House debates

Thursday, 17 October 2019



4:38 pm

Photo of Tim WattsTim Watts (Gellibrand, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Communications) Share this | | Hansard source

I start by associating myself with the comments by the member for Wentworth, and I'm sure the member for Macnamara also echoes the sentiments.

Like most members, I get to spend a lot of my time in my job at school graduation ceremonies in my community. When I talk to young people who are finishing high school at these ceremonies, I tell them that they are entering a very different world to the one I entered when I finished at school 20 years ago. When I left school, Francis Fukuyama had recently published his book The End of History and the Last Man, which argued that we had it all figured out, that liberal democracies and open economies were the final form of government and that it was all just managerialism from here on in for political leaders in the West. That's obviously not the world we live in today. Since the global financial crisis, we have seen both the economic and the political appeal of this final form of government take a battering. Years of stalling economic growth following a period of ballooning inequality mean that the economic model of the West is no longer the international beacon that it once was. Similarly, the trashing of norms and democratic institutions led by the rise of populism across the West has led to a crisis of confidence in democracy across large parts of the globe.

At the same time that liberal democracy has been stalling, an alternative model, a new system for organising society, has emerged. Techno-authoritarianism, a new model of technology-enabled autocracy in which governments use new technological tools to control their own citizens and their economies, has been growing in influence in the developing world. Under this new system, governments work hand in hand with private companies to build systems of mass surveillance of both the online and the physical worlds of their citizens and then apply artificial intelligence tools to the resulting data flows in order to build systems of social control. Ubiquitous biosurveillance, facial recognition monitoring and gait analysis track people in this system as they move through the physical world. For example, there is remotely issuing traffic infringement notices to people spotted jaywalking or logging the presence of individuals at protests before storing this data in government controlled citizen profiles.

This is accompanied by ubiquitous online surveillance of individuals in this system, tracking citizens' public and private conversations on social media platforms, censoring discussions in near real time to control public opinion, and flagging influential or pervasive dissidents for a real-world visit from agents of the state. It's a model that's been championed for many years now in the international internet governance forums that shape how the internet operates, and it is part of the reason why we've seen a Balkanisation of the experience of using the internet around the world in the past decade.

The rise of techno-authoritarianism is a direct challenge to the liberal democratic model. It's forced us back into a world of competing systems for organising societies. I tell those students who I meet at high school graduation ceremonies in my community that the outcome of this competition between systems won't be decided by dissidents and activists in authoritarian countries, by the statements of international NGOs or by resolutions from multilateral organisations, no matter how well intentioned. This competition will principally be decided by their own actions—by what we do in democratic countries like Australia to restore confidence in the liberal democratic model. We face the same challenge today that leaders like Curtin, Chifley and JFK faced a generation ago: to win the hearts and minds of the people to the cause of democracy.

We can only win this by building a democracy that delivers on the big challenges that matter to our citizens—challenges like delivering economic security for workers in a 21st century economy and preventing catastrophic climate change. But to win this competition between systems also requires us to articulate, champion and live by the values and norms of liberal democracy in this place. If we want Australians to believe in democracy, we have to defend it ourselves. We have to live it. We have to say that it is antidemocratic to have the AFP raiding the offices of our journalists or for a government to interfere in the independence of the ABC. We have to say that it is antidemocratic to seek to use the welfare system to punish citizens for exercising freedom of speech or assembly. We have to understand the corrosive effect of public perceptions of corruption in this place and address it through the creation of a federal anticorruption commission. We have to understand the big picture of how technology is being used to subvert democratic values in countries around the world, and we need to articulate a new settlement of how to resolve competing rights and values on the internet in a way that champions a democratic alternative to the emerging techno-authoritarianism of the developing world. It's incumbent on all of us in this place to consider how the things we do in this place, and the way that we do them, sustain the democracy that brought us all here and that we all value so much.