ELIZABETH EVATT. Democracy under challenge.

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.


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Rosemary O'Grady

It pains me to disagree with my learned former-Chairperson but in my experience ‘Fake news’ has been with us a long time. For example: The West Australian, during the 1990s, frequently published fake ‘news’ about the Kimberley land claims absent a fact-check with the lawyer having carriage of it/them – or anyone else except persons for the obstructing side who were providing the fake ‘news’ – hand-delivered to St Georges Terrace – which ought to have raised a few suspicions; and when, years later, Mr Cronin of The West Australian announced on the ABC’s Q&A that he would apologize for… Read more »

Rosemary O'Grady

Can I ever get enough of that Humble Pie? I must apologise, in case Anyone was reading my Reply to EE’s piece – for having got a bit strangled in the final par. It’s my usual problem – racing to beat the Timer on a Public Library pc. What I meant to say is that, while ‘our’ media will gladly lather-up over a slanging-match in a Parliamentary Committee ( one of the last bastions of democracy), in the sanctimonious name of gender equality, they will collude for decades over covering-up treacherous, damaging and false reports published in national ‘news’ delivered… Read more »

Greg Hamilton

According to war historian Charles Bean, the 1920s was the worst decade in Australia for government by mediocre lackeys of foreign powers (eg Bruce the obsessive Anglophile made a Viscount for his services to British financial interests). There was no democracy then because the Constitution of 1900 made no provision for it, as Gough found out in 1975. Things remain much the same today. I find that a people generally get what they’ll put up with. The novelist D. H. Lawrence said important things about that and us in his novel ‘Kangaroo’ when he was here in the early 1920s.… Read more »

Bruce Wearne


mark elliott

watching oz slide down a greasy pole of corruption and laissez faire where money and power are all i am especially appalled by the abc’s capitulation on news and current affairs.triggs stands as a shining if somewhat lonely light for those of us who still believe.

Bruce Wearne

“Starting to infect”? “Beginning to become manifest in their worrying extent” may be a better way of phrasing it. As I read our populist political horizon, the inner weakness of our major parties has much to do as causes and consequences of this crisis which Elizabeth Evatt,jurist, has rightly identified. That means facing up to the ongoing complicity of “both sides”, or more exactly “all sides”, in blurring the distinction between parliamentary representation and public governance. Such a view, I guess, requires further elaboration. Suffice to ask: is Australia qua polity capable of considering the political value of the kind… Read more »