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Peter Dutton’s war on dissent

Oct 16, 2019 • 15m28s

From anti-protest legislation to funding cuts, this government has waged war on dissent. In recent weeks, its rhetoric has intensified.

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Peter Dutton’s war on dissent

101 • Oct 16, 2019

Peter Dutton’s war on dissent

[Theme music]

ELIZABETH:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Elizabeth Kulas. This is 7am.

From anti-protest legislation to funding cuts, this government has waged war on dissent. And in recent weeks, its rhetoric has intensified. Mike Seccombe on the erosion of democratic freedoms under the Coalition.

[Theme ends]

ELIZABETH:

Mike it's a big question but I think also a reasonable one... What's the state of democratic freedoms in Australia?

MIKE:

I think that little bit at a time we're losing bits of our democratic freedoms through legislation and through a very negative attitude towards dissent and any deviation from the sort of Conservative Party line.

ELIZABETH:

Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.

[Music starts]

MIKE:

As we've seen over the past week or so as the Extinction Rebellion people have been taking to the streets. We've had one minister in particular, Peter Dutton, say some extraordinarily authoritarian things as potential responses to this.

ELIZABETH:

Cause he was on 2GB, wasn’t he?

MIKE:

He's been on 2GB a couple of times. He was on on Thursday this week just passed, on the Ray Hadley show where he was complaining that the judicial system just would not put these people in jail.

Archival tape — Peter Dutton:

“These people anarchists and fringe dwellers and they should be feeling the full force of the law. The police need to recover the costs of these responses. There’s nothing else…”

MIKE:

The week before he was even stronger, he used the Hadley spot again to call for mandatory or minimum jail sentences for protesters. He said they should be cut off from all government payments. He also said, and this was very reminiscent of Carrie Lam in Hong Kong of course who's trying very hard to identify dissidents there by making them take their face masks off, Dutton said he wanted these dissidents identified. He advocated taking their names and their photographs.

Archival tape — Peter Dutton:

“People should take these names and the photos of these people and distribute them as far and wide as they can so that we shame these people, shame them because of the actions they've committed and because they're acting outside of the law and against…”

MIKE:

So in essence what it what he did there was extended a public invitation to those who were opposed to the protests to engage in the doxing of these demonstrators and potentially to carry out acts of vigilantism against them. And he's very angry that magistrates, that courts, are not jailing these people and he says that in some cases and, I've got to say I haven't seen any evidence of this, but that some of these magistrates have even been offering quote: “words of encouragement”. Haven't seen it.

[Music ends]

ELIZABETH:

And what do you think when you hear things like this coming out of the mouths of people like Peter Dutton?

MIKE:

Well, you know, I think I think that I'm listening to Carrie Lam or Donald Trump or Duterte in the Philippines, you know, who advocates vigilantism. I mean this, this is fundamentally at odds with democratic freedoms in my view.

ELIZABETH:

So Dutton’s talking about harsher penalties, publicly identifying protesters and stripping their welfare payments. Does the rest of the party support him on this?

MIKE:

Well I have to say I haven't seen anyone else be nearly as extreme. Michaelia Cash who's a fellow member of the hard right of the Liberal Party with Dutton and who’s crucial to the Employment Minister so she has a say. She also supported his advocacy of withdrawing um welfare payments from protesters. Other senior members of the government have also been out there saying that there should be tough action against protesters, making the point that they're holding up people's lives but they haven't actually endorsed what Dutton's had to say. Nor I might add has anyone criticised him, including the Prime Minister Scott Morrison and that I think is a bit telling.

ELIZABETH:

So Morrison’s has been relatively silent on this?

MIKE:

Yes has had very little to say on it. But, you know, I think he's content that he has Dutton out there, he has other ministers out there. He has the likes of Hadley. Kerri-Anne Kennerly on Channel 10 suggested that motorists should use protesters as the speed bumps.

Archival tape — Kerri-Anne Kennerly:

“Nobody should do anything. Leave him there and you just put a little witches hats around them. Use them as speed bumps... put them in jail, forget to feed them.“

MIKE:

So ah, so there's some fairly strong reaction against them that's out there already so possibly the prime minister thinks he doesn't need to add to it.

ELIZABETH:

What's new in Dutton's comments, are these unprecedented?

MIKE:

The bit about doxing and vigilantism, as I'm describing it, was new but most of the rest of it you know calling for tough penalties, you know, calling for the cutting off of welfare things like that… Dutton's call to vigilantism aside, this is not new. This is something that has been a reality of politics in Australia since the Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison Government came to power back in 2013.

ELIZABETH:

And that is an increasing kind of curtailing of dissent?

MIKE:

An increasing intolerance for dissent, yes.

ELIZABETH:

We’ll be right back.

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ELIZABETH:

Mike you say the Coalition has a track record of resisting dissent. What do you mean by that specifically?

MIKE:

Well there's a number of strands to it. They've endeavoured to constrain the activities of civil society groups. They've repeatedly attacked the judiciary and called for tougher penalties. And they've also done their best to stack certain judicial legal bodies with partisans.

ELIZABETH:

So let's start with civil society groups. How has the government changed the way they work, or eroded their freedoms?

MIKE:

One thing that it has done in a very systematic way is tried to curtail the activities of civil society organisations and particularly environmental ones. The reach of law enforcement has been increased, as we've seen on the streets, although, you know, that's largely a matter of states. But at the federal level, attempts have been made to cut off funding from these groups in various ways. First of all, government direct funding to organisations has declined in many instances. The other part of it is that they threaten the tax deductible status of many of these groups, so you know if you give to the Conservation Foundation or something you can claim it back on your tax. And they've also tried to tie this status to the groups engaging in what they call their primary activities rather than advocacy role. So as David Crosby, who's the chief executive of the Community Council for Australia, as he put it to me a couple of years ago the government rather see environment groups picking up the dead fish instead of advocating to stop the poisons going into the stream in the first place.

ELIZABETH:

Hmm.

MIKE:

So that's one part of it is this threat to tax deductibility in donations. In the case of GetUp, prominently, GetUp is a bit different from a lot of the groups in that it has never sought charitable status and so it's immune from the government threats to its funding. But the government twice tried to have the Australian Electoral Commission declare Get Up to be a related entity of Labor and the Greens, which it's not. It's undoubtedly of the left but it's not in any way affiliated to either of those parties and the Electoral Commissioner has recognised this and rejected the government's entreaties on both occasions.

ELIZABETH:

So that’s GetUp. What about other advocacy groups?

MIKE:

Well, in terms of those groups that are affected by these attempts to limit their funding. It means that the charitable organisations are much more constrained in what they can say and do and that's that's not only bad for them but it's it's actually bad for the making of public policy. I mean if you look at legal aid groups, other welfare groups, for example, they often give valuable feedback on proposed policy through the various committees and things to Parliament that consider legislation before it goes through. So this is a form of advocacy. But it's well thought through form of advocacy that's informed by the on ground realities which these groups understand very well because they're essentially working at the coalface in a lot of cases. It's quite damaging to public policy formulation, quite apart from anything else.

ELIZABETH:

And what about the judiciary. Dutton was critical of the sentencing of protestors last week. What's the history there? Because there's more to that story.

MIKE:

Oh there's, there's a lot to that story. I mean criticisms of the judicial process have been very regular by this government. And the most outstanding example, I think, came in 2017 where three Coalition ministers -- Greg Hunt, Alan Tudge, Michael Sukka -- narrowly escaped contempt proceedings over their comments about the judges of the Victorian Court of Appeal and these three ministers said in various different forms of words that the judges were soft on terrorists and were hard left activists.

Archival tape — Alan Tudge:

“We need to strengthen the system in Victoria because we've got a crime problem. Daniel Andrews needs to take responsibility. The parole board needs to take responsibility and also the judiciary needs to be accountable.”

MIKE:

And this, while they were actually considering a matter, so it was also sub judice to see at the time. So there was a standoff for a considerable period of time while they refused to apologise. They eventually backed off and issued pretty grovelling apologies but the criticism continues it's just not quite as targeted and pointed as it has been in that case.

ELIZABETH:

And in some cases it's gone further than just public criticism. Tell me about what's happened with the Administrative Appeals Tribunal?

MIKE:

The Administrative Appeals Tribunal which is a body that reviews decisions made by government across a wide range of areas. You know welfare, robo-debt matters go to it. Immigration issues go to it, all sorts of things go to it. And since 2013 the government has stacked it with about 60 people who have coalition affiliations. Many of these appointees lack any relevant qualifications at all for the job. A report into the AAT done by a former High Court judge, Ian Callinan, a conservative judge I might add, late last year came up and said that there should be no more non lawyers appointed to the AAT. Um, I don't believe the Government's taken any notice of this. And the AAT also has powers that go directly to our to our civil liberties. As Karen Middleton reported in The Saturday Paper in August, law enforcement agencies have taken to sidestepping the courts when they seek surveillance warrants to conduct phone taps, email interceptions, surveillance matters generally, by not going to the courts but by going to the AAT. And they do this now in 78 percent of cases. So you can you can see that there's there's at least a very major potential issue there, and possibly an actual conflict of interest between party loyalty and legal action.

ELIZABETH:

And then there are these other these new laws, though as you say protest laws are largely happening at a state level, but there are also these new federal laws that directly relate to the right to protest?

MIKE:

Yes, there was there was a very good example of this only last month the parliament passed new laws amendments to the Criminal Code colloquially referred to as the anti-vegan laws. And it involved penalties for a couple of quite new offences, involving the intention to trespass or damage property or carry out theft on agricultural land. So in other words, if you're in communication with fellow animal rights activists and you're merely discussing the prospect of a sit in on a farm or action at an abattoir or something that is considered now to be a criminal act.

ELIZABETH:

It's kind of unbelievable.

MIKE:

It is unbelievable. And furthermore you don't actually have to go and do this stuff, you only have to think and talk to your friends about possibly doing this stuff and that's enough to commit a crime. So yes, it's quite serious. And you know for just talking about trespass you can be bunged up for a year and for talking about more serious actions that might threaten property, you can be bunged up for five years. The Minister for Agriculture, Bridget McKenzie, says that you're not a protester you're a criminal when you do this sort of stuff and it deserves to be punished. Well, with respect, you're not yet a criminal if all you've done is talked about it and these kind of laws that anticipate criminal activity are normally reserved for only the most major things, you know things like planning terrorist acts not sit ins on farms or in forests or in abattoirs or something like that. So possibly, that's why a lot of members of the government started talking about these people as quote “vegan terrorists” unquote which was pretty hyperbolic in my view.

[Music starts]

ELIZABETH:

Mike you've described a string of seemingly anti-democratic measures here, some of them extremely serious. Are people angry enough about this?

MIKE:

I think that possibly they are angry, but their anger is misdirected; and they're certainly jaded and cynical. I mean that's not just the case here, that's the case across the developed world. We've seen survey after survey indicating a decline in trust in democratic institutions, and unfortunately, a consequence of this seems to be a growth in a pretty ugly form of populism, whereby people who've lost faith in the capacity of existing institutions have responded by looking for strong leaders: Trump in the US, Boris Johnson even, you could go on with a great long list of them. And Scott Morrison I think to a certain extent fits into that you know that strong man sort of mould and that populist sort of approach. So yes, I do think it's kind of worrying and whether we can call it anger as such but I certainly think that there's an ugly mood in the electorate whereby they're just they're just losing faith and becoming terribly cynical about everything and have given up on the process.

ELIZABETH:

Mike, thank you so much.

MIKE:

No problem. Thank you Elizabeth.

[Music ends]

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ELIZABETH:

Elsewhere in the news:

Calls for an inquiry into Crown Casino's conduct have been renewed after the ABC aired footage of a man unloading what appeared to be hundreds of thousands of dollars of cash from a cooler bag in exchange for playing chips. The casino is obliged to report transactions of more than $10,000 to anti-money laundering authorities. The man was filmed in a Crown Casino room reserved for clients of Suncity, a Chinese entertainment operator. It was also reported that according to an insider, foreign high-rollers often flew to Australia on private jets, avoiding customs inspections, and exchanging huge amounts of cash.

And the Victorian government has introduced new laws that will make it possible to legally pursue builders responsible for installing flammable cladding. The new laws will give the government the ability to pursue legal proceedings on behalf of owners corporations, in cases where the state has paid to have cladding replaced. Promised repair works on at-risk buildings throughout the state has not yet begun. The current program will cover repairs to more than 100 buildings over the next five years.

This is 7am, I’m Elizabeth Kulas, see you Thursday.

From anti-protest legislation to funding cuts, this government has waged war on dissent. In recent weeks, its rhetoric has intensified. Mike Seccombe on the erosion of democratic freedoms under the Coalition.

Guest: National correspondent for The Saturday Paper Mike Seccombe.

Background reading:

The decline of political freedoms in Australia in The Saturday Paper
The Monthly
The Saturday Paper

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7am is hosted by Elizabeth Kulas. The show is produced by Emile Klein, Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow and Elle Marsh, with Michelle Macklem. Our editor is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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101: Peter Dutton’s war on dissent