetUp is not an “associated entity” because it does not operate wholly or to a significant extent for the benefit of one or more registered political parties.
While it’s true that the positions of GetUp often align with those of the Labor Party or the Greens, the AEC concluded the organisation is primarily an issues based campaigning organisation and that:
the expression of views or other conduct by an entity that broadly or closely aligns with the policy of a registered political party do not support a finding that the entity is operating wholly or to a significant extent for the benefit of one or more registered political parties
If the government once again refers this matter to the AEC, it would be surprising if the AEC didn’t come back with exactly the same finding – especially given it’s only been a few months since the AEC last examined the matter.
Other methods for shutting down the group
There are other ways the Coalition government can try to reduce the influence of organisations like GetUp. For instance, the Liberal National Party State Convention in Queensland recently voted in support of banning GetUp and other campaigning organisations from handing out how to vote cards and other political material at polling booths on election day.
Such a drastic move to limit participation in our electoral process is at odds with Australia’s reputation as a free and vibrant democracy. As one Queensland Liberal National politician wisely warned, it could also cut both ways and harm conservative groups seeking to campaign on particular issues.
Whether one agrees or disagrees with GetUp’s positions, these types of campaigning groups reflect the diversity and vibrancy of our democracy and the different ways people can get involved in our political process.
If our political leaders are serious about improving the transparency and accountability of all actors in our political system, then instead of singling out GetUp, Morrison should prioritise the introduction of “real time” disclosure of political donations and the lowering of the disclosure threshold for public reporting of donations.