NEWS FROM THE FRONT DESK: ISSUE #393 The danse macabre of our Parliament took another sinister turn this week, with the Espionage and Foreign Interference Bill 2017 and Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Bill 2017 hitting the debating floor.
The bill criminalises news reporting. Suddenly journalists doing their job face potential criminal charges.
Environmental lawyer Sue Higginson, recently chief executive and principal environmental lawyer for the NSW Environmental Defenders Office, said “everyone should be worried” about the new bills.
The question has to be asked, she says, why are we passing laws that have such a draconian feel?
Why is this trend happening?
She says the laws will stifle participation, and the free flow of information that is essential for good decision making.
When you stifle groups like activists and journalists and others who are participating in civil society, and speaking without intent to harm and speaking without racism and without discrimination, the nature of democracy is threatened.
“What I am worried about is stifling anybody’s ability participate is counter to healthy democracy,” she says.
“We should encourage the free flow of information and participation.”
Coverage in the media has been slim, distracted perhaps by the shenanigans over the NEG and the Coalition joining forces with Pauline Hanson to continue to push the coal wheelbarrow.
Or maybe it’s been busy reporting on happenings at the White House and the disgrace of children being ripped away from their families and locked up in holding pens.
Any shock and outrage and hand-wringing from Australians though seems a little out of place, as this is one of the policy types we can claim to have enacted first.
Currently, there are parents under deportation order from Australia who will be forced to leave behind Australian-born children. There are children locked up on Nauru and in on-shore detention facilities – and the medical staff, social workers, NGOs and reporters releasing these stories to the public are in the firing line with bills like the current information-quashing legislation threatening their right to speak out.
Maybe many in the media are, understandably, a little nervous.
Charities, legal experts and an alliance of media organisations all made submissions to the consultation around the bills. Media submissions, coordinated by the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance said:
“The Joint Media Organisations have serious concerns regarding elements in the Bill pertaining to both the secrecy and espionage offences of the Bill.
“We note at the outset of this submission that national security amendment laws continue to undermine the ability of the news media to report in the public interest and keep Australians informed about their environment and communities. This Bill is the latest national security Bill that does this and we again bring these important issues to the attention of the Committee.
“The proposed legislation criminalises all steps of news reporting, from gathering and researching of information to publication/communication, and applies criminal risk to journalists, other editorial staff and support staff that knows of the information that is now an offence to ‘deal’ with, hold and communicate.”
Signatory organisations included AAP, ABC, Australian Subscription Television and Radio Association, Bauer Media Group, Commercial Radio Australia, Community Broadcasting Association of Australia, Fairfax Media, Free TV Australia, HT&E, MEAA, News Corp Australia, NewsMediaWorks, SBS and The West Australian.
It is worth noting the management of many of these organisations have also since the submission was made been shedding reporters, and the ABC has been at the centre of a privatisation debate.
A platform like The Fifth Estate is not immune to the risks posed by this kind of law-making. As independent, investigative reporters writing on threats to the viability of our society, our planet and our future, we also engage in information gathering that is in the public interest, but does not perhaps serve the interests of the anonymous grey people who manipulate policy outcomes.
A conversation this week with the forward-looking mayor of the City of Lancaster in California, R. Rex Parris, raised the topic of who holds power and who is listened to.
The Fifth Estate was talking to Parris ahead of his keynote presentation at the Climate Council’s Cities Power Partnership Summit on October 18-19 in Kiama.
His city is one of the leaders in energy efficiency and renewable energy roll-out, and he believes climate disruption is a real and present threat. The city’s actions are shaped by this perspective.
However, he says that now many of the US conferences around climate are sponsored by the oil companies, he has been dropped from the keynote speaker lists there.
Meanwhile, climate disruption is “dire, and these companies are killing us”.
“My grandchildren are dead [in future] because of what these companies are doing.”
The rise in sea levels is not the only problem. He points out that the longest fence between nations in the world is not between the USA and Mexico – it is between India and Bangladesh.
Bangladesh is home to millions of people who will be displaced by climate change. That country will simply cease to exist – “and who’s going to take them?” he asks.
Climate refugees will be a real issue, and our current policies around both refugees and climate change are not addressing this scenario.
Parris says that part of the problem with getting people to feel the need for urgent action is the nature of the problem itself.
“If you put out a picture of an asteroid coming towards earth and say it is going to hit us in 50 years, the world would come together like you’ve never seen because it’s something someone can see,” he says.
“But climate change is gradual and slow.”
He keeps returning to the topic of how he sees our choices impacting the lives of his grandchildren. It’s a frame of reference.
When he tells a story about California Governor Jerry Brown, who presents as green but has enabled major fracking operations and the destruction of multiple aquifers due to fracking and its waste disposal, he adds that people have told him Brown has been known to say “it doesn’t matter, we’ll all be dead in 50 years anyway.”
The Fifth Estate suggests Brown must not like his grandchildren very much if he’s saying things like that.
“Oh, he doesn’t have any,” Parris replies.
“Maybe we should be suspicious of people who don’t have grandchildren.”
Looking at the front bench of the Coalition, there’s not a lot of grandparent-type concern for the future going on, but plenty of concern for the short-term and political point-scoring.
How else to explain their almost unhealthy alliance with Pauline Hanson and the current assault on civic discourse?
For Sue Higginson who has been selected to stand for the Greens for the NSW state seat of Lismore it’s very hard to see both the major parties following this idea of stifling civil society.
Civil society has been fundamental to improving our nation.
It is “the proponent of social and environmental justice”.
“In a world where it is silenced and disengaged, things become biased towards the privileged and advantaged, and the less advantaged are left behind.”
She points out that most members of civil society that engage in discussion and debate around policy are genuinely acting from public interest. They do not have vested interests.
Environmental and social justice causes and campaigns are largely enacted by people giving their energy as volunteers. Going back through our country’s history, most of the best-informed and educated decisions have been shaped by the work of people acting as volunteers and in the public interest, Higginson says.
Think for example of the Aborigines Advancement League, the Women’s Electoral Lobby, Friends of the Earth, the anti-whaling campaigners, or the founders of the Australian LGBTIQ pride movement – all part of movements powered by volunteers who have changed our society for the better.
Our democracy and institutions are also built on the premise that civil society will participate, she says.
“If our elected representatives are not listening and the people are not heard… the ones that are heard are the ones that buy their way in.”
Our government becomes an “echo chamber of elite privilege”.
The minute laws start making participation harder for civil society, we end up with a “less just, less clever, less informed” type of society.
“It’s just not Australian.”
When the government tries to silence civil society and get in the way, you know we are in “dangerous democratic territory.
“We are not in a safe place.
“I am so certain this will end up hurting people. The difficulty with laws is when they are passing they are just black and white words on paper. It is when they start having an operational impact on the ground in people’s lives, that’s when you feel the burden.”
The time appears to have passed where we should be “alert but not alarmed” about the state of our political leadership and our planet.
It is time to be alarmed, take up our voices and engage with all our might as participants. Purchasing power is not the be all and end all of the freedoms we still have to influence our social and environmental trajectory.
We still have our voices – and we need to not take them for granted as uncontested and immune from assaults by the shadowy forces of vested interests acting behind the scenes.
The coming generations, the grandchildren that will inherit either our mess or our success, are relying on us.