Unsurprisingly, a survey of Australia’s federal politicians published this month did not directly mention the free flow of information, or lack of it, among the attributes of our democracy that they like or dislike.
But indirectly, they rated it as the most important thing to help restore trust in Australian democracy because three-quarters of them want tougher caps on both electoral spending and political donations.
I say “indirectly” because big donations and big spending are the root cause of misinformation in Australian election.
As with all propaganda, the bigger the lie and the more often it is repeated the more effective it is. But to repeat a big lie often it takes money.
It does so because, in theory at least news media do their best to weed out lies and do not like repeating things because repetition, of its nature, is not news.
The Museum of Australian Democracy survey asked politicians to rate a series of proposed reforms to improve democracy. Caps on donations and election spending topped the list with 76% in favour.
It seems that politicians, when asked in secret, want to be freed from the burden of raising big donations and freed from obligations that flow from them.
Yet they seem incapable of doing anything about it, even though the power is in their own hands.
It is hypocritical and incongruous that rates of political participation (34%) and free and fair elections (31%) were Australian democracy’s best feature, according to the surveyed politicians, and yet they are unwilling to do very much to support and improve those features.
To the contrary, in the past couple of decades they have done exactly the opposite – breaking both the law and spirit of the Freedom of Information Act and, in the name of security, clamping down on the media for having the temerity to report things that might embarrass them.
It is all very well politicians praising “free and fair” elections in Australia, but what does that mean? If restricted to the freedom to nominate for election, enrolments of voters, the conduct of voting, the system of voting, the system of working out electorates and the counting of votes, Australia must rank among the very best in the world.
We only have to look at the US’s Electoral College and gerrymandered electorates drawn by state politicians not an independent commission to see that. Similarly, we can be grateful we do not have Britain’s first-past the post system under which MPs can be elected despite a majority of their constituency being opposed to them. Margaret Thatcher, for example, won thumping majorities on less that 45 per cent of the vote.
But “free and fair elections” means more than that. As the High Court observed in the 1994 Theophanous case, it also requires that there are not unreasonable barriers to the voters being properly informed. The Constitution had an implied requirement that political communication be free, the court said. Without that, the constitutional provisions for representative democracy would fail.
And this is the crunch. Over the past 20 years it has become increasingly easy for big corporate or high-wealth individuals to give to political parties without easy scrutiny. Either the details come out long after the election is over, or they are presented in hard-to-access form, or the donations can be split among state, territory and federal party entities at different times so the totality of what amounts to a political bribe go unnoticed.
Moreover, the amounts of money involved get ever larger.
And the pious hand-wringing of political parties that these donations are merely big corporations and big unions doing a civic duty is rubbish. They give to political parties in the expectation that the political parties will do their bidding. Which they do.
The Museum of Australian Democracy’s survey that the politicians themselves hate this is instructive. It tells us, first, that the present system is corrupt and, secondly that there is hope for reform because the politicians know it and do not like it.
But politicians’ suspicion of media remains. In the survey the thing that politicians most dislike about Australian democracy is being misrepresented by the media (23 per cent). Their own corruption rated half that at 13 per cent.
But again, it depends on what you mean by corruption. If restricted to a brown paper bag full of cash gong to an individual, then we do not have a problem. But if it is a bucketload of cash given by, for example, the Australian Hotels Association to ensure Australia’s evil and life-damaging laxity towards gambling stays in place, or any number of big interests pushing their case to political parties to defend and extend their interests against the public interest, then Australia has a big problem with corruption.
One cannot help ill-informed fools voting against their own interests. As Churchill said, the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with a voter.
But do we have to stack the odds against voters at least having the opportunity to become well-informed, especially when the politicians who have in their command to change things secretly acknowledge the problem?
When are enough of them going to have the spine to acknowledge the need to change things: to get rid of corporate and union donations and severely cap individual donations and to cap electoral spending.
Further, when are they going to understand the cyber threat: misinformation being pushed by foreigners and others with bad motives to influence voters to vote for a disruptive candidate, who otherwise would have little support, without the disruptive candidate even knowing.
Freedom of speech is ensuring that money does not repeat lies, misrepresent and twist truth. Freedom of speech is not having politicians over a barrel with the threat of cutting donations. And now we know the politicians themselves secretly acknowledge it.
When are they going to have the courage to use the keys they have to free themselves of their chains?
Free and fair elections means free flows of information and politicians not being beholden to big donors and being free from the need to raise large sums of money to get elected.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 26 October 2019.