“There’s no doubt that since the Abbott government took power, there has been a reduction in personal freedoms, and a corresponding increase in government power” writes Kate M. Where will this continual chipping away at our personal freedoms in favour of government power lead us?
If a fifth-grader can see it, shouldn’t we be paying attention?
Earlier this week, a ten year old boy who had been watching WW2 movies, made a connection between the way the Nazis attacked freedom of speech and the way in which Tony Abbott been trying to “control what we see” on the ABC.
I have to confess that as a general rule, when I see comparisons to Hitler and the Nazis in a political discussion, I think the tone of the discussion has become a bit too extreme. But if a fifth-grader can make that connection – should the rest of us not take a long hard look at what’s going on? Should we not consider the possibility that perhaps the actions of the current Liberal government have taken us way too far to the right?
So is Australia a Fascist State?
Well clearly it isn’t. Unless I slept through a coup, we all still have the right to vote, the right to tweet, the right to speak our mind, the right to sit in a #QandA audience – at least most of us do. In other words, we all still have many of the freedoms that populations of other less democratic countries around the world – like Egypt – covet.
BUT . . . there’s no doubt that since the Abbott government took power, there has been a reduction in personal freedoms, and a corresponding increase in government power. And whilst we are nowhere near being a Fascist state like Nazi Germany right now – and hopefully never will be – these things typically don’t happen overnight. Instead they happen bit by bit. And with each ‘little’ personal freedom we give up – whether it’s the right to report abuse in a detention center, or the right to access whatever internet site we want to – we shift the scales in favour of the state, and give up our individual rights.
So how far along the spectrum have we gone? I’ve taken a look at four key characteristics of the most renowned Fascist state of recent time – the Nazis – to see how we’re travelling against them.
1. Replacing Truth with Propaganda
We don’t really call it propaganda anymore – we call it ‘spin’ or ‘truthiness’. And the difference between truth and propaganda (or truthiness), is that the later ignores pesky things like facts, evidence or logic. All truthiness requires is a general ‘feel’ of ‘truth’, not actual truth, making it much easier for politicians to work with.
Here’s some of the ways our politicians are replacing truth with truthiness.
They say whatever supports their point at the time, regardless of whether it’s consistent with what they’ve previously said.
When you’re using truthiness instead of truth, it isn’t restricted by fact, logic or alignment with anything you’ve previously said – even within a relatively short space of time. Here’s a great example from Joe Hockey – who in the space of one week recently, said both of the following:
“If housing in Sydney were unaffordable, people wouldn’t be buying it”
AND “Housing is very expensive, I understand that.”
They repeat everything. Again. And again. And again.
Repetition was a key tool of the Nazis in convincing the German people of the lies they wanted to get across. In the words of Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Minister for Propaganda:
Tony Abbott is also a master of repetition:
They use short ambiguous catch phrases
Jedi of Truthiness – Tony Abbott – has done this to great effect with his “Stop the Boats” or “We’ve stopped the boats” mantra. As a piece of propaganda – it’s perfect. Firstly, it’s short and easy for people to remember. And secondly, it’s completely ambiguous. It never actually says what the boats are supposed to have stopped doing. This means it can be interpreted in any number of different ways, depending on Abbott’s needs at the time. And on the whole it’s worked. Despite the fact that it’s not true – we haven’t in fact stopped the boats – many people and journalists speak as though it is.
2. Devaluing the truth
The truth is the greatest enemy to a successful propaganda state, said Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Minister for Propaganda. In today’s information age, the truth – in all but the most left or right-wing states – is ubiquitous. This makes devaluing the truth a challenging and multi-faceted task. Here’s some of the ways that politicians have been doing this in Australia:
People have become desensitised to politician’s lies
The key to a good desensitisation campaign is to do the thing you are trying to desensitise people to – in this case, lies – as often as you can. The more you lie, the more people will stop expecting the truth from you, and the less outraged they will be when you tell a big one. In Aus, this is hardly a new phenomenon. Politicians over the years have paved the way for those that follow in their footsteps to lie with impunity.
This has worked in Abbott’s favour, particularly given the huge number of promises he made to Australians prior to the last election. Promises which, quite frankly, nobody who knew much about anything thought he could really keep. As a result, since being elected, when you compare the number of promises Abbott has kept to those that he has broken, it’s just over 50% (and that’s arguably overstated because the ABC Promise Tracker is being generous).
In a country where people expected their politicians to be truthful, this would be a huge story. But in Australia, Australian journalist Niki Savva recently said on Insiders, that she ranked a politician lying as only a three out of ten in terms of seriousness.
Politicians don’t bother answering difficult questions anymore
This too is hardly news. Question avoidance is expected of politicians. Media training teaches them to ignore any difficult questions and instead to respond with an answer that’s broadly in the general area of the question and which suits their particular brand of truthiness.
Tony Abbott is a master at question avoidance. For example, recently when he was repeatedly asked whether the Australian government had paid people smugglers to take asylum seekers back to Indonesia, he just kept repeating that the important thing was that they had Stopped the Boats. Stopped the Boats. Stopped the Boats. He kept repeating this, and it didn’t take long before journalists gave up, and he had both buried what could have been a very inconvenient story and promoted his own message.
Of course, he hasn’t always been quite as masterful at avoiding difficult questions:
The Abbott Government has taken a number of steps to minimise our access to facts that might contradict their propaganda
Despite the Liberal party promising a government who would “restore accountability and improve transparency measures to be more accountable to you“, they have arguably been doing the exact opposite. Here’s just some of the things they have done to limit our access to information about what is really going on:
- Classifying key information as an ‘operational’ or a ‘security matter’ – A whole swag of truths have been locked up this way – never to see the light of day – particularly those around ‘Stopping the Boats’.
- Threatening to lock up whistle blowers who reveal problems – this started in 2014 with the passing of legislation allowing the government to jail both whistleblowers and journalists (for five to ten years) for exposing errors made by Australian security agencies. More recently, in 2015, the hastily passed Border Force Protection Act prohibits medicos from reporting sexual and other forms of abuse, as well as Navy and Customers staff from telling us if asylum seekers die at sea.
- Effectively hobbling Freedom of Information – this started shortly after the Abbott Government’s election, when they tightened Freedom of Information procedures, to make it more difficult to request and obtain information. They then starved the Freedom of Information office of funds, so that staff resigned and the Commissioner was left working out of his house. He too finally gave up a few weeks back and resigned.
- Eliminating Government agencies that provide factual information which may contradict their policy positions – this is particularly true of climate change, where the Climate Council was defunded, and the Climate Change Authority came under attack. The Climate Change Authority was saved by the Senate, but the Government now appears to be killing it by stealth by cutting funding to it. In the meantime, apparently there are sufficient funds for a Wind Commissioner.
- Controlling Internet Content – this may turn out to be nothing, but the recently passed Copyright Amendment Online Infringement Bill could allow the government to restrict what content we see. While the Bill’s stated goal is to sop the pirating of videos, the actual language in the Bill could allow a court to block distribution of anything that is protected by copyright – Wikileaks for example.
- Discrediting those that speak the truth – there are a few examples of this, but probably the most prominent is the attack on Human Rights Commissioner – Gillian Triggs. The extent of the attacks on her – as a reputable international lawyer – is incomprehensible. They are at best bullying, and at worst a shameless attempt to influence an independent commission.
- Distorting the truth to suit their needs – most recently this happened when the Abbott Government claimed that their proposal to allow the Government to bypass the judicial system and strip citizenship from people, was “precisely what was recommended by the former independent national security monitor Bret Walker” when in fact it was the exact opposite, and he had misquoted Walker out of context.
When looked at as a whole, these actions may not be sufficient to confirm a conspiracy by the Abbott government to keep the truth from the Australian public, but they certainly suggest a pattern of devaluing the truth, and an intention to control what information the Australian public does and does not see in service of their own political needs.
They certainly do NOT suggest a government committed to transparency and accountability.
3. Instituting a Climate of Fear
“The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”
(Herman Goering, Nazi General)
Instituting a climate of fear was a key part of the Nazi’s propaganda program, as when people are in a heightened state of anxiety, they are more emotional, and less likely to think for themselves.
The Abbott Government have certainly done this. They have managed to convince a majority of Australians that a terrorist attack poses the greatest risk to their safety both from within and outside Australia. This is despite all evidence to the contrary. Evidence that shows that Australians are more at risk from falling out bed or off a chair than they are of being killed by a terrorist, even allowing for foiled attacks.
Abbott has even linked stopping the boats with terrorism – completely ignoring the fact that asylum seekers are typically victims of terrorism rather than perpetrators of it. And as a previous chief of ASIO pointed out, if you are a potential terrorist seeking to attack Australia, the very worst way to enter the country would be as an asylum seeker.
4. Invoking patriotism
This too was another one of the Nazi’s key tools. Nazi propaganda “cast Germany as a victim or potential victim of foreign aggressors, as a peace-loving nation forced to take up arms to protect its populace or defend European civilization against Communism”. They overplayed and even staged attacks against the country so that people within the country felt under attack, and believed that the needed to go to war to protect their country.
Appealing to patriotism has been a key tool in the Abbott government’s arsenal since day one. Abbott introduced the concept of “Team Australia” – implying a concept of ‘us’ and ‘them’ – where those he considers to be a ‘them’ being seen as a UnAustralian and a risk to the country.
Most recently, the government has introduced the patriotically named Allegiance to Australia Bill to parliament. This is the Bill they are seeking to use in order to strip citizenship from dual nationals (and potentially others) – allowing them to effectively banish people from the country. And they are invoking patriotism to suggest that anyone who objects to the Bill is UnAustralian and dangerous, silencing any major opposition.
So how Fascist is Australia then?
“Secrecy is completely inadequate for democracy, but totally appropriate for tyranny”. (Malcolm Fraser)
Conclusion: Be alert and alarmed.
Well the good news is that Abbott doesn’t look like growing a short ugly mustache anytime soon. But there are undoubtedly some key indicators in the Abbott government’s behaviour that should cause all of us to be concerned – not about terrorists, but about the state’s impingement on our personal freedoms. As a New Zealand journalist recently said of Australia: “open and accountable government is suffering death by a thousand cuts.”
Abbott & Co’s apparent disdain for the truth in favour of truthiness, the way in which they are undermining our personal freedoms by restricting our access to the truth, their almost ludicrous and self-serving focus on terrorism and their constant invocation of patriotism to support their viewpoint is concerning.
When you then take into account the fact that the proposed Allegiance to Australia Bill seeks to bypass the judicial system and vest power to revoke citizenship in the Minister for Immigration, without the right for judicial review – we really should be both alert and alarmed.
This is not because Australia has become a fascist state, but because this continual chipping away at our personal freedoms in favour of government power sets up an environment to allow extreme ideologies to flourish. The rise of movements like the right-wing ‘Reclaim Australia’ movement are key examples of this.
The real battles we should be fighting and winning right now are not against an enemy who is 11,000 kms away – they are the ones here at home that are weakening our democracy. And that is a far greater risk to our way of life than any terrorist army on the other side of the world.
This is an edited version of Kate M’s article on Progressive Conversation.
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