Coalition approaching authoritarianism?

There has been a lot of discussion about authoritarianism in Australia this year. When I thought about writing about this topic, the first thing I did was to work out what authoritarianism means.

Authoritarianism, principle of blind submission to authority, as opposed to individual freedom of thought and action. In government, authoritarianism denotes any political system that concentrates power in the hands of a leader or a small elite that is not constitutionally responsible to the body of the people. Authoritarian leaders often exercise power arbitrarily and without regard to existing bodies of law, and they usually cannot be replaced by citizens choosing freely among various competitors in elections. The freedom to create opposition political parties or other alternative political groupings with which to compete for power with the ruling group is either limited or nonexistent in authoritarian regimes.

Authoritarianism thus stands in fundamental contrast to democracy. It also differs from totalitarianism, however, since authoritarian governments usually have no highly developed guiding ideology, tolerate some pluralism in social organization, lack the power to mobilize the entire population in pursuit of national goals, and exercise power within relatively predictable limits. Examples of authoritarian regimes, according to some scholars, include the pro-Western military dictatorships that existed in Latin America and elsewhere in the second half of the 20th century.

Encyclopedia Britannica – Authoritarianism

If we accept this definition, I would argue that Australia’s political systems are not concentrating excessive amounts of power in the hands of one leader or a small elite. I will accept the argument that in some regards, certain powers are being exercised arbitrarily and without regard to existing bodies of law. The freedom to create opposition political parties may have been reduced but it has not been limited that much to cause significant problems.

So why is this a question?

The reason that this has become a question is because laws have been passed that seem to contradict what should be their ideology. I’m going to look at each issue individually and look at them in terms of this definition.

Refugees and Immigration

The Coalition has leaned into its traditional strength of border security whenever it talks about refugee policy (or as it likes to refer to them as, illegal immigrants). Obviously, this ignores the much larger group of immigrants that fly into the country and then overstay their visas – this is specifically for those that arrive by boat.

However, the Australian Government is looking to make some changes – thanks to the Guardian for their article on one topic.

The Migration and Citizenship Legislation Amendment (Strengthening Information Provisions) Bill is currently before parliament’s intelligence and security committee, but the Guardian understands debate could be brought on before the end of the year.

The bill was tabled in response to a 2017 high court decision that found part of the Migration Act was unconstitutional because it allowed the minister to “shield” information from the high court in cases it was adjudicating.

Under the proposed law, anyone who disclosed “protected information” – even to the person against whom it was being used – outside limited exceptions could be jailed for two years.

Where a visa decision has been made using “protected information” from a law enforcement or intelligence agency, no tribunal or parliament would have the right to know the information the government was relying on.

And the courts’ use of the information would be strictly limited. They would be required to hold closed hearings – open only to parties who already hold the information – before deciding whether it could be disclosed further, including to the person whose visa has been cancelled.

‘Authoritarian-style’ law would allow Australia to use secret evidence to deport migrants, Ben Doherty, The Guardian, 11 October 2021

Many are arguing that this is government overreach, and from my perspective it is a significant overreach. The article from the Guardian goes into great detail, with the risk of making people stateless being included.

By placing so much power in the Minister, it would give them significant power, far more power than they already have. Successive Coalition governments have expanded the power of the Minister, potentially leaving thousands of people at the mercy of an individual who does not know what is happening.

A perfect example of government overreach is with the Biloela family. The Murugappan family have been in and out of detention for years, including a period where the family were the only residents of the massive detention centre on Christmas Island. While the family is currently in Perth, the government argues that they should be returned to war-torn Sri Lanka, where their father would likely be killed due to his links (like many Tamil men) to the former separatist army, since defeated, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Most Australians would argue that this family should be allowed to stay permanently in Australia – they have served their time and were members of the Biloela community, a small town in Central Queensland. Many would argue they should be allowed to return there. The government would argue that this would result in a flood of asylum seekers, but that has not been proven.

COVID-19 and quarantine

State leaders have been the ones that have been accused of being authoritarian in the face of COVID-19. Restrictions on movement and mask mandates have been run by the states and territories, and for the most part, they were accepted at first. However, the longer the lockdowns progressed, the larger the protests got. State governments have sought help from the military to manage these issues, but as more states open up with the higher rates of vaccination, these pressures should ease.

When it comes to the issue of quarantine, the Federal Government looked weak on border security when the Ruby Princess hit the shores of Sydney. Quarantine remains a Federal responsibility, despite the agreement made by all parties back in March 2020. Hotel quarantine was intended to be a stopgap measure, and the fact that it took over a year before the Federal Government even started to think about permanent quarantine centers is a disgrace. Their authoritarian approach fell here.

Defamation Laws

Politicians tend to be quick to sue for defamation in Australia – with Peter Dutton, Christian Porter, John Barilaro, Anne Webster and Andrew Laming being involved in defamation campaigns in 2021, with various levels of success.

It’s important to point out that Christian Porter, as a former attorney general, has had multiple views on the matter.

When he was attorney general, Christian Porter told the National Press Club Australia’s defamation laws didn’t strike the right balance.

After extensive consultation, states agreed to make the laws more defendant-friendly, promising to introduce a new public interest defence and a threshold of serious harm to weed out trivial claims.

But in May Porter said he had developed a more “nuanced” view once he had “experience inside the system”, initiating a high-profile case against the ABC and journalist Louise Milligan.

Before he reached an agreement to drop the case, Porter told Sky News on 26 May that defamation law can pit an innocent person against a “pretty seriously financially equipped opponent to try and clear their name”. “And it is an expensive business.”

Defamation nation: why are Australian politicians so quick to sue? Paul Karp, The Guardian, 13 June 2021

While there does not appear to be any further mood to change defamation laws in Australia, the risk of shifting the needle back towards the plaintiff is possible. As a result of the High Court rulings about social media, there could be changes to defamation laws in the future.

Social Media

While many may suggest that social media needs some sort of regulation so it is a better place and not so mean, the Coalition is probably not the group that most people would think of to regulate it.

“Cowards who go anonymously on to social media and vilify people, and harass them, and bully them, and engage in defamatory statements, they need to be responsible for what they’re saying,” Morrison said.

“Social media has become a coward’s palace where people can just go on there, not say who they are, destroy people’s lives and say the most foul and offensive things to people, and do so with impunity,” he added.

His comments come as Australian state and territory governments are rushing to rewrite their defamation laws after the High Court last month set a precedent for the internet age, ruling that media outlets can be held liable for defamatory comments posted by third parties on their Facebook pages.

Australia wants Facebook held liable for anonymous comments, Rod McGurk, AP News, October 7 2021

Several organizations and governments have already turned off comments on their pages to prevent themselves from being held liable for the actions of users.

Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce has a personal perspective on this matter.

Mr Joyce said passion on the subject of social media comes from his experience as a parent and he expressed anger over rumours about his eldest daughter that had spread on social media.

“[I’m acting] on behalf of every parent, of every mother, of every person who’s had to deal with a daughter who’s been intimidated, bullied, basically psychologically kicked to pieces by marauding and uncontrolled forces on the internet,” he said.

Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce says the government is not joking over plans to regulate social media, Alexia Attwood and Carly Williams, ABC PM, October 10 2021

Now, some may say that government has no right to regulate social media because it is a public forum and to do so would be to regulate free speech.

However, these social media platforms are private companies. That is the reality faced by the general populace – people will continue to be free to post all their mad shit. Further to that, these companies are housed in the US, largely influenced by US laws. The impact of Australian regulation will be minimal – the worst case scenario would see them withdraw from Australia and thrown in the too-hard basket. While it might be a loss of revenue for them, they would just wait for a situation when the regulatory environment suited them.

As much as an authoritarian Coalition government may want to “set the pace” in terms of social media regulation, they are essentially powerless. Very little they do will impact the behaviour of these platforms, and a negotiated outcome is better for them.

Conclusion

As much as I don’t like the direction of the Coalition government, I would not say that they are approaching authoritariansim. One thing that is true is that the Coalition lacks a strong leader anywhere in its ranks that would help define such a government. Perhaps other traits could be found that might push it closer towards authoritarianism but at this point, I do not believe it is the case. There’s no strongman position or look to Scott Morrison, or at the head of any political party in Australia.

Quite simply, Australia would not accept an authoritarian party – it wouldn’t work. The broad culture of Australia means that such a strong personality would be struck down so fast to make it untenable.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

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