Dan Andrews and Murdoch crying wolf

May 18, 2023
Melbourne Parliament House building in Victoria, Australia. Image: iStock

Rupert Murdoch has done incalculable harm to the democratic experiment throughout the AUKUS nations and beyond. In Victoria, his propaganda campaigns have made him the magnate who cried wolf. The state’s integrity infrastructure is in perilous condition but Newscorp’s constant invective against Labor governments, and Premier Dan Andrew’s government in particular, has made it more difficult to fix.

In the recent spate of Australian elections, it appears that extravagant campaigns by Murdoch media were having diminished impact on the centre/left vote. Scott Morrison’s government received the thumping it had earned. Dan Andrews’ resounding win and NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet’s loss were the opposite of the outcomes Murdoch’s tools had fought to achieve.

Since, News Corp editors have not steered their platforms away from the hysteria that pervades their framing of news stories and opinion pages. The Voice to Parliament, for example, continues to receive breathless, distorted coverage aiming to deny Prime Minister Albanese the “win.”

For Victoria, the Murdoch news has become particularly toxic. The constant demonising of the Andrews’ government pandemic management was out of step with majority opinion and Murdoch’s fanning up of dissent made Victorians’ lives harder over those long months of lockdowns. The attacks on Dan Andrews in the lead-up to the November election reminded the radicalised right base of how much they loathed Andrews, but reinforced the majority’s utter disdain for Murdoch and his Dog Line of brimstone-breathing pundits.

The Victorian Liberal Party – the local political arm of the Murdoch project – has collapsed into chaos. Their echoes of News Corp messaging are treated with equal disdain. Radical right figures spouting Murdoch-ready messaging seem unelectable in this relatively progressive state; the more moderate old guard is struggling to keep them from destroying the edifice.

The media hysteria that has distorted every act by the Andrews government over the 2020s has now had the unexpected effect of inoculating that government from effective condemnation for genuine problems.

Despite mounting pressure over the first quarter of 2023 over integrity questions, Labor’s lead only appears to be growing, and Andrews’ personal approval has been barely touched. It remains to be seen whether IBAC’s special Daintree Report will have more of an impact. Victoria’s government integrity framework is in dire need of reform, but too many centre/left voters believe the news on the topic is just another Murdoch hit job.

The original strong design of the Independent Broad-based Anti-Corruption Commission (IBAC) was nobbled by the Liberal government that implemented an anodyne version in 2011. The body was effectively designed to fail.

The model was improved in 2015 by the Andrews government broadening the definition of corruption to include misconduct in public office. Those reforms, however, were inadequate to allow it to do its job effectively. The situation has worsened since.

There are three main crises for IBAC. One is that it, like the Ombudsman, remains dramatically underfunded: this is a method that governments’ use to shackle bodies that monitor their performance.

The second is that its jurisdiction requires a criminal offence to be involved. This means that “grey corruption” of the kind discussed in the Daintree Report is not covered. The majority of Australians have come to believe that pork-barrelling and other ways of using taxpayer funds to achieve electoral advantage are indeed a form of corruption that must be addressed. This is in line with Transparency International’s benchmark definition of corruption.

The third is the secrecy with which IBAC is forced to operate. The purpose of an integrity body is to discover, investigate and expose corruption. Without public hearings and reports, its work is crippled.

IBAC can only conduct public hearings in “exceptional circumstances.” Integrity experts argue that the test should be that public hearings take place when it is in the public interest. It is crucial that politicians and public servants know that they are being scrutinised and will be held to account. Hearings are not begun lightly: they are instituted after lengthy, in-camera investigation.

The definition of “exceptional circumstances” is vague and invites well-funded subjects of inquiry to contest the designation through repeated court hearings. That process then gives the well-funded an advantage, seeing the details of the investigation being conducted.

Victorians were unable to know the findings of several secret IBAC investigations before the November election because of another defect in the body’s legislation: the process granting a form of natural justice to those who will have adverse findings from the investigation. Contrasted to the streamlined version in NSW, the Victorian process is much more onerous and can end in the courts, already bogged down by Covid19 pressures.

Problematic also are the centralisation of power in the Andrews government and the army of ministerial aides whose allegiance is to Andrews and the party rather than the public interest. The public service is discouraged from giving frank and fearless advice, experiencing harassment from ministerial aides.

We saw in the May 2022 federal election that the rule of law is important to Australians. The processes of government must be pressured towards integrity by appropriate adherence to norms, systems and by scrutiny. Not only is there the likelihood of poor decision-making and the waste of taxpayer money in the short-term, but also the risk of the degradation of democracy itself in a government antagonistic to the inherent competition. We must strengthen our systems to protect against future governments’ wrongdoing as much as current risks.

Pesutto’s Liberal opposition is a threadbare bunch. The fact that Pesutto was unable to distance the party from Moira Deeming’s extremism when announcing her ouster – including having been an office-bearer in an organisation fighting for complete abortion bans – reinforces that his relatively moderate faction is under siege. As such, they pose little threat to Labor in the medium term.

Both Murdoch and the Victorian Liberal opposition supported the extremist conspiracy networks emerging on Melbourne’s streets to brawl with police over the pandemic. The politicians’ and media’s overblown critiques of the Andrews’ government and its pandemic handling became blurred with frightening figures bringing gallows to “freedom” rallies.

A discredited media and opposition are a problem for Victoria’s democracy if they cannot hold the government to account when necessary. Dan Andrews and his government must not scoff at calls to strengthen integrity measures just because the opposition is weak. The state deserves a great deal better.

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