Since the US assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, the immediate crisis appears to have dissipated. However, the wider ramifications pose a worrying precedent for international affairs.
For many, the killing was unexpected. But this was no Trump administration miscalculation. It’s the latest in a wider decay of the liberal norms that underpin diplomacy, conflict resolution and the day-to-day functioning of interstate relations.
Once championed by Washington, these rules have become increasingly rejected under President Donald Trump. That threatens to inject even more instability into our global system.
What are norms in international relations?
“Norms” is the term foreign policy people use to mean actions that are implicitly or explicitly acknowledged as reasonable for states to undertake – like a rulebook that guides the conduct of international relations. Norms influence everything from human rights protection to when and how it is appropriate to use force.
Norms differ from laws, as they lack formal enforcement mechanisms. Nevertheless, there can be major repercussions when they are violated.
Norms change over time, often shaped by dominant cultural, ideological and political trends.
For instance, in previous centuries, war was seen as a natural part of statecraft and something to be celebrated. However, this view has changed markedly, largely due to the catastrophic great wars. Today, war is viewed by most countries as something to be avoided, and only used as a last resort.
This has led to an overall decline in major conflicts and the establishment of a range of internationalbodies designed to prevent, constrain and moderate war.
Norms provide a kind of “standard operating procedure” for states, which is especially pertinent in times of crisis and uncertainty. Understanding that one’s rivals generally wish to avoid conflict allows states to formulate policies aimed at deescalation and détente.
When countries deviate from these norms, however, it injects unpredictability into the system. This can lead to miscalculation, panicked escalation and, ultimately, violent conflict.
The rise of the ‘liberal international order’
The most influential body of norms today are encapsulated in what foreign policy analysts call the liberal international order, which emerged from Western consensus after the second world war.
This order does several important things, such as:
incentivises collective action over unilateralism;
encourages democracy, dialogue and understanding over authoritarianism and aggression; and
seeks to lessen violence by providing alternative means of resolving conflict.
The liberal international order rejects actions – such as the assassination of state officials like Soleimani – which are likely to inflame, rather than resolve, tensions.
Many scholars and analysts argue that such norms have been a significant factor in the period of relative global peace since the second world war.
The US and liberal international norms
Over the past 70 years, the US been at the centre of many of the institutions that promote these rules, including the WTO, NATO, UN and IMF.
While the constraints of the liberal international order have not always benefited it – Washington has lost numerous trade disputes in the WTO, for instance – the US has been able to shape the very nature of the international system.
It’s one thing to win in a game, quite another to dictate the rules by which that game is played.
As a result, the US has sought to promote itself not just as an adherent of liberal norms, but as an exemplar of them. Notableexceptionsnotwithstanding, this has been a position held across both Republican and Democratic administrations, from Harry Truman to Barack Obama.
This inquiry exposed repeated CIA attempts to kill foreign leaders and officials. Such clandestine activities were seen as out of sync with the strengthening liberal norms of the day. If the US was really committed to promoting the order, how could it engage in actions that flagrantly underminedpeace and stability?
After the inquiry, the US halted its assassination programs, and adopted alternative methods of dealing with troublesome regimes. These included sanctions and funding and training opposition groups.
In the modern era, the targeting of state officials in assassinations is understood to be strictly verboten and reckless. This position allows officials to engage with more confidence and good faith in diplomacy, and dissuades states from engaging in such activities.
Upsetting the balance of the world order
In retrospect, Trump’s willingness to reject liberal norms on assassinations hardly seems out of character for someone who has shown profound hostility for them.
Trump’s blase attitude towards the importance of liberal norms and institutions has left traditional allies feeling increasingly insecure and unable to rely on the US.
Dictatorial leaders of rival states have felt empowered by Trump’s own penchant for authoritarian behaviour at home, and more confident to violate international norms without fear of significant collective reprisal.
Soleimani’s assassination presents a further worrying decline in the influence of liberal norms. Not only does it position the US as a transgressive state with little concern for the rules of the international system, it also provides precedent for states to engage in such activities themselves.
At the best of times, this would be an unpleasant development.
Within the chaos of our current world “order”, however, the resumption of political assassination poses serious concerns for the future stability of the entire international system.
Finally, some good news from the weirdo-sphere that is social media. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has announced that, effective November 22, the microblogging platform will ban all political advertising – globally.
This is a momentous move by Twitter. It comes when Facebook and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg are under increasing pressure to deal with the amount of mis- and disinformation published via paid political advertising on Facebook.
Zuckerberg recently told a congress hearing Facebook had no plans of fact-checking political ads, and he did not answer a direct question from Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez if Facebook would take down political ads found to be untrue. Not a good look.
A few days after Zuckerberg’s train wreck appearance before the congress committee, Twitter announced its move.
While Twitter should get credit for its sensible move, the microblogging company is tiny compared to Facebook and Google. So, until the two giants change, Twitter’s political ad ban will have little effect on elections around the globe.
A symptom of the democratic flu
It’s important to call out Google on political advertising. The company often manages to fly under the radar on this issue, hiding behind Facebook, which takes most of the flack.
The global social media platforms are injecting poison into liberal democratic systems around the globe. The misinformation and outright lies they allow to be published on their platforms is partly responsible for the increasingly bitter deep partisan divides between different sides of politics in most mature liberal democracies.
Add to this the micro targeting of voters illustrated by the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and a picture emerges of long-standing democratic systems under extreme stress. This is clearly exemplified by the UK parliament’s paralysis over Brexit and the canyon-deep political divides in the US.
Banning political advertising only deals with a symptom of the democratic flu the platforms are causing. The root cause of the flu is the fact social media platforms are no longer only platforms – they are publishers.
Until they acknowledge this and agree to adhere to the legal and ethical frameworks connected with publishing, our democracies will not recover.
Not platforms, but publishers
Being a publisher is complex and much more expensive than being a platform. You have to hire editorial staff (unless you can create algorithms advanced enough to do editorial tasks) to fact-check, edit and curate content. And you have to become a good corporate citizen, accepting you have social responsibilities.
Convincing the platforms to accept their publisher role is the most long-term and sustainable way of dealing with the current toxic content issue.
Accepting publisher status could be a win-win, where the social media companies rebuild trust with the public and governments by acting ethcially and socially responsibly, stopping the poisoning of our democracies.
Mark Zuckerberg claims Facebook users being able to publish lies and misinformation is a free speech issue. It is not. Free speech is a privilege as well as a right and, like all privileges, it comes with responsibilities and limitations.
Examples of limitations are defamation laws and racial vilification and discrimination laws. And that’s just the legal framework. The strong ethical frame work that applies to publishing should be added to this.
Ownership concentration like never before
Then, there’s the global social media oligopoly issue. Never before in recorded human history have we seen any industry achieve a level of ownership concentration displayed by the social media companies. This is why this issue is so deeply serious. It’s global, it reaches billions and the money and profits involved is staggering.
Facebook co-founder, Chris Hughes, got it absolutely right when he in his New York Times article pointed out the Federal Trade Commission – the US equivalent to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission – got it wrong when they allowed Facebook to buy Instagram and WhatsApp.
Hughes wants Facebook broken up and points to the attempts from parts of US civil society moving in this direction. He writes:
This movement of public servants, scholars and activists deserves our support. Mark Zuckerberg cannot fix Facebook, but our government can.
Yesterday, I posted on my Facebook timeline for the first time since the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke. I made the point that after Twitter’s announcement, the ball is now squarely in Facebook’s and Google’s courts.
For research and professional reasons, I cannot delete my Facebook account. But I can pledge to not be an active Facebook user until the company grows up and shoulders its social responsibility as an ethical publisher that enhances our democracies instead of undermining them.
This is an edited extract from a presentation to Leon Mann Leadership Forum, co-sponsored by Academy of Social Sciences in Australia, ANU and University of Melbourne.
Not only in Australia but right around the world’s democracies, the quality of political leadership is as low as I can ever remember it – ranging, with only a handful of exceptions, from the underwhelming to the desolate to the appalling.
Just about everywhere one looks, at least one – and often many more than one – of what I would regard as the essential attributes of responsive and effective political leadership have gone missing.
In many ways, this is not surprising. Politics has always been a bloody and dangerous trade, and it has become significantly more so in an age of instant communication, relentless 24/7 news cycles, social media and dramatically reduced personal privacy. And more exposed than anyone else in politics are those who aspire to leadership positions – as Francis Bacon put it four centuries ago,
He doth like the ape, that the higher he clymbes the more he shows his ars.
To both aspire to and acquire political leadership has always required a degree of self-belief that defies normal human inhibition. But what seems to be required nowadays is an almost pathological ability to stay unmoved by what people think and say about you.
Despite the personal risks involved, there never seems to be a shortage of candidates for these positions. So what are the attributes, self-belief apart, we should reasonably look for in choosing between them? Based on my own direct observations of both Australian and foreign leaders over several decades, I would identify the following ten as mattering most.
Serious intellectual ability should go without saying, even if there are an army of electors in the US and elsewhere currently in denial. But while intellectual firepower may be a necessary condition (Ronald Reagan being the only exception I can readily think of), this is by no means a sufficient condition. History has repeatedly demonstrated the truth of the observation attributed to Walter Lippman nearly a century ago that the supreme qualification for high office is not so much intellect as temperament.
Empathy: the ability to connect, to understand where others are coming from (though not necessarily to sympathise with their positions) and to see how they are seeing you, is probably the important temperamental attribute a leader could have. Not least, this is because a lack of empathy is often (going to the next three attributes on my list) what lies behind poor judgment about people and situations, administrative dysfunctionality and poor communication skills.
Sound judgment is obviously indispensable, although making the right call is often much easier with hindsight than in the heat of the moment. It’s a matter of acting, and being seen to act, in a way which weighs the available evidence, listens to competing arguments, knows who is most worth listening to, is measured rather than impulsive, and learns from experience and the mistakes that inevitably will be made. None of this means avoiding all risks – that way lies total inertia – but it does mean calculating those that are taken.
Basic organisational and time management skills are much more important than is usually recognised, given the number of the balls that every leader has to keep in the air simultaneously, the number of advisers and supplicants pressing for access, and the necessity to constantly prioritise and re-prioritise activity.
Leaders who lack those skills, and don’t compensate by accepting the discipline of those around them who do have them, are ones who (as Kevin Rudd found despite his stellar intellect and other attributes) quickly wear out their welcome with colleagues and other stakeholders.
Communication skills, the ability to connect and persuade – in the parliament, in the media, on the election hustings, in internal party forums, with potential financial supporters – are self-evidently critical. Paul Keating has been the supreme Australian exemplar of those skills in recent times, across multiple forums. Others have been stronger in some forums than others – Bob Hawke was surprisingly unpersuasive in Parliament – but no successful leader I can think of anywhere has lacked them entirely.
A clear sense of strategic direction, combined with the ability to craft and communicate a clear narrative of what the government is trying to achieve overall, has not been a universally evident characteristic of successful leaders. Some have got by just bobbing along with the waves, with their grandest aspiration being to make the country feel “relaxed and comfortable”.
But it has certainly characterised the very best of them, perhaps nowhere more obviously than Hawke and Keating, with their very sophisticated narrative – crafted early in the life of their Labor Governments and sustained over 13 years – built around the themes of very dry, productivity and competitiveness-focused economic policy; very warm, moist and highly compensatory social policy; and strongly liberal internationalist (both globalist and patriotic!) foreign policy.
Unimpeachable personal integrity is hard to argue against. It is not necessary for a good political leader to be a paragon of every domestic virtue, as Bob Hawke amply demonstrated, though the times are clearly becoming more demanding in that respect. But being, and being seen to be, personally honest and incorruptible is a universally accepted baseline.
A work ethic, and associated physical stamina, well above the prevailing norm also matters. Some highly effective leaders have spent less time visibly grinding away at their desks than others – with Paul Keating famously a much later starter and often earlier finisher than Bob Hawke, who maintained almost monastic discipline during his years in office. (And Ronald Reagan, again, not being known to trouble his desk much at all.) But it’s hard to identify a successful leader whose capacity or willingness to be fully briefed and informed across the whole range of their responsibilities has been of Trumpian or Johnsonian proportions.
Resilience is an often under-recognised component of political effectiveness at all levels – the ability to recover ground after the defeats, set-backs and outright humiliations which are, except in fairy-tales, part of every politician’s and political leader’s experience. Those who survive for the long haul are those who bounce back.
The final item on my top-ten list is what I would describe simply as “spark” – the capacity, through sheer force of personality, to ignite enthusiasm, and on occasion real excitement, in one’s colleagues and the wider community. Dunstan, Whitlam, Keating, Hawke, Thatcher, Blair, Clinton, Obama all had – at least at their peak – that infectious quality.
It’s not a sufficient requirement for successful leadership overall – that requires ticking a lot of my other boxes as well – but it’s certainly a mark of distinction, separating run of the mill leaders from those whose reputations grow and last.
There are other candidates for this checklist, one of them arguably – particularly after the last Australian federal election – being “likeability”. But while this does obviously matter for electability, I am not sure that it is crucial when it comes to the long-term assessment of leadership success. While I wouldn’t go all the way with Machiavelli – that it is better for a leader to be feared than loved – there is a lot to be said for respect ultimately mattering more than affection.
Of the ten boxes I have described, not many political leaders would tick every one of them all of the time. And I fear that most of are essentially innate – you either have them or you don’t – rather than capable of being readily learned, in preparation for or on the job.
But if many more of our leaders, both at home and abroad, came closer to consistently displaying all those attributes than is the case at the moment, the world would be a lot safer, saner and happier than it presently is.
Can billionaires buy elections in Australia? In the 2019 election, Clive Palmer demonstrated they can certainly flood the print media, airwaves, social media and billboards with advertising and have an impact on the results through their preferences and negative advertising.
Apart from United Australia Party hype about how it was going to win government, most of the high-profile advertising in the 2019 campaign was negative. There is a longstanding 48-hour ban on political advertising in radio and broadcast media prior to polling day, but advertising on social media is not covered. The very useful Facebook Ad Library showed the kind of horrors being broadcast during the 48-hour blackout.
The Coalition was running many “death tax” ads on the Thursday and Friday. These were ads cut to show one Labor frontbencher after another saying the words “death tax”, when in fact they were denying a rumour about such a tax. Negativity, or even sheer invention, proved very effective.
By comparison, Labor ads on issues such as childcare or the gender pay gap – as well as its own negative ads aimed at the Coalition’s disunity and climate change policies – appeared to have little impact.
Lack of regulations at federal level
How have we arrived at a place where our elections are awash with paid advertising? Believe it or not, this has been a relatively recent phenomenon.
Elaborate precautions exist to prevent wealthy men practically purchasing seats: the expenditure of a senatorial candidate is limited to £250 and of a candidate for the other House to £100.
These expenditure limits became increasingly obsolete and were not enforced. They were discarded at the federal level after 1980, following a successful challenge to the election of three candidates in the Tasmanian seat of Denison for each having spent more than A$1,500 in the 1979 state election.
From that time, Australia has been notable for the laxity of its regulation of political finance. At the federal level, there are no restrictions on the size or source of donations to political parties, apart from the recent ban on foreign donations. And there are no limits on campaign expenditure or paid advertising, apart from the requirement for authorisation.
As a result, industry bodies wishing to fend off government regulation of guns or poker machines or financial advice are free to spend as much as they like on political donations and advertising.
There is also no “truth in advertising” requirement at the federal level, and the Australian Electoral Commission does not have the authority to approve electoral communications for publication. The only requirement in the Commonwealth Electoral Act is for authorisation, including of electronic advertising. Ultimately, it is up to the courts to enforce this, on a case by case basis.
This differs greatly from many countries in Europe, including the UK, Ireland and the Scandinavian countries, which have never allowed such paid political advertising. Two-thirds of European countries limit the amount a candidate can spend on a campaign, including advertising, and 43% limit the amount a party can spend.
This decision put a dampener on reform at the federal level. It is only recently the High Court has changed course to find that burdens on free speech can be legitimate if they serve another democratic purpose, such as political equality.
The constitutionality of regulating political donations was reaffirmed by the High Court in April 2019.
The government had passed amendments to the Commonwealth Electoral Act to enable Commonwealth law to override the tighter regulation of political donations at the state or territory level. This provision was overturned by the High Court and Queensland’s ban on developer donations was upheld. This was despite an attempt by the plaintiff, former LNP Queensland President Gary Spence, to argue it restricted freedom of political communication.
These High Court decisions open the way to possible future caps on expenditure and donations at the federal level, which could reduce the torrent of negative political advertising democracy is currently drowning in.
Impacts of unlimited spending on democracy
The lack of restrictions on political expenditure or donations at the federal level has contributed to perceptions that government is run primarily for the benefit of the big end of town. In 2016, 56% of respondents to the Australian Election Study believed this.
In addition, negative advertising further erodes the public’s faith in government. American political scientist Joseph Nye observed more than 20 years ago a relationship between negative advertising and loss of trust in political parties and government. In the Democracy 2025 survey conducted in Australia last year, respondents were asked about possible reforms to rebuild trust in government. It revealed strongest support for limits on political donations and campaign expenditure.
The laxity of political finance regulation at the federal level also creates loopholes at the state or territory level, where genuine progress has been made in limiting political expenditure by parties, candidates and lobbying groups.
It is equally important that allowing paid political advertising in electronic media drives up the costs of political campaigns and increases dependence on wealthy donors.
Australia could rein in the ever-increasing role of private money in its federal elections. Labor and the Greens are committed to greater transparency for political donations and spending caps on federal campaign expenditure, while the High Court has shown it is now unlikely to strike down reasonable (“proportionate”) regulation of political finance.
Democracy should be about political equality, not about the deep pockets of billionaires.
“A sophisticated state actor” has hacked the networks of the major
political parties, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has told Parliament.
Recently the Parliament House network was disrupted, and the intrusion
into the parties’ networks was discovered when this was being dealt
While the government has not identified the “state actor”, the Chinese
are being blamed.
Morrison gave the reassurance that “there is no evidence of any
electoral interference. We have put in place a number of measures to
ensure the integrity of our electoral system”.
In his statement to the House Morrison said: “The Australian Cyber
Security Centre recently identified a malicious intrusion into the
Australian Parliament House computer network.
“During the course of this work, we also became aware that the
networks of some political parties – Liberal, Labor and the Nationals
– have also been affected.
“Our security agencies have detected this activity and acted
decisively to confront it. They are securing these systems and
The Centre would provide any party or electoral body with technical help to deal with hacking, Morrison said.
“They have already briefed the Electoral Commissions and those
responsible for cyber security for all states and territories. They
have also worked with global anti-virus companies to ensure
Australia’s friends and allies have the capacity to detect this
malicious activity,” he said.
“The methods used by malicious actors are constantly evolving and this
incident reinforces yet again the importance of cyber security as a
fundamental part of everyone’s business.
“Public confidence in the integrity of our democratic processes is an
essential element of Australian sovereignty and governance,” he said.
“Our political system and our democracy remains strong, vibrant and is
protected. We stand united in the protection of our values and our
Bill Shorten said party political structures were perhaps more vulnerable than government institutions – and progressive parties particularly so.
“We have seen overseas that it is progressive parties that are more likely to be targeted by ultra-right wing organisations.
“Political parties are small organisations with only a few full-time staff, they collect, store and use large amounts of information about voters and communities. These institutions can be a soft target and our national approach to cyber security needs to pay more attention to non-government organisations,” Shorten said.
Although the authorities are pointing to a “state actor”, national cyber security adviser Alastair MacGibbon told a news conference: “We don’t know who is behind this, nor their intent.
“We, of course, will continue to work with our friends and colleagues, both here and overseas, to work out who is behind it and hopefully their intent”.
Asked what the hackers had got their hands on MacGibbon said: “We don’t know”.
Former prime minister Kevin Rudd has used an address to the Labor national conference to deliver a fresh swingeing attack on the Murdoch media, declaring “it is not a news organisation, it is a political party”.
Rudd said for Labor and for Bill Shorten, “dealing with the Murdoch mafia is kind of like dealing with a daily evisceration”
“It ain’t fair, it never will be and as soon as we acknowledge that fact, the better we will be in our response.”
Rudd and his wife, Therese Rein, were receiving ALP life memberships at the conference. Life memberships were also bestowed on two other former Labor prime ministers, Paul Keating and Julia Gillard, who were not present.
Attacks on the Murdoch media come frequently from Rudd, with a notable one in the 2013 election campaign.
Rudd told the conference the Coalition had “a very robust” partner in the “Murdoch party”, which had an ideology.
“Our movement has the audacity of hope to stand up and say ‘we don’t accept your ideology and your commercial interests. We actually will fight against it’. That’s why they hate us so much.”
“That’s why they hooked into Bill, that’s why they hooked into Julia, that’s why they hooked into me, that’s why they hooked into Paul, that’s why they hooked into Bob – because we represent a threat to their core commercial and ideological interests.”
He contrasted the treatment of Labor meted out by the “Murdoch party” with that accorded to “Saint John” Howard.
Rudd said he had a simple message for Rupert Murdoch: “you don’t own Australia. Murdoch doesn’t have Australia as his own personal belonging. This country belongs to the working men and women who build Australia.”
Shorten, introducing Rudd, paid tribute to his performance in the 2013 election, saying while that election was lost, “your campaigning skills … ensured that we entered opposition as a strong, viable electoral fighting force”.
Party sources said the opposition leader regarded it as important to pay tribute to the former prime ministers at this conference as a gesture of unity. Earlier conferences bestowed life membership on Bob Hawke and Gough Whitlam.
Shorten said in his tributes that Keating was a “hero of the true believers” and Gillard was a “continuing inspiration for women and girls”.
He said there had been a lot of pain but it was “time for healing to make peace with our past in the same way we are united about our future”.
“At our best, we are a movement focused on the future – but as Australia’s oldest continuous political party we have always revered our traditions and we take inspiration from our struggles in the past.
“And we are better, we are stronger, we are more confident and more complete when we extend to our former leaders and legends the respect they deserve, the gratitude they have earned.
“Labor can do more, indeed Australia can do more, to recognise the contribution of our past leaders – and to call upon their wisdom, their talents and their capacities in the continued service of our country.”
In his address, Rudd attacked Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton as a reminder of “that whole generation of Queensland coppers in the days of Bjelke-Petersen” and denounced the government’s recognition of West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital as “a lunatic decision”.
Australians should be able to see who donates to political parties, but our political donations laws fall far short of this ideal. Recent reforms in New South Wales and Victoria mean that voters will have much better information about who is donating. But when it comes to donations at the federal level, voters remain largely in the dark.
Money in politics is regulated to reduce the risk of interest groups “buying” influence. Explicit quid pro quo is probably rare: as the saying goes, “you never bribe someone when you need them”. But the risk is in more subtle influence: that donors get more access to policymakers, or their views are given more weight.
Publishing information about larger donors creates a public check on this behaviour. Voters are able to see who political parties rely on for funding, and MPs are more accountable for their subsequent decisions.
States are improving transparency
The trend in the states is promising. Victoria and NSW both increased the transparency of political donations last month.
In Victoria, donations of $1,000 or more will have to be disclosed to the Victorian Electoral Commission within 21 days. Anonymous donations of $1,000 or more are banned. Victoria even capped donations at $4,000 and increased public funding for election campaigns, which might help reduce the reliance of parties on larger contributions (but also comes with other risks).
NSW’s already extensive donations regime was tightened from July 1 this year. NSW political parties are now required to disclose donations of $1,000 or more within 21 days during election campaigns (as in Victoria), and within six months otherwise.
When it comes to transparency, Queensland does one better: the 2017 state election was Australia’s first with “real time” disclosure. Donations of $1,000 or more are lodged through an online portal and are made public within seven working days. The Queensland Electoral Commission even provides interactive maps of donations by electorate.
Most other states also have decent disclosure requirements. In South Australia, parties are required to disclose donations of $5,310 or more every seven days during an election period (and every six months otherwise). The disclosure threshold in Western Australia is $2,300.
Tasmania is the only state with disclosure laws as weak as the Commonwealth’s.
These laws mean voters can know, before they go to the ballot box, who is funding parties’ election campaigns.
The Commonwealth has a long way to go
The states are taking political donations reform seriously – and that’s a good thing. But state reforms are limited by state boundaries. Until the Commonwealth catches up, we won’t be able to “follow the money” across all jurisdictions.
Under Commonwealth regulations, it can take up to 19 months for donations to be made public. That’s why Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s $1.75 million donation to the Liberal Party in the lead-up to the 2016 election was not officially made public until the start of this year.
Only donations of more than $13,800 are required to be disclosed. And there is no requirement to aggregate donations, which means an individual donor can make a series of donations below $13,800 without disclosure.
The result is a huge amount of money in the federal system that we know nothing about. Parties received more than $100 million from undisclosed sources in the two financial years spanning the 2016 federal election. Without this information, it is difficult for public scrutiny to provide a “check” on the possibility of donor influence.
Some of this money no doubt came from “mum and dad” donors contributing $100 to their preferred party. But some is probably the result of “donations splitting”, where people or organisations make multiple donations below the threshold. Some might also be income from fundraising dinners and business forums, for which attendees pay thousands for an opportunity to “bend the ear” of elected representatives.
Donations can also be filtered through associated entities of the parties. This makes money (and influence) even more difficult to track. These entities – unions, investment funds, or fundraising organisations – occasionally frustrate donations restrictions by taking money on behalf of “their” party.
In a particularly egregious case, investigations uncovered that hundreds of thousands of dollars in unlawful donations had filtered into NSW Liberal Party accounts through a federal associated entity.
Growing public cynicism about special interest influence is partly born of secrecy. Simple changes could vastly improve what we know about money flowing to Commonwealth political parties.
The disclosure threshold should be lowered as the states have done. The current threshold of $13,800 is well above the amount that a regular voter could afford to contribute to a political cause. A lower threshold of around $5,000 would still protect the privacy of small donors while improving transparency and accountability.
Disclosure of donations should be much quicker. Queensland and South Australia now have “real time” disclosure during elections; the Commonwealth can clearly do better than a 19-month turn-around. Disclosure within three weeks – as in NSW and Victoria – would be far superior to the current system.
The states’ political donations laws aren’t perfect, but they are heading in the right direction. It’s time for Canberra to catch up.
Academics in Australia might reflect on the fact that scholarly books critical of the Chinese Communist Party are now shunned by publishers. Scholars who work on China know that continued access to the country requires them to play by Beijing’s rules, which for most means self-censorship – the dirty secret of China studies in Australia.
Despite refusing to publish my book, Silent Invasion, I am privileged in my access to free speech in a way that most Chinese-Australians are not.
In February, Alex Joske, my researcher for the book and of Chinese heritage himself, wrote in the New York Times that as Beijing’s interference in Australian society intensifies:
… the voices of the Chinese-Australians alarmed by Beijing’s encroachment are being drowned out by an aggressive Chinese government campaign to silence critics here.
Once quite vocal, pro-democracy activists, supporters of Tibetan autonomy, and Falun Gong practitioners are barely heard nowadays. In my book, I describe how this marginalisation has been carried out.
Examples are legion. The New York Times recently reported that Taiwanese workers at restaurants in Sydney have been sacked because, when asked whether they believe Taiwan belongs to China, they say “no”.
It only takes a few examples like this to send a signal to all Taiwanese in Australia to keep their views to themselves if they go against Beijing. This kind of violation of democratic principles — not to mention employment law — has for years been ignored by the mainstream.
Soon after Allen & Unwin pulled publication of my book, a retired businessman phoned. For years he has been taking in Chinese students as lodgers. Recently, he was walking through the CBD with one of those students when they came upon a Falun Gong practitioner collecting signatures on a petition. When he said “let’s go over”, she begged him not to. She kept walking while he signed the petition.
Two weeks later, the student’s parents back in China had the Ministry of State Security knocking on their door. They were warned to keep an eye on their daughter, who was creating trouble in Australia.
Think about that. Chinese authorities in Australia are monitoring Falun Gong practitioners on the streets of Sydney and Melbourne, photographing anyone who interacts with them. They can identify any ethnically Chinese person and put them on a watchlist.
In the course of researching my book, I spoke with pastors at Chinese churches in Australia who believe their congregations and community groups have Communist Party agents spying on behalf on the consulate. Some Chinese-Australians cannot even go to their places of worship without Beijing’s vast security apparatus watching and reporting on them.
Few religious groups of modern times have experienced more coercion and violence than practitioners of the peaceful spiritual practice Falun Gong. Working through the consulates, the sinister 610 Office has harassed, threatened and bullied Falun Gong practitioners in Australia and frightened off sympathetic politicians.
Last year, Feng Chongyi, an associate professor at the University of Technology Sydney, was forcibly detained in China for a week while doing research on human rights lawyers. China does not like what he is uncovering and wanted to send an unambiguous message that he should change what he works on in Australia.
It’s important to understand that the effect of Beijing’s suppression of critical voices in the Chinese-Australian community is not confined to pro-democracy and Tibetan autonomy activists. The dominant narrative in the community is now one that supports the Communist Party view of the world.
Leading Sinologist John Fitzgerald has shown how the once-diverse Chinese-language media became overwhelmingly pro-Beijing. Chinese-language media in Australia is subject to Beijing’s censorship regime. Chinese-Australians who speak about human rights violations or complain about Beijing’s interference in Australian politics are vilified.
A young Chinese-Australian who wants to enter politics knows that any criticism he or she may make of, for example, party influence operations in Australia will result in bad press and pressure from “community leaders”. If they were to persist, family members in China may receive intimidating visits from state security. It’s much easier to stay out politics.
This is a denial of their democratic rights. It means that Chinese-Australians critical of the Communist Party have no representation in parliament. Who will speak up for them if their family is threatened, or if their business in Australia is sent broke by a boycott organised by the consulate?
Enabling the silencing
Instead of giving these critics of the Communist Party a voice, some of our political leaders have collaborated in their silencing. They shun them, even condemning them when they protest outside the Sydney consulate, while mixing with and responding to “community leaders” who typically head United Front organisations guided by the party through its network of agencies that operate in Australia.
In February, Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen expressed outrage in parliament because Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen had threatened violence against any Cambodian-Australians who staged a protest during his visit to Australia. Bowen declared he would defend the right of Cambodian-Australians to protest and would not allow peaceful protesters to be harassed and bullied.
Good for him. But where is Bowen when Chinese-Australians are threatened and intimidated by China’s state security apparatus in Australia? Where is he when supporters of Tibetan autonomy are drowned out and intimidated on the streets of Sydney?
Bowen is a prominent member of the New South Wales Right faction of the Labor Party and accordingly has been the recipient of largesse from wealthy Chinese businessmen close to Beijing. He has been flown to China at the expense of the Communist Party and an organisation run by Huang Xiangmo, the businessman ASIO warned the major political parties to avoid taking money from.
Bowen has been a patron of the Australian Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China, the peak United Front body closely associated with Huang Xiangmo.
As my book appeared in the bookshops, the big beasts of the NSW Right came out to monster me because I have said they are too close to Communist Party front groups and agents of influence. Bob Carr, Paul Keating and Graham Richardson attempted to trash my reputation and make me out as a Sinophobe and closet racist.
They are embarrassed when anyone draws attention to the evidence of the deep penetration of the Chinese state into their part of the Labor Party. They should know that the more they try to shut down critics, the more we will ask what they have to hide.
Like others, I have puzzled over the astonishing level of naivety in this country about what China is doing here.
It doesn’t seem enough to speak, as some have, of being blinded by the money or referring to the natural openness of Australians. For some, it’s almost a wilful unwillingness to see, despite the powerful evidence of China’s aggressive intentions.
When writing Silent Invasion, I anticipated that its arguments would be dismissed as rooted in xenophobia and that I am just stirring a cauldron of anti-Chinese racism. I have a pretty good record of anti-racism over the decades, but for some that counts for little.
More to the point, in the book I tried hard to reflect the experiences of those Chinese-Australians who are critical of the Chinese Communist Party and feel threatened by it in their new home.
I discussed with some of them the risk of racist groups misusing the book to reinforce their prejudices. The typical response was: “Well, what’s the alternative? Should you just say nothing?”
The judgement of these Chinese-Australians is that they may have to take some collateral damage to win the larger battle. They are much more worried about the vast apparatus of Communist Party coercion than some wave of anti-Chinese sentiment.
From the moment I began researching and writing Silent Invasion, I resolved to ensure that none of the criticisms I made of the Chinese Communist Party could be construed as anti-Chinese or anti-China.
I knew that nothing I did would deter the party from its usual conflation of the party and the nation. And true to form its spokespersons in Canberra and Beijing have stuck to the party line, attacking the book as “racist bigotry” and “anti-Chinese”.
If you just read Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane, Chinese Embassy statements, and Beijing’s trolls on social media, you’d think the danger we face in Australia is not Chinese Communist Party interference operations but the risk of inflaming anti-Chinese racism by calling out the party.
The problem lies not in Xi Jinping’s aggressive assertion of a newly risen China, but the stain on our own history. Our first goal must not be to resist growing foreign interference, but to keep the lid on fringe sentiments here.
But what of China experts in Australia? Surely they can see what is happening. Most of the serious ones can and have been trying to draw attention to it for some years.
Others, like the University of Sydney’s David Brophy, prefer to put their ideological purity on display. In a ranting “review” of Silent Invasion, he argued that when discussing the Chinese Communist Party’s interference operations in Australia, people like me and the string of China experts who take a similar view have got it all back to front.
For Brophy, when the issue of foreign interference arises, we must not “shift the blame onto China” but “confront our own failings”.
Concern about Communist Party interference in Australia, opines Brophy, actually “reflects a deep malaise in Australian society”. Really? Then Taiwan, Singapore, Canada, the US, New Zealand and several European countries, where the same debate is taking place, must be suffering from the same malaise.
In truth, when someone who is being bullied or violated is accused of just imagining it, we call it victim-blaming.
When Brophy dismisses the mountain of evidence of Communist Party interference in Australia as “imagined subversion”, he shares the assessment of his vice-chancellor, Michael Spence, who has labelled the mounting warnings by the government, based largely on ASIO reports, as “Sinophobic blatherings”.
As I suggest in Silent Invasion, Spence’s University of Sydney is among the most compromised of this country’s academic institutions.
It’s not Silent Invasion, but the reaction to it, that has highlighted something troubling in the intellectual life of the nation. The fault is not an incipient xenophobia ever-ready to burst forth in anti-Chinese racism, as if our universities inherited the culture of the gold fields.
No, the fault lies in the sacrifice of intellectual rigour to the guilt felt by politically correct academics for what happened on the goldfields. For the Chinese Communist Party, this fault is a rich seam to mine in its quest to exert its influence here.
Three political parties – the ALP, the Liberal Party and the National Party – dominate Australian politics. This dominance is particularly noticeable in the electoral contests for parliamentary lower houses, especially where these involve single-member electoral districts and electors cast a preferential vote.
In general, the vast majority of Australians vote for the three main parties. The dominance of the three parties’ representatives in state and federal parliaments reflects this.
Occasionally, developments in the party system can challenge this major party dominance. In 1955, for instance, the Labor Party split and the Democratic Labor Party (DLP) was created. During the 1980s and 1990s, the Australian Democrats party emerged, declaring it intended to “keep the bastards honest”. And in 1998, Pauline Hanson’s One Nation burst on the scene.
Neither the DLP nor the Democrats ever succeeded in winning a seat in the House of Representatives. One Nation also failed to win a lower house seat in the national parliament, although it did win seats in the Queensland parliament in 1998.
Here was prima facie evidence of the capacity of new parties to upset major party dominance over election outcomes. But this was to be overshadowed by another recurring theme – new parties quickly imploding due to weak organisation.
Within months, all the Queensland One Nation MPs left the party to form a new body (the City Country Alliance). At the next election, they all lost their seats.
Since then, other minor parties have similarly secured stunning lower house victories, only to be overwhelmed by internal instability.
Clive Palmer and his Palmer United Party secured a House of Representatives seat in 2013, after which the party fragmented.
In 2016, the Nick Xenophon Team’s (NXT) Rebekha Sharkie won the House of Representatives seat of Mayo. Fifteen months later, Xenophon resigned from the Senate to create yet another party (SA-Best) to participate in the recent South Australian state election. SA-Best appears to have failed in its bid to win a seat in the SA Legislative Assembly, and the rump of the NXT left behind in the Senate now has no leader and apparently no organisation.
Arguably the non-major party with the greatest impact in the party system is the Australian Greens. The party has secured House of Representatives seats on four occasions (a byelection win in Cunningham in 2002, and the seat of Melbourne in general elections in 2010, 2013 and 2016). This was matched by a significant increase in the number of seats held in the Senate, and by lower house success in state elections in Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and Tasmania (albeit under a proportional electoral system).
It is stating the obvious to note that these minor party successes are the result of swings in voting behaviour at the expense of the major political parties. The total national primary vote cast for the main parties has been in decline.
But this in itself is no guarantee of inevitable change in the representational share between the major and minor parties, especially in single-member district electoral systems.
The shift of voter support away from the major parties has been variable and spread over a large number of alternative minor parties. In the 2013 and 2016 federal elections, more than 50 organisations registered as parties with the Australian Electoral Commission. Few of these parties polled over 1% of the vote. Only a handful polled over the 4% threshold to qualify for public funding.
Once again, only the Greens – and, in the 2016 election, the NXT – have been capable of amassing a sufficient primary vote in a particular seat to have a chance of winning lower house representation.
But as the Batman byelection reminds us, even a primary vote approaching 40% does not guarantee victory. Bland references to declining support for the major parties tend to obscure just how difficult it is for minor parties to win lower house seats, especially if their electoral support is evenly spread over a wide range of districts.
By the same token, the increasing proportion of the Australian electorate casting a primary vote for a party other than Labor, Liberal or National is a significant development, and appears to be a recurring theme in recent elections.
It is also having a representational impact, but not in lower houses that use single-member electoral districts (that is, all Australian parliaments except Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory).
Rather, the real locus of minor party impact is to be found in those parliamentary chambers elected under a proportional system. The SA-Best result in South Australia is an example of this: while his party failed to win a lower house seat, Xenophon’s latest venture did secure two seats in the proportionally elected Legislative Council.
The Greens might have suffered an adverse swing in the last state election in Tasmania, but still hold two seats in the House of Assembly.
Meanwhile, the minor parties have a significant impact on national policy debate by holding the balance of power in the Senate. This has been the reality in the Senate for some time.
The recent elections in Tasmania, South Australia and the byelection in Batman have left an impression that the advance of the minor parties has stalled, maybe permanently. This is not necessarily the case.
If the demographic patterns to the voting alignments in Batman are repeated at the Victorian state election on November 24, the Greens could win at least four lower house seats. Meanwhile, the current rate at which electors are voting for minor parties can still have significant representational consequences for proportionally elected chambers such as the Senate.
The sense of minor party failure associated with these recent election contests has been due in part to the tendency to make hyperbolic claims about their prospects in the first place.
The flipside of this is to guard against hyperbolically pessimistic conclusions on the basis of recent electoral events. Tasmania, South Australia and Batman were not good elections for SA-Best or the Greens (or, indeed, Rise Up Australia, the Jacqui Lambie Network or the Australian Conservatives), but that may have been due to the peculiarities of the particular elections.
There is a significant non-major party vote in the Australian system. The place to observe its impact is in the contest and representational outcomes for Australia’s proportionally elected upper houses, including the Senate.
The ABC’s chief economics correspondent, Emma Alberici, did her job the other day. She wrote a well-researched analysis piece investigating whether the Turnbull government’s proposed company tax cuts would grow the economy and break Australia’s wages deadlock.
Alberici’s article came in for a lot of criticism from the Turnbull government for its one-sidedness and lack of balance. Later, the ABC took down the article from its website.
If you read her piece, you’ll see that, yes, she could have included more voices, and yes, the case for company tax cuts was forcefully argued against. But the argument and analysis was built on sound research, as Saul Eslake (one of Australia’s most senior and respected independent economists, who was quoted in Alberici’s story) has pointed out.
So, why on earth did ABC take the article down?
Part of the answer to this lies in the very editorial policies that are supposed to safeguard the ABC’s independence. The current wording of these polices function as a straitjacket on ABC journalists and make it hard for them to toe the line between analysis and opinion.
And that in turn makes the ABC look less independent.
High level of trust
One of the ABC’s greatest assets is the high public trust it enjoys compared to many of its commercial media competitors.
That trust is to a large extent built on the broadcaster maintaining and defending its independence from commercial, political and any other societal interests.
There are a lot of misconceptions regarding what a public broadcaster is. But one thing it is not is a government or state broadcaster.
There are certainly examples of some public broadcasters that are. One prominent recent case was when the Polish government in practice took control of the country’s public broadcaster and turned it into a government mouthpiece.
A serious case of self-doubt
The ABC Act and the ABC Charter are the safeguards of ABC’s independence from the government of the day. This independence was challenged to unprecedented levels by the Abbott government a few years ago.
A new major challenge to the ABC’s independence is the current change, driven by One Nation, to the ABC Charter requiring it to be “fair” and “balanced” in its reporting. If you recognise these terms, that’s because it used to be Fox News’ catchphrase.
The ABC is not turning into the Polish Broadcasting Corporation, but it has clearly lost a lot of confidence lately. In Alberici’s case, it appears it bowed to government pressure when it should have stood its ground.
But getting heat from the government of the day (regardless of the particular side of politics) is an indication that a public broadcaster is doing its most important job (provided you get your facts right): holding power to account. If you bow to political pressure, you’re not doing your job.
A public broadcaster with a confidence problem is a serious issue for political and democratic wellbeing.
Globally, there are between ten and 15 properly funded public broadcasters (depending on what level of funding you define as proper) with enough funding and safeguards to be able to call themselves editorially independent. This means there are only ten to 15 large repositories of in-depth public interest journalism – globally.
So, the case is strong for the Australian public to get behind the ABC and ask it to snap out of its crisis of confidence. Then it can get on with the job of keeping power to account – just like Alberici tried to do.