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.


John Laurence Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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6 Responses to ELIZABETH EVATT. Democracy under challenge.

  1. Rosemary O'Grady says:

    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 any errors or inaccuracies committed on his watch – he soon declined to do so on the grounds that this (damaging) matter was ‘too long ago.’ The damage to civil society caused by such inertia/omission is the more reprehensible when one considers the complete professionalism of some West Australian staff who diligently recorded and published what was happening, actually, in real time, in the courts: the name Liz Tickner springs instantly to mind.
    It is as much what is NOT published today that threatens the fabric of Australian ‘Society’- in my experience. Hence, today’s ‘news’ is of a 3-way slanging-match in one of the last bastions of ‘democracy’ – Parliamentary committees- about the reputations of personnel in MPs offices – food for running commentary, again, on gender-politics – while the proven reputation for state-sponsored violence of at least one person seated in the plush environs of Parliament House has been consistently NOT-reported since he took office; has been on the public record since at least 1992 & 1994, and has been repeatedly minimised and belittled/ridiculed by staffers for ministers and shadow-ministers of all political complexions despite all-party policy-condemnation of violence against women! The role of all-media in selecting what shall be published &, by necessary implication, what shall be kept close, goes unscrutinised and unchallenged in an age of White House-commentary ( who cares about Trump’s advisors? Robert Muller can do the job) – or the US – NRA? Australia has no Bill of Rights (Amendments to the Constitution) to make any of that Relevant as ‘news’ here; and we have a 400+-page Report by R. Finkelstein to tell us what’s wrong with our media -which seems to have sunk leaving very few ripples at the surface of public consciousness…One could go on… [but] that way madness lies…

    • Rosemary O'Grady says:

      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 by insider-informers who have everything to gain by seeing lies injected into the public record, notwithstanding the consequences of doing so- the damage – may include/has included : actual and enduring violence, even when there is a state policy condemning violence against women. When this sort of conduct affects the carriage of major litigation it threatens the independence of the judicial system. That really IS an Issue for Democracy as we have known it.!
      Too-close scrutiny can lead to a turning-off of the tap. That’s the tap which delivers lies and propaganda for lazy media to publish. Rather than go thirsty from such obliging (if corrupt) sources, many in the media, even ‘Big’ ‘Names’ will roll-over and suck on the mau-mau’s tit. It’s all just too hard to do the real spadework which must be done if we are to recover, if we ever really had it, our once-free and independent press/media.

  2. Greg Hamilton says:

    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. It’s still valid today. This is what he said:

    “The bulk of Australians don’t care about Australia. And why don’t they? Because they care about nothing at all, neither in earth below or heaven above. They just blankly don’t care about anything, and they live in defiance, a sort of slovenly defiance of care of any sort, human or inhuman, good or bad. If they’ve got one belief left, now the war’s safely over, it’s a dull, rock-bottom belief in obstinately not caring, not caring about anything. It seems to me they think it manly, the only manliness, not to care, not to think, not to attend to life at all, but just to tramp blankly on from moment to moment, and over the edge of death without caring a straw. The final manliness.”

    Heavy stuff, what. Had he stayed on longer than those six weeks, he’d have noticed also that we don’t mind any treacherous act by politicians if we think we might be advantaged by it. The principle involved counts for nought. The neo-cons busy dismantling the little token democracy afforded to us by our hidden hand rulers are confident they’ll be rewarded for their treason. As Franz Kafka said: “In the fight between you and the world, back the world.” He felt that way because so few people were prepared to stand up to tyranny of the sort he lived under in Post WWI Prague. It’s as though humans are quarantined in this cosmic lunatic asylum because they’re convinced cowardice will somehow be rewarded, in the short as well as the longer term of eternity. Kafka knew full well that when you back the world, you lose–in every way imaginable.

  3. Bruce Wearne says:


  4. mark elliott says:

    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.

  5. Bruce Wearne says:

    “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 of MPP reform implemented (from 2008) by our cousins across the Tasman by reckoning with the importance of the entire Commonwealth as an electorate in its own right? Admittedly a reform of how we understand PR is not going to solve the problems of public governance but it might help our political parties to rediscover their proper identities as political parties, conveyors of genuine political conviction and argument, instead of simply conserving what they have become – advertising agencies for competing political elites with their superficial slogans. They might then might have something to stand for, which means they might even have political courage to face up to the possibility that they haven’t properly explained the political beliefs and principles that drive them and this would mean being willing to lose elections until they can actually political persuade the people they wish to represent that they have political beliefs and principles worth trusting.

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