The government has told the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to develop a mandatory code of conduct to address bargaining power imbalances between media companies and digital platforms such as Facebook and Google – and the question of payment for content.
Earlier the ACCC was directed by the government to facilitate a voluntary code. But slow progress and the impact on the media of the coronavirus have convinced the government of the need for more urgent and compulsory action.
In its Digital Platforms Inquiry report of last year, the ACCC identified a bargaining power imbalance between news media organisations and these large digital platforms, and recommended codes of conduct to govern commercial relationships.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Communications Minister Paul Fletcher have said in a statement the timeframe needs to be accelerated.
“The Australian media sector was already under significant pressure – that has now been exacerbated by a sharp decline in advertising revenue driven by coronavirus,” the ministers say.
“At the same time, while discussions between the parties have been taking place, progress on a voluntary code has been limited, according to recent advice provided by the ACCC”.
The ministers say the ACCC considers it unlikely any voluntary agreement would be reached on the key issue of payment for content.
The code will cover data sharing, ranking and display of news content, and the monetisation and the sharing of revenue generated from news. It will also include enforcement, penalty and binding dispute resolution mechanisms.
The ACCC will release a draft before the end of July, and the government wants the code finalised soon after that.
The University of Canberra’s 2019 Digital News Report said the majority of surveyed consumers who access news online get this news via indirect methods, such as social media, news aggregators, email newsletters and mobile alerts.
According to Nielsen Panel Data for February 2019, Google search had a unique audience of 19.7 million in Australia, and Facebook had a unique audience of 17.6 million.
Last week, two former Liberal Party staffers, Dhanya Mani and Chelsea Potter, made claims of sexual harassment and sexual assault against two Liberal party staff members.
It highlighted again how hostile political life can be for women and the fact the Liberals lack any mechanism to manage sexual harassment and assault claims. In response, the party’s federal council has decided to introduce a new code of conduct, likely by the end of the year.
The Liberal Party is hardly the only political organisation to be confronted with this issue. Virtually all major Australian political parties have faced scandals relating to sexual harassment in recent years.
The Nationals were criticised last year for their handling of a complaint against Barnaby Joyce. In the Labor party, former NSW leader Luke Foley resigned after allegations that he inappropriately touched an ABC journalist.
The varied nature of these cases alone shows just how complex – and all too common – the problem remains.
Sexual harassment of women in politics is not limited to Australia, either, as the
“sex-pest” scandal in the UK and recent sexual misconduct allegations against two MPs in Canada have demonstrated.
Given the prevalence of sexual harassment scandals, what is the most effective way for legislatures and political parties to respond?
The role of the parties
Organisationally, political parties straddle ambiguous ground. Parties are professional organisations that employ small numbers of staff and are subject to regulations and rules. Yet, they are also civic institutions that rely on volunteer labour. Their budgets fluctuate wildly from feast to famine. Further, political staff are paid for by the taxpayer, but they are not considered public servants.
As such, it is not always clear what recourse is available to party members who want to file a complaint for sexual harassment. For the most part, they are entirely reliant on whatever processes have been put in place by the parties.
Perhaps it’s this complexity, as well as the fact that countless organisations seek to cover up bad behaviour, that has led so many in the Liberal Party to argue these matters should be referred to police.
It raises the issue of what responsibilities and obligations the parties have when it comes to managing sexual harassment complaints.
This is not an abstract question. There are implications for how safe people feel in their workplaces and within their civic institutions. It also has implications for which MPs are selected and elected to represent us.
How Canada’s code of conduct works
Canada has been a pioneer in this regard. In 2015, the country was the first with a Westminster-style government to adopt a legislative-wide code of conduct to govern all non-criminal sexual harassment between MPs, regardless of party.
Following the claims of sexual harassment against the Liberal MPs Massimo Pacetti and Scott Andrews, the Canadian House of Commons adopted the code in June 2015. It includes a series of measures aimed at preventing sexual harassment, as well as a specific rule that prohibits one MP from sexually harassing another. When a claim is made, the code spells out a seven-step resolution process.
Research by Canadian political scientists Cheryl N. Collier and Tracy Raney identifies some issues with the code of conduct that could be useful to consider for those seeking to implement a similar code in Australia.
One is the distinction between criminal and non-criminal sexual harassment. The Canadian code specifically addresses non-criminal actions. If a criminal offence has occurred, the matter will only be referred to the “appropriate law enforcement agency” if the complainant agrees.
But this distinction between non-criminal and criminal is blurry. Confusion over where criminal behaviour begins may prevent victims from using the code if they are unsure how to categorise their specific experience.
This is especially relevant given the recent cases of Mani and Potter in Australia. They were advised to go to the police when they made an internal party complaint. They have strongly argued, as has Liberal party veteran Kathryn Greiner, that such advice allows the party to sidestep responsibility for its culture.
Problems with the Canadian model
The Canadian code of conduct also delegates responsibility to party whips to facilitate conversation, mediation, investigation and resolution of complaints. Whips are elected offices, held by politicians. Their main job is to ensure party discipline, which might conflict with addressing claims of sexual harassment.
This may result in quick and quiet resolutions to ensure that minimal damage is done to the party. If the code is simply used to keep people quiet, this would do little to bring about a meaningful resolution process.
Further, the adoption of a code of conduct that emphasises confidentiality raises issues about what is in the public interest. This could mean the public will never know if an MP has been found to have sexually harassed someone. And this information, many would argue, is intrinsically in the public interest.
A final important lesson from the Canadian code of conduct relates to parliamentary privileges. Importantly, it does not cover speeches inside the House of Commons, meaning that MPs can use any language they want without fear of reprisal.
As David Leyonhjelm’s use of a sexist slur against Sarah Hanson-Young in the Australian Senate last year shows, this freedom of speech can create a sexist and toxic working environment for women.
This incident, as well as previous scandals, has shone a light on the fact that political parties, just like other civic institutions, need to think about how they will respond to abuse perpetrated within their organisations.
However, as the Canadian example demonstrates, adopting a set of rules is not enough if there aren’t transparent pathways toward a resolution.
Strong leadership is also critical
This lies at the heart of Mani and Potter’s advocacy for rules that extend beyond the individual parties and would cover the behaviour of all MPs. To that end, they are trying to create a forum for women to share their stories and organise.
It also helps explain why these cases have so quickly been linked to the ongoing debate about gender quotas within the Liberal Party. The aim is to change the norms of acceptable behaviour within the party, not just deal with individual complaints of harassment when they happen.
We already know it’s hard for women in political life. While a code of conduct is a step in the right direction, it is unlikely to change the internal culture of the Liberal Party, or any other party.
What’s needed is strong leadership and sustained public pressure that makes it is harder for political parties to turn a blind eye to sexual harassment and assault.
After all, it’s difficult to know how many budding careers have come to an end because of this kind of behaviour across the political spectrum. As Mani herself put it, when describing the party response to her allegations:
I was told ‘You do realise you could ruin his life and he could lose his job, don’t you?’ No one seemed to care about my life, or my career.
The mentally and morally “unfit” should be sterilized, Professor David Marsland, a sociologist and health expert, said this weekend. The professor made the remarks on the BBC radio program Iconoclasts, which advertises itself as the place to “think the unthinkable,” reports Hilary White, LifeSiteNews.com.
Pro-life advocates and disability rights campaigners have responded by saying that Marsland’s proposed system is a straightforward throwback to the coercive eugenics practices of the past.
Marsland, Emeritus Scholar of Sociology and Health Sciences at Brunel University, London and Professorial Research Fellow in Sociology at the University of Buckingham, told the BBC that “permanent sterilization” is the solution to child neglect and abuse.
“Children are abused or grossly neglected by a very small minority of inadequate parents.” Such parents, he said, are not distinguished by “disadvantage, poverty or exploitation,” he said, but by “a number or moral and mental inadequacies” caused by “serious mental defect,” “chronic mental illness” and drug addiction and alcoholism.
“Short of lifetime incarceration,” he said, the solution is “permanent sterilization.”
The debate, chaired by the BBC’s Edward Stourton, was held in response to a request by a local council in the West Midlands that wanted to force contraception on a 29-year-old woman who members of the council judged was mentally incapable of making decisions about childrearing. The judge in the case refused to permit it, saying such a decision would “raise profound questions about state intervention in private and family life.”
Children whose parents are alcoholics or drug addicts can be rescued from abusive situations, but, Marlsand said, “Why should we allow further predictable victims to be harmed by the same perpetrators? Here too, sterilization provides a dependable answer.”
He dismissed possible objections based on human rights, saying that “Rights is a grossly overused and fundamentally incoherent concept … Neither philosophers nor political activists can agree on the nature of human rights or on their extent.”
Complaints that court-ordered sterilization could be abused “should be ignored,” he added. “This argument would inhibit any and every action of social defense.”
Brian Clowes, director of research for Human Life International (HLI), told LifeSiteNews (LSN) that in his view Professor Marsland is just one more in a long line of eugenicists who want to solve human problems by erasing the humans who have them. Clowes compared Marsland to Lothrop Stoddard and Margaret Sanger, prominent early 20th century eugenicists who promoted contraception and sterilization for blacks, Catholics, the poor and the mentally ill and disabled whom they classified as “human weeds.”
He told LSN, “It does not seem to occur to Marsland that most severe child abuse is committed by people he might consider ‘perfectly normal,’ people like his elitist friends and neighbors.”
“Most frightening of all,” he said, “is Marsland’s dismissal of human rights. In essence, he is saying people have no rights whatsoever, because there is no universal agreement on what those rights actually are.”
The program, which aired on Saturday, August 28, also featured a professor of ethics and philosophy at Oxford, who expressed concern about Marland’s proposal, saying, “There are serious problems about who makes the decisions, and abuses.” Janet Radcliffe Richards, a Professor of Practical Philosophy at Oxford, continued, “I would dispute the argument that this is for the sake of the children.
“It’s curious case that if the child doesn’t exist, it can’t be harmed. And to say that it would be better for the child not to exist, you need to be able to say that its life is worse than nothing. Now I think that’s a difficult thing to do because most people are glad they exist.”
But Radcliffe Richards refused to reject categorically the notion of forced sterilization as a solution to social problems. She said there “is a really serious argument” about the “cost to the rest of society of allowing people to have children when you can pretty strongly predict that those children are going to be a nuisance.”
Marsland’s remarks also drew a response from Alison Davis, head of the campaign group No Less Human, who rejected his entire argument, saying that compulsory sterilization would itself be “an abuse of some of the most vulnerable people in society.”
Marsland’s closing comments, Davis said, were indicative of his anti-human perspective. In those remarks he said that nothing in the discussion had changed his mind, and that the reduction of births would be desirable since “there are too many people anyway.”
Davis commented, “As a disabled person myself I find his comments offensive, degrading and eugenic in content.
“The BBC is supposed to stand against prejudicial comments against any minority group. As such it is against it’s own code of conduct, as well as a breach of basic human decency, to broadcast such inflammatory and ableist views.”