Originally published in The Canberra Times on December 26, 2020

by Ben Oquist
[Originally published by the Canberra Times, 26 December 2020]

On climate policy, both the election of Joe Biden and the acrimony from China should make Australia’s transition away from coal easier, though more urgent. Likewise, the strains that democracies are under around the world, especially in the United States, make the case for strengthening Australia’s democratic infrastructure and institutions all the more compelling.

For a decade China’s demand for Australian coal has been used as an economic and political excuse to justify the expansion of coal mining. This expansion has come at the expense of both Australia’s emissions and our diplomatic standing, particularly with our closest neighbours in the Pacific. In removing this excuse, China’s sanctions have given Australia a prod that can make it easier to live up to the world’s rapidly rising expectations on climate action.

It is widely acknowledged that Biden’s global climate ambitions have the potential to transform climate politics in Australia, putting extraordinary pressure on the Morrison government to do more. The new US President is set to host a climate ambition summit within 100 days of the beginning of his term. This will be followed by UK conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s big UN climate conference in Glasgow at the end of 2021, not to mention Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama who, often outspoken on climate, is hosting the Pacific Islands Forum in 2021. But Australia is not only feeling the heat on the climate front – there is another Biden summit that should be a wake-up call to Australia.

All around the world democracies and democratic norms are under threat. In response, the incoming Biden-Harris administration has committed in its first year in office to hold a global summit for democracy to “strengthen our democratic institutions, honestly confront the challenge of nations that are backsliding, and forge a common agenda to address threats to our common values”.

Notwithstanding the difficulties confronting such a summit, what to do about some of the European recalcitrant for example, the summit should appeal to the current Australian government. After all, as part of confronting one of the biggest policy challenges of our age – the rise of China – the government is keen to point out the Chinese administration’s authoritarianism and lack of respect for democratic norms. The Prime Minister rightly condemned the Chinese administration’s ruthless crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong and some within the government now speak up for the Uighur people’s human rights in Xinjiang.

But back in Canberra, the government is not working out how to promote and strengthen democracy. In fact, the opposite is happening. The government-dominated parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters report, published recently, contained a litany of proposals that would directly undermine the proper functioning of democratic elections in this country.
The committee’s recommendation to require voters to bring identification to the polls on election day is an attempt at mass voter disenfranchisement. This is a ploy to cut swathes of the Australian population out of the democratic process at precisely the time that we should be not just encouraging more Australians to vote, but be promoting the virtues and benefits of a vibrant democracy.

Also problematic is the committee’s recommendation to pursue optional preferential voting in the lower house, ending the compulsion for voters to number all boxes, which ensures their preferences are always reflected in the ultimate selection of our members of parliament. Optional preferential voting is a mistake that will result in many Australians having their votes wasted, with no say in who their local MP is.

But perhaps what is most telling is that, despite overwhelming evidence of public support, the joint committee declined to back truth in political advertising laws. It went further by recommending the end of the existing election advertising blackout period. This will only encourage misleading advertising too close to the election to be challenged and fact checked. What is worse, with public funding of parties, much of the misleading advertising would be paid for by the taxpayer.

Truth in political advertising reform – recently put in place by the Greens and Labor, and backed by Liberals in the ACT – is the type of genuine democratic reform we should be promoting globally to help address one of the big issues of our time. We live in an age where hyper-disinformation threatens to turn future elections into fake news free-for-alls, unless action is taken. Just as we have laws against deceiving people for personal gain (fraud) or falsely harming someone’s reputation (defamation), we need laws to stop people spreading lies during our elections. Now is the time to build protections into our democracy, not dismantle them.

The good news is that, in a dissenting report on the committee’s inquiry, the Labor Party has recommended workable truth in political advertising laws be enacted, and the Greens have recommended a further inquiry. This is an important breakthrough that paves the way for fairer and less deceptive federal election campaigns in the future. The vast majority of Australians support the introduction of new laws to ensure truth in political advertising, but rather than develop new laws to protect our democracy, the Coalition wants to water down the protections we already have.

With democracy under pressure around the world, here in Australia we can either push back or retreat. As the public loses faith in our institutions, and the people who lead us, we can respond by either raising our sights or accepting that decline is inevitable. Unfortunately, the Coalition members of the joint committee aren’t just accepting the decline, they are accelerating it. Biden’s democracy summit should be an opportunity for a rethink on Australia’s democratic infrastructure. And there is another clue for Australia: the very first agenda item for Biden’s summit is the push for “significant new country commitments” on the issue of “fighting corruption”.

It is more than two years since Scott Morrison and the Attorney-General promised an anti-corruption watch-dog (a federal ICAC) and still, no legislation has been introduced to the parliament – just a weak exposure draft that most experts conclude would be worse than nothing at all. No wonder the public is losing faith in democracy – our democratically-elected government with its weak ‘go-slow’ model seems determined to stop people looking closely at what it does.

It is often said that leaders should never waste a crisis, and there is no doubt that the combination of China’s trade sanctions, including on our coal exports, and the world’s growing frustration with our recalcitrance on climate policy, presents Australia with a unique opportunity to reset our coal and climate change debate.

Likewise, China’s attacks on democracy in Hong Kong and the newfound interest in democratic reform in the US present Australia with a welcome opportunity to drive forward democratic reforms that will not just deliver benefits locally but help shore up democracy around the world.

Ben Oquist is executive director of the Australia Institute, an independent think tank based in Canberra @BenOquist

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