Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Digital election campaign means less time to reflect on the issues

More than any previous election campaign this one will be won or lost using digital media.

Millions of us are wedded to Facebook. It's a vast digital kingdom that each party will try to conquer.

These days we are living more in our heads and less in the real world. We have fewer embodied and spontaneous experiences with strangers, and more disembodied ones, although usually with people we have chosen to follow; people whose political preferences align with our own. It's made us more tribal, more like the followers of Donald Trump, given us more blindspots.

The upside is that many of us are able to engage directly with members of Parliament, even the Prime Minister. And fact-checking is easier once you establish which sources to trust.

Meanwhile, journalists are under siege. Those on the campaign trail are tethered to devices that won't let them rest, and they are encouraged to use them to engage with the public when they've time to spare – time they would have once used to reflect. Sleepless parliamentary staff are chained to the same devices.

Campaigns impose their own structures: morning alerts, risk-averse and scripted events, hand-shaking and limited main-street and shopping mall encounters. Reporters look for the cracks and fault lines, but not for long as they'll need to move on, catch that bus before it takes off for another scheduled pseudo "engagement".

Parliamentary radio reporter Francis Keany vividly describes his life on the 2013 campaign trail in his new book Follow the Leaders: How to survive a modern day election campaign, launched last month. He survived thousands of kilometres travel, a bare-bones media budget and painfully long days with the wonders of over-the-counter medication, caffeine, rare family reunions and opportunities to speak to people outside the bubble of politics. The book is full of hurried, strange and surreal moments to the tune of slogans repeated ad nausea.

"The press conference begins and five minutes later the press release is issued, giving us zero time to digest a complex promise about a 1 per cent levy on big business to cover Abbott's controversial paid parental leave scheme ... Anger [among reporters] is clearly picked up by the microphones which is echoed by plenty of comments online," Keany notes of day three.

The new technology is incredibly useful. "You can quickly Google and fact check during a press conference, you can gauge reaction on Twitter and your bosses can listen into live feeds with suggested questions and quotes," he tells me. But he adds, that being tethered stifles him.

There's plenty to be concerned about in the rush to engage and compete in cyberspace. First of all, not everyone's equal in so-called "digital communities". They are echos of the real world and its biases. They over-represent celebrities and they over-represent men. Like ancient Greece, they are "democracies" made use of by the few. Genuinely needy people with little access to people of influence don't have the time to spare. Real barriers prevent those people that really need advocacy from being heard online.Even open forums are maintained by a dedicated and stubborn core of participants.

Journalists need to be careful not to treat Twitter and Facebook as if they represent the constituency. "The trick will be to recognise whether it's just another Twitter citizen arcing up, or whether it's a collective nerve that's been pinched," says Keany.

Political parties must be mindful their people (many Internet natives in similar garb) aren't sucked into staring at screens all day rather than door-knocking and holding face-to-face meetings with a diverse range of people. The appeal of digital communication is not only its potential reach but its low cost (as with online education, it's cheaper but probably not better).

The Internet has reshaped the public square, remodelled the old town hall meeting. For the media and for politicians it will be a balancing act between responding to the legitimate but often reactionary issues that arise on social media and aiming to maintain a holistic approach to the campaign with a consistency of character and a moral compass.

The wild and terrifying time that is a federal campaign is a test of endurance for all concerned, heightened in the digital age. Campaigns have never been simply about policy but about shaping identity. The pace of our digital culture further elevates colour over issues of substance and shrinks our capacity for sustained policy discussion. I hope to be proven wrong.

First published in The Canberra Times, 13 May 2016 Image c/o Simon Letch

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Twisted logic of an asylum policy now in disarray

Papua New Guinea's decision to close the Manus Island detention centre after its Supreme Court unanimously declared it a denial of a right to personal liberty and illegal has been met with little more than a declaration that our government will never allow its residents to come to Australia.

Minister Peter Dutton's lines sounded well rehearsed. Regional processing and resettlement had stopped many people from losing their lives at sea. They also sounded false. It's a corrupted compassion that seeks to prevent drownings at sea but will tolerate what seems like indefinite life sentences for people who have committed no crimes.

Just this week Four Corners told us about one asylum seeker, Hamid Khazae, who paid the ultimate price. Doctors were key advocates in the program.

The first wave of health professionals to raise the alarm about care in detention centres spoke out as long as 15 years ago. I produced a documentary for ABC Radio National at the time, quoting the Australian Medical Association among others.

"There are inappropriate guidelines and inappropriate treatments available to people who are in detention.. Some of the concerns are the poor use of interpreters, particularly for those people in inadequate trauma counselling," said Kerryn Phelps.

Khazae was one of those who had no effective interpreter. Four Corners revealed that repeated medical advice about him was ignored and his care was unnecessarily delayed. Khazae died of a treatable bacterial infection.

The doctors who spoke to Four Corners have been threatened with jail for making this known. The Australian government contracts private firms to run the centres on foreign soil in environments far more secretive than those we tolerate at home.

In my 2001 documentary psychiatrist Professor Patrick McGorry issued a chilling warning.

"The level of abuse and trauma that's been visited on people within Australia at the moment, in future years is going to come to the same sort of situation as the apology for Aboriginal people," he said. (The lawyer who ran the PNG case suggests the Supreme Court ruling will spark compensation cases.)

Nine years later, McGorry's expertise in the field of mental health was acknowledged when he became Australian of the Year. He's deepened his view, calling the detention centres factories of mental illness.

Doctors have a long and honourable tradition of standing up for health. Most are united in their disgust, not only at the gag clause but at the conditions of detention.
When asked how she felt after being released from a Lebanese jail along with a 60 Minutes film crew this month, Brisbane mother Sally Faulkner was naturally delighted.

"They treated us well, we can't – we can't complain about that," she said. "But it's just, yeah, it's the uncertainty that sort of kept me awake at night, not knowing if it was gonna be a lifelong sentence or what. It was, yeah, it was no joke."

Faulkner was detained for two weeks. On average, asylum seekers in Australian offshore detention camps are detained for 450 days with no certainty as to when they will get out. One has been in for 1000 days. He can only dream of a bribe directed to the right place by Channel Nine or a snatch team rescue.

Few people seriously suggest Australia should not be able to detain irregular arrivals briefly on arrival in order to determine whether they pose a threat to society and to check on their identities.

But the process we've got now has no mechanism for ever releasing them within Australia or for preventing them sinking into despair. Many are intercepted young (the detainee who set himself alight on Nauru this week is just 23),vibrant and hopeful that on the strength of their story, they will get asylum. Months pass, the bureaucracy grinds on and more than half are indeed found to be genuine. Their cases are upheld but refugees enter the community after detention utterly demoralised, often severely ill, as a result of the experience.

Papua New Guineans, backed by their highest national court, understand the long-term costs of having said yes to Australia to accommodate the detention centre.
The centre created short-term jobs and some infrastructure. But as one PNG opposition member stressed, there was the good, the bad and the ugly. "In our hearts we knew it was not a long-term thing."

Meanwhile, Australia's policy is in disarray. No one likes to lose face especially when backed into a corner, so be prepared for tough talk from the government. Even though there is very little between the two major parties on asylum seeker policy, the Coalition is already using the PNG decision to scare voters and drive a wedge between it and Labor by conflating asylum seekers with terrorism.

After nearly decades of thorny debate, surely voters deserve a more sophisticated approach. A hardening towards asylum seekers would run counter to growing and grass-roots opposition to the policy, much of it in from across the Christian churches.

While the court ruling offers another arrow in the long campaign for change, it also fractures the appearance of cohesion in the federal Labor Party. Those cracks will be exploited by a desperate government.

First published in The Canberra Times, April 29, 2016.