Australian democracy and the lesson of the frog

By Andrew L. Urban

You know the story: if you put a frog in water and slowly bring it to the boil the frog won’t notice it is being boiled alive. In the first half of 2013, Australian democracy is very much like that frog and it would be well advised to turn off this Government’s gas.

To mangle a metaphor, the Rudd/Gillard Government has shoved democracy aside in a comprehensive shift away from respect for democracy and democratic process. In the wake of its botched leadership spill (March 21, 2013) on the heels of its botched attempt at worrying new media regulation, it may be interpreted as acquiescence if remained silent.

The Government has repeatedly demonstrated it’s authoritarian tendencies, culminating – one hopes it is culminating, if for no other reason than it has very little time left to do any more damage before Parliament rises prior to the September 14 election – in its perverted, mishandled, brutish and un democratic push for media regulation under the propaganda label of ‘public interest’. That it failed to get through Parliament – it was withdrawn in humiliating circumstances – doesn’t lessen the intent.

There are plenty of valid reasons to criticise certain media outlets for behaviour which violates individual (usually celebrity) privacy and dignity, or where story gathering is unethical and unprofessional, and yes, even occasions where stories are presented as fact when they are fiction.  As opinion shapers the media has a significant responsibility to self regulate. As in any other field, there are contemptible, unethical individuals who should be counselled or expelled.

But there is no justifiable reason to appoint a commissar (or even a committee of commissars as Queensland’s cowboy pollie Bob Katter naively proposed)  to oversee and enforce the ‘public interest’ test. There is only an unacceptable political reason for the idea.

There are already regulations and entities in place to handle both reporting malpractice (Australian Press Council) and anti-competitive corporate moves (ACCC).

There already exists a rather large committee overseeing the public intest test: the public.

Judge the Government by its actions.

The 2010 election promise to not legislate for a carbon tax was quickly broken for the sake of political expediency by the incoming Government. That defies democratic principles.

The Government established the NBN as a state owned monopoly – and hidden it entirely from public scrutiny by exempting it from the ambit of FoI laws. That is un democratic. Not to mention irresponsibly wasteful.

The Government conducted a botched tendering process for the Australia Network, ignored a unanimous chorus of recommendations to award it to Sky News and autocratically awarded the contract- in perpetuity if it can – to the friendly ABC. That is un democratic. Not to mention unforgivably ill-judged.

The Government had (until mid March and a new Attorney General) every intention of introducing legislation that was paraded as simple housekeeping to bring anti-discrimination laws together and strengthen those that required attention. The discussion paper showed it was much more autocratic and went so far as to propose reversing the onus of proof where an offended person made a complaint. This in an area where victim hood is a national virus and claims almost impossible to disprove. It was predicated on a narrow and authoritarian principle that could well have been represented by the cliche, thought police. That was un democratic intent. It emphasises the mindset in Canberra as one driven by a desire to control public discourse. The pattern is there.

It is evident in policy making instances; the mining tax demonstrates the old class war mentality shaping it in a new class landscape, dreamt up without consultation – as was the proposed media over-regulation policy.  Regularly trampling on proper process that provides some degree of serious assessment for policies, the Government repeatedly let the public down and revealed its inner authoritarianism.

The atmosphere of bitterness and even full throttle hatred – characterised not least by the ugly Gillard/Rudd enmity, the hate speeches in Parliament and outside it  – has affected public discourse and damaged the social cohesion of this nation. The Goverment has divided this country not between left and right political positions but between those whose self interest is best served by the political infighting, the potential policy output and those who see the flaws.

Loyal Labour voters who can turn a blind eye to the un-democratic tendencies are playing a dangerous game of denial and/or fooling themselves if they think it’s no big deal. Check with the frog.



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