How a Greens Senator undermined democracy

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(Image via @NickMcKim)

Last week, says Dr Jennifer Wilson, Senator Nick McKim misrepresented a Parliamentary amendment on Peter Dutton's portfolio to continue the war between Labor and the Greens.

I'M SITTING in the west MacDonnell Ranges, a couple of hours out of Alice Springs, drinking a Corona and watching the gradations of colour on the red rock face change in the waning afternoon light.

Being in this landscape invokes a big picture frame of mind, which is the perspective from which I attempted to analyse a tweet by Greens Senator Nick McKim last Tuesday that read:

'Breaking: Labor has just voted with the LNP to support Dutton’s massive new power grab - the Department of Home Affairs. This is an attempt to reshape Australia’s entire immigration, intelligence and security systems to become more hostile, suspicious and secretive.'

As the hours passed, it became clear that what in fact had occurred was that Labor had voted for amendments to the legislation to give selective oversight powers to the Attorney-General, currently Christian Porter, rather than leaving all the power in the hands of the Home Affairs Minister, currently Peter Dutton.

Here is the summary of the amendments: 

Amends the Anti-Money Laundering and Counter-Terrorism Financing Act 2006, Independent National Security Legislation Monitor Act 2010, Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security Act 1986 and Intelligence Services Act 2001 to: give effect to the allocation of certain ministerial powers following the establishment of a new Home Affairs portfolio; and make changes relating to the Attorney-General’s oversight of intelligence, security and law enforcement agencies.

In short, the amendment ensures that the Attorney-General of the day has strengthened powers with which to monitor the legality of certain decisions proposed by the Minister. Therefore, Labor voted to water down the previously exclusive powers of Minister Dutton by granting oversight in certain circumstances to the Attorney-General — a far cry from McKim’s description of the situation.

Regardless of what you might think of the proposed Home Affairs portfolio – and I think nothing good – and regardless what you think of the current Attorney-General’s capacity to reign in the excesses of Peter Dutton – and I think it’s rather south of zilch – what actually happened here was a deliberate attempt by the Greens Senator to spread disinformation. McKim seized an opportunity, knowing there would be no media coverage of the amendment due to the Budget lockdown, to gain political advantage by manipulation and false representation using social media. 

There is precious little left with which we can trust our elected representatives. Cynical as that might sound, it needs to be said and said again. Even so, I’d argue that for a member of parliament to deliberately misrepresent amendments to legislation for political gain is a new low in our politics. What happened as a consequence of McKim’s tweet is that an explosion of social media users made valiant efforts to discover what had actually happened in the House of Representatives that afternoon. There was much discussion, argument and partisan abuse, and my point is: we should not have to do this. Citizens of a democracy are not required to search for the truth about amendments passed in the House of Representatives because a politician has decided to weaponise those proceedings to further his or her agenda.

At the very least, we ought to be able to trust our elected representatives to truthfully convey what has taken place in the people’s Parliament. At the very least, we ought to be able to trust our elected representatives not to manufacture fake reports of amendments to significant pieces of legislation, purely for their own political gain.

If we can’t trust politicians to speak truthfully from a social media platform on the wording and consequences of proceedings in the House, then we do not, in practice, have a democracy. We are being drip fed fake information. We are being manipulated by those we elect to serve us. The faithful reporting of events in the House is a politician’s responsibility, should he or she decide to speak to such events. It’s one of the duties they’re paid to fulfil. As our elected representatives, they are required not only to represent us but to truthfully represent the business of the House to the citizens who elected them.

Clearly, McKim saw an opportunity to inflict some damage on the ALP and he seized the day. In so doing, he unintentionally highlighted the parlous state of Australian politics. Politics has been almost entirely reduced to one party inflicting damage on another in the hope of grabbing at best some power and at worst, a gotcha moment. Our politics is not about the good of the country and the welfare of its citizens.

It is especially disturbing that McKim chose the new Department of Home Affairs as his preferred weapon. Many people are already concerned, and not a little unnerved, by the fascist possibilities of this proposed mega ministry and its possible effects on the lives of ordinary Australians who will, for the first time, be subject to a kind of surveillance we have not known and should not know in this country, such as the use of facial recognition technology without warrants.

Instead of sensibly and honourably conveying to the public what had actually occurred in the House that afternoon, McKim saw the opportunity to fire another salvo in the destructive battle between the Greens and Labor — a battle that does nobody any good, least of all those of us who would like to see co-operation and unity between the two parties in the face of the biggest threat of all: another Coalition government.

You can follow Dr Jennifer Wilson on her blog No Place for Sheep or on Twitter @NoPlaceForSheep.

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