In Zimbabwe, the police have the power to detain somebody without charge or questioning, the government is able to overrule the judiciary, small crimes like drug possession or dangerous driving are punishable with over 20 years in jail, freedom of assembly and association are restricted, free speech is stifled as outspoken people can be taken to court for saying peaceful but “wrong” comments, subsections of society are banned from certain jobs, the internet is censored, the right to silence has been removed, and the government is involved in surveillance programs against their own citizens that sound like they come directly from 1984.
The system in Zimbabwe is still democratic, with regular elections and an active opposition. But the steady growth in government/police powers and the erosion of civil liberties have led some observers to describe Zimbabwe as a “police state”.
Not everybody agrees.
Some people in Zimbabwe have dismissed the idea of a police state as silly fear-mongering from the radical fringe. They argue that the expanded police and government powers are necessary to keep ordinary people safe. These loyalists point out that the government and police do not intend to abuse their powers, innocent people have nothing to fear, and that people complaining are simply defending criminals. Most Zimbabweans seem to agree with the loyalists and support the “tough on crime” policies.
From an outsiders perspective it is hard to know what conclusions to draw. It seems clear enough that Zimbabwe has abandoned the traditional checks and balances of liberal democracy, and have placed their faith in arbitrary power and super-strict sentencing. But is this a bad thing? Just because the government and police have suspended privacy and civil liberties, does that necessarily mean that Zimbabwe is a police state? From the outside it is easy to judge and criticise Zimbabwe for their strict policies… but perhaps they have found the right balance?
Before we judge countries like Zimbabwe for having authoritarian policies, perhaps we should try some of them in Australia to see if they work. What could go wrong?
With the possible Senate victory of the Motoring Enthusiasts on 0.5% of the vote, and the Sports Party on 0.2% of the vote, there has been a growing call for reform to the way that we vote. One of the more sensible suggestions doing the rounds is that people should have more control over their preferences, for example by being able to preference parties “above the line” on the Senate ballot paper. Perhaps. That is certainly something that should be considered.
Another idea being promoted is that small parties should be required to achieve 4% or 5% of the vote before they are allowed to sit in parliament. The rationale is that unless a party can show they have serious public support, then they shouldn’t be there representing the public. This argument fails for two reasons.
First, there are 226 people in the federal parliament, meaning that each politician makes up 0.44% of the total. The idea that a party doesn’t deserve 0.44% of representation because they only get 3% of the vote is an absurd example of Orwellian double-talk. If we are to exclude the micro parties, then the 15% of people who prefer those options will be represented by nobody, while all the big parties will be over-represented.
Second, by making the 1% and 2% parties irrelevant it becomes much harder for those small parties to ever grow into bigger parties, creating political stagnation. The system will be limited to the current big parties, only interrupted by an occasional billionaire. The Greens currently get about 8% of the vote, but go back 20 years and they were a 2% party. Their occasional successes helped them to build a profile and grow, and provide more political diversity.
The Senate system is certainly strange, and it’s reasonable to look at reforms that help make preferences more transparent. Or better yet, the new parliament should re-think our absurd attachment to compulsory voting. Forcing people to vote devalues the voice of people who carefully consider their vote, annoys people who don’t care, leads to lower quality public policy debates as parties appeal for the all-valuable ignorant vote, ensures that some segments of the voting public can be taken for granted, results in many informal and donkey and joke and random votes, while being a pointless infringement on free choice. For no benefit.
If we are going to reconsider the way we vote in Australia, voluntary should be on the table… but having an arbitrary cut-off that biases the system against small parties should be an absolute non-starter.
I believe in free speech. I mean — I really believe in free speech.
That doesn’t just mean that I support Andrew Bolt’s right to say whatever he likes about aboriginals, irrespective of who gets offended. And it doesn’t just mean that I oppose all censorship, such as the banning of Mein Kampf in some European countries. It also means I oppose defamation laws, and I believe you should be allowed to say anything about anybody, whether true or false, for whatever reason. It even means I believe that tobacco companies should be free to advertise.
I believe attempts to limit speech “for the public good” will mostly do more harm than good, and that messy and imperfect freedom is better than neat and tidy (but even more imperfect) government control.
“He must die. John Humphreys must die so that this country can live. He has betrayed this country too many times and he must no longer live … This is too important a subject to let John Humphreys live. Where does the lying end. I’m convinced that it only ends when John Humphreys is cold and stiff … HE MUST DIE, FOR THE LYING TO END. AND THIS IS A LIFE OR DEATH MATTER … I am accusing Humphreys of being a knowing traitor … SO MY NEW CLAIM IS THAT HUMPHREYS WILL NEVER STOP LYING. THAT HE WILL NEVER BE A SAFE PAIR OF HANDS. THAT HE WILL ALWAYS BE A TRAITOR. WHILE HE YET LIVES.”
My first death threat. Now I know that I’m important. A few friends have suggested I take it seriously, and one kindly offered to call his federal police friend who would call Graeme… but I nixed that idea. For his part, Graeme says that it is not a death threat because he doesn’t plan on doing any killing himself. That’s good to hear. But another friend pointed out that the above sentiments might still be considered incitement to violence… which got me thinking about free speech.
Most people accept anti-defamation laws as a legitimate restriction on free speech. For a starters, the laws have always existed so it just seems normal to keep them. If we remove them then society would be plunged into chaos as everybody accused everybody of being a paedophile, a thief, or a murderous nutcase… and if those rumours are believed then they could cause lots of damage to the victims, such as loss of work and/or loss of friends. And that’s just not fair.
Perhaps. But before we give up on fully free speech we should fully understand the arguments.
Defamation involves (1) somebody lying about you, leading to (2) other people holding a bad opinion about you, leading to (3) a bad outcome for you because of lack of trade. None of these things are nice. But they are all voluntary and, all else being equal, none of them should be illegal.