During the 2019 election, a news story about the Labor Party supporting a “death tax” – which turned out to be fake – gained traction on social media.
Now, Labor is urging a post-election committee to rule on whether digital platforms like Facebook are harming Australian democracy by allowing the spread of fake news.
While the joint standing committee on electoral matters (JSCEM) will not report until July next year, our latest research finds that politicians are key culprits turning the term “fake news” into a weapon.
Following the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, we investigated if Australian politicians were using the terms “fake news”, “alternative facts” and “post-truth”, as popularised by Trump, to discredit opponents.
With colleagues Scott Wright, William Lukamto and Andrew Gibbons, we investigated if elite political use of this language had spread to Australia. For six months after Trump’s victory, we searched media reports, Australian parliamentary proceedings (Hansard), and politicians’ websites, press releases, Facebook and Twitter communications.
We discovered a US contagion effect. Australian politicians had “weaponised” fake news language to attack their opponents, much in the way that Trump had when he first accused a CNN reporter of being “fake news”.
Significantly, these phrases were largely absent in Australian media and parliamentary archives before Trump’s venture into politics.
Our key findings were:
Conservative politicians are the most likely users of “fake news” language. This finding is consistent with international studies.
Political users were either fringe politicians who use the term to attract more media coverage, or powerful politicians who exploit the language to discredit the media first, and political opponents second.
The discourse of fake news peaks during parliamentary sitting times. However, often journalists introduce it at “doorstops” and press conferences, allowing politicians a free kick to attack them.
ABC journalists were the most likely targets of the offending label.
Concerningly, when the media were accused of being fake news, they report it but seldom contest this negative framing of themselves, giving people no reason to doubt its usage.
Here is one example of how journalists introduce the term, only to have it used against them.
Journalist: Today, we have seen a press conference by President Trump where he has discussed at length this issue as fake news. Prime Minister Turnbull do you believe there is such a thing as fake news?
Prime minister: A very great politician, Winston Churchill, once said that politicians complaining about the newspapers, is like a sailor complaining about the sea — there’s not much point. That is the media we live with.
This kind of sequence suggests journalists play a role in driving and reinforcing fake news discourse to the likely detriment of trust in media.
One Nation’s Malcolm Roberts provides the most extreme example of the weaponisation of fake news discourse against mainstream media:
Turns out the ABC, in-between spewing fake news about our party, ruined ANZAC day for diggers… . The ABC are a clear and present threat to democracy.
Roberts was not alone. Politicians from three conservative parties claimed the ABC produced fake news to satisfy so-called leftist agendas.
What we discovered is a dangerous trend: social media users copy the way in which their politicians turn “fake news” against media and spread it on the digital platforms.
First, our study of politicians of the 45th Parliament in 2016 shows it was a small, but noisy minority that use fake news language (see table below). This suggests there is still time for our parliamentarians to reverse this negative communication behaviour and serve as public role models. Indeed, two Labor politicians, Bill Shorten and Stephen Jones, led by example in 2017 and rejected the framing of fake news language when asked about it by journalists.
Second, we argue the media’s failure to refute fake news accusations has adverse consequences for public debate and trust in media. We recommend journalists rethink how they respond when politicians accuse them of being fake news or of spreading dis- and misinformation when its usage is untrue.
Third, academics such as Harvard’s Claire Wardle argue that to address the broader problem of information disorders on the web, we all should shun the term “fake news”. She says the phrase:
is being used globally by politicians to describe information that they don’t like, and increasingly, that’s working.
On the death tax fake news during the 2019 election, Carson’s research for a forthcoming book chapter found the spread of this false information was initiated by right-wing fringe politicians and political groups, beginning with One Nation’s Malcolm Roberts and Pauline Hanson.
One Nation misappropriated a real news story discussing inheritance tax from Channel Seven’s Sunrise program, which it then used against Labor on social media. Among the key perpetrators to give attention to this false story were the Nationals’ George Christensen and Matt Canavan. As with the findings in our study, social media users parroted this message, further spreading the false information.
While Labor is urging the JSCEM to admonish the digital platforms for allowing the false information about the “death tax” to spread, it might do well to reflect that the same digital platforms along with paid television ads enabled the campaigning success of its mischievous “Mediscare” campaign in 2016.
In a separate study, Carson with colleagues Shaun Ratcliff and Aaron Martin, found this negative campaign, while not responsible for an electoral win, did reverse a slump in Labor’s support to narrow its electoral defeat.
Perhaps the JSCEM should also consider the various ways in which our politicians employ “fake news” to the detriment of our democracy.
But such a purely financial analysis ignores the political forces driving the development of the coal industry in both India and Australia.
Mates in India, mates in Australia
In short, both are locked into what I describe as a model of crony capitalism, in which special deals are handed out to projects such as Adani that tip the scales in favour of development.
The actions of China and Japan in deploying enormous state power to export their respective coal technologies to Southeast Asia strengthens the hands of those pushing such developments.
In my recent book, Adani and the war over coal, I outline a network of power that for several decades has promoted the development of Australia’s coal resources in the interests of national and international corporations.
The mining companies, then the big four banks became part of it, lending billions in the rush to develop Australian coal mines as Asian countries sought to lock in long-term supplies. The Minerals Council of Australia, the New South Wales Minerals Council and the Queensland Resources Council, with their collective close ties to both political parties, handled public relations.
Yet they have faced resistance from the rise of an anti-Adani movement that links grassroots environmentalists, peak environmental lobby groups and progressive organisations such as GetUp!
By mid-2018, these campaigners seemed to have backed the Carmichael mine into a cul de sac by scaring off both Australian and foreign investors. They had also pressured the Queensland government to withdraw its support for a loan to the project from the Commonwealth government’s Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility.
Then Adani surprised them by announcing that it would scale back the project and fund it from its own resources. On the face of it this seemed unlikely, but it had help.
Adani and Modi have history
The chairman and founder of the Adani group, Gautam Adani, has had a long relationship with the recently re-elected Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi.
Modi played a decisive role in paving the way for Adani’s latest mega deal: selling coal-fired power from a plant in the Indian state of Jharkhand to nearby Bangladesh.
The power for Bangladesh is set to be fired by Carmichael coal. Many Australians would be concerned to learn that our coal is to be used to power one of the most climate-challenged countries on the planet, but we have this on the authority of Adani’s previous Australian-based chief executive, Jeyakuma Janakaraj.
Twelve days before the 2019 Indian election date was announced, the Modi government gave approval for an Adani project in Jharkhand to become the first designated power project in India to get the status and benefits of a Special Economic Zone, saving Adani billions of dollars in taxes, including clean energy taxes.
The Indian state will provide land, infrastructure and water for the project and shoulder the burden of pollution. The cost of the power to Bangladesh is not expected to be cheap.
Will we be asked for more?
Adani’s form suggests it might come back to Australia for more. Following the re-election of the Morrison government it is already being speculated that the pro-coal Minister for Resources, Matt Canavan, will revisit the original proposal for a billion-dollar government-sponsored loan from the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility to construct the railway from the Galilee Basin to the Abbot Point coal port.
The Adani saga points to a critical flaw in the Paris climate agreement. It is an agreement between nation states, but what those states do is often determined by arrangements between politicians and private companies that feel no particular obligation to keep global warming to less than two degrees.
We are pawns in a larger, climate-destroying game.
A quick scan of political headlines over recent election campaigns will tell you that there is a trust deficit in Australian politics. Alarmingly, surveys uniformly find that public trust is falling in Australia.
The Murdoch tabloids (Daily Telegraph and Courier Mail) posed this question on their front pages with the headline “ScoMo vs Shorten: Who do you trust?” on March 28, perhaps implying trust was a one-sided political proposition.
But by the following week, the headline read: “Aussie voters short on choice” after their commissioned YouGov Galaxy poll revealed low public regard for both political leaders.
The poll showed 30% of respondents believed Scott Morrison to be “untrustworthy”, compared to Shorten on 34%. And when asked if they believed the leaders to be “well-intentioned”, the results were grim: just 34% believed Morrison to be well-intentioned, and 30% for Shorten.
Why is this? One oft-cited reason is that politicians from all sides of politics don’t keep their promises. Veteran columnist with the Sydney Morning Herald, Ross Gittins, summed it up after the defeat of the Liberal National party in the Queensland state election in 2015. Then-Premier Campbell Newman was unceremoniously ousted from office after record wins in the previous election. Gittins wrote:
The biggest problem, of course, is decades of broken promises by both sides.
Gillard broke her promises to balance the budget and not to introduce a carbon tax. Campbell Newman promised not to sack public servants. Abbott campaigned on the restoration of trust and high standards, but also made promises he can’t have intended to keep – and didn’t need to make to win.
But are broken promises really to blame for falling levels of public trust in politicians?
We know from extensive research about other western democracies, that political parties make serious efforts to keep their political promises and, despite popular rhetoric, the majority of promises made are kept. Our latest research tested whether this was also true of the Australian experience.
Using the same methods of the Comparative Party Pledges Project (CPPP), which has examined over 20,000 election promises made in 57 election campaigns in 12 countries, we analyse the fulfilment of election promises in six policy areas by the Australian Labor Party (ALP) under the leadership of Prime Minister Julia Gillard during the 43rd Parliament.
Among the reasons why we chose to analyse the Gillard government’s performance was the common criticism that it had broken its much-publicised pledge not to introduce a carbon tax, creating a perception that the government could not be trusted.
Sections of the media and political rivals openly called Julia Gillard a liar following the policy backflip. Also, the Gillard government was the first minority federal government since 1941. When the 2010 election produced a hung parliament, many commentators predicted chaos, as Brenton Prosser and Richard Denniss have reminded us. Some argued the government would be unable to fulfil its mandate or that the government would be forced into an early election.
We collected 232 promises (from party documents and the media) at the official start of the election campaign in 2010 until polling day. To measure if a promise was kept, we used sources like Hansard, official political communications, budget papers and, as a last resort, media reports.
We found most promises made were specific rather than general, and most – 87% – were kept (see table below). But, some of those needed to be altered in some way and were only partially kept. This reflected the compromise required to get bills through the two houses, neither controlled by the Labor party.
That the Gillard government was able to keep the majority of its pledges but be tarred with perceptions of deception is what some academics label the “pledge puzzle”.
So why is there a disconnect between perceptions and reality? One reason is that not all promises are equal. Implementing a carbon tax was seen as a big promise to break. Other famous examples include Bob Hawke promising at his 1987 election launch that no Australian child would live in poverty by 1990, and John Howard promising in 1996 to “never ever” introduce a goods and services tax. Measuring the importance of a promise to voters (salience) is an important aspect that may help us better understand the “pledge puzzle” and mistrust of politicians.
The pledge puzzle also suggests that broken promises are only one aspect of how voters regard their politicians. it also tells us that there are other factors to consider – such as media coverage, negative campaigning and political infighting and rorting – to better explain why public trust in Australian politicians is falling. We also know that citizens who are more trusting of politicians are more trusting individuals generally and vice versa.
Overall, our findings give cause for optimism about the role of election promises in representative democracy. We found that politicians do take promises seriously, and that they do try to keep them. Yet, this finding by itself is unlikely to bolster Australians’ trust in their elected representatives at this election until politicians’ report cards improve on other measures.
Dr Andrea Carson will be available for a Q+A from 1pm – 2pm, AEST on Tuesday, April 16 to take questions on this topic. Please post your questions in the comments below.
Over the past month, Australians and many people around the world have been listening – really listening – to politicians, for a change. Some politicians, that is. Jacinda Ardern, for one.
People everywhere have been moved by her comments, often to tears. She has been lauded for her demonstration of empathy and understanding of complex, emotionally charged issues that some others reduce to glib slogans.
How is it that the New Zealand prime minister is such a good speaker?
It’s because she is a good listener. Understanding and empathy, so lacking in much political discussion and debate, don’t come from being a good talker. They come from active, empathetic, inclusive listening.
I don’t wish to sound like yet another member of a movement to canonise Jacinda Ardern, but she stands as a good example of what people want from politicians. Policy, yes. Leadership, yes. But not a blustering, boasting, blowhard style of leadership focused on self-aggrandisement and berating and beating the opposition – a style of political discourse to which we are all too accustomed.
Leadership studies emphasise empathy. Princess Diana had it. Nelson Mandela had it. That did not make them weak. To the contrary, it made them strong and able to effect change.
Knowledge is important to produce informed policy. But understanding of people is also vital in a democracy. Understanding their affective (emotional) as well cognitive responses and their deepest concerns, fears and hopes requires listening. And listening to all sectors of society, not only elites and lobbyists.
Not listening is what led to Brexit
A research project I have led over the past four years inside a variety of political, government, corporate and non-government organisations has found 80% to 95% of communication resources are devoted to disseminating messages. That is, speaking, mostly about themselves. As little as 5% of the large investment by organisations in communication is devoted to listening.
Calling the referendum that resulted in Brexit was the result of not listening. The former Conservative government in the UK led by David Cameron did not understand the views and concerns of British people. How could that be when they spent money on research and a bevy of political advisers?
Research indicates three main reasons.
Many politicians and political parties rely heavily on polls with “tick a box” questions, and often small unrepresentative samples to measure support. But, as Brexit and the election of Donald Trump showed, polls often do not reflect the concerns or mood of a majority of citizens.
Politicians continue to play to traditional media, believing that media reflect public opinion, and that making headlines in newspapers or being on TV is a primary influence on people’s behaviour.
They rely on their political parties, not only for organisation, but as their “electorate” and “voice of the people”.
The problem for Australian politicians facing a federal election in May is that audience and influence of traditional media in Australia, and many Western countries, have been in severe decline for some time.
Journalism remains important – perhaps more important than ever. But many people, particularly young people and some major ethnic communities, get their information, news and advice from social media, peers and other sources.
The major political parties in Australia reportedly had 100,000 to 200,000 members in the 1950s, but that number had shrunk to less than 50,000 by 2013. In the UK, political party registration data reveal that the total membership of the three largest political parties amounts to just 1.6% of eligible voters.
In short, the goal posts and the sites of democratic participation have moved over the past decade or so – from major political parties and traditional mass media to social media, social movements, activist groups, special interest groups and small minority parties.
Studies of election campaigns show that politicians use social media primarily for posting slogans and political messages, rather than listening.
While some sites are “echo chambers” frequented by bots and fake accounts, there is also a large body of authentic public opinion voiced every day online – voices crying out to be listened to. There are also new types of community and environmental organisations that fall under the radar of mainstream politics.
Australia has not proved immune to the politics of democratic malaise. Australia’s leading institutions, including government, business, NGOs and media, are among the least trusted in the world at a time when Australia has experienced 27 years of economic growth.
The level of democratic satisfaction has decreased steadily across each of the last four governments from 86% in 2007 (John Howard), to 72% in 2010 (Kevin Rudd), 72% in 2013 (Tony Abbott) and 41% in July 2018 (Malcolm Turnbull).
By 2025, if current trends continue, fewer than 10% of Australians will trust their politicians and political institutions. The result will be ineffective and illegitimate government, and declining social and economic well-being. Whoever wins the 2019 federal election must address this problem as a matter of urgency.
Without trust we have diminished capacity to meet complex, long-term challenges. Weakening political trust erodes authority and civic engagement, reduces support for evidence-based public policies and promotes risk aversion in government.
This also creates the space for the rise of authoritarian-populist forces or other forms of independent representation. Hence the rise of populists such as Pauline Hanson and independents such as Cathy McGowan and Kerryn Phelps.
The reform project
Bridging the trust divide between citizens and government is no easy task. The results of our 2018 survey reveal the connection between the Australian people and their politicians is hanging by a rather tenuous thread. What needs to be done to reverse the decline?
A reform project aimed at bridging the trust divide must be framed by recognition not only of the scale of the problem but also its complexity. There are at least four dimensions to exploring the trust divide, which suggests we are tackling a very puzzling issue.
The first is that there is no one simple explanation for what drives or undermines political trust. The research on the issue of political trust is one of the most voluminous in the social sciences – the issue has been a concern in many countries for decades.
The literature can be loosely organised around demand-side and supply-side theories of trust.
Demand-side theories focus on how much individuals trust government and democratic politics and explore the key characteristics of the citizenry. What is it about citizens, such as their educational background, class, location, country or cohort of birth, that makes them trusting or not? What are the barriers to political engagement? And what makes citizens feel that their vote could deliver value?
In general, the strongest predictors of distrust continue to be attitudinal and are connected to negativity about politics.
Demand-side interventions therefore focus on overcoming various barriers to social, economic or political participation (or well-being). So most interventions tend to focus on dealing with issues of social disadvantage through education, labour market activation, public participation, improved representation, place-based service delivery and other forms of empowerment.
Supply-side theories of trust start from the premise that public trust must in some way correspond with the trustworthiness of government. The argument is that it is the performance (supply) of government that matters most in orienting the outlooks of citizens, together with its commitment to procedural fairness and quality.
Supply-side interventions therefore seek to enhance the integrity of government and politicians, and the quality and procedural fairness of service delivery or parliamentary processes through open government or good governance. This includes transparency, accountability, public service competence and anti-corruption measures.
A second part of bridging the divide between citizens and government is that reforms that seem to provide part of the solution can sometimes make the problem worse. Offering more participation or consultation can turn into a tokenistic exercise, which generates more cynicism and negativity among citizens.
Providing performance data – the bread and butter of modern government – so that citizens can judge if promises have been kept does not always produce more trust.
Rather, it can lead to government officials trying to manipulate the way citizens judge their performance. Positive data is given prominence, less helpful data sometimes hidden.
On the ground, frontline public servants and many citizens find the claims of success contrasting with their own more negative experiences. Far from promoting trust, the packaging of performance may in fact have contributed to the emergence of populism and loss of trust by citizens.
The implication of this observation is that the reform project needs to focus as much on the issues of democratic practice as the principles. Part of the ambition of the project is to establish mechanisms whereby good practice can be specified, elaborated and shared through learning. This means good practice becomes the norm rather than the exception.
In summary, the quality of democratic practice, as Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen has argued, is the key measure of the quality of a democratic culture: “formal rules are not enough without good democratic practice”.
A third part of the puzzle is who should be driving the push for change? In any reform movement there must be leaders of change. But are politicians the right group to lead the charge? If they are deeply implicated in the processes that led to the trust divide, can they be leaders of a more positive path forward?
It is difficult to imagine a substantial shift in political practice without politicians’ engagement. Yet the past decade has probably produced more instances of politicians trying to exploit the trust divide to garner support rather than attempts to resolve the issue.
The emergence of a populist trope – in which the hopeful politician presents themselves as the one who speaks the truth, is not part of the corrupt elite and who will get things done – in both established and challenger parties is one of the most dominant political trends of the last decade.
The reform project must therefore recognise that engagement with the increasingly isolated political class will be part of the dynamic needed for reform. But, equally, there will be a need to develop other partnerships with (among others) the public service, the media and the private and community sectors.
Above all, we need to engage citizens in the process. There can be no solution to the puzzle of political trust without their engagement.
A final and tricky part of the trust puzzle is that no-one is clear about what is the right level of trust. The twin enemies of democracy, it could be argued, are citizens who are either too cynical to engage or too naïve in providing support to the political system. What is the equilibrium point between political trust and distrust?
Survey respondents were asked to rate to what extent they agreed or disagreed with a number of statements on the topic of democratic reform drawn from across the political spectrum and featuring in reform programs internationally.
There was very strong support for democratic reforms that ensure greater integrity and transparency. Examples included limiting how much money can be spent on election campaigning and how much political parties and candidates can accept from donors (73%).
There was also very strong support for reforms to ensure greater political accountability of MPs and political parties to their electorates and members, such as free votes in parliament (60%), the right to recall local members (62%) and internal party reform that emphasises community preferences (60%). In addition, there was strong support for reforms that stimulate greater public participation such as the co-design of public services with citizens (71%) and citizen juries (60%).
The least popular democratic reforms proposed were those that had to do with quotas for demographic representation (such as by age, gender or ethnicity). When broken down by political alignment, Labor and Liberal views on reform are remarkably uniform. The greatest differences between parties on reform ideas can be found between Liberals and Nationals.
Democratic reform is ultimately about creating a space where Australians can reshape their democratic practices in ways that are better suited to the realities and challenges of the 21st century. The good news for political parties that take up the cause of democratic reform is that the citizenry is ready to take up the challenge.
A recent survey by Griffith University has found Australians’ trust in government is sliding. Trust and confidence in government fell in the last year to 46% at the federal and state levels.
There are also serious concerns about officials and politicians using their positions to benefit themselves or their families (62%), or favouring businesses and individuals in return for political donations or support (56%).
Worse still, there has been a 9% increase since 2016 in perceptions that federal members of parliament are corrupt (85% saying “some” are corrupt, 18% responding that “most/all” are corrupt).
What has caused the loss of public trust?
There is a public perception that a small elite is reaping large benefits in Australian society in terms of political influence and its flow-on dividends.
In Australia, the “game of mates” is flourishing. There’s now a revolving door in politics with many politicians, advisers and senior government officials leaving the public sector to become well-paid lobbyists.
Add to that the appointments of political “mates” to commissions, tribunals and cushy ambassadorships and the blatant misuse of parliamentary entitlements such as helicopter trips on taxpayer funds.
Political parties are also accepting millions of dollars in donations from lobbyists and others interested in influencing policy outcomes.
All of this adds to the perception that the system is rigged – and not in favour of the person on the street.
So, there is evidence of corruption in Australia?
The question is whether the perception of corruption is matched by reality.
Australia has fallen steadily in Transparency International’s global corruption index, from 8th place in 2012 to 13th this year. But even so, Australia is the 13th-least corrupt country in the world, which is still a respectable ranking.
More alarming is the fact that one in 20 Australian public servants said in a survey last year that they had seen a colleague acting in a corrupt manner. This figure has doubled in the past three years.
In the 1980s, there were incidences of large-scale corruption that rocked the country, culminating in the Fitzgerald Inquiry in Queensland and the WA Inc Royal Commission in Western Australia. These scandals led to the resignations and imprisonments of various former ministers and officials.
Another classic case of corruption exposed by the ICAC led to the downfall of former Newcastle lord mayor, Jeff McCloy. McCloy famously bragged that politicians treated him like a “walking ATM” and admitted to giving two MPs envelopes of cash amounting to AU$10,000.
There is also a question about what we don’t know. Many more politicians may be getting away with corrupt activities because Australia doesn’t have a federal anti-corruption body.
Do we need a federal anti-corruption commission?
In one word: yes.
All states have anti-corruption bodies that have brought to light many indiscretions by politicians that would have otherwise remained hidden. The federal government is lagging behind in this crucial area.
At the federal level, there is no transparency in backroom dealings by those in power, coupled with lax rules that can be abused. In these circumstances, corruption can take root without us knowing about it. An anti-corruption agency would be a powerful deterrent against improper behaviour.
There is strong public support for a federal anti-corruption body in the Griffith University survey, with two-thirds (67%) of Australians in favour of this.
The Labor Party has pledged to introduce a federal integrity commission if it wins the next election.
There are also other activities that do not amount to corruption, but nevertheless shows an undue influence on government. Ideally, a federal anti-corruption commission should sit alongside a broader package of reforms that impose stronger rules on lobbying and political donations, as well as a code of conduct for MPs, policed by an independent commissioner.
This would form an interlocking political integrity system that would keep the politicians honest.
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Our faith in government has been eroded by a lack of transparency and the perception that those in power are enjoying unfair benefits. Creating robust institutions, rules and processes that can act as checks and balances on governmental power is key to a vibrant democracy – and will be the first step towards rebuilding public trust.
This is an edited extract of The Knowledge Solution, out July 2 from mup.com.au.
It is a paradox of our modern democracy that we have the conditions and tools to enable our political system to work better than ever before, yet all that seems to be discussed today is its dysfunction.
In this country, people are, for the most part, relatively well educated and prosperous. In theory, that should encourage an interested and alert citizenry. The communications revolution empowers the electorate — or should. So much more information is available and instantly attainable than only a generation or two ago, including tools for monitoring events and debates and thus improving interaction and accountability. Today’s plethora of opinion polls ought to be positive for the process, providing constant feedback to decision-makers about what people think and want, and channels for voters to express their opinions.
Yet much of what should facilitate a smooth-running, engaged political system has helped corrode it. In politics, as in other aspects of life, abundance can be good but excess is often harmful. You can end up with too much of everything, and I think that’s what we’ve got in politics today.
We’re lumbered with what has been dubbed the continuous campaign, and that means, as Hugh Heclo, who was an academic expert on US democratic institutions, wrote in Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann’s The Permanent Campaign and its Future: “[e]very day is election day”.
The leaders never hang up their high-vis vests. This is debilitating for decision-making because, as Heclo notes, there is a difference between “campaigning” and “governing” — and it is exhausting for the public.
Leaders always have to strike a balance between the time they spend with their feet under the desk and the days their boots are on the road, but things seem out of kilter. The permanent campaign encourages short-termism and puts the focus on the immediate media grab and headlines. It fans the politics of negativity, accentuates the adversarial and makes for hyper-partisanship. And it stretches the patience and concentration of voters.
The modern 24-hour news cycle both enables and fosters the permanent campaign, providing platform and spur. Political leaders have given up previous aspirational talk about “not feeding the media beast”. Tony Abbott tried that (for a nano-second) and it did not work too well. Now they argue that if they leave a gap, their opponents will fill the vacuum. Seeing so much of their politicians close up (and often too personal for comfort) has alienated voters, rather than made them to want to involve themselves in the political process.
The ability always to command attention, when there is so much airtime available, also helps small players turn themselves into minor political celebrities. It’s a sign of the times that as voters have increasingly looked to minor parties, these often come with a personal branding. They have been based around individuals, whose names they have taken — Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, the Nick Xenophon Team (subsequently the Centre Alliance), the (now collapsed) Palmer United Party, the Jacqui Lambie Network. “Name” parties fit this age of celebrity. If they had been born in today’s world, the Australian Democrats might have been “The Don Chipp Party”, after their early leading light (and conveniently shortened to “Don’s Party”).
Far from providing a sophisticated channel of community feedback, constant polling has come to be a whip hand over leaders, especially if they are going through a difficult period. This can restrict their room to breathe — that is, to lead — and it is made for the media’s “horse race” coverage of politics.
It means policy is often framed with an eye to how it will go down in the short term, a point that bureaucrats are forced to take account of in their advice to government. At the same time, polling is used as a tool of advocacy, with special interests commissioning polls that seldom fail to get the results they want and will almost always find a market in the media. With the rise of cheap robo-polls, there is a lot more “junk” polling around.
The professionalisation of politics has been building for decades. It has penetrated everything: ministerial offices, messaging, campaigns, the recruitment of candidates, the operation of interest groups and the explosion of a commercial lobbying industry. The more politics is professionalised, the more “insider” it becomes, in the preoccupation with daily “tactics” and in its gene pool of players.
An increased proportion of parliamentarians comes from the political class, having served as staffers to MPs before preselection. The grip of factions within the parties and the shrinking size of the major parties foster the closed shop, giving a leg-up to the insiders when it comes to preselections.
The well-documented decline in the public’s trust in the political system not only makes governing more difficult, but also puts off potential political recruits. When we turn from excess to deficit, what’s lacking — and has been falling for some time — is this elusive but vital quality of trust, the bedrock of a democracy that’s in top health. A recent paper published by the Grattan Institute, A Crisis of Trust, examines the surge in the minor party vote. It concludes:
Culture and economics are insufficient to explain the rise in the minor party vote. The best evidence is that the rising minor party vote is largely driven by declining trust in government: the growing belief that government is increasingly conducted for the interests of the rulers rather than the ruled.
The matter of “respect” is core. From there we can segue to trust. So if we think about what can be done to improve the situation — recognising that it’s only a limited amount and might be beyond the players anyway — let’s begin with the challenge of politicians winning respect, and go to a very basic level.
Politicians behave badly and — thanks especially to the all-pervasive media and that decision all those years ago to allow the televising of parliament — ordinary people see and hear this, and they hate it. In a March 2018 speech, Australia’s former chief scientist Ian Chubb put his finger on it:
I can see on television the people we employ to work in our interests behave in a way we would not tolerate in our own small children. Sadly at a time when trust is so low, contempt so high, it appears they don’t even try to get better. They seem not to understand that trust is what we give them when they earn it, not what they get because they are where they happen to be.
It was notable that when the March 2018 scandal broke around Australian cricketers cheating in South Africa, commentators and members of the public immediately drew parallels with politics, where there is plenty of “cheating” with the truth. Then there is the cricketers’ “sledging” culture and the politicians’ similar practice.
Malcolm Turnbull told a news conference:
I think there has to be the strongest action taken against this practice of sledging. It has got right out of control, it should have no place … on a cricket field.
But when a journalist interjected, “Doesn’t it happen in parliament?” Turnbull let that pass without responding.
It’s a source of perennial wonderment to me that MPs are aware they are disgusting and infuriating the public by often conducting themselves, especially in parliament, like out-of-control adolescents, but they fail to curb this conduct.
Maybe it is the adrenaline of the chamber. Perhaps it is the pursuit of the parliamentary point. And admittedly, we are all living in a world where “anything goes” a lot more than was once the case. Whatever drives MPs, behaving in a manner that would be unacceptable in almost any other workplace is costly to them and to the political process — and could be easily changed by a bit of collective restraint. Sure, parliament will always have its moments, but chaos and insult-throwing should not be the norm.
This awareness should be extended to entitlements. The rules for these have been tightened in recent years after various scandals, and there is now an oversight body. But there is still an inability to understand the sniff test. The companion who accompanies Foreign Minister Julie Bishop to functions around Australia has been sponsored by the taxpayer to the tune of $35,000 over three years, which is within the parliamentary rules. Yet his assets do not appear on the MPs’ register of interests, as would those of a spouse or partner, because she has not defined him as her “partner”.
Parliamentarians should be paid well and have reasonable entitlements. But they should not try to have things every which way, and the public would respect them more if sometimes they, or those attached to them, put their hands in their own pockets.
Politicians’ reputations would also be enhanced if there were a better balance between partisanship and bipartisanship. It’s hard, made more so by the continuous campaign. But MPs will point out that behind the scenes — in committees, parliamentary special interest friendship groups and the like — there’s quite a bit of constructive working together.
It’s usually a different picture in the public arena. Voters would like to see some acknowledgement from time to time that the other side has had a good idea, and more co-operation on worthy projects. This would not at all diminish robust partisanship on core differences, and would improve the chances of achieving desirable reforms.
Politicians could alter the tone, as I have argued above. And they could better organise their workloads, and those of their offices. I appreciate how ministers have to keep up with the fast news cycle, but do staffers routinely have to be up at 4.30am? Do ministers have to make as many media appearances as they do, especially when often they are repeating the same “lines” that have been issued to them, or answering questions on someone else’s portfolio about which they have no personal knowledge? Is it necessary in non-election times to run around the country quite so much?
Excepting the positions of prime minister and treasurer, the job of most ministers is not bigger than that of a CEO of one of the top Australian companies. I suspect they could pare back their workload and their travel by say, one-fifth, and nobody would be saying they were not working diligently. They might even be more efficient.
When we consider how political parties should change to improve our democratic system, the answers run into vested interests, as well as the nature of modern society. Few people want to join the major parties. It’s not just that they are discouraged by factionalism and the powerlessness of the membership. More fundamentally, they have many other calls on their time, and (except for the truest of believers) organisations such as political parties have gone right out of fashion. When they want to be politically engaged, people nowadays tend to be more interested in specific issues, and limited activism or gestures (such as donating to GetUp), than in committing to what is often the drudgery of party membership.
Nonetheless, the withering of the major parties has dangers. Two examples make the point. It contributes to narrowing the sources from which parliamentary candidates are drawn. And with the ALP rank-and-file now having a 50 per cent say in the choice of party leader, a reduced base which is down to the hard core of that party could tilt the vote towards a candidate who has limited appeal to the broad electorate.
These parties will never be what they once were. But their leaders should try harder than they have for some improvement. Neither Bill Shorten nor Malcolm Turnbull has distinguished himself in this regard. An obvious step is to reduce the factional grip on pre-selections. But this must be genuine: it’s no good having “democratic” pre-selections effectively undermined by branch stacking.
There are other obvious, related, areas for change to improve faith in the system, such as more accountable, transparent and timely disclosure for political funding. Some attention is being given to these and they shouldn’t be particularly difficult.
Much talked about is the decline in the share of votes that major parties get, and the rise of the minors, whether they are born out of an issue (the Greens), or they are fundamentally a vehicle for protest and often based on a “name”. At one level, this can be seen as part of the fragmentation of modern life, that is also reflected in areas as diverse as the media and the industrial relations system. The fall in the vote for the major parties also reflects the “detribalisation” of politics and social mobility. People don’t “inherit” their vote from their parents as so many once did.
While the big parties (including here the Nationals as part of the Coalition) are diminished, we should remember that they are not dead. Federal electors still strongly support them. In the three most recent state elections — Queensland, Tasmania and South Australia — the outcomes were majority governments. For some voters, their decision is a choice between a desire for stability (represented by a vote for a major party) versus the urge to express their disenchantment (through an “insurgent” party).
There is no miracle cure for the lack of political trust that is now such a problem. That reflects not just political behaviour, but the more general cynicism of the times and an absence of faith in government. We seem as a community to be in a more bleak frame of mind than in some other periods. Contrast the mood now with that of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when voters were turning to Labor, optimistic that an ALP government would effect important change. If the polls are to be believed, Labor is well-placed to win the next federal election, but people aren’t thinking of a new government in anything like transformational terms.
Leadership can be an antidote to cynicism, though in contemporary politics perhaps only a partial one. Take the example of Bob Hawke as prime minister. People liked him and related to him, and he to them. And remember the commitment to reconciliation in his “reconciliation, recovery and reconstruction” mantra for the 1983 election.
Voters want both an agreed framework within which the political arguments are conducted, and where possible consensus around some of the paths forward.
The reader might well ask why I am putting the weight for spearheading reform on politicians, rather than, for instance, advocating as the priority that the media get its house in better order. I accept some will see this as a cop out, coming from a journalist. The reason is that I think in practical terms it is a fairly hopeless cause to look to the media as the lead agent of change that will promote trust and put our democracy into healthier shape. The collapse of the old business model in the media industry, fragmentation of the market, the nature of news in the modern world, the celebrity culture — all work against that. But if the politicians took a higher road, at least there would be pressure on the media to follow.
Our democratic system is resilient but under strain. As we view it, the critical thing is not to let cynicism get the better of us.
Indeed, Australian data privacy laws are generally weak when compared with those in the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union. They fall short in both specific exemptions for politicians, and because individuals cannot enforce laws even where they do exist.
While Australia’s major political parties have denied using the services of Cambridge Analytica, they do engage in substantial data operations – including the Liberal Party’s use of the i360 app in the recent South Australian election. How well this microtargeting of voters works to sway political views is disputed, but the claims are credible enough to spur demand for these tools.
Greens leader Richard di Natale told RN Breakfast this morning that political parties “shouldn’t be let off the hook”:
All political parties use databases to engage with voters, but they’re exempt from privacy laws so there’s no transparency about what anybody’s doing. And that’s why it’s really important that we go back, remove those exemptions, ensure that there’s some transparency, and allow people to decide whether they think it’s appropriate.
Why should politicians be exempt from privacy laws?
The exemption for politicians was introduced way back in the Privacy Amendment (Private Sector) Bill 2000. The Attorney-General at the time, Daryl Williams, justified the exemption on the basis that freedom of political communication was vital to Australia’s democratic process. He said the exemption was:
…designed to encourage that freedom and enhance the operation of the electoral and political process in Australia.
Malcolm Crompton, the then Privacy Commissioner, argued against the exemption, stating that political institutions:
…should follow the same practices and principles that are required in the wider community.
Other politicians from outside the two main parties, such as Senator Natasha Stott Despoja in 2006, have tried to remove the exemptions for similar reasons, but failed to gain support from the major parties.
What laws are politicians exempt from?
The Privacy Act gives you control over the way your personal information is handled, including knowing why your personal information is being collected, how it will be used, and to whom it will be disclosed. It also allows to you to make a complaint (but not take legal action) if you think your personal information has been mishandled.
Under the Spam Act 2003, organisations cannot email you advertisements without your request or consent. They must also include an unsubscribe notice at the end of a spam message, which allows you to opt out of unwanted repeat messaging. However, the Act says that it has no effect on “implied freedom of political communication”.
Do Not Call Register
Even if you have your number listed on the Do Not Call Register, a political party or candidate can authorise a call to you, at home or at work, if one purpose is fundraising. It also permits other uses.
Citizens can sue for some version of a breach of privacy in the UK, EU, US, Canada and even New Zealand. But there is still no constitutional or legal right that an individual (or class) can enforce over intrusion of privacy in Australia.
After exhaustive consultations in 2008 and 2014, the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) recommended a modest and carefully limited statutory tort – a right to dispute a serious breach of privacy in court. However, both major parties effectively rejected the ALRC recommendation.
No ‘legal standing’ in the US
Legal standing refers to the right to be a party to legal proceedings. As the tech giants that are most adept at gathering and using user data – Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon – are based in the US, Australians generally do not have legal standing to bring action against them if they suspect a privacy violation. EU citizens, by contrast, have the benefit of the Judicial Redress Act 2015 (US) for some potential misuses of cloud-hosted data.
Poor policing of consent agreements
Consent agreements – such as the terms and conditions you agree to when you sign up for a service, such as Gmail or Messenger – waive rights that individuals might otherwise enjoy under privacy laws. In its response to the Cambridge Analytica debacle, Facebook claims that users consented to the use of their data.
But these broad user consent agreements are not policed strictly enough in Australia. It’s known as “bad consent” when protective features are absent from these agreements. By contrast, a “good consent” agreement should be simple, safe and precautionary by default. That means it should be clear about its terms and give users the ability to enforce them, should not be variable, and should allow users to revoke consent at any time.
New laws introduced by the EU – the General Data Protection Regulation – which come into effect on May 25, are an example of how countries can protect their citizens’ data offshore.
Major parties don’t want change
Privacy Commissioner Tim Pilgrim said today in The Guardian that the political exemption should be reconsidered. In the past, independents and minor party representatives have objected to the exemption, as well as the weakness of Australian privacy laws more generally. In 2001, the High Court said that there should be a right to sue for privacy breach.
But both Liberal and Labor are often in tacit agreement to do nothing substantial about privacy rights. They have not taken up the debates around the collapse of IT security, nor the increase in abuse of the “consent” model, the dangers of so called “open data”, or the threats from artificial intelligence, Big Data, and metadata retention.
One might speculate that this is because they share a vested interest in making use of voter data for the purpose of campaigning and governing. It’s now time for a new discussion about the rules around privacy and politics in Australia – one in which the privacy interests of individuals are front and centre.
New South Wales senator Sam Dastyari has been appropriately disciplined by Labor leader Bill Shorten for exercising poor judgement in his interactions with a Chinese businessman who is not an Australian citizen.
Dastyari has been sacked from his position as deputy Senate whip. This is his second demotion in little more than a year after having fallen foul of acceptable standards of political conduct.
On that first occasion – confirmed by the release this week of a tape recording – Dastyari contradicted his own party’s policy that is critical of China’s activities in the South China Sea.
Compounding his difficulties, he had also accepted a A$5,000 donation from the Chinese businessman mentioned above to meet personal legal obligations.
On this latest occasion, it’s alleged that Dastyari went to the businessman’s house and advised him that conversations between the two needed to be conducted beyond the range of their mobile phones so as to avoid eavesdropping by Australia’s intelligence services.
Dastyari insists that he was not passing on classified information, but the very fact he was alerting a foreign businessman to the possibility of his phone being tapped by the security agencies justifies his sacking.
This was an act of stupidity, if not disloyalty, for an elected representative who claims he has nothing to hide.
The episode also calls Shorten’s management into question. Dastyari should not have been returned to a leadership role so quickly after his first display of poor judgement.
After his earlier demotion he spent just five months on the backbench. He should now remain there for a long time.
Need for clarity
In all of this there is a much bigger issue, and one that requires urgent attention. This is especially so given China’s continued rise, and its persistent efforts to influence politics among its neighbours.
As an important regional player, Australia is far from immune from Chinese “money” politics.
What is required as a matter of urgency is legislation that bans all foreign political donations, along with a separate register of lobbyists who are operating on behalf of foreign entities.
The Dastyari episode should have brought home to the government of the day the need for clear-cut protocols to preclude the possibility of foreign money tainting the political process.
Labor and the Greens have proposed legislation that would ban all foreign political donations. The government is now saying – belatedly – that it will advance legislation in the new year to bring this about. No reasonable argument exists to delay this process.
At the same time, government and opposition should prioritise the establishment of a National Integrity Commission – similar to state-based independent commissions against corruption – to bolster public confidence in the political process, now at a low ebb.
In a research paper, the Parliamentary Library points out that Australia is “one of the few countries where donations from foreign interest political parties or candidates is not prohibited”.
In defining “foreign interests”, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance includes entities that “contribute directly or indirectly [and who] are governments, corporations, organisations or individuals who are not citizens; that do not reside in the country or have a large share of foreign ownership”.
That wording would seem to be a reasonable model for Australian legislation.
Of English-speaking democracies, only New Zealand allows overseas donations to parties, but these are capped at NZ$1,500.
The Dastyari episode underscores the need for clear-cut rules to prevent those with links to foreign governments from using money to influence the political process.
The billionaire Huang, whose applications for Australian citizenship have been blocked by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, has deep connections in China’s ruling Communist Party.
None of this should be viewed as surprising, or necessarily cause for alarm, but what should be regarded as completely unacceptable is the use of money by foreign donors to influence policy in the service of a foreign government.
In Huang’s case, he withdrew a $400,000 funding pledge after Labor’s then-defence spokesman Stephen Conroy sharply criticised China’s territorial encroachments in the South China Sea.
What is required is clarity around foreign political donations. Politics and self-interest should not be allowed to stand in the way of reasonable steps to put in place regulations that ban all such donations.
In the Senate today, in several personal explanations, Dastyari insisted that he had not passed classified information to Huang, and that indeed he had never received briefings about relations with China that would have enabled him to do so.
That may well be the case, but perceptions in this case are fairly devastating.
Questions remain, such as:
Why did Dastyari need to go to the Chinese businessman’s house in the first place?
What did he need to tell Huang out of range of their mobile phones?
Who leaked the information about the encounter to Fairfax Media?
Was it leaked by a government agency for political purposes?
The point is this story has, potentially, some way to run, and may yet result in unexpected further developments.
What the whole unfortunate episode demonstrates is that public officials need to avoid carelessness in their interactions with anyone who might represent a foreign government. This is especially so in the case of a country whose methods of doing business politically are not aligned with those of Australia.
Finally, in his interactions with Huang, Dastyari may have served his interests better if he had familiarised himself with the example of the former Labor national secretary during the Gough Whitlam era.
David Combe served in the contentious period between 1973 and 1981, during which, it is alleged, he had sought financial assistance from Iraq for Labor’s losing 1975 election campaign. That support did not materialise, but revelations that it had been canvassed at all severely embarrassed Labor.
After he relinquished his role as national secretary, Combe developed a lobbying business and in the process was befriended by a Soviet embassy official in Canberra whom it later emerged was a KGB agent.
In 1983, Prime Minister Bob Hawke expelled the Soviet official. A cloud descended on Combe, who was later found by the Hope royal xommission not to have compromised Australia’s security.
However, if there is a lesson in the Combe and Dastyari episodes it is that those in positions of public trust cannot be too careful in the company they keep.
Labelled a stunt by many and ignored by Tony Abbott, a proposed political debate between Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott didn’t happen at the National Press Club today. The debate was proposed by Kevin Rudd, but Tony Abbott wanted nothing to do with it. So instead of a debate, Kevin Rudd delivered an address on the economy. The link below is to an article that reports on the address.
Meanwhile, in Queensland the great politicians pay rise debate has continued with the premier now taking ‘action.’
Then of course there was more Kevin Rudd bashing by all and sundry. This time over a Twitter photo. My take – what’s wrong with Kevin Rudd being human and normal. I think the whiners need to take a long cold shower.