Dishonesty and misinformation in politics, law and life

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(Mark David Cartoons / @mdavidcartoons)

One of the most frustrating aspects of following Australian politics is watching the political leadership disseminate misinformation, mainly via legacy media. 

As someone who teaches hundreds of law students each year, my particular frustration is that these students have to unlearn so much of this misinformation before we can properly study concepts as basic as rule of law itself.

Every week, the most fundamental mechanics of how law is made, or of democratic theory, or the values of liberalism, are misstated by those who are entrusted with law-making power in a sovereign parliament. These are broadcast far and wide, as the pronouncements of a prime minister or minister (or former prime minister) are inevitably deemed worthy of prominent coverage.

Apart from trashing public debate, this produces cumulative inefficiencies. Every week, I have to allocate class time to debunking ideological nonsense, and economic illiteracy and historical revisionism before we can continue with the core task of learning how the Australian legal system and its law-making arm (the legislature) works.

A sample of the offerings from this week includes Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull equating vandalism with Stalinism and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg complaining that power companies are "gaming the system" by maximising profits in a system designed for profit maximisation. It includes serial misinformation offender Peter Dutton, the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, telling a Sydney shock jock that Government policy goals are "frustrated" by the Australian Constitution.

Because of the moral measure of these terrible people, the smog of these filthy falsehoods clouds our public debate like the disgraceful inaction on coal-fired emissions and nobody in public life has the capacity or political will to shut it down.

Take the idea that corporations pursuing profit maximisation are "gaming the system". That a minister in a neoliberal government is willing to pretend ignorance of how capitalism works is presumably a mark of desperation. Or maybe Frydenberg genuinely does not understand what privatisation entails. If so, he is hardly the right person to be tasked with addressing the inevitable profit maximisation which follows from selling public utilities to private interests.

Government hand-wringing on power prices is likely mere populism anyway, given that residential usage is less than 10 per cent of total energy consumption. The real issues are our dismal record on climate policy, and the urgency of shifting to renewables, but this government is beholden to climate denialists and, as such ,can not and will not be honest or competent on climate mitigation.

Nor can it genuinely engage with the realities of Australian history.

Last weekend, somebody spray-painted ‘CHANGE THE DATE'  and 'NO PRIDE IN GENOCIDE' on colonial statues around Sydney. The idiotically long bow by which Turnbull drew an equivalence between vandalism and Stalinism was accompanied by pompous references to ‘our First Australians’ (it is no longer acceptable to own people, Prime Minister) and minimising the genocidal actions of governors and governments. For the record, Macquarie shares one characteristic with Stalin: both men ordered others to extra-judicially kill human beings.

As any observer of Australian politics knows, Turnbull chose to shackle himself to the extreme right of his party and is thus a hopelessly compromised and weak leader. Validating rather than addressing the deep-seated racism of the colonial state is, by definition, a racist thing to do; like ordering men to massacre black people is a racist thing to do.

Historical revisionism and analogical over-reach can not make it otherwise.

Speaking of racism and historical revisionism, our third example of moral bankruptcy and political incompetency comes courtesy of the reliably racist Peter Dutton. The bloke who jumped in his time machine to declare that Lebanese Australians who migrated here in the 1970s are causing terrorism in 21st Century Australia. Who justified yet more Citizenship Act amendments with ludicrous posturing on female genital mutilation, child marriage and education in order to position himself – Peter Dutton! – as a white saviour to Muslim girls.

I have written before that Dutton is the quintessential ex-copper; a plodding thinker who disregards fundamental principles, such as presumption of innocence, while amassing a $20 million property portfolio on his public-sector wages. As one wag noted, in complaining that lawyers who represent refugees are un-Australian, Dutton did the impossible and united Australians behind lawyers. While Frydenberg thinks a corporation maximising its profits is gaming the system and Turnbull thinks protesting the glorification of a murderous governor is totalitarian, Dutton thinks refugees’ legal rights are a function of lawyerly trickery.

This week, the Dutton claim was that refugee policy goals are "frustrated" by the Constitution is utterly wrong, in law and in fact. Under s51(xxvii), the Commonwealth is constitutionally authorised to make laws with regard to immigration. This is not complex. There is no ambiguity. A constitutional head of power for the Commonwealth to make laws on migration exists and laws on migration it makes.

One such law is the Migration Act 1958 (Cth). The current policy is that anybody who arrives in the migration zone by boat to seek asylum will never be re-settled in Australia. This monstrosity is codified into s5AA, which defines "unlawful maritime arrival" to include babies born in Australia to asylum seekers we have forcibly sent to offshore detention.

Ponder this: Australia is predominantly ruled by people descended from boat arrivals — people who not only found asylum but have prospered from untold riches derived directly from stolen land. These people systematically murdered descendants of the actual first fleets, which arrived 60,000 years ago and produced descendants like Malcolm Bligh Turnbull, who constantly boasts that this is the most successful multicultural nation on earth. White people presume to define what is "un-Australian" in the public debate and have defined at law who is un-Australian forever, based on their mode of arrival being by boat.

These are incredibly difficult truths to communicate to a lecture hall of law students who are raised on the systemic lies of White Australia and daily exposed to the dishonest revisionism of the current political leadership. It requires regular reiteration of first legal principles; constant reminding of ethical norms.

All are equal before the law. Refugees have legal rights. Murder is always wrong and thus mass murder is too. It is logically impossible to enter somebody else’s land and then slaughter them in self-defence. No, the free speech "right" of Andrew Bolt to disseminate harmful racist nonsense can not be reconciled with summary offences used to criminalise black people who say "fuck" near a police officer.

No sooner is one illogical belief debunked than our political leaders and their cheerleaders produce another. There they are, day in and day out, verballed by Alan Jones, shouting from the many organs of the Murdoch empire, posting revisionist garbage on social media, haranguing the High Court from the floor of the parliament, flogging the interests of corporate coal, denying the humanity of people fleeing persecution, falsely defining not only what is Australian but what is constitutional.

All this is done in the absence of any legitimising element other than the positional power of incumbent government. Countering it is a Sisyphean task indeed.

Ingrid Matthews is a sessional academic who teaches law and human rights. You can follow Ingrid on Twitter at @iMusing or via her blog oecomuse

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