Anyone who studies populism, demagogues and the skilful use of political and commercial propaganda will appreciate that “the will of the people” does not, in itself, define the common good.
The will of the people is easily manipulated by irrational fears and desires to serve power interests that have no commitment to what is good for the polity. A healthy democracy must vigilantly guard itself against the ever present threat of covert alliances forming between its politicians and powerful lobby groups. Military-industrial, mercantile, media and financial centres of power must be kept at arms-length from political power. Polities and bureaucracies have their own internal weaknesses too. The civic health of a democracy is premised on strongly countering mob, autocratic and non-transparent power.
The Australian polity is showing serious signs of civic dyscrasia. The will of the people is being corrupted by responsibility-denying alliances between powerful commercial interests and government, by the political use of fear, and by the persistent enhancement of non-transparent “national security” policing powers.
Before looking at these three polity markers illustrating the present ill-health of the Australian polity, a little recent history.
Australia had a federal election in May 2019. In this election the centre-right party, the Coalition, gained the upper hand, yet again, over the centre-left party, the Australian Labor Party (ALP). This was thought to be a hard election for the Coalition to win as an internal power play within the Coalition had ousted the sitting Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, about 9 months before the 2019 federal election. Under that cloud, Scott Morrison – a self-described pragmatic conservative – became the Prime Minister last year. Mr Morrison went on to decisively win the federal election this year.
Mr Morrison is a Pentecostal Christian. Religion was a bit of an issue in this election, and the religious vote largely went with the Coalition. Jubilantly, the triumphant PM announced his electoral victory by reminding Australians that he had always believed in miracles. The tacit claim here is that God is on his side. I am a theologian, but I am not persuaded that God is on the side of the mining sector, far right rural Queensland, the callous and inhumane treatment of the globally displaced, and Australia’s media intimidating Federal Police.
Leaving religion to one side, two highly significant national events directly related to the 2019 federal election are the final approval of the Adani coal mine in Queensland and the promised repeal of the medevac legislation.
Coal export has massively increased from Australia over the past two decades. By 2016 Australia had become the largest exporter of coal, shipping 445,000,000 metric tonnes of black coal out of Australia that year. Much of this coal goes to power stations in the developing world. Coal burning power stations are the single largest cause of carbon dioxide build-up in the world’s atmosphere. The Adani coal mine – a huge open cut operation – has been trying to get environmental approval for many years now, and finally got over the line as a result of this federal election.
The Australian Labor Party lost the federal election in rural Queensland, so, fearing further electoral reprisals at a state level, it simply caved to the pressure and now accepts the presumed benefits that will supposedly flow to rural Queensland communities from big mining money. The ALP has sold the future of the world’s atmosphere for a mess of immediate political potage.
By opening up massive open cut coal mines in Queensland and expanding coal exports Australia is furthering the acceleration of carbon dioxide build-up in the atmosphere. Far from cutting back on climate change emissions, Australia is a significant atmospheric carbon dioxide build-up enabler in the global community. Australia is actively accelerating climate change.
Far from cutting back on climate change emissions, Australia is a significant atmospheric carbon dioxide build-up enabler in the global community.
Financial pragmatism and fear
Financial pragmatism is a big factor here. Both the State Labor government in Queensland and the Federal Coalition government, are keen for the massive monetary windfalls they will harvest from this thriving export industry. In cahoots with powerful media players and mining magnate Clive Palmer, our politicians have electorally justified pillaging the future in very fungible ‘jobs for Queensland’ terms.
But the pragmatic bottom line is, who cares about climate change some time in the future when you can make money and win elections now? As a result, catastrophic short-term greed and electoral opportunism is passing on irreparable climate damage to our children.
Then there is fear.
The administration of fear under the rubric of border sovereignty is a key feature of the Morrison government’s firm commitment to “keep Australia safe.” So the Morrison government has promised to repeal the medevac legislation that somehow managed to get through parliament just before the 2019 federal election. This legislation allowed doctors to get very sick people in offshore detention into highly secure medical treatment in Australia before returning them to indefinite detention.
The medevac legislation was very security conscious, was no back door into Australia, but was simply a recognition that Australia has a basic humanitarian responsibility to people in offshore facilities that were put there by the Australian government. But no… medevac is too soft. Firm, harsh, deterrence is needed to keep Australia safe. If detainees commit suicide, that is there problem.
Presently there are around 70 million forcibly displaced people in the world, including over 25 million refugees who have fled their homes in fear for their lives.
Presently there are around 70 million forcibly displaced people in the world, including over 25 million refugees who have fled their homes in fear for their lives. This is the sixth consecutive record year since the number was first tracked after World War Two. The world has never experienced such a massive people displacement problem.
Millions have left Venezuela in recent decades, there are 11 million Syrians who are either internally displaced and/or refugees, nearly a million Rohingya have crossed the border into Bangladesh with countless others murdered or displaced. Australia's use of indefinite detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island is a head in the sand response to the crying humanitarian needs of our times. It is a shameful response, “defending” Australia’s extraordinary safety and prosperity from the displaced and persecuted of the world, in the name of border sovereignty. Scapegoating politics driven by fear and suspicion produces horrible inhumanity, as history ably illustrates. Australia’s sunny, good-natured and generous spirit seems to be just a myth when it comes to “border security.”
Australia is moving from pragmatic greed (at the expense of our children) to the harnessing of populist fear (at the expense of the globally vulnerable) and on, toward the political control of the press.
Political control of the press
Both the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and the Morrison government deny that the timing of the police raids on the Australian Broadcasting Commission and on News Corp this June – just after the federal election – have anything to do with the government. This is a very hard claim to believe. See the ABC’s Media Watch, 10 June 2019. These raids show a new boldness in the AFP to go after anyone, whistle blower or reporter, who reveals embarrassing government secrets, whether they are in the public interest or not.
Indeed, it is not lawful to leak classified information to the media, though this does not stop the government when it wants to promote its own interests via leaks. But there is a bigger issue here than political hypocrisy. Dr Rebecca Ananian-Welsh, Senior Lecturer at the TC Beirne School of Law and the University of Queensland points out that Australia now has “more counter terrorism law than anywhere else in the world.”
Australia now has “more counter terrorism law than anywhere else in the world.”
The parliamentary fixation with national security, deep surveillance, and tight information control over the past two decades has translated into a raft of complex and far-reaching security laws passed by both ALP and Coalition governments.
Australians are now living in a climate change promoting, inhumane, media muzzled, security state. And Australians have “achieved” this sort of polity whilst “the tree is green.” Should the global economy tank, should China and the US really fall out, should the enormous levels of household debt in Australian families become unserviceable, then all Hell will break loose in the land of the long white beach.