When the Australian constitution was written in the 1890s, the authors did not envision an independent nation, but a self-governing dominion of the British empire. As such, the preamble does not contain flowery language about national values. Instead it is a dry, legalistic introduction simply noting that some of her majesty’s “possessions” have federated. One unsuccessful attempt to change it was made in a 1999 referendum.
In March 2019, 120 high school students from around Australia met in Canberra for the 24th National Schools Constitutional Convention. Their mission was to write a new preamble, with the authors of this article serving as facilitators. Over two days of lively debate, sometimes heated but always civil, a final version was drafted.
In a referendum-style vote, a majority of students and a majority from each state ratified the preamble (83 “yes”, 34 “no”, two voted informal, one abstained). The students’ preamble was presented to the federal Senate on April 2 and entered into Hansard.
The students’ preamble
We the Australian people, united as an indissoluble Commonwealth, commit ourselves to the principles of equality, democracy and freedom for all and pledge to uphold the following values that define our nation.
We stand alongside the traditional custodians of the land and recognise the significance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures in shaping the Australian identity, their sovereignty was never ceded.
As a nation and indeed community, we are united under the common goal to create a society catered to all, regardless of heritage or identity.
We pledge to champion individual freedom and honour those who have served and continue to serve our nation.
As Australians, we stand for the pursuit of a democratic state that upholds the fundamental principles of human values as set out by this Constitution.
The student’s preamble differs enormously from the one written in the 19th century. It is noteworthy that it includes the words “democratic” and “freedom” twice – neither are in the current preamble or the constitution. From the students’ preamble, three elements emerge that young people want to see enshrined.
Acknowledging First Nations
During the debates, the most contested issue was whether to explicitly recognise First Nations people and if so, how. Ultimately, the students, including a representative group of Indigenous students, voted strongly in favour of constitutional recognition. In particular, the phrase “sovereignty was never ceded” is significant.
It is a rallying cry for many First Nations people and a rejection of assimilation. Indigenous Australians are still fighting for self-determination and the right to be heard. The Voice to Parliament put forward by the Uluru Statement is still being debated. Constitutional recognition that sovereignty was never ceded is a more radical proposal. It suggests that Indigenous justice is important to young Australians.
Egalitarianism is still key
The egalitarian ideal has a long history in Australia. The concept of the “fair go” is mythical in one sense, but a cherished part of the collective imagination.
The first line of the students’ preamble commits the nation to the principle of equality. The third line stresses the importance of a “society catered to all”.
Although not explicitly stated, the word “identity” suggests the LGBT community was in mind. Young Australians overwhelmingly supported the same-sex marriage plebiscite in 2017. The government is currently considering new religious freedom laws in response to the sacking of Israel Folau by Rugby Australia.
It is significant, then, that young Australians place such value on society being catered for all, “regardless of heritage or identity”.
What permeates through the students’ preamble is the message that values matter. Unlike the original constitutional writers, young people want their preamble to be a mission statement that articulates the “values that uphold the nation”. The trident of “equality, democracy and freedom” are highlighted.
The preamble also notes the twin priorities of a free state that sit together though sometimes in tension. As the third line notes, Australia is a “nation and indeed community”. But the fourth line tempers this with a commitment to “champion individual freedom”. The ideal democratic state for these young Australians places value on both the individual and the collective.
Time for change?
At the 1999 referendum, Prime Minister John Howard, despite being against a republic, campaigned in favour of a new preamble. The one he and republican Les Murray authored did not gain much popularity. But it is significant that even an ardent monarchist like Howard was convinced the preamble needed to be updated.
The authors of the students’ preamble were mainly in Year 11 and too young to vote in the May election. Nevertheless, they are thoughtful, intelligent citizens and the future of our democracy. Their voice is worth listening to.
The Australian Federal Police has this week conducted two high-profile raids on journalists who have exposed government secrets and their sources.
On Tuesday, seven AFP officers spent several hours searching News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst’s Canberra home, her mobile phone and computer. The AFP linked the raid to “the alleged publishing of information classified as an official secret”.
This stemmed from Smethurst’s 2018 article, which contained images of a “top secret” memo and reported that senior government officials were considering moves to empower the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) to covertly monitor Australian citizens for the first time.
Soon after, 2GB Radio Presenter Ben Fordham revealed he had been notified by the Department of Home Affairs that he was the subject of a similar investigation, aimed at identifying the source of classified information he had reported regarding intercepted boat arrivals.
The reaction to the raids was immediate and widespread.
The New York Times quoted News Corp’s description of the Smethurst raid as “a dangerous act of intimidation towards those committed to telling uncomfortable truths”. The Prime Minister was quick to distance his government from the AFP’s actions, while opposition leader Anthony Albanese condemned the raids.
The crackdown of the past few days reveals that at least two of the core fears expressed by lawyers and the media industry were well-founded: first, the demise of source confidentiality and, secondly, a chilling effect on public interest journalism.
Upon finding out he was the subject of an investigation aimed at uncovering his sources of government information, Ben Fordham declared
The chances of me revealing my sources is zero. Not today, not tomorrow, next week or next month. There is not a hope in hell of that happening.
Source confidentiality is one of journalists’ most central ethical principles. It is recognised by the United Nations and is vital to a functioning democracy and free, independent, robust and effective media.
One of the greatest threats to source confidentiality is Australia’s uniquely broad data surveillance framework. The 2015 metadata retention scheme requires that all metadata (that is, data about a device or communication but not, say, the communication itself) be retained for two years. It may then be covertly accessed by a wide array of government agencies without a warrant. Some reports suggest that by late 2018, some 350,000 requests for access to metadata were being received by telecommunications service providers each year.
The government was not blind to the potential impact of this scheme on source confidentiality. For example, obtaining metadata relating to a journalist’s mobile phone could reveal where they go and who they contact and easily point to their sources.
This led to the introduction of the “Journalist Information Warrant” (JIW). This warrant is required if an agency wishes to access retained metadata for the direct purpose of identifying a professional journalist’s source.
So, access to a professional journalist’s metadata in order to identify a confidential source is permitted, provided the access has a particular criminal investigation or enforcement purpose and the agency can show it is in the public interest and therefore obtain a JIW.
This week’s raids suggest that either JIWs could not be obtained in relation to Smethurst, Fordham or the ABC Journalists, or the journalists’ metadata did not reveal their sources, or the AFP did not attempt to access their metadata.
Alternatively, if metadata had identified the journalists’ sources, it is less clear why these dramatic developments took place.
After 2015, journalists were advised to avoid using their mobile devices in source communications. They were also encouraged, wherever possible, to encrypt communications.
As well as expanding computer access and network access warrants, the Act provided a means for government agencies to co-opt those in the telecommunications industry to assist agencies with their investigations. This could include covertly installing weaknesses and vulnerabilities in specific devices, circumventing passwords or allowing encrypted communications to be decrypted. A warrant would then be required to access the device and communication data.
It is impossible to know whether Australian journalists have been targeted under the Act or had weaknesses or spyware installed on their personal devices. This week’s raids suggest the AFP would be prepared to target journalists under this framework in order to identify journalists’ confidential sources.
However, this could only be done for some purposes, including in the investigation of a secrecy offence.
In June 2018, the government introduced a suite of new espionage, foreign interference and secrecy offences. This included an offence of current or former Commonwealth officers communicating information, obtained by virtue of their position, likely to cause harm to Australia’s interests. This offence is punishable by imprisonment for seven years. If the information is security classified or the person held a security classification, then they may have committed an “aggravated offence” and be subject to ten years’ imprisonment.
This week’s raids reveal just how common it is for public interest journalism to rely on secret material and government sources.
But the journalists themselves may also be facing criminal prosecution. The 2018 changes include a “general secrecy offence”, whereby it is an offence (punishable by imprisonment for five years) to communicate classified information obtained from a Commonwealth public servant. Fordham’s radio broadcast about intercepted boat arrivals was, for example, a clear communication of classified information.
Again, journalists are offered some protection. If prosecuted, a journalist can seek to rely on the “journalism defence” by proving that they dealt with the information as a journalist, and that they reasonably believed the communication to be in the public interest. The meaning of “public interest” is unclear and, in this context, untested. However, it will take into account the public interest in national security and government integrity secrecy concerns as well as openness and accountability.
Protecting media freedom
Australia has more national security laws than any other nation. It is also the only liberal democracy lacking a Charter of Human Rights that would protect media freedom through, for example, rights to free speech and privacy.
In this context, journalists are in a precarious position – particularly journalists engaged in public interest journalism. This journalism is vital to government accountability and a vibrant democracy, but has a tense relationship with Australia’s national interests as conceived by government.
National security law has severely undercut source confidentiality by increasing and easing data surveillance. National security laws have also criminalised a wide array of conduct related to the handling of sensitive government information, both by government officers and the general public.
And these laws are just a few parts of a much larger national security framework that includes: control orders, preventative detention orders, ASIO questioning and detention warrants, secret evidence, and offences of espionage, foreign interference, advocating or supporting terrorism, and more.
JIWs, and the inclusion of a journalism defence to the secrecy offence, recognise the importance of a free press. However, each of these protections relies on a public interest test. When government claims of national security and the integrity of classifications is weighed into this balance, it is difficult to see how other interests might provide an effective counterbalance.
One of the most disturbing outcomes is not prosecutions or even the raids themselves, but the chilling of public interest journalism. Sources are less likely to come forward, facing risk to themselves and a high likelihood of identification by government agencies. And journalists are less likely to run stories, knowing the risks posed to their sources and perhaps even to themselves.
Against this background, the calls for a Media Freedom Act, such as by the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom, have gained significant traction. It may take this kind of bold statement to cut across the complexities of individual laws and both recognise and protect the basic freedom of the press and the future of public interest journalism in Australia.
Several key issues are emerging in this election that will prove decisive in voter decision-making behaviour. Unsurprisingly, economic development is front and centre. Despite having one of the world’s highest economic growth rates, growth slowed to 6.4% in the final quarter of 2018, down from a peak of 8.2% in mid-2018.
Unemployment rates are at their highest since the 1970s, as the economy struggles to create jobs for rural migrants moving to cities and a large youth cohort now entering the labour market. Unemployment and inflation, which directly affect household incomes, are widely seen as the biggest concerns for Indians in the lead up to the election.
The spread of “fake news” and misinformation is also an important electoral complication. WhatsApp in India is tackling the spread of misinformation through a verification centre called Checkpoint. Indian users of the Facebook owned social networking service, of which there is 200 million, can send pictures, messages, and videos to be fact-checked.
This comes as Facebook removed hundreds of pages that shared misleading content about India and Pakistan following a suicide bombing in Kashmir. How to deal with these increasing tensions between India and Pakistan are a key feature of the political campaign.
How India’s electoral system works
India has a Westminster system of government, a legacy of the British Raj. In the Lok Sabha (lower house) there are 543 seats up for grabs. An additional two seats for the Anglo-Indian community are nominated by the president. These 545 seats will form the 17th Lok Sabha. The Prime Minister is selected from the members of the largest party or coalition.
There is no direct election for the Rajya Sabha (upper house). Rather, the current 233 Rajya Sabha members are elected by the Legislative Assembly in each of the states and the two union territories, with an additional 12 members nominated by the president. The Rajya Sabha may have up to 250 members, but it doesn’t reach this quota at present.
There are two distinct personalities leading the major parties in this election. Both have taken advantage of the Representation of the People Act 1951 during their career, which allows candidates to contest an election from two seats – what the Wall Street Journal calls the “political equivalent of spread betting”.
Current Prime Minister Narendra Modi leads the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – a Hindu nationalist party. Modi won both of the seats he nominated for in the 2014 elections, Vadodara in his home state of Gujarat, and Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh. He chose the seat of Varanasi and will recontest this seat in 2019. It is unknown whether he will contest a second seat, but there is speculation he might in the south of the country.
It’s no coincidence that both Modi and Gandhi will contest seats in Uttar Pradesh. Commentators often describe Uttar Pradesh as “the battleground state” of Indian elections. With a population size of roughly 230 million people, Uttar Pradesh sends more members to the Lok Sabha than any other state; it holds 80 seats, followed by Maharashtra (48), West Bengal (42) and Bihar (40).
The BJP won the 2014 election with an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha. The only time a party won by a larger majority was in 1984 following Indira Gandhi’s assassination, when Rajiv Gandhi led the Congress to win 78% of seats. But an absolute majority is more of an anomaly than the norm in recent Indian electoral history.
It’s hard to predict whether Modi or Gandhi will emerge victorious in the election. Opinion polls are presently split. Modi and the BJP benefit from the advantages of incumbency, but recent deterioration in economic performance poses an opportunity for opposition parties.
Although it’s shaping up more like elections of the past, where the result will depend on negotiating party alliances, the 2019 Lok Sabha elections will still go down in history as the world’s biggest election.
We see the word “nationalism” as problematic. The weekend rally on St Kilda beach, organised by far-right activist Neil Erikson, reminds us nationalism is the territory of fringe groups who hold bigoted views, particularly towards people who aren’t “white”.
Yet, is it possible to simply turf out nationalism? Beyond its ideological connotations, nationalism rests on one of the most important elements shaping modern social life: we live in a world of nations.
We often under-estimate the power of nationalism in contemporary societies, as well as the variety of roles – not all conservative and problematic — it plays as a social and political force.
Australian nationalism may have come to be associated with right-wing groups such as Reclaim Australia. But multicultural communities often publicly frame their distinctive identities in terms of national belonging and participation in the life of the nation.
Irrespective of our personal politics, we participate in the idea of nationalism when we identify ourselves as “Australian”, talk about “United States” politics or expect to encounter cultural differences at the airport.
Some say we should use the word “patriotism” as a softer alternative. While still guided by a love and loyalty for country, a patriot’s passions are tempered by a “spirit of cooperation”.
But nationalism is not just a political ideology that demands the needs of the national group sit above those of outsiders. National loyalty doesn’t necessarily supersede any others while national interests trump all else. Nationalism is intertwined with the very idea of there being nations in the first place.
This is such a taken-for-granted reality, we often understand nations as stretching back to time immemorial when, in fact, they are only a couple of hundred years old – and most are far younger.
Nations, of course, are real in the sense that the nation-state continues to organise everything from schools, markets, bureaucracies and military, to the structures of citizenship. But the idea of the nation as a political community united by a distinctive culture is an imaginary construct.
The notion of nation confers an idea of horizontal membership and solidarity (rich or poor, we are all Australian) belied by vigorous and often violent struggles that take place under its rubric – as well as a selective forgetting of history.
Nations matter because they provide identity, community and a sense of belonging for many people. In a world made smaller by globalisation, this is especially important to counter the sense of rootlessness and displacement.
Nations also matter precisely because of the things they promise yet fail to deliver. It isn’t possible to fulfil the national ideal of horizontal membership (Australia’s richest woman Gina Rinehart will never be neighbour to the average Joe), but the aspiration for equal participation and compulsion towards solidarity can make for powerful democratic fodder.
Historically, nationalism and the idea of popular rule was essential to the movement towards democracy. Today, the idea of belonging to a nation continues to fashion social solidarity across differences, encourages mutual responsibility among citizens and allows people to commit to or participate in public institutions and projects.
All this compels a more nuanced understanding of the roles and functions of nationalism in contemporary society. Rather than patronise “ordinary people” for their nationalist attachments, we would be well served to think about the democratic and progressive potential of nationalism.
The Trumps and Brexiters of the world are most certainly nationalists in the sense they organise around a “nation first” idea. But the political meanings of nationalism are not set in stone. Nationalism can take progressive forms that prioritise connectedness and equity rather than racism or white supremacy.
Most importantly, nationalism needs to be understood as a driving ideology shaping our modern world. Grasping this is fundamental to understanding national community as more a political aspiration than a cultural given; something to achieve rather than something already fixed.
And this, in turn, is fundamental to refusing the claims of the far-right who would like to claim the nation for themselves.
There is an emerging view that there should be much greater use of evaluations of public policies, including randomised controlled trials (RCTs), to test the effectiveness of new policies before they are rolled out. This applies particularly to policies or programs for which there is limited or no evidence about their likely impact.
RCTs have been around for years in medicine and other sciences, and are increasingly being used by small and large companies to test products and services. Conceptually they are simple, although implementing one can be complex. A RCT involves selecting a sample from a population of interest and randomly dividing them into two groups (using the equivalent of a coin toss). One group is given an intervention (that is, a program or policy) and the other is not. If the RCT has been done properly, the differences in the outcomes of the two groups tells us the impact of the intervention being trialled.
There are other ways to try to measure causation, and some are necessary when an RCT isn’t possible. However, Shadow Assistant Treasurer Andrew Leigh argues in his new book Randomistas that:
Researchers have spent years thinking about how best to come up with credible comparison groups, but the benchmark to which they keep returning is the randomised controlled trial. There’s simply no better way to determine the counterfactual than to randomly allocate participants into two groups: one that gets the treatment, and another that does not.
While there is strong support within the policy and research community on the important role of trials and evaluations, we know far less about what the general public thinks about how policies should be implemented and to what extent they should be trialled before widespread introduction.
In a survey undertaken as part of the ANUPoll series, we ran an online survey experiment that measured the level of support for trials in general and RCTs in particular. We also looked at the factors that influence that support, and whether there is a causal relationship between expert opinion, party identification and support for an RCT.
That is, we ran an RCT on RCTs.
As part of the survey, we asked respondents to “consider a hypothetical proposal to reform” in one of five policy areas (school education; early childhood education; health; policing; support for those seeking employment). We then asked “which of the following approaches do you think the government should take?”:
Introduce the policy for everyone in Australia at the same time
Introduce the policy to everyone, but do it in stages
Trial on a small segment of the population who need it most, or
Trial on a small segment of the population chosen randomly,
We found that more people want new government policies rolled out without testing – except for jobless support.
Some key findings emerge:
There is a roughly even split between those who think a new policy should be introduced to everyone at once and those who think it should be trialled on a small segment of the population.
Respondents support trials for employment policies the most strongly but are most likely to support an RCT for a policy related to school education. They are least likely to support it for health service delivery and employment support.
Those who live in disadvantaged areas and those with low levels of education are the least supportive of RCTs.
What influence do experts’ views have?
The type of policy that is being proposed clearly matters for whether the general public thinks it should be trialled as part of an RCT. However, the views of those outside the political system also matter. We tested this potential effect by randomly varying the wording of the question across respondents.
One “treatment” that we applied to the question was to vary what respondents were told on whether experts generally support the policy, are generally opposed to the policy, or are divided on the policy (with one-third of respondents given each of the options).
The greatest support for a trial in general or an RCT in particular occurs when experts are generally opposed to the policy. Conversely, the least support for a trial or an RCT comes when experts are generally in support of the policy, implying respondents believe sufficient evidence must already exist. Support is somewhere in between when there is variation in support.
This has implications, we think, for researchers engaged in policy debates. One potential effect of arguing publicly for a different point of view to policymakers or other researchers is to increase the level of support for trials among the general population. We should make a case for uncertainty when it does exist, as that would appear to increase support for future gathering of evidence.
Indeed, this advocacy for uncertainty has underpinned the push for greater trials and evaluations in policy (and the social sciences).
It is clear that RCTs are likely to be increasingly used by policymakers to test the effect of policy interventions. However, to be truly effective and to avoid a backlash, RCTs need to be supported not only by researchers and policymakers but also by the general public. At first glance, this buy-in is a long way off.
Over the past four years, we have conducted a range of attitudinal surveys with the Social Research Institute at Ipsos on the relationship between trust in the political system and attitudes towards democracy in Australia.
Our latest research, conducted in July 2018 (prior to the Liberal Party’s leadership spill), includes a quantitative survey of a representative sample of 20 focus groups and 1,021 Australians from a wide range of demographic backgrounds. We understood political trust in this survey as “keeping promises and agreements”.
Our findings should give all democrats pause for thought. We continue to find compelling evidence of an increasing trust divide between government and citizens. This is reflected in the decline of democratic satisfaction and receding trust in politicians, political parties and other key institutions (especially media). We also found a lack of public confidence in the capacity of government to address public policy concerns.
Democratic decline and renewal
Australians should rightly be proud of their hard-won democratic traditions and freedoms and the achievement of stable government, which has delivered social and economic well-being for its citizens.
The majority of Australians dislike the conflict-driven politics of the federal parliament, but don’t dislike democratic values or democracy as a system of government.
When asked to select three aspects of Australian democracy that they liked the most, the top three in 2018 were (in order):
“Australia has been able to provide good education, health, welfare and other public services to its citizens”
“Australia has experienced a good economy and lifestyle”
“Australian elections are free and fair”.
Respondents were least likely to choose features that praised (or showed engagement) with current democratic politics. The findings suggest that Australians are happy with the underlying democratic infrastructure of Australian society that allows them to achieve a high standard of living, but are less positive or engaged about day-to-day political operations.
Australians are deeply unhappy with democratic politics
Fewer than 41% of Australian citizens are satisfied with the way democracy works in Australia, down from 86% in 2007. Public satisfaction has fallen particularly sharply since 2013, when 72% of Australian citizens were satisfied. Generation X is least satisfied (31%) and the Baby Boomers most satisfied (50%).
Just 31% of the population trust federal government. State and local governments perform little better, with just over a third of people trusting them. Ministers and MPs (whether federal or state) rate at just 21%, while more than 60% of Australians believe the honesty and integrity of politicians is very low.
The three biggest grievances people have with politicians are:
they are not accountable for broken promises
they don’t deal with the issues that really matter
big business has too much power (Liberal and National Party voters identify trade unions instead of big business).
The continued decline of political trust has also contaminated public confidence in other key political institutions. Only five rate above 50% – police, military, civic well-being organisations (such as Headspace or community services), universities and healthcare institutions.
Trust was lowest in political parties (16%) and web-based media (20%). Trust in banks and web-based media has significantly decreased since the last survey. This reflects the impact of the banking royal commission and the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal.
People who are more likely to feel satisfied with the status quo include those aged over 55 (Baby Boomers), those earning more than $200,000 a year and those who vote for the National or Liberal parties. They are more likely to be male and an immigrant, because those born overseas tend to be more satisfied with Australian politics than native-born.
Those who are most likely to be unhappy are Australian-born, female, aged in their 40s (Generation X) and struggling on less than $50,000 a year. They are more likely to identify with minor political parties like One Nation, Centre Alliance or independents.
The perfect storm for independents
Levels of social trust are also in decline. Social trust between people has fallen below 50% for the first time to 47%. A majority, though, still believe that people in their neighbourhood would help others out – except for the very rich (47%).
Four attitudinal shifts are on display here.
First, many voters care more about effective and competent government than promises of more dollars in their pockets.
Second, there is a group of voters who are completely disconnected from traditional politics. They are deeply distrustful not just of politicians but almost every major institution and authority figure listed in the survey, except for their local GP.
Third, we can identify an increasingly large group of Australians who are deeply critical of the main political parties and are looking for an alternative across the ideological spectrum.
And fourth, there is a group of Australians who vote independent for tactical reasons, either to secure greater resources for their communities or to register a protest vote against the two-party system.
Appetite for democratic reform is extremely strong
Our survey revealed a significant appetite for reform. Nine out of 15 proposed reforms received net agreement rates above 50%. The top five reforms favoured in the survey were:
limiting money donated to parties and spent in elections
the right for voters to recall ineffective local MPs
giving all MPs a free vote in parliament
co-designing policies with ordinary Australians
citizen juries to solve complex problems that parliament can’t fix.
Reforms aimed at improving the practice of representative politics were the most popular, followed by reforms aimed at giving citizens a greater say. There was also strong support for reforms aimed at creating a stronger community or local focus to decision-making. Only reforms aimed at guaranteeing the representation of certain groups failed to attract majority support.
Remarkably, accessing more detailed information about innovative reforms led to greater support for those reforms. This is an important finding, revealing the importance of strategic communication in winning the war of ideas.
We are at the tipping point
Liberal democracies are founded on a delicate balance between trust and distrust. Our survey findings suggest we may have reached a tipping point due to a deepening trust divide in Australia, which has increased in scope and intensity since 2007.
Yet citizens still appear to value the overall stability of their political system, even if the lack of political trust means they doubt its ability to deliver, especially on more challenging policy issues.
Australians imagine their democracy in a way that demonstrates support for a new participatory politics but with the aim of shoring up representative democracy and developing a more integrated, inclusive and responsive democratic system. In the light of this discovery, we believe an effective path to reform is not about choosing between representative and participatory democratic models, but finding linking arrangements between them.
In October 2005 Stephen Colbert was just starting his eponymous show. It is somewhat chilling to realise that this was when he came up with the word truthiness: it seems so now.
It has taken a while to reach maturity and morphed into the even more menacing trumpiness. Truthiness captures the slippery world inhabited by those unencumbered by books, or facts, context or complexity – for those who just know with their heart rather than their heads – where things can just feel truthful.
Who would have thought that a little more than a decade later, the White House would be occupied by a man who makes the Colbert character seem almost reasonable. Quaintly charming. Trumpiness captures something even more sinister, statements that don’t even have to feel truthful, apparently ignorant rough-hewn words, weaponised for effect. Whatever comes out – alarmingly frequently words that sound as though they emanated from the crib sheet of a propaganda handbook.
In defining these words, Colbert provided a helpful predictor for a president who according to the Washington Post last week, had made 6,420 false or misleading comments in 649 days. That is industrial scale deception – small lies told over and over, medium sized lies that have become a new global lingua franca and big lies that take even his most ardent supporters by surprise and sometimes force a sort of retraction or denial – sort of, but only after they have already infiltrated the virtual world and got a life of their own.
This is not normal. It is not the way we have come to expect even a tainted public sphere, distorted by the commercialisation of public attention, to operate. The president’s mantra of fake news is, as he has admitted, a deliberate and determined effort to undermine confidence in what remains of a rigorous public sphere and professional journalism that takes itself seriously. In the unregulated, “more insidious” domain of the internet this is particularly dangerous.
Such industrial scale deception is at odds with the norms that characterise any flourishing civilisation. If truth is irrelevant to discourse, trust is not merely dented it is destroyed. Other norms of acceptable behaviour cannot be far away. What is happening now, goes well beyond spin or hollow speech. The New York Times correspondent Roger Cohen describes it as “corrosive, corrupting and contagious”.
In the shrunken global village this has dangerous implications everywhere, for public and personal behaviour. If the so called, “leader of the free world” can talk the way he does, without regard to fact or feeling, the level of civilisation is turned down everywhere he is heard.
What we are witnessing is behaviour contrary to the long-established moral core of a civilised society, arguably giving succour to evil, and deliberately destroying trust.
Democracy in retreat
So how did it come to this?
It is easy to feel that the world is going to hell in a handbasket – the news of catastrophe and disaster, the inflammatory US president, the distortion of social media, the global instability of superpower realignment, the palpable threat of climate change, the rise of authoritarian leaders – and that is for starters.
Freedom House, the Washington-based NGO, has been monitoring global freedom since 1941, when a very different US President articulated an expansive ethic that has since prevailed in “kin countries” and beyond. With the second world war in full, murderous, destructive fury, President Roosevelt declared that as human beings, all people were entitled to freedom of speech and expression, freedom to worship their god in their own way, freedom from want and freedom from fear. At the time it was ambitious rhetoric, demonstrably at odds with the wartime experience. But it provided guiding principles for a different future.
Last month in a very different context, Freedom House reported that around the world, political and civil rights sunk to their lowest level for a decade.
For the twelfth year in a row, democratic setbacks outnumbered gains. Democracy is in crisis. Values are under assault and in retreat in country after country. Young people are losing faith in politics. Trust has been eroded by commerce and the calcification of institutions. Millions of people are living without the rights we take for granted as a measure of civil, liberal, democratic society. Even nations that like to pride themselves on a deep democratic history are slipping on the scale, as trust in institutions is eroded and checks and balances slip out of equilibrium and technology remakes the way things are done.
Taking a wider view of the state of the globe provides a slightly more reassuring message, that that arc may still be bending the right way. But the tension between individual rights and popular will is fertile territory for authoritarian leaders and their shadow puppets.
Survival is deep in our make up, means we dwell on the negative, alert to threats and dangers, ready to respond to fear. But as Stephen Pinker and Kishore Mahbubani loudly proclaim, the bigger picture is not as bad as we might be inclined to think with one ear cocked to the latest news bulletin and an eye on the real Donald Trump’s twitter feed.
The Human Development Index shows that as a species we are living longer and better. Life expectancy at birth worldwide is now 71 years, and 80 in the developed world; for most of human existence most people died around 30. Global extreme poverty has declined to 9.6% of the world’s population; still limiting the lives of too many, but 200 years ago, 90% lived in extreme poverty. In just the last 30 years, the proportion of the global population living with such deprivation has declined by 75%. Equally unappreciated is the fact that 90% of the world’s population under the age of 25 can read and write, including girls. For most of the history of Europe, no more than 15% of the people could read and write, mostly men.
So despite the truthiness feeling that things are going wrong, a lot is going right, for a lot of people, in a lot of countries. But this is a moment at risk of being squandered.
‘Reason sweeteened by values’
Which invites the question of what is at stake, how might the level of civilisation here be turned up, by whom, and to what end?
This was a question addressed by Robert Menzies when in 1959, as Prime Minister, he approved the formation of the Humanities Council, the precursor of the Australian Academy of Humanities. At the time, with the Cold War in full swing, and the memory of the hot war still smoking, Menzies declared the Humanities Council would provide,
Wisdom, a sense of proportion, sanity of judgement, a faith in the capacity of man to rise to higher mental and spiritual levels. We live dangerously in the world of ideas, just as we do in the world of international conflict. If we are to escape this modern barbarism, humane studies must come back into their own, not as the enemies of science, but as its guides and philosophic friends.
Now we are more often likely to hear prominent politicians pillorying the humanities as esoteric and truth-defying, and humanities scholars as ideologues in cahoots with self-aggrandizing scientists who are addressing the existential crisis of climate change for personal gain.
To attack the university system at precisely the moment when it reaches more people, when its impact on the social, cultural and economic wellbeing of the nation has never been higher, seems perverse. Based on medium-sized lies, madness even, from the zone of truthiness.
As the debate triggered by the Ramsay proposal has shown there is a lot at stake. For all the noise in the press, the very fact that there are lots of different ways of approaching the study of civilisations, has not been addressed except by snide, often ill-informed or defensive comments about “relativism”.
I am not a scholar of civilisations or a philosopher, but I am aware of some of the complexity of these debates. The need to define civilisation, and to allow the notion of civilisations, has preoccupied fine minds, and lead to different conclusions. Are there six civilisations, as Samuel Huntington suggested remained when he wrote his most famous essay The Clash of Civilisations? Or the 26, not including the civilisation of the first Australians, which Arnold Toynbee had identified a few decades earlier in his monumental work A Study of History.
Some maintain that civilisations are shaped by religion, others by culture, cities, language, ideology, identity or as a response by human beings to nature.
Civilisations flower and die. Some leave artefacts, buildings and monuments that endure. Others leave stories, philosophies, language, knowledge and ways of being that echo and resonate long after. Some just disappear, some suicide. Others grow and respond to interaction, adapting and changing as they go. And we now know, many leave a measurable trail in the polar ice, as the recent discovery of the traces of lead from Ancient Rome from 1100 BCE revealed.
As Kenneth Clark reputedly said after devoting his life to popularising the study of civilisation, “I don’t know what it is, but I recognise it when I see it.”
I like to think of it as a shorthand for the way human beings coexist with each other, the world they have created and the natural environment which makes it possible. While recognising the contestability of values, I like the positive humanity of Clive Bell’s notion of “reason sweetened by values” and RG Collingwood’s, “mental process toward ideal social relationships of civility”.
For me, civilisation is pluralist, contestable, open, polite, robust; buttressed by law, culture and institutions and maintained by sustainable economic conditions across time and place.
The need for a bill of rights
The barbarism of the second world war galvanised the creation of civilising mechanisms and institutions. They varied from country to country, with different impacts , but the intention was generally to expand rights and enhance democracy.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which will turn 70 on the 10th of December, was the most singular global response: its 30 rights recognise and spell out “the inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family”. Its symbolic power exceeds its legal effect, as George Williams has written. It forms part of customary international law and is seen as binding on all nations. It been translated into 500 languages. Australia has ratified two of the most important subsequent conventions which grew under its umbrella to define political and civil; social, economic and cultural rights – so it is not without effect here.
The Universal Declaration may well have faults and limits. Some regard it as “human rights imperialism” used by the West to run the world in ways that will protect and promote its interests. But when expansively applied, rather than as an embodiment of Western hegemony, it remains the best organising principle for civility that humanity has yet been devised. Ask women in Asia, India and the Middle East, democrats in Turkey, Hungary and Poland, activists in China or journalists in Russia.
Australians played an important role in the creation of the Declaration, but we have been tardy about its application. Ours is the only democratic nation which does not have a bill of rights – the only one. This is something that demands pause for thought. It is something we need to address if we are to foster an ethic for a distinctive, hybrid Australian civilisation.
It is probably worth noting in passing that some of the most strident opponents of an Australian bill of rights are also amongst the most vociferous promoters of a narrowly defined agenda to study western civilisation. It is easy in this environment to forget that the demographics are with those of us who see the arc of history bending up. Surveys show most Australians would welcome a formalisation of rights.
Surely a clear statement of rights and responsibilities is central to any attempt to define a civilisation and the way we co-exist, respectfully, sustainably, creatively.
More than a pale shadow
“Person by person the world does change,” Tony Abbott wrote in his essay for Quadrant that marked the beginning of the end of the Ramsay program at ANU. In his final paragraph, the former prime minister suggested that the “hundred bright young Australians” who received the proposed scholarships “might change the world”, and begin “a much more invigorating long march through our institutions!”
That makes me a little nervous. It sounds a bit like a fifth column, though I doubt that the students would be willing fodder for such a scheme. I suspect that if they were to embark on such a long march, they, like me, would prefer an open, inclusive, contested, respectful, non-ideological journey, grounded in the unique nature of this place as home to the oldest living civilisations, a product of British colonialism, the creation of people from every continent and our own imagining.
This country has a lot going for it, but we seem stuck in neutral. We need to regain ambition. To foster a remarkable country, one which learns from the mistakes of past and displaces complacent caution to imagine and create a robust, inclusive, generous, rights-based democratic order that will work well in the very different world of the 21st century.
It won’t come from politicians. It will, if history is a guide, be something that is worked up on the ground, in our universities, in our institutions, in our justice system, in business, community groups and on social media. As it takes shape, the politicians will follow and carry it forward.
There is a lot at stake. Person by person, we can help to turn the level of civilisation up in this place, so that it becomes much more than a pale shadow of the worst of the rest of the world.
This article is an excerpt of the 49th Academy Lecture delivered by Professor Julianne Schultz AM FAHA as part of the Australian Academy of the Humanities Symposium, ‘Clash of Civilisations: Where are we now?’ held at the State Library of NSW on 15 November 2018. The full lecture will be published in the 2019 edition of the Academy’s journal, Humanities Australia.
As Victorians head to the polls in less than four weeks, there is a wider question worth considering than whether or not the Andrews government is likely to be given another term. Do state governments actually matter?
Imre Salusinszky, a former adviser to then- New South Wales premier Mike Baird, recently tweeted: “State government in 2018 is about running four or five businesses. The whole Westminster thing is preposterous. An efficient model would be a six-person executive guided by a People’s Convention meeting biennially for a month. Doesn’t need party politics and chocolate soldiers”.
That seems unlikely, but the idea that state governments have become too municipal to be taken seriously is familiar. For decades, federal politicians with a high opinion of themselves have treated the state government as beneath their notice or contempt.
The exposure of the rorting and corruption of a number of state politicians – notoriously Eddie Obeid and Ian Macdonald during the most recent period of Labor government in New South Wales – has also fuelled a more general contempt for state politics. But the states at least have well-developed integrity systems that have landed a few crooks in prison. It would be mischievous as well as libellous to explore whether some of their federal counterparts have been cleaner or luckier.
The habit of treating state government as a poor relation might not be recent. Most of the big names in colonial politics headed straight into the Commonwealth parliament in 1901. Later, it is doubtful whether a federal politician would have ridiculed a Jack Lang or Ted Theodore – New South Wales and Queensland Labor premiers respectively – as dealers in triviality. But they, too, eventually headed for national politics.
With their eyes on the growing power and prestige of federal government as it acquired ever stronger control of national finances, historians have underestimated the continuing significance of the states in major policy areas. Land has always been a big one, as it is today in relation to housing affordability and urban development.
In earlier periods, closer settlement, soldier settlement and land taxation were all state matters. There is also mining. When he was Western Australian minister for industrial development in the 1960s, Charles Court was practically running an arm of Australia’s international policy in his negotiations with the Japanese over new iron-ore projects.
Large fields of activity remained predominantly state matters after federation – education, health and hospitals, public transport and roads, local government, and law and order. The capacity of the Commonwealth to act in a range of fields was either untested, or tested and found wanting.
In the area of social security, it was far from clear before the second world war that the Commonwealth would become predominant. The Commonwealth also left some fields to the states even where its authority to act was unquestioned – such as in marriage and divorce law before 1959-61.
For much of the twentieth century, most major public utilities, such as railways, were controlled by the states. Many became massive government bureaucracies and monopolies. On a smaller scale, Queensland had state-owned butcher shops and pubs.
In social, industrial and conservation policy, the New South Wales Labor governments of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s showed that caution was not inconsistent with policy innovation. Rather more adventurously, Don Dunstan’s South Australian Labor governments of the late 1960s and especially the 1970s, provided a blueprint for the social progressivism associated with the Whitlam revolution. Dick Hamer’s progressive Liberal government in Victoria complemented the Whitlam agenda.
The 1980s revealed some of the limits for state governments in economic policy. The Victorian Cain Labor Government’s economic interventionism won the active dislike of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. It ran up against the barrier of national economic policy and, eventually, political turmoil and financial scandal. Other governments were dogged either by corruption, as in the case of Western Australia and Queensland, or financial mismanagement, as in South Australia.
These results pushed the following generation of Labor leaders and governments towards notable caution and probity. By the mid-2000s, the credit ratings agencies were taking on the role of de facto third chamber of the state legislatures.
Still, the Bracks Labor government in Victoria sought to use its personnel and resources to influence the national policy debate. It contributed a National Innovation Agenda, which the Rudd Government took up as a starting point for its own efforts in that field.
The nature of the compact John Howard formulated to get his Goods and Services Tax up, which saw revenue going to the states according to an agreed formula, also provides premiers with a captive national audience whenever the issue of tax policy reform arises.
Where does this leave state government today? In the first place, it shares with federal government control over areas that are among the most controversial and difficult for government. Energy policy is near the top of the list. And no one would regard Victoria’s new euthanasia law as anything other than a matter of high seriousness.
State government’s capacity for innovation and experimentation in fields that matter, and are not dependent on federal control of the purse-strings, remains alive. The Council of Australia Governments, or COAG, offers a forum in which such influence can be exercised. State governments in Victoria and South Australia have been pursuing the idea of a Treaty with Indigenous people, at a time when the issues of constitutional recognition, an Indigenous voice to parliament, and a Treaty or Makarrata have stalled at the national level. At the territory level, it was the ACT government that passed Australia’s first bill of rights law in 2004.
State governments provide Australians with choice and a government that, for most people, will be less physically and spiritually distant from their daily lives than Canberra. There are also the benefits of variety. For some years during the time John Howard was dominating the federal scene, every state and territory government was controlled by Labor.
Today, there is a more even division between the parties. It remains true, however, that in a time of disillusionment and distrust of politicians, state government provides electoral choice, checks on federal government power, and a large array of the services that Australians think of as peculiarly the province of government.
We need only think of Donald Trump’s America, Britain’s Brexit saga or the rise of far-right populist movements in Europe. Politics in the West seem uneasily suspended between farce and tragedy, as deception, accusations of “fake news” and infighting have become commonplace.
In Britain, a longstanding ambivalence towards European integration has deeply divided mainstream parties and plunged the country into “Brexit chaos”, a protracted crisis greatly exacerbated by government incompetence and political expediency.
Yet, beyond these differences are certain common, cross-cultural threads which help explain the present Western malaise.
Simply put, we now have a glaring and widening gap between the enormity of the challenges facing Western societies and the capacity of their political institutions to address them.
Neoliberalism at work
The political class in Australia, as in Europe and North America, is operating within an institutional framework that is compromised by two powerful forces: the dominance of the neoliberal order and relentless globalisation.
The interplay of these two forces goes a long way towards explaining the failure of political elites. They offer neither a compelling national narrative nor a coherent program for the future. Instead, the public is treated to a series of sideshows and constant rivalries over the spoils of office.
How does the neoliberal creed underpin the state of current political discourse and practice? The shorthand answer is by setting economic growth as the overriding national objective . Such growth, we are told, requires the public sector to be squeezed and the private sector to be given free reign.
And when economic performance falls short of the mark, pressing social and environmental needs are unmet, or a global financial crisis exposes large-scale financial crimes and shoddy lending practices, these are simply dismissed as inconvenient truths.
Compounding the impact of this highly restrictive economic agenda is globalisation or, to be more accurate, the phenomenal growth of cross-border flows of goods and services, capital, money, carbon emissions, technical know-how, arms, information, images and people. The sheer scale, speed and intensity of these flows make them impervious to national control.
But governments and political parties want to maintain the pretence they can stem the tide. To admit they cannot is to run the risk of appearing incompetent or irrelevant. Importantly, they risk losing the financial or political support of powerful interests that benefit from globalisation, such as the coal lobby.
And so, deception and self-deception become the only viable option. So it is that several US presidents, including Trump, and large segments of the US Congress have flagrantly contradicted climate science or downplayed its implications.
Much the same can be said of Australia. When confronted with climate sceptics in the Liberal ranks, the Turnbull government chose to prioritise lowering electricity prices while minimising its commitment to carbon emission reductions.
The erosion of truth and trust
In the face of such evasion and disinformation, large segments of the population, especially those who are experiencing hard times or feel alienated, provide fertile ground for populist slogans and the personalities willing to mouth them.
Each country has its distinctive history and political culture. But everywhere we see the same refusal to face up to harsh realities. Some will deny the science of climate change. Others will want to roll back the unprecedented movements of people seeking refuge from war, discrimination or abject poverty.
Lies, “fake news” and cover-ups are not, of course, the preserve of politicians. They have become commonplace in so many of our institutions.
The extraordinary revelations from the Banking Royal Commission make clear that Australia’s largest banks and other financial enterprises have massively defrauded customers, given short shrift to both the law and regulators and consistently disregarded the truth.
These various public and private arenas, where truth is regularly concealed, denied or obscured, have had a profoundly corrosive effect on the fabric of society, and inevitably on the public sphere. They have severely diminished the social trust on which the viability of democratic processes vitally depends.
There is no simple remedy to the current political disarray. The powerful forces driving financial flows and production and communication technologies are reshaping culture, the global economy and policy-making processes in deeply troubling ways.
Truth and trust are now in short supply. Yet, they are indispensable to democratic processes and institutions.
A sustained national and international conversation on ways to redeem truth and trust has become one of the defining imperatives of our time.
Joseph Camilleri will speak more on this topic in three interactive public lectures entitled Brave New World at St Michael’s on Collins in Melbourne on Sept. 11, 18 and 25.