Undermining democracy in Australia

An advertisement on Facebook showed the worse of American politics being brought to Australia. This is the politics of division and hate being promotes above the competition of ideas election are supposed to settle.

In Australia federal elections are an opportunity for candidates, both individually and collectively through political parties, to put forwards their ideas on how the country should be run. The electorate weighs up the ideas and then votes. The election winner earns a mandate from the people to implement their agenda. To support this system, the High Court found a constitutionally implied freedom of political communication in the Australian Constitution, protecting the right of the electorate to be informed on political manners so they could vote effectively.

In contract the last US presidential election saw the politics of hate and demonization of the opposition emerge. This was not a little banter on the side, but a political narrative that completely displaced the debate about policy. Trumps allusions to “crooked Hillary” and calls to “lock her up” became his strongest “policy”, one which is completely contrary to the fundamental principle of the rule of law. In democracies we don’t lock up our political opponents. In fact, we don’t lock up anyone unless they have breached the law and the proper processes have then been followed by both the investigating police and the courts. The rule of law holds that the same law must apply to everyone and government can only interfere with an individual’s fundamental rights when it is acting according to established law. To pursue someone with the power of the state for political purposes is totalitarianism. Despite this as President Trump has continued his “crooked Hilary” campaign causing great concerns across the political divide in America.

Returning to Australia, the following advertisement recently appeared on Facebook:

What’s deeply concerning is that this is not just an anti-Shorten or anti-Labor advertisement, but the advertisement for the verified page of another member of parliament. The other MP is seeking to grow his following not by promoting his own agenda, or even by opposing stated policies of the other side of politics, but rather by promoting an unspecified and fundamental distrust of the other side of politics. By growing his page with people who aren’t supporters of his policies, but who have an agenda of hate against the position, this politicians own page will build up a high level of toxicity.

The toxicity may emerge in the short term, or it may lay dormant until the next federal election campaign, but the environment created by a group of people drawn together through hate is going to be impossible to moderate. Having such an environment emerge on the page of a Federal MP is deeply concerning. The MP concerned, would as the hate emerges, likely claim it was the public not him and that moderation was inappropriate as it would interfere with peoples political communication. This in turn would send a green light to focus “political debate” not on policy but on the promotion of hate and fear of those who put themselves forward for public office. This fundamentally undermines the electoral system and the principle of freedom of political communication. The deliberate effort to create an environment with high toxicity on a verified page of an MP crosses a line.

Dr Andre Oboler, Online Hate Prevention Institute’s CEO,  explained: “This will turn the Minister’s page into a hotbed of hate while doing nothing to advance the competition of ideas, through political discussion, on which our democracy is based. It is the sort of ‘lock her up’ politics which is undermining the rule of law and democracy itself in today’s United States. We neither need nor want this sort of politics in Australia.”

This is by no means the first negative political campaigning we have seen on social media. Past personal attacks, usually by anonymous groups not directly traceable to political campaigns, have been undertaken against both politicians and their families. None of them, to our knowledge, have sought to build up an audience based on hate for the verified page of sitting MP in quite the way of this advertisement.

We call on the Hon Steven Ciobo MP, Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment, to cease this destructive and undemocratic Facebook campaign coming out of his office.

We call on the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull MP and the Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten MP to urgently discuss guidelines on political advertising. Negative advertising campaigns that personally attack candidates in manner which would in all other contexts be defamatory should not be part of our political landscape. They are not holding people accountable for specific actions or decisions, nor are they advocating for or against policy positions. What they do is poison our democratic system, reduce trust in politics as a whole and undermine our democratic values.

Dr Oboler added a message to all political parties and aspiring politicians saying, “promote your ideas and ask the people for a mandate. Don’t try to steal a mandate by telling Australians they have no choice but you by promoting others as dishonest or unfit for office. That’s not seeking a mandate but trying to create a one party system. That’s not contributing to our democracy but undermining it. Come the next election, give the people a real choice of policies and let them decided. If you don’t feel that’s enough to win, reconsider some of your policies. Don’t seek alternative ways to secure a win without securing a mandate – that what undermines respect for politicians and the political system.”

This article is published not as part of any partisan politics, but in the interests of Australian democracy and in the interest of protecting people from harm resulting from online hate. The Online Hate Prevention Institute is a registered harm prevention charity working in the public interest. To learn more about us you can visit our website, or watch a video of a presentation we gave to the 2nd Advancing Community Cohesion conference in Western Sydney last week.  Our submissions have been cited on Australian parliamentary reports on topics such as freedom of speech and the census, as well as in reports by UNESCO and the United Nations Human Rights Council. Our work is supported by donations from the public and we encourage those who value our work to support us so more can be done. You can also join over 24,000 supporters of our work on our Facebook page.

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