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Democracy in decline: Australia’s slide into ‘competitive authoritarianism’

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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  1. New England Cocky

    It’s time!! Again!! Take this opportunity to rectify the mistakes of 2019 when you attend the polling booth by:
    1) Vote above the line for all candidates on the Senate (large) ballot paper in your order of preference and insure that sitting COALition politicians are given the highest numbers.
    2) On the Hose of Reps ballot paper, in city electorates vote the Liarbrals last by giving them the highest number and in country electorates vote credible local Independent or SFF as ”1” with the highest number going to the Nazional$ candidate.
    3) Maybe we can just save Australian democracy for our grandkids.

  2. Bob

    Lucy, exactly “competitive authoritarianism” – with Labor one wing of the wounded duck and LNP the other. Head on over to Zeee Media and type ‘election week’ into the Search bar to gather a few different insights into how to fix this mess. We need a Greater Reset whereby Labor and LNP are put in their place for one election cycle in the hope they learn something about the democratic process while they sit dumbfounded in the wilderness.

  3. totaram

    Dear Bob. I went to the Zee media website. There is no search bar. Please explain YOUR Greater Reset or tell us where we can find out about it.

  4. GL


    Will you please stop posting liks to rabid conspiracy tin foil hat loonie sites.

    “In 2021, I decided to launch Zeee Media which has quickly evolved into one of the most trusted, uncensored sources of information in Australia.” I’ve never heard this site, let alone Maria Zeee! Another way out on the fringe dweller and easily ignored piece of nuttery.

  5. Bob

    Hi totaram, try Zeeemedia com new-interview-page then type ‘election’ in Search field for a listing. I found IMOP, particularly Michael O’Neill, Lib Democrats, Great Aust Party, Aust Values Party, Aus Federation Party hold interesting views. As far as “YOUR Greater Reset” goes, think of it this way: It is not ‘my’ Greater Reset anymore than it will be ‘yours’. The self-centred oinks in the major parties and their media fanbase need a lesson in humanity. If enough voters put the Freedom Friendly parties first and the majors last, then that would be the first step in the direction of a Greater Reset. I understand the preference system will see enough votes eventually land with Labor for them to hold balance of power, but if enough FF members get elected in the Senate then some hard questions are going to get asked of MPs and feral bureaucrats like TGAs Skerritt. And isn’t it about time that happened? The alternative is to fall in line with the plan and vote Lib-Lab back in and get fubared by the WEFs Great Reset/WHO Pandemic-Treaty-time-to-lose-your-National-Sovereignty agenda. The WHO votes on its plan to destroy our sovereignty the week after the election. I vote for a strong independent Senate pushing back on idiots.
    GL, be responsible for your own actions so stop blaming me for you following any links I post.

  6. GL


    “GL, be responsible for your own actions so stop blaming me for you following any links I post.” That is very childish and petulant. You might as well have said, “Here’s a site and/or links but don’t visit it!”

  7. Andrew J. Smith

    Recall original in Pears & Irritations and of late more relevant events, neo culture wars and issues have emerged, all with the linkage of US transnational Koch ‘Atlas’ Network like think tanks in the Anglosphere, Hungary etc. and network of influencers in media and politics.

    As Jane Mayer has explained, for nativist authoritarian &/or libertarian policies need the complicity of ageing conservative voters focused on sociocultural issues, and themselves, to vote against the future and their own descendents.

    In Australia we now have gender based dog whistling aka Heritage Foundation script (UK Trade Envoy Abbott & former PM has presented) of which locally another Atlas Network think tank CIS also indulges in as does the IPA

    Then late news another think tanker i.e. UK Foreign Minister Truss who is linked to the 55 Tufton St. think tanks in Atlas network behind Brexit e.g. IEA (again Abbott has liaised), Taxpayers’ Alliance, Global Warming Policy Foundation now Net Zero Watch & (allegedly) Tanton Network linked Migration Watch, now appears to be putting a bomb under the EU-NI Protocols; ‘flipping the bird’ at Biden-Dems, EU and Ireland.

    Open Democracy UK has focused upon the same regarding modus operandi, policy targets and funding, in this case Net Zero Watch:

    From the excellent investigative outfit in UK The Byline Times ‘LIZ TRUSS The Tufton Street Candidate – Sam Bright – 18 January 2022:

    These organisations are bound by their support for Brexit – the Vote Leave campaign was originally registered at 55 Tufton Street – and their vigour for low taxes, laissez faire economics, a smaller state, and seemingly close relationship with Liz Truss.

    Liz Truss: The Tufton Street Candidate

  8. Andrew J. Smith

    Speaking of Hungary, a think tank funded by the government is very popular in the Anglosphere inc. Australians, and Anne Applebaum called out the ‘Visiting Fellows’.

    From SMH (2019): ‘*Why Australia’s conservatives are finding friends in Hungary. When Tony Abbott gave two speeches in Hungary last month, it prompted an outcry from his usual progressive critics. They were alarmed by the former prime minister’s talk of migrants “swarming across the borders in Europe”, invoking the dangerous old notion of immigrants as pests or vermin.

    Abbott was not the only senior Australian figure to appear in Budapest recently. He was preceded by Alexander Downer, the former Liberal foreign affairs minister, whose address to a migration summit in March was perhaps even more incendiary.*’

    Tweet from Anne Applebaum on 3 April: ‘If you work for the Orban-funded Danube Institute, or are/were enjoying a fellowship there, your views on Viktor Orban and the Hungarian elections should be taken with a grain of salt and a raised eyebrow. Just saying‘.

    Finally, US based SPLC Southern Poverty Law Center on Hungary and upcoming CPAC event:

    ‘American conservatives announced plans to rally behind Hungary’s far-right Prime Minister Viktor Orbán through the high-profile network Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), a sign that their movement has increasingly embraced a hard-right, authoritarian worldview following Donald Trump’s presidency.’

  9. Albos Elbow

    Angus Taylor, the Minister for Burning Fossil Fuels, has also stacked the Australian Hydrogen Council with mining, oil, gas and petrol company executives.

    In Australia, “Clean Hydrogen” is a lie and a hoax and part of a concerted global effort by corrupt governments and oil, petroleum gas and coal companies to produce Black Hydrogen by burning fossil fuels. The Black Hydrogen will then be mixed with petroleum gas for burning.

    The Minister for Burning Fossil Fuels also continues to promote Carbon Capture and Storage fairytales. Carbon capture and storage has never worked and will never work, especially on the scale needed to reach net zero globally.

    Back Hydrogen is intended to prolong and extend petroleum gas and fossil fuel industries and build billions of dollars worth of unnecessary petroleum gas pipelines using taxpayer funding.

    The Black Hydrogen will be mixed at the ratio of 5-10% to 90-95% with petroleum gas for burning.

    99% of the world’s BLACK Hydrogen is currently produced by fossil fuels, not renewable energy. Less than 1% of Hydrogen today is actually made from renewable energy and its only used in combination with petroleum gas to greenwash fossil fuel burning with massive increases in carbon emissions.

    BLACK Hydrogen will of course, lead to much greater carbon emissions, not less, and blow any chance of Australia or the rest of the world meeting Net Zero by 2050.

    Renewable energy systems are still the best alternative.

  10. calculus witherspoon.

    I figured it had to be written by an intelligent and well trained mind.This article represents the mind unpolluted, capable of offering that rartest of creatures, to do with “vision”.

    Woinderful, organised overview.

  11. Bob

    calculus w, agree, good insights by Lucy. Albos, agree with your view in general. One thing though, solar and wind are not that reliable. The UN has declared their vision of a zero carbon world as just around the corner yet it is hard to see how wind and solar farms will go anywhere near replacing traditional power gen sources. And good luck first world economies getting wide access to petroleum products post-2030. One technology that holds more than a little promise is Low Energy Nuclear Reactions (LENR). Rather than chase proven dud techs like Carbon Capture into the quagmire of wasted capital based on fantasy projections it would be good if research into LENR was fast-tracked. The parasite class will not have a bar of this idea for obvious reasons. GL, at first your comment didn’t make sense but magically after a few hours it does. The above message to Albos you can read as follows: “Here’s an idea about researching the use of LENR tech but don’t look into it GL. There, fixed.

  12. Kaye Lee

    “it is hard to see how wind and solar farms will go anywhere near replacing traditional power gen sources.”

    No it’s not. Renewable energy, storage, energy efficiency, demand flexibility, using electric vehicles as batteries, better transmission and interconnectors.

    We have this technology now – onshore wind, offshore wind, solar panels, solar thermal power, geothermal, hydropower, burning municipal or industrial or agricultural wastes. The power source is free.

    LENR is, at this stage, an experimental theory at best and no use whatsoever in the ten years we have left to turn this around.

  13. GL

    “Here’s an idea about researching the use of LENR tech but don’t look into it GL. There, fixed.” Even more childish than yesterday.

    LENR, basically just a rebranding of the generally debunked cold fusion, were to be given a second go around it would be decades as it makes its way painstakingly through the rigors of the scientific method to commercial (and no doubt weapons) use and as Kaye Lee said, “…theory at best and no use whatsoever in the ten years we have left to turn this around.”

    Fusion research still in it’s infancy, so to speak, is streets ahead of LENR:

  14. Bob

    True Kaye, ‘we have the tech now’ and ‘the power source is free’ but limiting factors include the lack of base load reliability. If Aust had no heavy industry we could probably get by with renewables, but until LNP-Labor completely destroy the last vestiges of industry we will rely on coal/gas to supply base loads. The US Defence Intelligence Agency put out a paper back in 2009 “For years, scientists were intrigued by the possibility of producing large amounts of clean energy through LENR, and now this research has begun to be accepted in the scientific community as reproducible and legitimate.” Now, 13 years on, I can only imagine how advanced and practical this tech is running. There are probably 2 parallels battles happening at the moment in this field: 1. how to continue hiding the LENR tech from the public so they continue to squabble about renewables vs fossils; 2. how to maximize profits from the public once LENR is released.
    GL, had a quick look at the links and I think LENR has more potential, therefore, you know how it goes.

  15. Kaye Lee

    No-one in the industry talks about base load power – that is the province of right wing commentators and politicians.

    “Technology has moved on from base load, and now you want flexible power. And that’s what demand management, batteries and pumped hydro is,” says Professor Andrew Blakers, director of the ANU Centre for Sustainable Energy Systems.

    “If you have an increase in demand, a coal power station will take hours [to meet it], a gas turbine 20 to 30 minutes, batteries about a second, demand management about a second, and pumped hydro will take anywhere between 20 seconds and two minutes.”

    Researchers say a combination of these rapid response, dynamic power sources is the future of power generation.

    “All this talk about ‘you’ve got to have baseload power stations’ is complete nonsense,” says Dr Mark Diesendorf.

    “It’s a dinosaur.”

  16. Bob

    Kaye, the anti-dinosaurist professor you cite, I agree with him on certain points, The Conversation 28 April 2022: ‘Net zero by 2050 will hit a major timing problem technology can’t solve. We need to talk about cutting consumption’. “These policies would actually cut consumption – a carbon tax and additional environmental taxes – wealth and inheritance taxes – a shorter working week to share the work around – a job guarantee at the basic wage for all adults who want to work and who can’t find a job in the formal economy – non-coercive policies to end population growth, especially in high income countries – boosting government spending on poverty reduction, green infrastructure and public services as part of a shift to Universal Basic Services.” Long story short, Dr Mark is an eugenist who wants to increase taxes and drop people on UBI. How do you think the details of his ideas will fly with the public?

  17. Kaye Lee

    Tomago Aluminium, Australia’s largest aluminium smelter, has said it plans to switch to “for all intents and purposes 100% renewable” energy supply in 2029

    Advances are being made in green steel, green cement, and heavy duty transport

    Green goals for heavy industries in the energy transition

    Green hydrogen could make a big difference if they can get it commercially viable.

    By all means continue research but don’t walk past a horse in search of a unicorn.

  18. Kaye Lee


    Are we talking about baseload power or not?

    (Gish Gallop alert)

  19. Bob

    Kaye, no doubt businesses are casting around for the best fin-tech option that fits the legislative landscape.
    Re that Tomago plan kicks in 2028, I wonder if it includes LENR.
    Baseload? No, have to spend the remaining time today researching my next petrol-powered fishing trip.

  20. Albos Elbow

    Bob, at the risk of repeating myself, renewable energy can be used to supply 100% of our energy needs right now. Tasmania and ACT are already on 100% renewables. They reached net zero, 100% renewables in 2020.,wind%20and%20hydro%2Delectricity%20projects.

    When the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing you can get electricity from battery or pumped hydro. No need to burn fossil fuels. The wind does blow after dark, we get gale force winds any time of the day in some parts of Australia.

    Its a political issue, not a technical one, because people’s jobs are at stake. I get that. That’s why we can have a transition/transformation plan to move from coal to renewables by 2030, not January 2023.

    Anyone can move their home to 100% renewable energy right now and pay wholesale renewable energy prices by joining community energy suppliers like you don’t even need solar panels or a battery.

    For more information, please visit the website or contact or and get started on saving hundreds of dollars on your energy bills, reducing your carbon emissions and helping move to net zero sooner.

    Please also share this post to help spread the news about the positive change in energy that is gaining very good momentum.

  21. GL


    “Long story short, Dr Mark is an eugenist who wants to increase taxes and drop people on UBI. How do you think the details of his ideas will fly with the public?” Where’s your evidence to back that, that dare I say bullshit, statement or is just another one of your opinions?

    How did you manage to twist Universal Basic SERVICES ( into Universal Basic Income (

  22. Kaye Lee

    “Re that Tomago plan kicks in 2028, I wonder if it includes LENR.”

    They are dealing with AGL and since no-one in the world has worked out how to make electricity using LENR outside a lab, I very much doubt it is part of their contract negotiations.

    PS Nice duck and weave on the baseload

  23. totaram

    Kaye Lee: Baseload has always been a nice word used to bamboozle the sadly uninformed. Here is the definition or multiple definitions of baseload and you can add others if you like.

    The point is that baseload is different from day to day and week to week, in any supply area. So what is the meaning of “baseload power”? Just ask anyone to DEFINE it so that we can measure it in actual numerical terms. They can’t.

    As someone who spent many years doing investment analysis for alternative investments in electrical power sectors, I can assure you that “baseload” power is even more dodgy than you think. It is only convenient for doing back-of-the-envelope rough calculations. Nothing more.

  24. Albos Elbow

    LENR has already been rejected by the EU and US as not being a viable option.

    Its by far the most dangerous and expensive option and LENR or Small Nuclear facilities take up to 20 years to establish.
    Noone wants one in their backyard.

  25. Kaye Lee

    From my reading, the term baseload was more about the minimum that coal-fired power stations had to sell to be profitable.

    “Researchers argue that this “base load” of supply from coal-fired power stations has been falsely translated as a baseline of consumer demand.”

    We can do so much more to cope with short periods of peak demand by improving demand management in industries.

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