Australian democracy is facing a crisis, but I’m not sure that anyone is paying attention. Like frogs in a pot of water that is slowly coming to the boil, it seems we may not feel the rising heat until it is much too late.
The signs are everywhere – the government’s ongoing attacks on the ABC, the banning of the media from offshore detention centres, the decision to hide government decisions from public scrutiny as “on-water” or “operational” matters, and the drafting of legislation intended to prevent judicial intervention.
Of particular concern are the implications of the Border Force Act, which removes oversight mechanisms and threatens criminal sanctions for frontline health professionals who speak out about abuse in Australia’s shady offshore detention centres.
The Federal Government recently introduced legislation to forbid what the Attorney General George Brandis described as “vigilante litigation”. What that means is that the Government wants to strip environmental groups of their right to challenge approvals for mining projects and other large developments.
Yet even these, most extreme provisions are merely the latest step in the slow and steady erosion of the quality of Australian democracy.
In 2007, Clive Hamilton and I edited the book Silencing Dissent, in which we described the Howard government’s “creeping authoritarianism”; an insidious pattern of erosion of our democratic rights and freedoms that had crept into Australian politics.
The metaphor that we used in that book – that of the frog that boils to death because it does not realise that the pot of water it is in is gradually heating up – struck a chord with many thousands of Australians who were beginning to feel the heat. Yet since 2007, and despite several changes in government leadership, our democratic capacity to hold government to account has continued to decline at an extraordinary rate.
On both sides of parliament, populism now seems to trump vision or ideology. The promotion of fear and insecurity has become a blunt instrument with which to beat any critic who dares contest the twin mantras of border security and economic growth. We have bought the argument that our rights and freedoms can be eroded in the name of safety and prosperity, apparently oblivious to global histories of fascism and authoritarianism that demonstrate quite the opposite.
Australia has long held sacred some of the core values of democracy – free speech, media scrutiny of government actions, transparency of decision-making, judicial oversight of government legislation and so on – each of them understood as crucial for holding governments to account and preventing the rise of despots. And yet in recent years we have allowed successive governments to step over each of these lines in the sand.
That these changes have been possible relies on a troubling Australian willingness to be governed by irrational fear and insecurity, and to ignore the boiling water that surrounds us.
Fear and insecurity have allowed many Australian citizens to tolerate government disdain for democratic process that would once have been unimaginable. Fear and insecurity are now also killing off what remains of Australian public debate.
None of this is new. None of it is recent. The silencing of dissent that characterised the Howard years left gaping holes in our democracy; holes that are now being plugged with populism and fear-mongering.
And yet the thing that should be causing us the greatest fear of all—the erosion of our democracy—is seemingly causing very little concern. As the temperature rises we ignore the very real threats that the loss of democracy promotes.
We are sailing towards real danger in the form of environmental catastrophe, while our government seeks to silence those who are fighting for an alternate course. The secrecy that is justified in the name of national security is in fact endangering lives in the offshore detention centres that are run in our names. That we turn away from our democratic responsibility to hold our governments accountable for these very real threats is unacceptable.
Democracy requires light and air to thrive. It requires energy, effort and active, critical engagement from citizens prepared to hold their governments to account, not just at the ballot box, but in every public arena in which it is possible to raise our voices and speak out.
We must not be those boiling frogs. We must acknowledge the continually rising heat and finally say, “enough”. No longer will we allow a narrative of fear and insecurity to rob us of our capacity to think and to dissent. In the name of our democracy, we owe it to ourselves to demand the transparent and accountable government that we deserve.
Banner image: Anonymous with Guy Fawkes masks at the Scientology area in Los Angeles. Photographer Vincent Diamante. Creative Commons
This article originally appeared in DemocracyRenewal.
Associate Professor Maddison is on the board of GetUp