The government is in authoritarian mode and now is not the time for complacency | Peter Lewis | Australia news


Deputy prime minister Michael McCormack’s attack on “raving inner-city lunatics” who believe in climate science may just seem a bit unhinged but it is part of a broader government strategy to quell political dissent that is hiding in full sight.

As fires burn across eastern Australia, the government is in textbook authoritarian mode, deliberately inflaming division and manufacturing outrage towards its critics in an attempt to divert from its own manifest failure to protect the regions.

It’s ugly civics, but far more insidious than the rhetoric is a raft of laws and regulations that have the prospect to fundamentally recast Australia’s democracy.

While the media has worked itself into a lather over the impact of the tendency towards command and control on press freedom with its Right to Knowcampaign, it has remained largely silent on the implications of this broader agenda.

Already in front of federal parliament is the so-called “union-busting bill”, where a politician can launch action to disqualify a union official or even deregister an entire union if it has deemed to breach not just criminal law, but civil regulations. Insidiously, the government has first determined illegality so broadly that officials struggle to go about their business without crossing the line. Now that confected lawlessness is used to justify further tightening.

This follows attempts last year to control the funding of charities, including making it illegal for global movements to cooperate over national borders. While the laws were wound back, the requirements created costly and time-consuming administration and compliance.

Meanwhile, NGOs that receive government funds to support service delivery are having their terms of operation tightened, with any activities smacking of advocacy deemed a shortcut to a budget cut.

The Australian Electoral Commission investigation of GetUp to deem it a political party, meaning it would be subject to onerous regulation and compliance, fills out the picture with a simple: if you campaign against the Morrison government and business interests, we will be coming for you.

The prime minister has been ramping up the anger since his election win, hitting a menacing low point recently with a petulant performance lambasting the character of climate protestors and foreshadowing new laws to outlaw consumer and environmental boycotts.

While still unformed, it appears the PM wants to prevent citizens asking their banks and super funds to invest their money in their long-term interest (ie not in coal). Doing so would be a secondary boycott modelled on already repressive union laws, that open individuals and organisations up for damages for economic loss if they attempt to influence a supply chain.

Taken in isolation, each of these proposals seem a bit like a Michael McCormack rant, irritating, misguided and slightly off-kilter. Join the dots, however, and something darker and more authoritarian is taking form, a government that purports to stand for freedom is using the instruments of the state to quell political dissent.

But it’s not enough for a government to propose to extend its power – history shows regimes shift from populist to authoritarian only with the permission of its people.

And here’s where this story gets even scarier because, according to this week’s Essential Report, rather than generating outrage at these attacks on political freedom, the public appears pretty relaxed about the whole thing.

poll/embed/embed.html?key=1E4oGEdvWKi84JUiTr_-c7U8wbya4yDkF7692BsMjKmI&embedType=table&embedID=table1″ data-alt=”Scott Morrison has flagged changing the law to stop environmental and other civil society groups or consumers campaigning against big resource projects. This change could make consumer or environmental boycotts illegal. Based on what you understand, to what extent do you support or oppose the Prime Minister’s proposal?”>Scott Morrison has flagged changing the law to stop environmental and other civil society groups or consumers campaigning against big resource projects. This change could make consumer or environmental boycotts illegal. Based on what you understand, to what extent do you support or oppose the Prime Minister’s proposal?

These figures indicate the idea of outlawing protests is contested territory, roughly one third in favour, one third against and one third on the fence. The divisions are sharply partisan but there is significant support for tightening of these controls among conservative voters and even a quarter of Labor voters.

Maybe this is driven by the vitriolic fallout of the climate change debate, but what is clear is an emerging tolerance for state action to prevent those with different views from asserting their right to push back.

Unpack a little more, and you can start to get a feel for where the battle lines are being drawn: in one corner our democratic heritage; in the other a strong government standing up for the nation.

poll/embed/embed.html?key=1E4oGEdvWKi84JUiTr_-c7U8wbya4yDkF7692BsMjKmI&embedType=table&embedID=table2″ data-alt=”To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statements regarding the right to protest in Australia?”>To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statements regarding the right to protest in Australia?

Responses to these sets of statements – by the same audience – show that attitudes about dissent change when the frame of the debate shifts.

There is strong support for the notion of a right to protest as a democratic right and the right to pressure banks not to invest in coal. But this is tempered by majority support for the proposition that government should limit citizen protests when it disrupts business or is “contrary to the national interest”.

The shift here is from cause to effect. While we endorse our individual rights, we have a surprising tolerance for government to intervene when it determines a broader impact.

The latter proposition in particular should give pause for concern, because if the government – with the compliance of sections of the traditional media and the amplification of the post-truth echo chambers of Facebook – can define the national interest, it is granting itself permission to limit dissent.

Add the government’s ability to collect, store and analyse vast troves of personal information in the national interest, and it’s more than our right to know we should be worried about.

Here the response is to simply laugh away McCormack’s rants and Morrison’s raves and enter the next Twitter storm of outrage. What these figures should say to anyone who cares about democracy is that this is not time for complacency.

Something more fundamental seems to be at play and we need to pony up. As we watch the US and Europe fall under the spell of democratically elected autocrats we need to confront the fact there is more than a passing chance we are now on the same journey ourselves.

Peter Lewis is an executive director of Essential. He wrote Webtopia: the World Wide Wreck of Tech and How to Make the Net Work



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