Deception: Radicalised groups are infiltrating Australian democracy in your town

Nov 27, 2023
Australia national flag. Waving country symbol.

West Australia’s council elections seem a strange place to pinpoint a warning about American radicalising political games infiltrating the Australian landscape. While it is strange, it is nonetheless important.

American conservative and commentator Andrew Breitbart declared a (contested) doctrine that “politics is downstream from culture.” According to his institutional heir, Steve Bannon, this means strategists must change culture to open up the possibilities in politics. From his time as Breitbart News editor to Chief Strategist of Trump’s White House, he fomented culture war. He continues the goal through hosting his War Room podcast and video.

It is crucial not to underestimate the importance of podcasting in the conveying of “news” and the creation of information bubbles. Bannon’s War Room podcast and video has become a major influencer in the international Right. It continues to chart in the top 10 political podcasts in the USA and the UK. In Australia, it is charting at No.11. Naomi Klein’s important book Doppelgänger describes how crucial the podcast is to the Mirror World inhabited by the radical and conspiratorial Right.

Bannon’s message is anti-democratic, ultraconservative religious and conspiracist, with his podcast performances pitching him substantially to the right of Fox News, playing to the Trumpist CPAC crowd. His production is described as the “top spreader of misinformation in the conservative media ecosystem.”

Bannon’s repeated advice to his audience is that every possible election must be controlled and contested by their faction. In America this means sowing chaos in school boards and library boards, fired by the energy of outrage against pandemic measures and infiltrated with QAnon talking points about “groomers” in schools and libraries.

It is not clear that Bannon’s approach will work. It has varied outcomes in America. What is true is that it is motivating coalitions on the Right to coalesce and contest the most minor of elections where they can have more impact, shaping decisions on culture war issues.

The group behind Perth’s council campaign is called Stand Up Now Australia which was established by Peter Harris. It runs Community Connect, where candidates who know to keep their “mouth shut when it was needed,” campaign on more mainstream issues, concealing their conspiracy agenda. The group claims to have achieved between 11 and 20 successful candidates, with potentially 3 or 4 of the 9-member Busselton council emerging from the program.

They represent conspiratorial positions opposing the 15-minute or smart city idea, as well as promoting sovereign citizen fantasies.

The other category of special interest targeting council elections, just as it targets state and federal contests, is the Pentecostal movement. West Australia’s experience illustrates the degree to which these two movements are intermingled. “Freedom” movement’s Harris was the founder of, and a key donor to, the federal “Family First” party and a member of the Assemblies of God church in South Australia. Harris claimed in 2005 that his political position was not aligned to the American Christian Right, but around the party’s founding in 2004, it was claimed that the many candidates around the country were “coy” about their religious beliefs “on advice.”

It is noteworthy that the Christian Right gives permission to “lie for Jesus.”

In Australian councils, winning elections means taking steps to gain influence over the “economic, social and cultural development” of the community. Instead of fringe figures bullying councils to the point that they have taken their meetings online, conspiracists would become part of shaping what groups and events the region chooses to fund.

A quorum of 3 councillors allows the setting of agenda as well as considerable sway. The role can also, as in Moira Deeming’s climb to state politics, help build profile.

Anything that could be defined as “woke,” such as events tied to First People or multicultural groups could be challenged. This includes libraries which have become a focal point for conspiratorial opposition to LGBTQIA+ celebrations.

Solving the problem of understanding what Australia must do to address the crisis of candidates contesting our elections with anti-democratic goals is not simple.

Much damage can be done in one term. Trusting democracy to remove problematic representatives at the next election allows harm to be done in the meantime.

A group that secretly plans to deceive the electorate about their intentions could be considered to commit the crime of conspiracy. It is very unlikely that an Attorney-General or Director of Public Prosecutions would act on this, not least because of freedom of speech (or silence) objections. States with an obligation to truth in political advertising might have more scope to pursue such a false impression, even produced by omission.

We need changes to the electoral laws to prevent people from lying or hiding their intentions.

Our media is clearly not capable of conducting the appropriate level of investigation and revelation so voters know what is at stake. The ABC does not have the funding to carry out its core mandate, let alone adding this task to the portfolio. It would, however, have the benefit of being a relatively trusted source by those who care enough to research their candidates’ views and intentions.

Nor are our commercial networks the trustworthy bodies to task with this project. Ninefax is compromised by its leadership, not to mention understaffed. Moves on Australian Regional Media (radio) and Australian Community Media (The Canberra Times etc) in recent weeks need monitoring for the impact on their integrity.

News Corp clearly is not a contender. Added to its integrity crisis is the fact that News Corp bought the body that published our suburban and regional mastheads. In 2020, it stopped printing them, putting 76 online and closing 36 permanently. It cut the number of journalists covering local news to a third of the former force. News that used to be delivered to most homes is now unwritten or locked behind paywalls. In Australia, 2.8 million people remain “highly excluded” from internet access. Online news can also limit access to reliable news for some older Australians. These actions by News Corp function as another of its major blows to Australia’s democratic project.

We require a database across the three levels of government so that voters can see what relevant commentary and affiliations our candidates are disguising. This is not something easily tackled by a civil society organisation. It constitutes a substantial workload. A crowdsourcing platform, for example, would require constant monitoring to prevent defamatory submissions remaining on display.

This is a debate Australians need to have urgently, so that voters can know the crucial facts about the candidates they must elect. Democracy demands transparency.

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