Ideas@TheCentre brings you ammunition for conversations around the table. 3 short articles from CIS researchers emailed every Friday on the issues of the week.
November 3 is shaping up as a big day in the 2020 calendar: the US elections; the Melbourne Cup; and a much-anticipated Reserve Bank of Australia board meeting. It also happens to be the day the Full Bench of the High Court of Australia will sit to hear Clive Palmer’s challenge to Western Australia’s border closure.
State and territory border entry restrictions have been one of the surprises thrown up by the Covid pandemic. While many other countries have imposed restrictions on movement at various times, few have resorted to the kind of internal border controls that have become a feature of Australia’s response to the pandemic.
Premiers and chief ministers like to pin the ‘health advice’ label on everything they do, but the imposition of border controls has had more to do with state elections, populist politics, parochialism, unrealistic virus elimination objectives and unwillingness by some states to rely upon their own testing, contact tracing and isolation strategies to contain the virus.
While Queensland and Western Australia are often singled out for criticism, South Australia and Tasmania have flown under the radar with restrictions as extreme or almost as extreme as any other state. Let’s not forget it was Tasmania that set the ball rolling way back in March. Even the NSW Premier — often a vocal critic of other states on this issue — herself opted for closure of the border with Victoria.
Border restrictions are an extremely blunt instrument, and whatever public health benefit they deliver comes at a huge economic and social cost to jobs, tourism, business links, events, and family connections. A recent report for the Business Council of Australia put the economic cost at $2 – 2.5 billion a month, or $17 billion for the duration of the restrictions to date. (This is on top of the very substantial cost of restrictions on international travel.)
The restoration of domestic air travel in Australia is lagging well behind that in many other countries. There has been some easing of internal border restrictions in recent weeks, but there is lingering uncertainty about how long such easing will last (remembering the reimposition of controls by Qld in July soon after they had been removed). People cannot plan with that uncertainty.
Moreover, even where borders have been opened, there are still costs of compliance with screening systems. States that claim to be ‘open’ are running what amount to visa systems. My recent flight to Adelaide — although involving ‘unrestricted’ entry to South Australia — required pre-registration, and an interview on arrival at one of 50 desks set up at the airport for the purpose. (By comparison, the return to Sydney was a breeze.)
Internal travel will be nothing like normal until movement becomes truly free and unrestricted; all states open up to Victoria (something that should have happened already); and all premiers and chief ministers vow that they will not revert to internal border entry restrictions under any circumstances.
Whatever happens, Western Australia is determined to lag behind — but we will find out some time after November 3 whether the High Court will throw a spanner into Mr McGowan’s works.
Liberalism is in trouble. This is not a comment about political parties that may use the name ‘Liberal’, but about the approach to society and government that emphasises the decentralisation of power to foster individual empowerment.
The trouble is that this liberalism is losing supporters. This trend was documented 18 months ago in a CIS Policy Paper that explained the shift in those born after 1980 as due in part to ignorance of the problems and failures of socialism.
There are other powerful factors as well. In a recent article in the Atlantic, David Brooks outlines the devastating effects in the USA of the long term decline of social trust— the confidence that others will do the right thing. From the high water mark of the 1990s when confidence in human liberty was at its peak, American society has today moved to the age of precariousness. Brooks writes,
The culture that is emerging, and which will dominate American life over the next decades, is a response to a prevailing sense of threat. This new culture values security over liberation, equality over freedom, the collective over the individual.
What about matters here in Australia? In his latest book, Tim Wilson presents a similar, if less extreme, picture. He shows that Australian’s demographic profile is moving away from liberal democracy anchored in individual empowerment through responsibility, and towards social democracy focused on collective empowerment. Part of the reason is not so much ideological; but rather the sense that a liberal economic order isn’t really working for people any more.
There is also evidence that social trust is declining in Australia. Although not as extreme as the US, the latest Elderman Trust Barometer shows there is still cause for concern, with only 14% of those surveyed being sure “the system is working for them;” less than a third believing “they and their families will be better off in five years’ time”, and just half believing that “capitalism as it exists today does more harm than good in the world.”
Although these results were obtained in a pre-pandemic world and things may be different now, the long term trend remains.
What’s to be done? Wilson envisages a renewed liberalism which, by giving weight to justice not just freedom, can address contemporary challenges and rebuild liberalism’s social licence. Brooks calls for the hard work of rebuilding social trust in what he calls “the nitty-gritty of organisational life” in which individual people grow to depend on each other as come together to organise to target their many problems.
What isn’t an option is doing nothing.
More than 350,000 people have now signed a petition launched by Kevin Rudd, calling for a royal commission into media ownership.
Although the petition is far more restrained in its language, Rudd’s video launching the petition singles out News Corporation, saying that “Murdoch has become a cancer … on our democracy.”
Rudd outlined four separate reasons for his Royal Commission call, but it largely boils down this: News Corporation has a high concentration of print ownership, this allegedly gives them / Murdoch significant political power, and that power is allegedly used against Labor and other ideological opponents.
Not only should this argument be challenged on the facts, it should be rejected on policy grounds as well.
Lamentable though it may be, the importance of the print media may be at its lowest point in 100 years. A survey from February indicated that while more than 60% of people got news from television, just 25% reported using print sources for news in the last week.
Moreover, in the digital news space, News Corporation is far less dominant, owning just two of the top 10 Neilsen-rated websites (news.com.au and The Australian).
In fact, the political slant in the digital sphere appears more to the left than it does to the right. Even if you exclude the top ranked ABC website: left-leaning sites like the Guardian, The Age and the SMH are near the top of the ratings.
Beyond this, just a year ago, many public figures united behind a campaign on press freedom. ‘Your right to know’ was championed by all the major media players, and was catalysed by police raids in 2019 on journalists covering sensitive stories.
The principle at stake was the freedom of the press, a crucial tool in holding government to account for its potential abuses of power. As the Right to Know Coalition put it on their website “Media freedom is a central part of our democracy.”
In a world where government is already seeking to expand its power over the media, isn’t the use of a Royal Commission to attack the editorial policies of a select few in the media another blow to press freedom?
This is an edited extract of an opinion piece published in the Canberra Times as What’s really behind Rudd’s call for a Murdoch royal commission?