It’s a well-known dance. The government announces a new national security policy, then the media and the usual human rights organisations breathlessly inform us that this is Orwellian, Kafkaesque, and the last piece of evidence we need to support their preferred policy option (usually some Bill of Rights or a Federal Independent Commission Against Corruption). After a few days, we go back to normal when a Kardashian posts a ‘problematic’ selfie to Instagram or something similarly edifying.
Why does the debate happen like this?
Media portrayals of terrorism are racially loaded. There’s no doubt about it. But the way in which it is racially loaded is not immediately apparent, and a lot of the hot takes in the media today following the shooting in Vegas shows that people can be far too hasty in their presentation of issues.
Put simply, the problem is not the use of language to describe events, but the difference in prominence of events.
The retiring Chief Justice of Victoria made some interesting comments regarding the role of the media in improving public understanding of the law:
Judges cannot really rely on the media for communication. It is up to us to write more simply and briefly with accompanying summaries and all published in an accessible way on the internet and through social media. This is an achievable goal which will help community understanding of what we do and why.
Given the public interest in the High Court hearing regarding the marriage equality plebiscite, I was surprised that there wasn’t more commentary when the decision was handed down. The media was more interested in the outcome (plebiscite is going ahead) than the decision (interesting legal stuff).
Very little to do with the decision is actually about the plebiscite. I find it endlessly fascinating that High Court decisions — many of which are extraordinarily fascinating on their facts alone — enter public consciousness in a way that is entirely disconnected from the legal matter. I remember seeing Ronald Williams being interviewed on the ABC. He was the guy behind the National Chaplaincy in Schools Programme challenge, and who brought a case to the High Court about the extent to which the government is able to spend money without legislative approval. In the interview, he clearly had no idea what his case was about. For him, it was entirely about chaplains in schools, religious freedom, freedom from religion, and how atheists were persecuted. For the Court, it was about the scope of Executive power. The Court was in no way interested in the same things that Williams was.
The decision in the plebiscite case includes some interesting points of broader interest to the public. Here are some notes and thoughts about the issue of standing that arose.
The vast majority of politics — regardless of the side of the fence you are on — is not intellectually serious. I keep wondering why the quality of political debate is so poor, and I keep coming back to pseudo-economic reasoning: the cost of having a good quality conversation is greater than the cost of having a free-for-all, no-holds-barred, scramble.
Facts are a cost. Patience is a cost. Understanding is a cost. Far cheaper to let fly with a bit of bellyfeel and be done with it.
It is commonly noted that a conceit of liberals is that everybody would agree with them if only they had more facts. You are liberal or you are ignorant. I, quite obviously, do not subscribe to that theory (holding, in my heart of hearts, that the more you know, the more conservative you become). But I think that most liberals believe the theory that facts are always on their side, that liberalism is inevitable, and that liberalism is self evidently the natural conclusion of political thought.
I think this is why progressives are bad at politics.
The Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Peter Dutton, commented this week that refugee lawyers are ‘unAustralian’. Of course, as night follows day, there was the expected backlash. How dare the Minister make these comments? Rule of Law! There’s nothing more Australian than being a lawyer! Laws are Australian.
For me, the surprise was how tone-deaf the response to the Minister has been. Lawyers and legal groups have all tut-tutted with censorious rhetoric without understanding the enormity of the puzzle behind Dutton’s comments: society does not trust lawyers.
Because a bunch of politicians can’t fill out their paperwork correctly, people are calling for a referendum. Some (journalists) are even saying we need to scrap the Constitution and start again.
First up, it is utterly, utterly horrendous that we are even contemplating this discussion when we have real work before us: to enshrine Indigenous Australia in the Constitution. I find it nothing short of offensive that actual problems with the Constitution have been eclipsed by the needs of our political class.
Worse, the debate about the Constitution has been dominated by people who don’t understand what they’re talking about (journalists again). There appears to be an unspoken assumption that the Constitution is supposed to be convenient to them and their needs. My concern is that the broader community depends on these journalists to give them the information they need to participate in debates about the Constitution and whether it continues to suit our needs.
In exchange for getting privileged access to information and power, public servants give up a range of rights. This should not come as a surprise. I’ve written about this issue before with regard to the Federal Court case of Banerji v Bowles, in which a public servant’s unhinged behaviour on Twitter was not found to be protected political speech.
Today’s announcement that the government has issued more restrictive advice about appropriate behaviour for public servants on social media has reignited this debate. Of course, most of the debate is just media beat up because the new guideline is not all that novel, but there are some broader discussions that are worth considering.
Holy shit! Who would have guessed that s 44 of the Australian Constitution would bite as hard as it has over the past year or so? Rod Culleton (One Nation), Bob Day (Family First), Scott Ludlam (Greens), and now Larissa Waters (Greens) have all fallen victim of s 44, either through High Court intervention or through voluntary resignation to inevitability. Technically, Bob Day was twice ineligible under s 44. And there’s another case on the boil: National Party MP, David Gillespie.
What I find interesting — really interesting — is how difficult it is to intuit the purpose of s 44. It’s a provision that excites popular imagination. Perhaps it’s a relic of a racist past. Perhaps it is a protection against foreign interference. Perhaps it should be amended. Perhaps it shouldn’t be.
But perhaps it’s not the technicality of the provision that we should consider, but bigger theories about constitutional democracies. Why should there be restrictions on who can become a parliamentarian? Shouldn’t we be able to elect whomever we want?
It might be a career-limiting move to opine too much about research bureaucracy when you’re doing your level best to punch into an academic career, but danger is the spice of life and these hot takes aren’t going to pepper themselves.
Over on The Research Whisperer, Tseen Khoo has raised a puzzle about the impact of university metrics on the way that researchers undertake their work stating that she doesn’t need money to do her research. Meanwhile, on the LSE Review of Books, Derek Dunne talks about the historical relationship between bureaucracy and research (with bureaucracy being a form of social control). They are both interesting pieces, strongly flavoured by personal experience and anecdote, but I’m not sure that they completely grasp the puzzle at hand.
To some extent, very little of this is going to be surprising. I think Liberty Victoria are a bunch of goofs and it was always going to be unlikely that I’d think any of their reports were worth reading. Liberty Victoria is the face of the Victorian Council for Civil Liberties. Their role in the advocacy ecosystem is to promote the perspectives of civil libertarians, regardless of how vapid. This means writing reports like Playing God: the Immigration Minister’s unrestrained power and giving the ‘Voltaire Award’ to Gillian Triggs. They trade in controversy because attention is their only tool for pushing an agenda.
That’s not necessarily pejorative. Liberty Victoria sits in the swamp of liberalism along with libertarian groups like the Centre for Independent Studies and the Institute of Public Affairs. Getting attention encourages to think about concepts like ‘liberty’, ‘freedom’ and ‘human rights’ in left wing terms. But it also means that they are systemically incapable of engaging in serious discussion about the issues they worry about. They’re after bombastic, flash-in-the-pan interventions that cause a bit of stir.
And that’s what we get with Playing God: a report that will, no doubt, fire up the core supporters and maybe get them to donate a bit more money to the cause. But it’s not an intellectually serious report, in the same way that giving the Voltaire Award to Triggs was an intellectually serious decision.