Save articles for later
Add articles to your saved list and come back to them any time.
Josh Frydenberg’s announcement last week that he would not be contesting the next election was a reminder of one of the great political hypotheticals of our time. If teal candidate Monique Ryan had not beaten Frydenberg – a result welcomed by progressives at the time – might he now be leading the Liberal Party? If that were the case, is it possible Frydenberg would have chosen to back the OICEVoice to Parliament? Might everything be different?
Well, perhaps. Sometimes, political events are dictated by individuals – and sometimes they are structural. As columnist Joe Hildebrand pointed out when first raising this question, Frydenberg had made comments seeming to support the Voice. But as another columnist, Peter Brent, observed in response, Frydenberg as leader would likely have faced the same basic constraint as Peter Dutton: the need to hold his party together. And so perhaps the more fascinating question is this: would Frydenberg have campaigned differently? Would he have felt the same urge as Dutton to go after the respected Australian Electoral Commission on the question of ticks and crosses? To argue the Voice would “re-racialise” Australia?
Illustration: Jim Pavlidis. Credit:
Or perhaps these quasi-American campaign tactics were always headed our way. A few weeks ago my Uber driver asked me if I had heard of the Illuminati, his implication being that I should educate myself. A decade ago, I would have been amazed – now, less so. If such rubbish has become unremarkable, perhaps the infiltration of our politics by similar absurdities was inevitable.
Donald Trump, as usual, is Exhibit A – as Anthony Albanese reminded us last week. “We saw that during COVID – it probably wasn’t a good idea to have stuff out there about … bleach being injected and about a whole range of things.” The prime minister was defending his plans to regulate misinformation on social media. These days, it is easy to think such things began with the pandemic. Interestingly, Albanese first flagged such plans just before COVID hit. In December 2019, he gave a broad-ranging speech about renewing democracy, ending echo chambers and rebuilding our ability to have national conversations.
The speech was both interesting and prescient. There is also irony in reading some parts now. Albanese talked about the importance of the “freedom to protest”. Since then, state governments, both Labor and Liberal, have passed laws to restrict protest, and when the South Australian Labor government sought to impose the harshest fines in the country a few months ago, Albanese said little: he had “every faith” the Premier would act responsibly.
Opposition Leader Peter Dutton has chosen not to resist the tide, but to swim with it.Credit: Kate Geraghty
Albanese spoke about transparency; in relation to the national anti-corruption commission, he said the “best antidote to corrupt decision-making” is “a big dose of Australian sunshine”. The commission provides some sunshine, but the “big dose” is limited by the restriction of public hearings. He talked, too, about protecting whistle-blowers, and again here the government’s record is mixed. It has strengthened provisions, let Bernard Collaery off the hook, but prosecutions are still being pursued against two important whistleblowers: Richard Boyle and David McBride.
Albanese also noted the Coalition’s love of secrecy. Now, though, we knew what it had been trying to hide, “Because royal commissions are now exposing to public view all the things the government won’t”. This is interesting to read now, given that last week Albanese got around to announcing an inquiry into COVID. As has been widely noted, its scope is narrow. It does not have the powers of a royal commission – despite Albanese’s insistence that it would. Inexcusably, the government initially announced that unilateral decisions of the states – which, some would say, were if not the whole kit and caboodle a pretty big part of it – wouldn’t be examined. (Since then the government’s line has been a little confused.)
Albanese, in his 2019 speech, was right to knit these various issues together. It seems unlikely to be coincidence that much of the scepticism towards governments has risen over the years in which governments have resisted accountability and transparency. It is at least worth considering the idea that conspiracy theories may get less traction if our politicians are effective and straightforward. On a topic that, more than anything else, gave rise to conspiracy theories about the shadowy intentions of the state, isn’t it important that the state be absolutely open when assessing what went right and what went wrong?
For an illustration of the fact that conspiracy theories love a vacuum you need look no further than the Voice debate. Prophetically, in that 2019 speech Albanese mentioned the Voice directly: “The qualities of public decency I’ve discussed today are the very qualities we are going to need to display if we are to make the Voice a reality. If we think and act as culture warriors, creating the Voice simply won’t happen.” (It is perhaps ironic that the man who helped drive many of this country’s most damaging culture wars, Rupert Murdoch, relinquished his major roles mid-referendum.)
Albanese’s misplaced optimism is a reminder that culture wars can’t be called off by just one side. During this referendum, it does feel as though debate has reached a new low. In June, former US president Barack Obama referred to Putin’s approach to misinformation: “We don’t have to convince people of whatever propaganda or misinformation that we’re pumping in there. All we have to do is to get people to not believe anything.” This is precisely the approach Dutton has pursued at times. We should not miss the significance of this moment. It is possible that Australia was always going to hit this point; but it is also the case that Dutton chose not to resist the tide, but to swim with it as fast as he could.
If the world’s post-truth era is just getting started, and if the Coalition is determined to take advantage of it, then the last few weeks will seem, in hindsight, quite mild. And in case you don’t think things can get worse, remember this: every time you’ve thought that in the past two decades, they did.
Sean Kelly is an author and regular columnist. He’s a former adviser to Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.
The Opinion newsletter is a weekly wrap of views that will challenge, champion and inform your own. Sign up here.
Most Viewed in Politics
From our partners
Source: Read Full Article