In their recent book, How Democracies Die, discussed this week on Late Night Live, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, outlined how democracies can be undermined and ultimately destroyed without the violent coup of Pinochet, but by abuse of the system itself. They address the problems of the United States. But we have to be on guard because some of the symptoms are starting to infect our own democracy in Australia.
A major erosion of our civil liberties followed in the wake of extreme Islamic terrorism which has affected many democracies since 9/11. Our anti-terrorism laws restrict traditional rights and freedoms, and seem to be made more stringent as time goes by. Those laws may not have been abused yet, some have not even been put into practice, which calls into question the need for the most extreme measures. The danger of abuse remains.
Another concern is the recent attack on the standing of the judiciary, an essential institution, independent of government, to ensure adherence to the rule of law and to prevent government from overriding rights. But when Minister Peter Dutton not only criticises but questions the impartiality and even the legitimacy of the judiciary, this undermines public confidence in one of our key institutions. This is part of the creeping erosion of our democratic values.
Freedom of expression, another cherished value of democratic societies, has come under attack from government in quite unacceptable ways. For example, restrictions were imposed on freedom of expression to prevent the community being told what is being done in our name in off-shore detention. The only security at stake in that case being that of the holders of public office who wished the truth to be hidden. Now, thankfully reduced in impact, those laws indicated just how willing government was to serve its own interests rather than those of the public.
Another attack on democracy is the move to put citizenship itself out of reach for many who have chosen Australia as the home for themselves and their families by unnecessarily strict requirements of language or education.
So far, the “fake” news phenomenon has not plagued our media. But the ABC has been attacked by extremist politicians. Instead of brushing them aside, as should have been done, government has rewarded them with proposed laws to impose on the national broadcaster new requirements of “fairness and balance” which, when added to the current requirement of “accuracy and impartiality” could be interpreted to mean that flat-earthers should have equal coverage to space scientists, or fascists given equal space to social democrats.
This proposed legislation appears to have frightened the ABC into engage in self-censorship rather than standing up for Emma Alberici, one of its most qualified and competent reporters.
Coupled with this are the attempts by the government to stifle independent voices, which, while not being aligned to any political party, advocate on specific issues. Such voices are needed more than ever when government and opposition sometimes support policies, such as off-shore detention, which are clearly in violation of our obligation to respect human rights. The Electoral Funding legislation aims to discourage citizens from supporting independent voices which may express views unacceptable to government by imposing disclosure requirements which seem intended to discourage such support. Strong independent voices are needed more than ever in this age of social media which can spread false news and retrograde ideas in a flash.
Vigilance was never needed more than now.
Elizabeth Evatt AC, former member of the UN Human Rights Committee (1993-2000), Commissioner of the International Commission of Jurists.