On last Sunday morning’s Insiders program, the ABC’s Barrie Cassidy quizzed Josh Frydenberg on the ethics of calling the withdrawal of a franking credit refund a ‘new tax’ when it was clearly not a tax.

As the Treasurer responded, the smile that involuntary crept across his face belied his intentions; whether an indication of embarrassment, shame or glee, the smile seemed to indicate that he knew the ‘retirement tax’ was a lie, that he knew Cassidy knew, and that he knew we the audience knew. Yet he continued responding to the veteran journalist’s question as if the lie was the truth.

The lie has become so normalised as political trickery that even calling it out as a lie doesn’t neutralise it.  The ‘retirement tax’ lie follows the Coalition’s successful reframing of the proposed emissions trading scheme as a ‘carbon tax’ when it was in fact a market mechanism. A couple of years later, Peta Credlin would confess the formulation of this lie to Sky’s Sunday Agenda: ‘We made it a fight about the hip pocket and not about the environment. That was brutal retail politics and it took Abbott about six months to cut through and when he cut through, Gillard was gone.’

With the distinction between truth and lie collapsed into ‘brutal retail politics’, who will hold politicians to account? Sadly, we can’t expect the media to do so. Rather than working hard to develop business models that publish quality journalism with sustainable income streams, the commercial media has become complicit in the decline of political integrity, actively fuelling leadership speculation and sensationalising conflicts in order to boost sales and feed clicks.

Nor can we expect opinion polls to hold politicians to account. Opinion polls are owned by media empires, such as Murdoch’s Newspoll for the Australian, and their methodologies haven’t kept up with social and media change.

Expecting the Australian Electoral Commission to hold politicians to account is also tricky: it has no legislative role in regulating the political content of electoral advertising and communication. Same goes for the Australian Communication and Media Authority: it does regulate electoral advertising and communication and the election advertising blackout period that applies to broadcasters, but this regulation has not kept pace with contemporary media platforms, ownership or consumption.

And both entities can only act on complaints received — making for some concerning experiences on election day when the Liberal Party placed Chinese language posters next to official AEC signage and styled them identically to the AEC’s while telling voters that the ‘correct’ way to vote was to place a 1 next to the Liberal candidate’s name.

While all of this was going on, voters faced a genuine choice between parties with rigorously considered policies, and parties with none. Meanwhile, non-profit organisations across Australia are working hard on policy, advocacy and action to redress the climate emergency, the decline of public health and education, the rise of violence against women and poor mental health, the flatlining and fall of wages and workers’ rights, and the contraction of the arts and cultural sector.

As we all reflect on our personal and shared civic responsibility, it’s clear that all the institutions of civil society will need to examine their social roles and the public conversations they lead. Environmental organisations. Community centres. Mental health bodies. Legal centres. Sports clubs. Schools and universities. Asylum seeker centres. Independent media. Galleries, performing arts centres and all arts organisations.

It’s up to all organisations who exist to promote the public good to make sure that they’re doing so with rigour and care, calling out the small lies as well as the big ones so that we’re strengthening civil society together. Such public institutions do so by continuing to advance constructive positions for Australia’s future — as policy, as public discussions, as social events, as calls to action, or as works of art.

Now is the time to start that conversation with your community or cultural organisation. What support do they need? How can you join in? How can you volunteer? How can you become a member? How can you promote their work?

There’s a lot of work to be done to ensure the Australian government has the best guidance it needs to prepare the policies and deliver the services Australians urgently need. To strengthen ourselves into making that contribution, let’s begin by rejecting ‘brutal retail politics’ and instead champion generous community expertise.


First published in Eureka Street. Image: Bruce Quek’s Hall of Mirrors: Asia Pacific Report (2011) was part of A Time of Others at QAGOMA in 2016. Photograph by Esther Anatolitis.