The Voice and Australia’s democracy crisis

Apr 13, 2024
The Australian and Australian Aboriginal flags fly at Bondi Icebergs Club, Bondi Beach, Sydney. This image was taken from the coastal walkway at sunset on a cold, sunny winter day on 17 June 2023.

The dire state of truth in Australia’s civic space crystallised in 2023. We had seen the waning influence of News Corp’s impact on our elections and assumed it meant that enough of us were becoming inoculated against the propaganda. The defeat of the notoriously mendacious Coalition government might have signalled a ceasefire, a moment for the “conservative” parties to rediscover their integrity. We had underestimated, however, the strategising of vested interests.

The year also revealed starkly what happens when the world’s instant communication platform, Twitter, is owned by one billionaire. All these forces converged in a grim battle over the Voice referendum.

News Corp was at the centre of the media campaign against the Voice. While the organisation claimed to be explaining both sides, a University of Adelaide study found the mastheads to be disproportionately promoting the No campaign to varying degrees of intensity. Anthony Albanese was made the focus of coverage to damage both the Voice and the Prime Minister, rather than presenting the project as inspired and promoted by First Peoples. The study also found that all the most dramatic and newsworthy headlines emerged from high profile commentators distorting the body beyond recognition. One argument that inverted fact continued through the campaign and beyond: that the Voice represented “Elites against battlers the great divide.” (The Australian, 16/10/23.) Rather than the News Corp argument that the Voice was an “elite” campaign, the elite power was more lining up behind the No campaign. Andrew Bolt in the tabloids was responsible for headlines such as “Architects of new apartheid” (The Herald Sun, 31/10/23) and “Giving voice to an undemocratic farce.” (The Herald Sun, 19/1/23.) Peta Credlin, for example, in the broadsheet described the Voice “as a Trojan horse.” (The Australian, 12/2/23.) She supported the claim that $40 billion a year is spent on First People even after it had been debunked. A week after the referendum loss, Bolt was demanding “Now let’s do Labor’s other mad crusade” turning the base’s focus to fighting renewable energy. (The Herald Sun, 23/10/23.)

The media more broadly failed Australia over the referendum. High profile Press Gallery members, for example, held Albanese to account for not being adequately bipartisan, a failure to compromise. In fact, the Prime Minister established in February 2023 that he wanted this referendum to be bipartisan. Peter Dutton was invited to the referendum working group that devised the amendment’s wording, attending twice in February 2023. Dutton made no suggestions at any stage of changes, or alternative wordings, that he would be prepared to support. The Prime Minister met with Dutton on seven occasions on the matter. Bernard Keane, author of Lies and falsehoods: the Morrison government and the culture of deceit, asserted that it is a dangerous “fantasy” to argue that a “different referendum” would have fared better. Dutton apparently chose to use the referendum as another campaign in the culture war: there is no tweak that could have prevented him using it in a nihilistic way. As Keane explains, however, claiming intransigence from Albanese is the crucial step to make sure Labor not Dutton carries the blame for the Voice’s defeat and the harm done along the way.

Democracy demands that the voting public knows precisely what it is voting for and against. It is based on the trust that those we elect tell us what they represent. It is based on the certainty that the system conveys those votes accurately. It is based on governments acting with accountability to the nation they serve.

Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus’s full integrity platform must be implemented. Spreading misinformation should be classed as misconduct where the departure from the truth is blatant and serious. Australia craves legislation for truth in political advertising. Federal reforms intended to cover disinformation on social media must cover the mainstream media as well. A Murdoch Royal Commission ought to be on the list of government priorities, not least because Malcolm Turnbull’s reckless 2017 gift to Murdoch of loosened media ownership laws has allowed Australia’s own wannabe Fox, Sky News, to be streamed free into the regions. The ABC must have an independent body that governs its funding and senior appointments to protect it from intimidation tactics.

It is not just in the media that truth must be protected. The projected independent whistleblower protection commission should be amongst the first acts, with reparations for whistleblowers failed by our system. Truth and transparency must be our goal, as revealed so spectacularly by Royal Commissioner Catherine Holmes’s determined pressing of public servants and politicians who had destroyed lives, even driving people to suicide, with illegal debt recovery programs. Public servants should be restored to a position of equality with politicians where, as experts, frank and fearless advice is given without fear of vengeance. Independent and protected public servants could have drawn the public’s attention to scandals such as Robodebt or the carpark rorts scheme which took place entirely divorced from any of the mechanisms that restrict the corrupt spending of public money.

Hiding inconvenient truths and muddying debate so that the public cannot understand the arguments threatens not just the fate of First Peoples in the referendum, but the whole concept of Australian democracy and our descendants’ future.

We have no time to delay: as the climate crisis escalates, the disinformation game funded by fossil fuel and gathered around rightwing parties through the anglosphere becomes more ruthless. We must act now where possible to restore truth to political debate and civic discourse.

This essay is composed of selected extracts from a longer piece published at Meanjin.

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