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South Australia

Feb 2, 2010

Democracy, South Australian style

SA Attorney-General Michael Atkinson has changed the rules of democracy in the state, explains Hendrik Gout: you can't make an anonymous political comment on a blog, but you can make an anonymous donation to the ALP.

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CRIKEY - SA Attorney-General Mick Atkinson

Here’s how democracy works in South Australia.

Mid-last year, Attorney-General Michael Atkinson introduced a Bill to change the Electoral Act and the rules governing democracy in South Australia.

Under his proposal, political candidates wouldn’t be allowed to put up posters on power poles, the cheapest form of political advertising. This won’t bother the Labor Party, cashed-up with anonymous political donations. Famously asked why the Makris Corporation — developer and shopping centre magnate Con Makris is high on BRW’s rich list — donated tens of thousands of dollars to political parties, his company’s chief executive officer had something very interesting to say.

“We want to make our projects happen, that’s for sure, but that’s a part of the way the system — poli­tics — works here,” Makris CEO John Blunt said.

We’re not suggesting for a moment that there’s any connection between the two, but the record shows Makris Corporation projects are subject to political decisions. The government has approved highly controversial Makris projects like one in North Adelaide even though they don’t comply with normal planning rules.

Yesterday’s electoral returns show Makris made substantial donations last financial year to both Liberal and Labor.

Another company, Pallidon Pty Ltd, gifted SA Labor $11,000. Pallidon is owned by ex-State and Federal Labor MP John Quirke. Pallidon’s business? Lobbying. Client? Makris Corporation.

The returns also list a donation from Southern Quarries, also for exactly the same amount — $11,000 to Labor. A cross-check of the SA lobbyists register shows a reference to Southern Quarries. Its lobbyist is John Quirke.

But most political donations in SA are totally secret and anonymous. “There is a murky river of gold flowing into political parties that the SA people simply do not know about,” Greens MLC Mark Parnell said, studying the returns.

“SA has the worst political donations laws in the nation.  Because of our slack laws millions of dollars are flowing into the Labor and Liberal parties that do not need to be declared.

“There is the huge gap between the total amount received by parties, and how much has been declared to the Electoral Commission.  In the case of Labor and Liberal, there is over $3 million that remains unaccounted for.

“We simply do not know who has given the money and what they expect in return,” Mr Parnell said.

Perhaps Makris Corporation can provide some insight.

“We have got business interests as well, so we want good governance. We want to see things happen in this state,” Mr Blunt explained.

The minor parties and independents will be hard hit by the rule against posters on electricity poles (called Stobie poles in SA, cast in concrete and steel from disused railway tracks) which are traditionally festooned with election posters as elections approach. The new law outlaws these posters and forces greater election spending. The Greens saw red and eventually Atkinson’s proposal was deferred to kick in after, but not before, the March 20 poll.

The Act also makes it compulsory, the instant electoral writs are issued, for people who send a letter or comment to a newspaper or news site like this one to provide their real name and postcode address.

Professor of politics at Flinders University Dr Dean Jaensch says public servants will be afraid to write to newspapers or websites criticising their Minister, for fear of retribution.

The Attorney-General, meanwhile, refuses to provide his residential address when he writes to newspapers. His past two Independent Weekly letters to the editor were signed Michael Atkinson, and published below that was the line “no address provided”.

Here’s a story we wrote on the subject two weeks ago:

Good for the goose

Like other newspapers, The Independent Weekly requires a residential address (not for publication) for people who write Letters to the Editor so we can check the letters are genuine.

In five years, we’ve made one exception to that rule. Veterans Affairs Minister Michael Atkinson refused to provide his residential address, possibly because he’s moved out of his own electorate.

So it was with some puzzlement that we came across an e-mail written by Mr Atkinson to a constituent. “If your email was not purely for the purpose of abusing me and you would like a considered response, please supply me with a home address (a street address, not a P.O. box). The reason I ask email correspondents for a street address is the large number of crank, hoax and abusive emails I get,” the Minister wrote.

The issue came to prominence when the Attorney would not deny that he’s moved out of his electorate.

According to Mick Atkinson, the changes to the Act are to provide transparency. Meanwhile, anonymous donations continue to flow into Labor coffers perfectly legally.

Don’t talk to us about transparency, Mick. We can see through that one.

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23 comments

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23 thoughts on “Democracy, South Australian style

  1. meski

    Give him the John Howard treatment at the upcoming election. It’s what the narrow-minded, sanctimonious b*stard richly deserves.

  2. SusieQ

    Trouble is both the major parties benefit from these dodgy laws – the Libs will hardly want to change things!

    As for the Vet Affairs Minister – agree – only thing he will understand is getting voted out!

  3. glengyron

    The Labor party in South Australia has become fat and lazy thanks to their lack of opposition. Let’s hope the electorate smartens them up, or at least ditches Mr Atkinson.

  4. Stilgherrian

    I’m having trouble seeing the name and postcode requirement as a threat to democracy. If someone wants to remain anonymous, then couldn’t they simply get someone else to make the public comment, quoting an anonymous source?

    That’s not to say I approve of the changes. The South Australian Electoral Act has a rather vague definition of “journal”, and it could arguably extend to every blog. That essentially makes the act stupid and unenforceable, because people can just set up anonymous bogs hosted outside Australia and post their dodgy election commentary that way.

    And it’s not to say I approve of shady political donations, or Atkinson double standards on giving an address.

    There is much suckage in SA. But putting your name to what you say a threat to democracy? A tad overblown methinks…

  5. Elan

    The ’tiser has a picture of a grinning Atkinson (yes I know why they put that one up!), but sod it to hell!! It has put me off my Weeties. I haven’t had brekka yet.

    There is only so much a body can stand.

    (This regime really IS stomach turning.

    Those business connections are atypical of them).

  6. whitefrankblack

    @SILGHERRIAN

    I see your arguments re democracy, but they understate the problem in my opinion. It is not to point that the laws are difficult to enforce / easily evaded. The point is that, if they operated as intended, they would stifle free political speech and so be a blow to democracy in South Australia.

    Further, at first blush, they seem unconstitutional to me on the basis of the ACTV / Lange cases.

    The second that the writs are issued, I would encourage as many people as possible to blog/comment anonymously about how undemocratic the SA Gvt is.

  7. bookbuster

    @Stilgherrian
    If someone wants to remain anonymous, then couldn’t they simply get someone else to make the public comment, quoting an anonymous source?

    So, every time I wish to make a comment on a news article anonymously, all I need do is find someone willing to post it on my behalf? But what if I have no-one willing or able to do this? What if my response needs to be timely? What if I disclose my identity to someone who is then linked to me, or is forced to disclose my identity because they lack the financial and legal muscle to protect me as a source?

    I suppose I could quote myself as the anonymous source – but even that is problematic.

  8. meski

    use an anonymous remailer or proxy service.

  9. Stilgherrian

    @whitefrankblack: But it was already the law that if I published a “journal”, as the law quaintly calls it, or bought advertising on TV or radio, or put leaflets in letterboxes, and it was during an election period, I had to put my name on it. Wasn’t that already a threat to democracy? We seem to have survive with that law in place. I’m not quite sure why publishing online should have a magic exemption.

    Either anonymity is allowed, or it’s not. It should matter what the medium of expression is. That’s my point.

  10. Stilgherrian

    Erm, it shouldn’t matter what the medium is, I mean.

  11. meski

    @STILGHERRIAN: True, but it does matter what, or more precisely where, the jurisdiction is. I’m guessing the AdelaideNow server is not in fact in Adelaide at all, but is on a newscorp server interstate or overseas.

  12. Angus Macinnis

    @Stilgherrian, I’m not sure where you get “name and post code” from; the Act requires name and (non PO-box) address. Further, journal is defined in section 116 and is not relevant – the key words which work the censorship are “broadcast on the Internet”.

    The vice of the section is that it prohibits politicial communication via any online medium for which you are not happy to give your name and address. For example, most people wouldn’t want to display their street address on their Facebook page, but if you don’t give your address, then you can’t post material concerning the SA election on your Facebook page without falling foul of section 116.

    The medium matters because when you are communicating with atoms (a leaflet, say), the political element will usually be the sole (or at least the dominant) element of the communication. With electrons (Twitter, say) only a small element of what you communicate may be political, but you are shut off from that political communication unless you are prepared to mkae your name and address known to those to whom you communicate your political and non-political material alike.

  13. Tom McLoughlin

    Work address, parents address, children’s address, local scout or social club hall address?

    The other problem actually is name and address can lead to exploitation by criminals for identity theft, which is why large scale petitions can’t really afford to call for the full address of signatories because people may support a cause but not want the risk – signature and suburb should be enough for any publication.

    I do alot of web journalising too and I never record my street address, district or region is sufficient.

    (This is a real situation I’ve been discussing with a community group lately.)

  14. skipjack

    @SILGHERRIAN

    Having to put your name and address on political opinion in any format is a threat to free speech. It identifies and outs dissenters, making them less likely to express political opinion.

    Most importantly, on the internet, it allows for profiling. A simple google search on a contributors name and address, under the law, will reveal a comprehensive collection of their political statements during an election period.

    Identifying the most active contributors to online dissent becomes an easy task – a simple way to compile lists of individuals who are politically opposed, and most importantly, highly active in attempting to persuade others.

    The new law is open to abuse and is an erosion of free speech.

    I would argue that it is not a defence to state that such abuses are unlikely to be perpretated.

  15. Man of Straw

    Just a simple analogy I would like to submit (and yes, I know it doesn’t fully equate, I’m happy to leave it to others to dissect):

    I am quite OK with verifying my personal identity as a voter at the entrance to the polling booth, but am extremely wary of having my actual vote as cast directly associated with my person.

    To my mind, that’s pretty similar .

    As I understand it, online forums that publish actual defamation or slander, are able to be taken to account for that publishing.
    This is why comments are usually moderated. “Liable for Libel” as it were…

    I use a pseudonym not just because I have MET the radical fringe that would personally attack me (word and deed) for my opinions (they are truly scary) – but because the ideas I express are the important bit, not my identity.

    As it happens I also share the name of somebody with markedly different views to myself who has a well-earned public profile, and they (much as I disagree with their opinions) do not deserve either the flak or the credit for what I write.

    I would agree that it is a bit of a double standard to expect websites to have anonymous opinions on politics but not newspapers, but I have only recently (today even) become aware of the current rules we have already been putting up with, and I dislike them also.
    How many people wanted to write to the local paper, had something important to say, but were scared off by the realisation that the local powerbrokers (who, especially at local level, can be rather…… “meddlesome”) would know exactly who they are? We will never get statistics on that. And we won’t get their input either.

    There could be a case regarding the spreading of rumours (“scuttlebutt”? “FUD”?) during election time – but then, we have moderators and editors (they still exist somewhere don’t they?) who (if responsible) will not print obvious inflammatory crap (or at least look deeper to see if they have a scoop!).

    Consider a really annoyed wannabe whistle-blower. Just say they have evidence of substantial corruption perpetrated by a contender in the political process. The VERY BEST moment to release this info-bomb would be DURING AN ELECTION – when the public has been dragged from the couch (and their TV-sports-induced apathy/comas) for long enough to have a chance of noticing.
    Maybe they will think twice before risking themselves and their family, to all our loss.

    Threat to Democracy? Not by itself – just another paper cut to go with the others…. and we wonder why governance is anaemic.

    A bigger Threat would be the obviously unlevel-playing field of political paper posters being banned – another travesty of natural justice twisting our “representative” system to be a choice between either the Libel party or the Laborious party. They biodegrade just fine from what I have seen…

    “Yes, that’s right, you have a choice: your sh!t sandwich can be on sourdough OR rye!!”

    or the alternate quote:
    “We have both types of music here – Country AND Western!”
    (apologies to the writers of The Blues Brothers)

  16. chinda63

    MOS – no offence but your whistle-blower analogy … well, it blows.

    There is nothing to stop the whistle-blower from contacting any paper (or other media outlet) and making the allegation at any time. It is then up to the investigative journalist or the newspaper to look into it and, if the allegation is substantiated, go into print or to air – with the news outlet then taking full responsibility for the veracity of the content as they always do.

    Having said that, any news outlet worth its salt should look very long and hard about any allegation made during the heat of an election campaign. Desperate people do desperate things; if your very livelihood is at stake, an alarming number of people would be happy to lie through their teeth to protect it.

    The whole point of this debate – and something that is being glossed over by all and sundry – is that this law is ALREADY IN EXISTENCE in South Australia in relation to both the print media and radio talkback. Funnily enough, the sky has not fallen in over the past 60 or 70 years that has been the case.

    Those who have failed to provide that information simply have not had their letters printed. It didn’t stop people from sending the letter; free speech was not impinged upon because they got to send their letter and someone read it. It just wasn’t more widely disseminated by bring printed, that’s all. It happens all the time outside election campaigns; sending a letter to the editor doesn’t guarantee it’ll published; it never has.

    So let’s stop all this rubbish about free speech. Speech has always been free, but this measure (sadly now in the process of being rescinded) at least had the benefit of making it less cheap and meaningless. Now, thanks to the noise put about by The Advertiser (who were being deliberately mischievous IMO), their website will be spammed endlessly this election campaign by partisan political hacks – posting anonymously, of course, so you won’t realise they are in the employ of the political parties – who will effectively drown out the voices of the ordinary voter.

    I don’t understand how that can possibly be a good thing for democracy.

  17. meski

    @Chinda: I think the print media / radio analogy is flawed, as far as comparing it to the Internet. Print / radio tends to be limited by state, for instance, to The Advertiser (and in bygone days, The News) and in the case of radio, by broadcast range. The Internet doesn’t have such sharply defined boundaries. People in SA can comment on a blog that is based in SA, Sydney, New York, and this can be viewed by people anywhere. The SA Government is trying to put the genie back into the bottle, and it isn’t going to work.

    Your point on anonymous cowards (as slashdot refer to you if you post a comment from an unlogged on account) is fairly valid, and /. label them all the same, so you can’t differentiate. You learn to take what they say with a grain of salt. It’s time people in general learn to do this with anonymous (or effectively anonymous) posts.

  18. meski

    PS: yes, Meski is an alias, because there are altogether too many Mike Smiths to use that as a username. It’s an anagram of MikeS (and I live in Canberra, and no, I do not work for either government 🙂

  19. Elan

    Well now, we can all breathe easily. Mickey the Snoop has ‘heard us’ . He has ‘listened to us’.

    THAT’S SO SWEET!! (Like treacle).

    Of course repeal of this law will come AFTER the leckshun,-so we need to vote him back in so he can do so.

    I doff ‘s me’ cap to Mickey! Yer’ can rely on Mickey.

    (This bloke is a friend of a good friend of mine. The next time I see * , I’ll belt him!! He helps Mickey the Snoop with his reelection. In all other ways he’s quite normal).

    (My friend, that is).

  20. Pete in Rannistan

    Stilgherrian, old son. It seems to me if you dont understand the problem, you are a part of it. I have had to live under the current oppressive regeim, and when you have an AG who trawls the internet hunting down voices of dissent and then threatening those people with legal action, well enough said.

    If you dont beleive he has already done this go and have a look at the adelaide now website.

  21. chinda63

    By the way, I want it on record that I do NOT support Atkinson and the cack-handed way he does his job.

    He’s a disgrace as an A-G and should have lost his job ages ago. Being mates with the right people, however, ensures a job for life in SA …

  22. Elan

    I know full well that there APPEARS to be some hysteria and hypocrisy in the outcry that occurred, on the basis that we have to provide ID for print media etc..,

    It was WHY this occurred-because of WHO instigated it.

    Pete of R (haven’t we had a heck of a time on AN Pete, woohoo!!) is correct. Atkinson had become questionably obsessed with tracking down those who opposed his views. He HAS done that. He has written to people and threatened them with defamation.

    This bloke hounds people. He really does. If he can’t trace them for whatever reason, he calls them Liberal stooges. It might even be the case in some cases,-BUT, it’s a bog standard allegation for him, and a couple of days ago, it blew up in his face!

    Michael Atkinson’s behaviour appears to be increasingly irrational. His ALLEGED involvement in the St Clair….stink;- is wide open for scrutiny. It was inevitable.

    The sirens clanged, and the flashing red light lit up because of WHO-and WHY.

    And I won’t forget the uckwits who helped him get this through either.

  23. Elan

    I know full well that there APPEARS to be some hysteria and hypocrisy in the outcry that occurred, on the basis that we>>>>already<<< have to provide ID for print media etc..,

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