A divided nation needs its institutions more than ever
This article first appeared in the Canberra Times on 30 December 2016.
Make no mistake, some of our most important civil and political institutions are under sustained and deliberate attack. And as 2016 draws to a close, when it seems politics is more divided than ever, it's even more important to protect and defend the bedrock institutions of our democracy.
In NSW, the Baird government weakened the Independent Commission Against Corruption, in what has been seen as payback against the extremely successful commissioner Megan Latham for her investigation into Liberal party political donations.
Latham, who was forced to resign as commissioner, says Baird's changes will "fundamentally weaken" the watchdog; Baird says they'll make ICAC stronger. Who are we to believe: the corruption fighter who helped send Eddie Obeid to jail, or the premier, whose political party lost 10 MPs to resignation or the crossbench in a donations scandal?
By weakening ICAC in NSW, Baird has strengthened the case for a national ICAC. There is no good argument against establishing a federal crime and corruption watchdog and every reason to do it.
Moving to the federal arena, this year has seen climate denialist and One Nation senator Malcolm Roberts publicly question the integrity of the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO's temperature data, saying it had been "corrupted" and "manipulated" by NASA, among others.
This is not a new conspiracy theory, but it's the first time it has had a prominent champion in the Senate.
To be clear, questioning the CSIRO and its research is vital and to be encouraged, after all science works on a system of peer review, which has seen the CSIRO gift us with wonderful inventions including Relenza (the first drug successful in treating the flu), Wi-Fi (yay Netflix!), and that most magical elixir of backyard barbecues everywhere, Aerogard.
Though Roberts' fringe theories are about as credible as science from The Pond's Institute, his allegations the CSIRO is participating in, or hiding, data manipulation on a massive global scale are no joke, implying the CSIRO is not just in error, but malevolent. They are intended to repeatedly undermine and cast doubt on CSIRO's credibility to muddy the waters on climate science and prevent policy action on global warming.
Or, we could look at the way the Coalition government has pursued a two-year vendetta against the president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Professor Gillian Triggs. First, for advocating for the rights of 800 children in mandatory closed immigration detention, including 186 children, who were then in Australia's offshore detention camp on Nauru. Secondly, for conciliating a complaint under the Racial Discrimination Act in a manner the Coalition deemed unacceptable.
The Australian Human Rights Commission's sole mission is to protect and promote human rights. It is an independent statutory body that has successfully conciliated thousands of complaints for people who have been discriminated against because of their race, disability, age or gender, like women who get fired for being pregnant. It conducts inquiries into important human rights matters like Indigenous deaths in custody. The news that Sudanese refugee Faysal Ahmed died from what appears to be inadequate medical care and acute neglect on Manus Island, becoming the fourth refugee to die, only highlights the necessity of the commission's work.
It's to be expected that governments disagree with a commission charged with investigating human rights abuses that happen on their watch. But the sustained personal attacks on Professor Triggs, from the most senior members of government, represent a different beast altogether – designed to smear, silence and delegitimise the nation's foremost human rights body and its president.
And in December Resources Minister Matt Canavan attacked our beloved national broadcaster. Canavan sounded supremely confident when he stood beside the Australian head of mining giant Adani and all but promised a $1 billion taxpayer-funded loan to a single coal mine project.
A few days later, the ABC ran a series of investigative stories, revealing that Adani is being investigated by India's Directorate of Revenue Intelligence for "siphoning money offshore and artificially inflating power prices". When asked whether he knew about the corruption and fraud investigations, Canavan not only failed to answer the question eight times, he then criticised the ABC, saying "so many of your reports have been nothing but fake news".
This is an extraordinary smear on the national broadcaster and one we should take seriously, because it won't be the last. Fake news came to prominence during the US presidential election and is connected to the misogynist, white nationalist "alt-right". It has seen fringe-conspiracy fake news stories from the most paranoid and extreme chatrooms of the internet be treated like real news by Facebook's algorithm, like the fake news story alleging a Washington DC pizzeria was a front for a child sex-trafficking ring operated by senior Democrats. Thankfully, no one was killed when a gunman, incensed by the story, opened fire in the pizzeria.
Stories like these are described by Media Matters as "weaponized (sic) propaganda meant to inspire harassment or even worse".
In contrast to this fake news phenomenon, the Australia Institute recently conducted a national poll which showed most voters trust the ABC over any other news source, irrespective of their political leanings. Undoubtedly this is why Canavan chose to tar the ABC with the "fake news" brush.
Australians' trust in the ABC will come as no surprise to anyone (except maybe Tasmanian Senator Eric Abetz, who prosecutes any hint of bias at the ABC as zealously from the backbench as he did from cabinet). Despite the Coalition's budget cuts, the ABC maintains a massive presence in regional Australia, where it's the trusted, advertising-free voice of local news and weather for millions of people, every day. At this time of year, for many people the ABC also becomes the emergency broadcaster, the place you turn to for information on bushfires (or floods or storms) in your area.
Every Canberran who was here in that terrible summer of 2003 remembers turning to ABC 666 for the most up-to-date and accurate information about the firestorm that engulfed the bush capital, as well as the crucial role played by The Canberra Times in the aftermath and recovery.
The ABC is trusted because it's independent from political interference and because it's proven itself to us time and time again. When someone from the ABC says it's time to evacuate, we trust them. And that's why Canavan's smear describing the ABC's investigative journalism as "fake news" is as abhorrent as it is dangerous.
None of these attacks are an accident, but rather, part of a pattern where the far right seeks to undermine and attack any institution – be it scientific, union, academic, legal, not-for-profit or from the fourth estate – that could limit their power. Genuine conservatives should be afraid that important checks and balances are being shredded in the process.
Ebony Bennett is deputy director of the Australia Institute. She worked for the AHRC in 2012-13.