Australia is at a critical point. A government that would cling to power to impose unpopular policy threatens the very nature of our democracy.
It is common to refer to countries that were “consolidated democracies” as corroding to “illiberal democracies”. Hungary is the most notable example. If, however, the term “competitive authoritarianism” is employed to describe regimes instead, it becomes clear that the danger for Australia is just as strong as it is for the USA and the UK, as well as for Hungary.
Levitsky and Way coined the term in 2002 to describe states where the democratic process still appeared to function but where the incumbents had nearly insuperable advantages. The main strategies described are the misuse of government funds to swing elections, disinformation, the distorting complicity of the most prominent media and the placing of partisans in key “referee” roles.
Levitsky and Way chose to use this term, because they felt that “illiberal democracy” placed these regimes within the array of democratic nations. “Competitive authoritarianism” by contrast shows that these governments no longer seek to honour the democratic tradition for which our societies have aimed.
The misuse of federal government money to distort electoral outcomes has been documented in startling detail in Morrison’s Coalition government. Professor Anne Twomey recently described the growth in money wasted this way as “exponential”. From sports rorts to car parks, the “pork barreling” is estimated to amount to billions of dollars so far.
Scott Morrison’s “miracle” victory in 2019 was as much about the misuse of taxpayer money, amplified by Clive Palmer’s $83 million disinformation campaign, as any divine intervention.
It is hardly surprising, in light of this, that the Coalition is adamantly opposed to a functioning federal anti-corruption commission. Unlike Labor’s preferred model, the government’s “Commonwealth Integrity Commission” actively shields politicians and public servants making it almost impossible to begin investigations and shrouding the results in secrecy.
The shameless lies and empty announcements that make up much of the Coalition government’s activity have been partially documented in Crikey’s “A dossier of lies and falsehoods”. Crikey believes itself driven to act because of the regularity of Morrison’s lies, the brazenness and the lack of accountability.
Morrison’s ministers have also been tracked over the years misleading the public regularly over climate issues, human rights and their own integrity.
The lack of transparency and accountability in the government is in part possible because Australia has the least diversity in its media ownership of any ostensibly “developed” nation. While the government has not confiscated opposing news outlets like Orban in Hungary, the ability for Australians to hear contrasting interpretations of government action is limited. News Corp owns approximately 100 physical and digital newspapers. Former prime ministers Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd have been speaking urgently in recent times about the toxic impact that Rupert Murdoch’s interventions have on Australian democracy.
Add to News Corp the shift in former Fairfax outlets’ reporting since it joined the Nine group. Former Liberal treasurer and Nine chairman Peter Costello has reportedly “assumed a greater role in the day-to-day running” of the media corporation this year and Nine never signed the Fairfax charter of editorial independence. Kerry Stokes at Seven West Media is reportedly happy to run sections of his media empire at a loss in exchange for political power.
Murdoch has long stated that the internet allows enough diversity of voices to counter his extensive control over traditional media platforms in Australia – including Sky’s expansion into country Australia with its recent free-to-air deals – but the pandemic era has made very clear the limitations of the internet in privileging reliable information over radicalising conspiracy theories.
Between the continued threat of further funding cuts, political pressure, legal action and politicised board appointments, the ABC is experiencing constant intimidation and crippling undermining of its independence. Schwartz Media’s The Saturday Paper and other online outlets have limited capacity to counter the narrative carried by the corporate platforms.
These distortions are amplified by the horrifying impacts on reporting that Australia’s secretive national security state is enforcing. In a report released this week by Get Up, academics Hardy, Ananian-Welsh and McGarrity document in chilling detail the “5000 pages of powers, rules and offences” that have been imposed on the nation since 9/11, markedly more than our Five Eyes partners.
The most startling public manifestations of these laws took place in Australian Federal Polic raids on reporters homes and work places, as well as the secret trials taking place of whistleblowers witnesses K and J, and lawyer Bernard Collaery. The government’s counter terrorism powers and “a growing culture of government secrecy” strike at the ability of journalists to report and the public to understand the nature of the government for which we vote.
It was under Peter Dutton and Mike Pezzullo’s super department Home Affairs that the most troubling repressive regulations escalated. In 2019, the Civicus Monitor downgraded Australia’s civic space and its “respect for fundamental freedoms” from “open” to “narrowed”.
Now the Coalition is imposing regulations to prevent charities from speaking out too, in a move reminiscent of Putin.
A key strategy in a “competitive authoritarian” regime is placing partisan figures in key roles. In public service, the courts, statutory bodies. Professor Glyn Davis in his 2021 Jim Carlton Lecture documented the crucial work needed to restore senior public servants to the role of respected independent authorities in developing policy. Jack Waterford detailed the fact that even on critical pandemic decisions, Morrison has steered decision making to achieve his own goals rather than recognising epidemiological best practice.
Energy Minister Angus Taylor has stacked the bodies in charge of transforming Australia to a post fossil fuel economy with sector lobbyists and executives. The Bureau of Meteorology and the CSIRO are both compromised by lobbyist appointments. The various “pork barrelling” scandals have further revealed the poor state of our statutory bodies’ independence. The Administrative Appeals Tribunal, which has power over 400 Commonwealth acts and legislative functions in a vast array of fields, has been stacked over the decade with “failed Liberal candidates, unemployed political staffers, and party donors”. The new human rights commissioner is another IPA figure, appointed without a transparent selection process, threatening our standing with the UN.
In 2020 comments, Levitsky and Way observed their shock that the oppressive regimes the West fought to bring into the “free world” had infected us with their oppressions rather than bringing our “freedom” to their borders. They also expressed their surprise that so many voters in democratic nations were calling for an end to the contest of platforms that elections are supposed to represent.
The Coalition government is clearly not interested in implementing their own rotten model of a federal anti-corruption commission. Change is going to take a Labor election victory with a commitment to overhauling the ways that Australia has slid so far down the path towards a “competitive authoritarian” regime.
Labor’s ICAC model is an excellent one and must be implemented in full on an ALP government taking power. It must be accompanied by a stronger code of conduct that shuts down the revolving door between the private sector, lobbyists and government. We need a thorough overhaul of our political donations arrangement: they should be limited to $3000 with backdoors like the parties’ “corporate memberships” and grandfathered exemptions closed.
We need the findings of the Thodey report into restructuring the public service implemented.
Zali Steggall’s Climate Change Bill also works to limit the degree to which the fossil fuel sector overrides the voters’ will in Australia’s critical energy decision-making.
Home Affairs’ steps towards a police state with increasing surveillance powers, attacks on transparency and efforts towards limiting public protest mean that citizens can no longer trust that our “rights” will be protected without an explicit bill to codify and defend them.
While it is undoubtedly too difficult to reinstate media diversity restrictions, we must debate the ways the nation strengthens balancing voices to the overwhelmingly dominant duopoly of News Corp and Nine.
Australia’s future hangs in the balance: the struggles facing us over climate crisis directions in particular endanger our ability to vote out a government determined to crush transparency and protest. It is by recognising the concept of “competitive authoritarianism” that we can truly see the breadth of the risk we face and the urgency of addressing the threat.
This article was originally published on Pearls and Irritations.
Lucy Hamilton is a Melbourne writer with degrees from the University of Melbourne and Monash University.
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