You know the joke about the computer programmer who drowns in the shower because the shampoo directions say “Wash hair, rinse, repeat”, an infinite loop.
Unfortunately the same thing is happening to our democracy, and we’re letting it happen.
Scandal, defiance, rinse, repeat.
It’s not an accident.
Relentless escalation of bad behaviour, flouting and rejection of the norms—of responsibility, of accountability, even of truth—isn’t an accident. It’s directly responsible for the rise of the Right and the slow death of democracy; and it’s deliberate.
You might think that “the death of democracy” is a bit hyperbolic; after all, parliament is still there, elections still happen, the courts still operate. How can democracy be dying? It’s the same as the answer to “how do you eat an elephant?”
One bite at a time.
“The standard you walk past is the standard you accept” has become part of the Australian lexicon, and it lies at the heart of this evil strategy.
Every time we get to Step 2—Press reacts—we’ve almost certainly walked past a previous Step 1—Outrageous act—and that is now the standard we accept. It’s that simple.
You might think I’m just describing the Overton Window, and there are plenty of examples of that: here’s Peter Dutton speaking way outside his portfolio on matters as diverse as China, and the climate crisis and Newstart, but it’s far more dangerous than that.
The Overton Window is about ideas and policies. What’s being done here is acts: it’s lying, law-breaking, evasion of responsibility and accountability, and destruction of accepted norms. It’s not a debate, it’s an attack.
What’s distressing is that we have the means to fight back. We have the mechanisms, and the ability to resist each and every one of these Step 1s, but we’re failing to use them. Every time. That’s the problem, and that’s what the Right is counting on.
Here’s the problem in shouty capitals.
RELENTLESS ESCALATION AND DEFIANCE OF NORMS IS KILLING DEMOCRACY ONE DAY AT A TIME
And the Press is helping.
The media have a lot to answer for in this process. They own Step 2, and it’s their lifeblood. Like it or not, these days it’s as much Entertainment as News, and a fresh scandal every few days, a new outrage, some crazy new tweet keeps the clicks coming far more reliably than following the same story day after day.
So the media are willing accomplices in the cycle; if not complicit then at least negligent in their responsibility to follow up, to keep attention on earlier scandals. The old saying “A week is a long time in politics” is now out of date. A day is a long time in politics now, and that mayfly span of attention is allowing our democracy to be dismantled before our very eyes.
Here are a few examples to refresh your memory: Cash and the AFP, Cormann and the air tickets, Hockey and Hello World, Dutton and ASIO leaks, Dutton and Paladin, Dutton and $1B improper departmental accounting, Dutton and au pairs, Dutton and the Biloela four, Dutton and medevac, Wilson and submissions to his own parliamentary committee; AEC and election signs, Gladys Liu and election signs, Gladys Liu and donations, Gladys Liu and the CCP, Joyce and drought, in fact Joyce and everything, Morrison and Hillsong, Morrison and BurnedSpy, Taylor and water rights, Taylor and grass clearing, and most recently Taylor and forged documents. There are many more.
Has anyone been brought to book for any of these? No. They’re now the standard we accept.
Think of each story as being like the blind people and the elephant. One day the story is “It’s a rope”, and the next day “It’s a spear”, the day after “It’s a tree”, and every day the Press runs a new blind-person story and the previous day’s story is driven off the front page and forgotten.
Not only is the Press failing to follow up on each story, they’re failing to print the obvious one: THEY’RE ALL PART OF AN ELEPHANT AND IT’S CRUSHING YOU.
By constantly focussing on individual Step 1s, the Press is distracting us from the obvious: that all the Step 1s are part of an overall strategy. That strategy is well known, there are even common metaphors for it: the boiled frog, death by a thousand cuts; but the Press only runs stories about each cut, not about the slow exsanguination of our democracy that results.
So the Right’s strategy is blindingly simple. Keep doing outrageous things. Numb the public to repeated, daily shocks, faithfully delivered by the Press. Keep violating expected norms and flouting conventions, and brazenly dare someone to do something about it. Keep the pressure up, day after day after day, and let apathy, inertia, lack of interest and eventually despair do the rest.
Not only do they get away with each individual Step 1, an outrage in its own right, but at the same time as we watch apathetically they’re distracting us from the sapping away at the foundations of the entire system.
From time to time we look around, and say with some alarm “How did we get here?”, and the answer, obviously, is just one day at a time, one step at a time, walking down a path littered with Step 1s that we, and the media, failed to react to. Or rather, we reacted for a day, with shock and outrage, horror and indignation, and then the next day there was a new scandal and we forgot the old one, which now becomes the new normal, the standard we now accept because we walked past it.
That wasn’t always the case.
Not everyone will remember Labor Minister Mick Young in the Hawke government. In 1984 he resigned as minister following revelations he’d failed to disclose a Paddington Bear in Customs!
Since 2013 the Liberals have been in government, and although scandals have come and gone, only one member of government has lost their position for misconduct; that was Bronwyn Bishop, and she only left after weeks of outcry. Four ministers (Briggs, Brough, Joyce, Broad) have lost their positions, but all for personal behaviour, not ministerial impropriety. In the same period three more have been sacked for impropriety, then all of them have been returned to ministries (Sinodinos, Robert, Ley).
Much more concerning is the number of scandals that, in the past, would have led to an immediate resignation or sacking, but now are just brushed aside. Cash, Cormann, Hockey, Dutton, Liu, Wilson, Morrison, Taylor, and of course the now departed Pyne and Bishop, and on and on. The Departmental scandals, Robodebt, ASIC, ATO, and DHS. All of these in the space of a few years.
These are now the standard that we accept.
The Right’s strategy, as I’ve said, is simple, brazen, and utterly appalling. Deny, lie, deflect, double-down, refuse to accept you’re wrong, refuse to accept responsibility, refuse to be accountable, and stare down anyone who challenges you. Twenty years ago this behaviour would have resulted in a front-page story that wouldn’t go away until the Prime Minister was forced to act.
Today, the Prime Minister is the first to dismiss it, and the next day the Press obligingly fills the front page with the next outrage from the same people. Both Peter Dutton and Angus Taylor have survived multiple scandals by this simple technique, and now we have a new set of “standards” for Ministerial behaviour, propriety, and for Prime Ministerial standards—the ones we walked past.
You might still argue that these are glitches, not an erosion of democracy, but I’d disagree.
Ministerial responsibility, and the morals of parliament are ultimately at least a minimum by which we’re all judged. Elections are supposed to be free and fair, but obvious violations of the Electoral Act haven’t been pursued, and vast sums of money are being poured into campaigns of lies and misinformation thanks to the willing participation by all politicians, the same ones who refuse to establish a Federal ICAC.
MPs are supposed to be free from foreign interference, but at least one case has been allowed to languish because the Prime Minister has refused to follow it up, like many other things. The police and judiciary are supposed to be independent, but the AFP have been increasingly politicised, and the gathering under a single ministry of all the forces of the law, a ministry headed by a man with immense discretionary powers and who’s at the centre of more scandals than anyone else, is deeply troubling.
The courts are still independent, although the Government has broken with norms—how unusual—and filled the Administrative Tribunal with partisan members. The courts, however, can only bring their powers to bear when cases are brought before them. If the Attorney-General and police choose not to mount prosecutions, then the courts are powerless. For example, how many times in the past six years has the AFP declined to prosecute incidents involving members of the government?
So, what to do?
Only two things are required to reverse this steady march: we must refuse to allow each Step 1 to fade away and become the new standard; and we must demand that the Press fulfil their obligation and pursue matters of importance and public interest, not deliberately distract public attention from previous Step 1s.
Of course, easier said than done. The supine and obsequious behaviour by the “Opposition” has given the government almost a free run in parliament, but ultimately it’s up to each and every one of us to call out the Press to act, call out our MPs to act, call out our Senators to act, and if all that fails as it has with the Climate Emergency, act ourselves.
Until we do, the relentless escalation of bad behaviour and defiance of norms will continue unabated, the elephant will roll over on us, and we will all be the losers.