I read on through our recent and gratifyingly rich heritage of commentary and
memoir, it became clearer to me all the time that we hadn't become a prosperous
and reasonably equable democracy by the accidental dispensation of benevolent
nature and a favourable geographical position. The country had been built, by
clever people. Our constitution itself was the work of people who had studied
history. They were readers of newspapers and periodicals, they were eternal students
in the best sense, they were bookish people. They had built a bookish nation.
But, as so often has been the case with Australia's consciousness of itself, the
problem was to realise it."
James - November 2002
To many people, Australia is a boring place where nothing much happens. Unlike the middle-east, there are no suicide bombings or endless cycles of violence. Unlike Britain and France, there aren't ethnic riots that go on for weeks. Unlike the US, there aren't cults committing suicide on mass, or having a shoot out with the law.
In some regards, the peaceful nature of Australia is surprising. In 2006, migrants constituted 22.8 per cent of the Australian population, and many of these migrants came from cultures defined by their violence and dislike of other cultures. To have a society with such a diverse range of people, but so little conflict, can be attributed to the Australian political system.
The Australia political system was design to stop mass movements and so allow England to maintain minority rule over Australia. In the 19th century, there were three armed rebellions aimed at over throwing British rule, and the culture of the day was hostile to the mother country. British-leaning politicians knew they had to get Australians seeking change with votes instead of guns, but they also had to design the system in a way that wouldn't see them lose control. The system they came up with gave people the opportunity to express their grievances, but it also made it very difficult for extremists to ever gain the reins of power, or for a mass movement to maintain solidarity.
House of Representatives
Every Australian is in an electorate that has at least 21,343 people. Each person in the electorate votes for an individual to represent them in the House of Representatives. These members are usually aligned with a major party. The party (or coalition) that gets the most members elected will govern.
The party elects its leader and the leader decides on senior positions in government. It is not possible for Australians to vote for who will be prime minister. They can only vote for a person in their electorate, who in turn will vote on who will be the prime minister.
The House of Representatives forms the bills that the Senate and the governor general subsequently deem suitable or unsuitable to pass into law.
As well as creating bills, the House of Representatives has question time. This gives members the opportunity to question the opposing party, or waffle on about whatever they want to talk about. In theory, question time is meant to be about debate, but in truth it is more about vilification and implementing political strategy. If a party doesn't want to answer a question, it simply ignores it, or just insults the other party with phrases like:
"Honourable Members opposite squeal like stuck pigs." (Paul Keating)
It is in the House of Representatives where each party comes up with wedge policies to divide their opponent, or tosses the general public a bone to distract them as they pass an unpopular bill.
Compulsory voting is one of Australia's anti-extremist measures. In America, voluntary voting means that the extremists are great assets to a political campaign. It is the extremists that get out to vote, and convince others to vote as well. To keep the extremists happy, the American political parties must pander to their interests, and this can result in a polarised society. In Australia; however, the extremists are not really important at all. The political party that they have chosen can simply take them for granted and ignore them. The party can then devote its resources on the swinging voters that will decide the election. As a consequence, it is the moderates from the middle-ground that need to be kept happy. On the whole, these moderates are the most likely voters to be apathetic, and not the kind that will join a movement seeking to overthrow a government or hang its ministers.
Critics of voluntary voting say it results in elections being decided by those who are often too apathetic to be informed of the issues; however, history has consistency shown that often when people become “informed” on an issue, they inform themselves of one side only and selectively seek information that further confirms their biases. They then get into power and start persecuting those who are not informed.
In addition to ensuring the moderates have a voice, compulsory voting forces every potential voter to reflect upon their values at least once every three years. Even if they lodge an informal or donkey vote, at least they have decided that wasting their vote is consistent with what they believe in, and such a reflection is a good thing.
Compulsive voting is just one of the many electoral innovations that Australia gave the world. Another notable innovation is the secret ballot. World-wide, the secret ballot is sometimes referred to as the "Australian ballot" or "kangaroo voting". The secret ballot allows people to resist peer pressure and register their true feelings. This was quite important around the time of federation. Because patriotic sentiments of the day were quite hostile to mother England, politicians quite rightly feared that mobs using patriotic fervour could pressure to individuals to fall in line, and vote out politicians loyal to Britain.
For the House of Representatives, preferential voting is another innovation that keeps extremists out of parliament. The system forces voters to rank candidates in order of preference. When the ballots are collectively tallied, it is the candidate that is the least hated, rather than most liked, that represents the people. It also allows voters to risk voting for an unlikely candidate in the knowledge that their two-party-preferred choice will count if the unlikely candidate failed to gain enough support. In 1998, preferential voting kept Pauline Hanson out of parliament. Hanson won 36% of the primary vote, which was 10% more than her nearest rival, yet still lost the seat.
Admittedly, public ignorance about preferential voting leads to the system being exploited by major parties for political reasons. On election day, the parties hand out how-to-vote cards, which advise people how they should fill in their voting forms. (Most voters are unaware that how-to-vote cards are just recommendations, and that they can be ignored.) The major parties almost always advise that the other major party be put last, even if a different party is more ideologically opposed. In 2010, this led to the Australian Greens winning the seat of Melbourne. The Liberal Party advised voters to preference the Greens before Labor. Once the Liberals were eliminated, their preferences went to the Greens, which pushed the Greens ahead of Labor. In other words, due to preferential voting, one of the least popular candidates, and most disliked, won the seat. Although the Liberals knew that the Greens policies were far more opposed that those of Labor, they believed that the emergence of the Greens could be a form of wedge politics.
Even though preferential voting can help the smaller parties, it was initially designed to allow two likeminded parties to compete with each other, without risk of both parties losing out from doing so. In other words, it was designed to preserve a two-party system.
Even though compulsory voting, the secret ballot, and preferential voting help keep the extremists out of the House of Representatives, the extreme fringe still has a chance to influence the direction of Australia via the Senate. In the Senate election, gaining a proportion of the vote leads to a form of representation. If elected, a minor party can exert influence if it sides with the major opposition party to block the passage of the governing party's legislation. Historically, few major parties have had a majority in both houses, thus the senate has been able to deny the passage of legislation that is not deemed to be in the interests of those who support the opposition and the minor parties. For this reason, the senate forces the government to create legislation that is relatively satisfactory for all Australians, not just 50 per cent of them.
In a final blow to extremism, only half of the senators are elected each election. Furthermore, if they lose their seat, there is a lag between the election and when they leave office. This lag prevents an extreme political group from secretly orchestrating a terror attack against Australia, riding the emotion of outrage to an election victory, and then quickly implementing legislative policies that consolidate its power. (As the Nazi Party did in Germany.) The lag ensures that there is a cooling off period that allows politicians to take stock of exactly what happened, police to investigate, and decisions to be made free of short-term community hysteria. The lag also prevents a newly elected party being too different from the previous party. Whatever change occurs, it is a gradual one.
The Head of State
The Australian system of government was designed to preserve British rule. Reflecting this aim, the British monarch is the Australian Head of State and the governor general is his or her representative. After the House of Representatives has passed a bill, it goes to the Senate. If the Senate also passes the bill, it goes to the governor general for final approval.
Even though the governor general is the most powerful position in the Australian political system, that power has rarely been used - at least publicly. Governor generals just sign every bill they are asked to sign. The main reason for their compliance is that governor generals are appointed by the Monarch on the recommendation of the prime minister. Understandably, prime ministers usually don't recommend anyone that may want to use his or her power.
Prior to the 1930s, the position of governor general was always filled by an Englishman. Since the 1930s, the position has been filled by an Australian. Once in the position, the governor general has gone around giving speeches that few people have paid attention to. The one exception was Sir John Kerr who sacked the Whitlam government in 1975. After the opposition used its majority in the Senate to block supply, the Whitlam government was unable to function but refused to call fresh elections. With both political parties using their power to a point of stalemate, the governor general had to do something. After sacking Whitlam, he installed the opposition as the caretaker government and called fresh elections. The Australian people were then able to decide on their government. The Whitlam government lost 91 of the 127 House of Representatives seats.
In 1999, Australia's politicians gave the people the choice of changing the constitution to replace the Monarch with an Australian president appointed by parliament. 80 per cent of Australians supported the move to a republic, but wanted a directly-elected president. Politicians were against a direct-election model on the grounds it would lead to a "populist" president. Presumably, the politicians feared that a president would advocate "populist" polices such as tax cuts and pay for them by cutting government pork barreling. The referendum recieved a no vote.
Separation of powers
In theory, power is dispersed in Australia so that no one person or body can ever have complete control. One power is the legislative, which is Parliamentary power to make law. The second is the Executive, which refers to the different Ministers of the Crown's power to execute and administer law. The third is Judicial power, which refers to a court's power to interpret and enforce laws.
For many years after Federation, judicial power resided with the privy council of London, and its power to interpret and enforce Australian laws positioned it at the apex of the Australian legal system. The apex of Judicial power has now been transferred to the High Court of Australia, with the justices being appointed by the Australian parliament.
Because federal parliament has the power to make and administer laws, as well as choose the justices that interpret them, Australia doesn't have a true seperation of powers. Furthemore, because the federal government selects the governor general, it has managed to gain control of a system designed to preserve British rule in Australia. The result is quite a weak democracy, yet one that is incorrectly perceived to be a strong democracy. Fortunately, Australians seem to have a cultural trait that sees it get bored with a party if it has been in power for 10 years or more. The frequent change of governing parties has a way of preventing excess corruption by federal politicians.
Halting the revolution
The policies countering extremism help explain a bemused comment by Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin about the Australian political system. After visiting Australia and seeing that the workers were very much in control, Lenin was surprised that the free market still reined. According to Lenin:
"What sort or peculiar capitalist country is this in which the workers' representatives predominate in the upper house....and yet the capitalist system is in no danger?"
Simply, the Australian political system doesn't allow a government to come to power and then go on a massive purge of dissidents, critics or anyone else that threatens its power. Instead, the system gives voters the means to express their grievances, but denies individual politicians the means to exploit those grievances for their own personal gain.
On the negative side, a government can be as corrupt as sin, and even if it loses an election, the new government can't purge all the corrupt members in the ex-ministry or bureaucracy.
System of Government
At the time of Federation, the responsibilities of the various tiers of government were clearly set out. The Federal Government was meant to control national issues, such as foreign affairs, immigration, defence, post, social security, census, statistics, coinage, and banking. State governments were meant to be responsible for schools, police, gaols, hospitals, and most community services. Councils were meant to be responsible for local transport, garbage collection, town planning and utilities.
In the 100 years since, politicians have found it very difficult to stay within the prescribed boundaries. The federal government has found it particularly difficult to stay out of health and education. This is probably because making funding announcements on health and education are always politically popular. Furthermore, the education system is seen as a means of shaping the political ideologies of future voters, and no politician wants to leave children’s minds open to corruption by their enemies.
To gain some control over education and health, the federal government uses its control of the taxation system to pressure states to toe a federal government line. In addition, it funds private institutions in competition with state institutions. (This is one of the main reasons why Australia has such a high percentage of children in private schools.)
State governments have wanted to have some control over migration because the federal government’s migration policies have not affected each state equally. Basically, the Federal government sets the target number of migrants but since most migrants have wanted to settle in Melbourne and Sydney, it is left it to the lower tiers of government to deal with all the potential infrastructure and social problems caused by high migration. With their hands tied, Victorian and NSW politicians have tended to just make speeches about how different policies are needed.
Local government tends to be the least seen, but most felt. Laws on rezoning have a huge impact on property values and the actual operation of daily life. Needless to say, property developers often try to cultivate good relationships with local members.
Political differences often flow from ideological disagreements about how to best solve problems. Liberals believe problems are best solved by empowering individuals. Leftists believe it is via government policy. Australia’s political parties exist somewhere between the two poles of the ideological spectrum.
Labor Party was established in the hardships of the 1890s with the aim of providing
a fair go for workers. It used the American spelling
of Labor to associate itself with the progressive United States rather than conservative
The Labor Party's union and progressive history best explains its culture today. As a party of the unions, it has always seen the value of group solidarity and has tried to achieve it with patriotic symbolism. It was the Labor Party that introduced the first Australian governor general, removed God Save the Queen as the national anthem and argued that Australia should become a republic. To protect its union interests under the guise of patriotism, the Labor Party also promoted the white Australia policy (immigration restriction act), against the wishes of England that was demanding a racially-neutral migration policy. As more non-white migrants started joining unions, the Labor Party changed from being an anti-non-white party to a party that promoted inclusion for any migrant that would vote Labor. During the Vietnam War, this meant that Vietname refugees were unwelcome and subjected to Labor Party protests.
When Whitlam established a policy of multiculturalism in the 1970s, migrants were told that they could hold onto their heritage, but for many Labor supporters, that was only if their heritage didn’t include opposing Communism.
Another change in the Labor Party has come from an influx of lawyers into its ranks. Exactly how lawyers have affected its culture is open to debate. Some people who have experienced lawyers have found them to be two-faced immoral money hungry pigs. Others have found them to be people from a life of opportunity who want to help the underdogs who have not had the same opportunities. Perhaps the lawyers of the Labor Party come from both camps.
With a firm belief of the group before the individual, Labor has always believed that it is through policy and regulation that problems are best solved. When the policies haven’t worked, the Labor Party has often resorted to threats and intimidation of critics, particularly in the media.
Although solidarity and patriotism has been a Labor strength, it has also proven to be fertile ground for corruption and repression.
The Liberal Party was
established in 1944 by Robert Menzies; the then leader of the United
Australia Party. The Liberal Party generally
supports an ideology of individual determination. Consequently, it has often deconstructed
the collective power structures that encourage people to identify with racial,
sexual, union or nationalistic groups. It was the Liberal Party that gave the commonwealth vote to Aborigines, had the first Senate member of Aboriginal descent, had the first House of Representative member of Aboriginal descent, the first Asian migrant to be part of Parliament, the first female MP, offered the first ministerial positions for women, dismantled most of the white Australia policy and had the youngest ever member elected. It also allows its members to cross the floor and vote with the opposition when they feel strongly about an issue. The Labor Party does not allow the same break from group solidarity.
Broadly speaking, Liberal ideology is consistent with capitalist ideology. For this reason, business usually supports the Liberals. In 2010, the Liberal's federal leader Tony Abbott said:
"As a liberal, I support lower taxes, smaller government and greater freedom."
The Liberal Party has rarely shown any interest in Australian patriotism. Former PM John Howard was perhaps an exception; however, he opposed Australia becoming a republic.
The word liberal in Australia tends to have a different connotation to liberal in America. Which is the true liberal is open to debate. With the exception of drug and marriage laws, American liberals pursue very restrictive social policy. Specifically, they advocate the subordination of the individual’s interest to society’s interests and the realisation of a greater good via the regulation of commerce and the media. In other words, the American liberal is very much about top down control. The Australian Liberal Party tends to be restrictive about marriage and drug laws, but otherwise advocates less top-down control.
The Liberal Party tends to receive a great deal of vitriol from the legal profession, which is very much in the Labor camp. This probably stems from the different ways each approaches laws. The legal profession benefits from a complex set of laws and when the Liberal Party tries to simplify or eliminate laws, it undermines the power and economic opportunities of lawyers.
Originally known as the Country Party, the National Party was founded in 1913 to represent rural Australia. When Australia was a rural-dominated society, the Nationals had governed. As Australia became a urban-based society, the Nationals became a fringe political party with no hope of governing in its own right.
The Nationals tend to be quite happy to embrace religion in politics, which is something both the Liberal and Labor Parties are sometimes uncomfortable with. This is probably because the Church in rural Australia is more important for community development than it is in the cities, where other options are available.
As their constituents are mostly farmers, who are often business owners, the Nationals don’t tend to be fond of unions, which results in the commonality with the Liberals. On the flip side, they have often been in favour of tariffs and regulation to protect the farmers against competition, and this preference for government control results in a commonality with the Labor Party.
The Coalition is a partnership between the city-backed Liberal Party and the country-backed Nationals. For the Liberals, the partnership offers a greater chance of gaining enough seats to take government. For the Nationals, a partnership with the Liberals gives themselves the chance to take ministerial roles in a government.
Because it is a perpetual union, neither party needs to worry about attacking the other and can instead focus their attacks on Labor. The cost to both parties is that the Coalition has to operate in a way that sometimes alienates their respective supporters. As individual entities, the only real commonality that the Nationals and the Liberals share is a dislike of unions. To keep the coalition together, the Liberals have had to become more conservative and the Nationals have had to compromise some of the bush's interests for those of the city.
The Australian Greens
were formally launched in 1992. Initially, they were meant to be a party concerned for the environment, but environmental issues soon took a back seat to a social agenda.
The Australian Greens attract the more totalitarian personality because, ideologically, they place responsibility for the failings of individuals on society. The natural extension of the logic is a belief that society needs to be controlled for social justice to be realised. One prominent member of the Greens, Dr Clive Hamilton, has publicly advocated the suspension of the democratic process, which is a view quite widely shared amongst Green Party voters. Other Greens have tried to introduce legalisation to bring free media under government control.
The Greens have aligned themselves with the Labor Party whenever they have had a chance to form a coalition government.
Religion in politics
When explaining the role of religion in Australian politics compared to American politics, art critic Robert Hughes said,
“Any political candidate who declared God was on his side would be laughed off the podium as an idiot or a wowser (prude, intrusive bluenose)."
The suspicion of mixing religious ideology and political ideology in Australia seems to flow from a strong dislike of the wowser. In 1910, William Holman MLA said:
"A wowser...is a man who, being entirely destitute of the greater virtues, makes up for their lack by a continuous denunciation of little vices."
In 1912, John Scaddan, the premier of Western Australia:
"A wowser is...a person who is more shocked at seeing two inches of underskirt than a mountain of misery."
In 1960, Eugene Gorman QC said:
"Wowser is a simple, satisfying, succinct, single word which aptly distinguishes the whole race of windy, watery, cantankerous, snuffling Chadbands, Stiggines, Holy Joes and Scripture-sprouting sneaks, hypocritical humbugs, and unctuous, dirty-minded rotters, who spend their time interfering with the healthy instincts and recreations of healthy-minded, honest humanity."
The suspicion of the wowser has made it difficult for openly religious politicians to assert their values using religion as a justification. In recent years, prime minister John Howard was criticised for appointing an archbishop to the position of Governor General. Howard defended his decision on the grounds that being religious should not prevent someone from being able to attain the position. (The governor general had to resign after being accused of the cover up of paedophile activity.) Howard’s successor, Kevin Rudd, also wanted to bring some religion into politics. He gave press interviews on Church steps and justified his stance by saying religion values should shape political values. He was able to avoid criticism of being a wowser by joining journalists as they frequented strip clubs.
Differences from New Zealand
Australia and New Zealand have had different kinds of social disputes over the last two centuries. As a result, their political systems have been designed to address those disputes. In Australia, voting is compulsory. In New Zealand, it is not. Australia uses preferential voting in which candidates are ranked in order of preference. New Zealand does not. Australia uses a first-past-the-post system that gives the seat to the candidate that gets the most votes, or preferences. This results in two major parties dominating. New Zealand uses a proportional voting system. This results in some major parties, but also representation from nationalist groups, business lobbies, left-wing environmentalists and parties aligned with specific races. Australia has a senate. New Zealand does not. Australia does not have seats reserved for any racial group. New Zealand has special seats reserved for Maori.
The major parties of Australia are the Australian Labor Party, which uses American spelling, and the Liberal Party of Australia. The major parties of New Zealand are the New Zealand Labour Party, which uses British spelling, and the New Zealand National Party.
The Queen of England is the head of state of both countries.
Differences from India
The Australian political system makes an interesting contrast with India, which has also been shaped by previous British rule, but has undergone a great deal of change since gaining independence from Britain. Whereas the Australian constitution has hardly changed since 1901, the Indian constitution has been one of the most amended national documents in the world with more than 80 alterations. Much of the change has resulted from disputes between parliament and the Supreme Court.
Another point of difference is in the prevalence of corruption. At a federal level, Australian politicians have shown a desire to control the media in ways that are borderline corrupt, but on the whole, most corruption scandals have been limited to local and state governments. India, on the other hand, has a long history of corruption at the federal level. This can be partly attributed to specific families and specific parties dominating. To deal with potential cronyism, some ruling parties have tried to keep changing the ministers around to make it less likely that entrenched relationships can be exploited.
Canberra is the capital city of Australia. Perhaps the site it was located, and its urban design, represent the fear of a popular uprising held by Australia's fathers of federation. Officially, the site of Canberra was chosen because it was half way between Sydney and Melbourne. In truth, it is far closer to Sydney than Melbourne. Furthermore, it is disconnected from the major transportation links between Sydney and Melbourne.
Canberra might be in a backwater location for the same reason that Brasila, the capital of Brazil, was located in the middle of the jungle. Specifically, it is in the middle of nowhere that governments can feel comforted in the knowledge that their grand plans are not going to be corrupted by revolutionary ideals flooding in from ports, or traders.
As well as reducing the threat of rebellion by locating Canberra in the middle of nowhere, the threat of rebellion was reduced with Canberra's urban design. Canberra's planner, an American named Walter Burely Griffin, had seen America's White House burnt down by those seeking to overthrow the government. Perhaps he wanted to reduce the potential fuel load for any interest group wanting to do the same in Australia. Consequently, instead of building monuments that would look great in a bonfire, he may have designed understated constructions that would look quite tame in a bonfire. Furthermore, instead of building huge boulevards that would allow the military to quickly be located in different parts of the city, as was the case in Paris, he decentralised Canberra and left sheep farms between the buildings. The planners might have known that a dispersed mob storming across sheep farms to burn one building after another would not be as emotive as a concentrated mob pulling down statues or burning down imperial palaces.
Questions to think about
In 1999, Australia had a referendum on whether to become a republic. Polls showed that around 90 per cent of Australians wanted the republic; however, there was division about the type of model.
Australia’s political leadership wanted the president to be appointed by a 2/3rds majority of parliament. Their concern was that if the general public could vote then the position would be politicised. Basically, they wanted a president that was a symbolic figurehead but had no real power.
Critics of the model found it morally offensive that the public would be devalued. Some likened it to moves at the time Federation to have a House of Lords in parliament, which would give political rights based on heredity. By resisting such moves, Australia ended up with a Senate, which representatives attain their position by a vote. It was primarily because most of the Australian public valued egalitarian symbolism that they could not support the model presented, even if this meant a continuation of the Queen as the technical head of state.
- Both sides of the republican debate valued symbolism. What type of values do you think a president should espouse?
- What kind of symbolic values should be expressed in the process for appointing the president?
- Create your preferred model and a slogan to sell it?
- Australia doesn't really have a seperation of powers. Does this concern you?
Bill of Rights
"A Bill of Rights is conspicious by its absense in Australia. In fact, Australia is one of the few developed democracries to lack one. This absence can be attributed to the diverse nature of Australian society at the turn of the century. It was a society that still had people, and offspring of people, who had been sent to Australia in penal servitude. It was a society that had people of English descent loyal to mother England and people of Irish descent seeking rebellion. It was a society in which a large segment of the population was sympathetic to the executed bushranger Ned Kelly, and another segment of the population was sympathetic to the police force that hung him. It had coloured races, and those who wanted to rid Australia of coloured races. It had populist leaders that held favour with the uneducated classes, and unpopular leaders that held favour with the educated classes. It had people who wanted a socialist revolution, and people living in fear of a socialist revolution. A Bill of Rights would have had no chance of success because the society would never have been able to agree upon what rights were important. The only thing that the diverse interests could agree upon was that it would be a disaster for Australia if any one of the other extreme interests gained the reins of power, and ruled over all others. "
- Do you think that cultural elders should have the right force their cultural laws on individual members of the culture?
- Are there any rights which you think are universal across time and cultures? For example, the right to life? The right to free speech?
- Do laws protect freedoms?
- Which is more important? The right to speak freely or the right of people not to be offended by free speech?
Why laws are created
1) Look at the following laws. Decide if they were created to express morality, power or to solve a problem:
In 1838 it was declared illegal to swim at NSW public beaches during the day. This law was enforced until 1902.
In 1690, Catholic Ireland was conquered by Protestant England. The English subsequently passed laws that Catholics could not vote, could not enter university, could not be members of Parliament, could not own a gun, could not travel more than 5 miles from home and could not teach in Protestant schools.
In 1918, the Northern Territory Aboriginal Ordinance Act intended to ensure that Aboriginal people could not drink or possess or supply alcohol or methylated spirits, could not come within 2 chains of licensed premises, have firearms, marry non-Aborigines without permission or have sex across the colour line.
Sodomy and homosexuality have been illegal for the majority of Australia’s urban history. Male homosexuality was decriminalised in the Australian Capital Territory in 1976, South Australia in 1975, Victoria in 1981, NSW in 1984 and Tasmania in 1997.
Political differences often flow from disagreements about how to best solve problems. Liberals believe problems are best solved by empowering individuals. Leftists believe it is via government policy. Between the two poles is a campaign strategy known as Media Advocacy. This involves individuals using the media to influence politicians to change policy. Although it advocates top-down solutions, it doesn’t exist in single-party states like China because it requires an ideological belief in the value of diversity to allow individuals to initiate change. The great benefit of Media Advocacy is that it can energise change at a grass roots level so that change is achieved. (This is where the top-down policies in totalitarian regimes often fail to work.)
Basically, Media Advocacy seeks to raise the volume of voices wanting change in order to pressure opinion leaders or policy makers. For example, a concerned citizen may decide that Big Macs are unhealthy and the community would be better off without them. Rather than try to educate the public to make healthy choices, the concerned citizen might try to have Big Macs banned by government. First a survey is commissioned saying that 80% of the public wants Big Macs banned. Next, a journalist is enlisted to write a story about the survey in the hope that a politician will read the story and give the public what it wants, which is for Big Macs to be banned. Finally, the government official reads the newspaper story about banning Big Macs and decides that if that is what the "community" wants, that is what the "community" will get.
Media Advocacy places an emphasis on:
- Linking the problem to inequalities in society rather than flaws in the individual
- Changing public policy rather than personal behaviour
- Focussing on policy makers rather than those who have a problem
- Working with groups to increase participation and amplifying their voices
- Having a goal of reducing the power gap rather than filling the information gap
Choose a problem (poverty, alcoholism, climate change) and look at how itis framed in a Media Advocacy campaign
- How do the articles frame the problem with climate change as stemming from inequalities in society? Who is framed as holding the power? Who is framed as lacking power?
- If your were planning to use Media Advocacy in a campaign, would you be more likely to seek out some quotes on your issue?
- Can you find many articles that provide information to members of the public about how they can change their personal behaviour?
- What groups have had their voices amplified in the campaign?
- To amplify its voices of support, Media Advocacy also needs to lower or silence voices of dissent. Look for examples of how the voices of dissent have lowered or silenced in your issue.
- How could lowering or silencing voices of dissent lead to conflict and feelings of disempowerment?
- Media Advocacy sees the public as soldiers with a role to play, not autonomous thinkers with concerns that need to be discussed. Do you think attempts to lower or silence voices of dissent in regards to climate change issues has led to the proliferation of dissenters?
- In many ways, Media Advocacy devalues readers in that it sees them as soldiers not active makers of meaning. Why might journalists find Media Advocacy to be appealing? Why might ordinary media consumers who buy newspapers find Media Advocacy appealing?
- How do you think Media Advocacy on climate change in western media would be received by the Chinese Communist Party?
- Can you suggest some pros and cons about using Media Advocacy in order to achieve action on change?
Government regulation is often imposed using moralistic arguments about protecting the public interest but in practice, seems to protecting the interests of certain enterprises or the government’s chance of holding onto to power. For example, in China, the government has used its internet filter to block Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and Google. This has allowed Chinese to establish Renren, Weibo, Youku and Baidu which are modelled off the tech giants, which in turn, the Government can exert more control over.
Look at government regulation in Australia and find examples where you believe it might be used to help a political party gain power or be a veiled form of corruption.
Prevent hurt or value free speech?
The law can be an instrument to protect the vulnerable; however, it can also be used an instrument that facilitates the abuse of power. In 2012, the Australian Labor Party in partnership with the Human Rights Commission tried to introduce laws that many feared would have been used for such abuses of power.
The legislation proposed expanding the Racial Discrimination Act so that it would be illegal to "offend." Sites like this one would have been at risk of being shut down by the legislation because emails received indicated that some people didn't like some of the content.
Although it would be easy for such readers to just shut down the browser, they seemed to be concerned about the influence the site may have on others. Under the legislation, citing "hurt" could thus be used to silence on perspective that they didn’t want to be heard by others.
What constitutes hurt is very subjective. For example, the Chinese Communist Party often states that Chinese feelings are hurt when westerners support calls for an independent Tibet and Taiwan. Would the Human Rights Commission uphold the concerns of the Chinese patriotics if they put in a complaint against seperatists? If it didn’t, the Huamn Rights Commission would be only selectively applying the laws. If it did uphold the complaint, it would perhaps be silencing people who have different identities that they wanted to express. Arguably, selectively applying the law would be the worst of the two evils. As footballers struggling with bad umpiring and rules often state, consistency is what most.
Human Rights Commissions definitely have a precedent in being selective in their interpretation of laws. For example, Canadian Human Rights Investigator Dean Steacy once said,
"Freedom of speech is an American concept, so I don't give it any value."
It was a statement that indicated that Steacy was himself bigoted. If an American even put in a complaint about being discriminated against on the grounds of his or her nationality, it would be unlikely that Steacy would be sympathetic.
1. Many of the critics of the legislation are also people who have been subjected to highly insulting comments and abuse. (The author of this website has been abused but is also a critic of the legislation.) If you are a critic who would like to see sites like this shut down using the legislation, can you see any long term problems that could be caused by your approach?
2. If you are a critic and want to send an insulting email, can you see value in causing offence?
3. Arguably, those who are most supportive of the legislation come from ideological positions that could be defined as "dominant". Can you suggest why someone who would gravitate towards a dominant position would be more in favour of increased regulation than someone who is outside the square?.