In the twenty-first century, confronting what was then the worst drought on record, the Australian Government embarked on its most expensive, most ambitious nation-building project: the Murray–Darling Basin Plan. A $13 billion realignment to rescue the nation’s food bowl and to restore its rivers. In 2007 John Howard promised a ‘complete overhaul’ of the interior ‘to confront head-on the overallocation of water’. And because this was that kind of pastoral undertaking that relied on the mettle of farmers, and not a little because Canberra was handing out fistfuls of cash, a story of reform took hold. Primary producers were to be protected and the rivers returned to life. The paradox of how both could be simultaneously possible was put to one side.
Embarrassingly, when I first turned to examine the Murray–Darling in late 2016 for Four Corners, that was what I believed too. I trusted the plan. That trust was mostly the product of ignorance. But it was also because I lived in a stable, democratic nation where I could trust many things—that my money remained mine to withdraw from a machine in the wall, that my ballot paper counted whenever I cast it, and that the courts, when turned to, would offer a fair hearing. I believed that the federal bureaucracy, and its engineers and scientists, had indeed built what it was that Howard had promised and sown in the popular imagination.
In fact, in a large sweep of the basin, a Klondike rush was underway, where cotton growers were plundering water like it was gold. Rather than limit extraction, the intricacies of the plan had actually enabled the private extraction of water bought by taxpayers for the environment. Illegal pumping of water and the sabotaging of meters were rampant. The NSW Government had not only dismantled investigations into these compliance breaches but it was secretly assisting corporate interests that were laying siege to the Murray–Darling Basin Plan itself. I was shocked by what we found, and so too was the public. A flurry of inquiries and criminal prosecutions followed. A royal commission found the $13 billion scheme was a case study in ‘gross maladministration’.
It got me thinking about trust. And about what betrayals of trust do to the story that knits together a nation. I felt as though a seam in something big and important had been unpicked. The fable had gone off-note. And it wasn’t accidental. It was deliberate. It was a process that began the moment the plan was announced, and it continued unabated in the years that followed.
Rather than a fairer deal for all, a lucky few were getting a better deal. So how did it happen?
Part of the answer is money. From 1998, hundreds of thousands of dollars were funneled into political parties by the irrigation industry. Lobbyists obtained privileged access. Some MPs were charmed witless by large agribusinesses. But these forces are not peculiar to the world of water and farming. What happened to arguably the nation’s most important policy program has happened before, and it will happen again.
Australia’s stable and fair democracy is being hacked away by the influence of big money. Large corporations, wealthy tycoons and industry lobby groups are exercising an ever-increasing influence over the political process. It has become an accepted part of the public discourse. We’re not so far along as America, but for many, it is now normal and natural that elections are funded by corporations: Australians are becoming inured to the idea that big money somehow deserves a bigger say.
It is a rot that is eating away at the heart of Australia’s promise of fair representation. Campaign finance, government relations, stakeholder engagement: they’re all euphemisms to limit embarrassment at where we’ve landed. And Australia is not alone. Across the world, democracy is in what might be its greatest moment of crisis: riots in Paris, Moscow, Beirut and Hong Kong, a surge in scepticism towards the media, civil society and international trade, a bloom in authoritarianism across Europe, a soaring new confidence from totalitarian China and, in the birthplace of Westminster government, a divided kingdom riven by a deeply suspect referendum. This canker—the disease that is corporate influence over politics—is much of the reason why. If we want a different kind of future, one that adheres to the parables we tell each other, there is no more pressing issue.
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In 2009 the French president Nicolas Sarkozy presented Jacques Servier with the Legion of Honour’s Grand Cross, France’s highest award. Servier, a doctor and pharmacologist, had turned his small laboratory into a global pharmaceutical giant, with sales in 2013 of almost US$6 billion. Along the way, he became a fixture of Parisian society. He was worth US$7.6 billion when he died, age 92, and he once credited his success to a talent for intrigues politiques: ‘If I have lived in Paris for a long time, it is only because, in our country, we have to scheme in the capital, with multiple move upon move.’
These moves were both simple and arcane. Every year Servier showered personalised greeting cards on those he valued; some also received a crate of champagne. To his Legion of Honour ceremony he invited the minister of employment and her husband. He sponsored the rugby club FC Lourdes, whose chairman was the close relative of an influential health official. He booked tables at the opulent Le Meurice in Neuilly for lunch with a succession of health officials, mayors, cabinet ministers and senior physicians. Before entering politics, Sarkozy was Servier’s personal lawyer.
An assiduous record-keeper, Servier maintained intelligence holdings on many of these people, noting their love of jazz music, those with whom they were ‘très intime’, and even what makes of cars they drove. Having pumped tens of thousands of francs into his political war chest, Servier kept a file on cardiologist and budding politician Philippe Douste-Blazy. When Douste-Blazy won a seat in the parliament, Servier wrote him a personal card: ‘Cher professeur et ami,’ he wrote, ‘what joy!!!’ In the run-up to being appointed the minister for health, Douste-Blazy wrote to Servier: ‘Know that I remain at your disposal.’ Servier’s contacts all had their place in his galaxy of influence. Not least among them was François Lhoste, a professor of clinical pharmacology at the Université Paris Descartes. Lhoste earned a total of €1.6 million as Servier’s ‘strategic adviser’. But Lhoste happened to hold another job at the same time: he sat on the committee that set France’s drug prices.
Servier Laboratories’ reputation became synonymous with its wonder drug Mediator. Between 1976 and 2009, when it was withdrawn from the French market, nearly 5 million patients had taken the pharmaceutical. Its active ingredient, benfluorex, decreased insulin resistance in those with type-2 diabetes, and it was indicated for obesity and diabetes. But Mediator was marketed and widely used as a weight-loss miracle cure. What consumers didn’t know, however, was the drug also corroded the heart’s plumbing, leading to valvular heart disease in a large number of patients. Almost identical US-licensed drugs (including one manufactured by Servier Laboratories itself) were forced from American pharmacy shelves by the Food and Drug Administration in September 1997, and eventually led to damages in the billions of dollars. Mediator was also withdrawn in the late 1990s from sale in Italy and Spain, and in 2005, Servier paid out millions in civil claims in Canada. But it wasn’t until 2009 that Paris reluctantly took action.
Even though there were 300,000 active prescriptions at the time, there was no urgent public recall warning of the drug’s links to heart disease. It was only when a 2010 book was published—Mediator 150 mg: How Many Dead? by Irène Frachon—that the alarm was raised. The full details, when they finally surfaced, shocked the country. One French inquiry put the total number of deaths attributable to Mediator at between 1520 and 2100. Mediator is widely regarded as France’s worst-ever health scandal.
There can be little doubt that Servier’s various intrigues helped to keep the drug on the French market. His contacts in medicine and politics suppressed reporting of suspicious cases, and they steered official investigations away from the company. But the tide couldn’t be turned back. By December 2012, manslaughter charges were brought against Servier and six of his companies. He refuted the allegations, claiming evidence of Mediator’s dangers became apparent only with later medical advances. But his reputation was forever sullied. He died in 2014, and three years later, prosecutors indicted Servier Laboratories, the French medicines regulator, nine other state institutions and 14 individuals on new charges of deceptive conduct and manslaughter. The indictment cited the deaths of 500 people. There could be few more grotesque examples of corporate influence.
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In France there has long been suspicion of the influence of money over politics. In the 1980s a scam flourished in which levies were effectively raised on public-works contracts and paid via false invoices or dummy consultancies into the French Socialist Party. In 1988 the scam exploded into the so-called Affaire Luchaire, in which the Luchaire armaments corporation was caught secretly shipping to Iran hundreds of thousands of munitions, while the Socialist Party quietly took a cut of the profits. The scandal led to a wave of campaign finance and transparency reforms, including, by 1995, a complete ban on corporations making political donations. There’s also a ceiling on donations from private individuals of no more than €4,600 per year, and there’s public funding of candidates with direct subsidies and tax exemptions.
It is in this context that the elevation of Emmanuel Macron—and his attempt to raise taxes—lit a fire across the country. The former corporate banker had been a mergers and acquisitions maestro; along with €2.9 million, Macron earned the nickname ‘the Mozart of finance’. And so, when he raised almost €13 million for his 2017 presidential campaign in a matter of months, it raised eyebrows. François Hollande dubbed Macron a president not for the rich, but the ‘très riches’.
The sums are a fraction of what is raised for a run at the US presidency, but the perception of a president under the thumb of big business reopened old wounds. When Macron’s government scrapped a long-standing ‘solidarity tax’ on the wealthy, and then introduced a rise in the petrol levy, tens of thousands took to the streets. Protestors wore yellow high-visibility vests, and so the movement was dubbed les Gilets jaunes. In small villages and at highway toll booths and even suburban roundabouts across the country, the disgruntled downed tools and blocked roads. At first caught unawares, the police eventually launched a wave of violent crackdowns. Tear gas rained down on the Champs-Élysées and Place Charles de Gaulle. Gendarmes in armour wielded truncheons on the limbs of protestors. Tactical squads fired rubber bullets and flash grenades into crowds. Paris was transformed into a strange, if still beautiful, dystopia.
The motivations of les Gilets jaunes are many and varied. But at the heart of the disgruntlement is the sense, rightly or wrongly, that they cannot trust Macron, or l’Assemblée Nationale (the lower house of the French parliament), to prioritise the common citizen. Even in the face of strict electoral funding laws, the French continue to suspect that big business holds inordinate sway over the political class. I was in Paris for the third weekend of riots: bank windows were shattered, cars were torched, century-old cobblestones were prised from Avenue Marceau to be repurposed as missiles. One masked casseur told me in tears of rage that Macron hadn’t listened, ‘so this is what he gets’. The French are acutely sensitive to the prospect their existing rights might be in any way curtailed. In this case, it’s the right to earn a living wage that many feel is under threat.
The protection of such rights forms one of four pillars of democracy. There must also be true competition for power, not just in free and fair elections, but also in the public contest of ideas. There must be the rule of law—legislation and regulation that bind not just the poor, but the wealthy too. And there must be a vibrant civil life, a culture of democratic participation, in which the people of France, or Australia, or any other liberal democracy, freely examine and criticise the conduct of their elected government. But for the past few decades, money politics has laid siege to all four of these tenets of democracy.
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In failed states, the subversion of the rule of law is conspicuous. Police are bribed, planning approvals are arranged in cash, and blackmail is a viable criminal defence strategy. But in functioning capitalist democracies, dodging the rules requires subtlety. Regulators are stripped of funding and loyalists are appointed to run them. Laws are written by the very actors they were originally intended to target. Penalties are enshrined that represent a mere blip against quarterly revenue.
Nowhere else is this manipulation more entrenched than in the financial sector, where banks and credit institutions exercise enormous influence over attempts to regulate them. The eurozone crisis that began ten years ago, which punished hundreds of thousands of people, was then, and remains, a calamity for which the continent’s largest financial institutions have yet to pay their due. A top-level EU inquiry found ‘the banking sector [was] at the heart of this crisis’. Yet the scandal has become an instructive case study in how the failure to draft and enforce meaningful regulation can undermine the institutions of democracy almost as effectively as the crude corruptions of tin-pot autocracies.
Against a backdrop of lax central bank controls, greedy European banks had spent years gorging themselves on American debt markets. They used this cheap money as a pyramid of securities on which to prop up inflated balance sheets. By 2008 the total reported assets of EU finance companies was €43 trillion—more than 350 per cent of the GDP of the continent. But a huge portion of these assets was made up of highly leveraged derivatives few understood. At their centre lay a decomposing carcass of subprime loans—mortgages issued to people who couldn’t afford them. When Lehman Brothers and AIG collapsed in America, the global ramifications were profound. European states already confronting current-account deficits found themselves bailing out no fewer than 114 European banks at a cost of €1.6 trillion.
They managed to avert catastrophic injury, but the cost of the treatment was staggering: a US$928 billion rescue package from the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Total debt as a percentage of economic production more than tripled in France, Italy and Spain. For an alarming period Greece, and then Portugal, Italy, Ireland and Spain, lurched on the precipice of bankruptcy. The very survival of the European Union was in doubt as crushing austerity drives piped financial hardship into the homes of millions. Life savings were demolished. Unemployment soared. While the banks shirked their share of the pain, shifting the crisis from boardrooms to state treasuries, in Greece and Spain, almost one-third of the working-age population couldn’t find a job.
The European Parliament established an inquiry into the causes of the collapse and demanded an overhaul of the sector. In October 2012, the Liikanen inquiry published its findings, identifying ‘systemic’ misfeasance, inadequate capital protections and ‘excessive risk-taking’. It urged a separation between core retail banking services and ‘particularly risky financial activities’. This was an earthquake for the banking sector—it was on the high-risk trading floor that banks made eye-watering profits and their executives secured bonuses. But Liikanen said such a separation was necessary to ‘facilitate market discipline’ and to enforce better ‘supervision’. In all, Liikanen recommended a five-point reform package to ensure the high crimes of the financial sector were not repeated. These included stricter loan conditions, improved internal bank governance, tougher sanctions and the slashing of executive pay. The recommendations provoked a fearsome backlash from the financial sector.
The banks mobilised 1700 lobbyists—more than double the number of members of the European Parliament—at a cost, in 2014 alone, of €120 million. And they inveigled their way into the heart of the EU’s response to the crash. Of the eight on the emergency committee established to advise Brussels on the crisis, six had ties to the banking sector. Its chairman, Jacques de Larosière, was co-chair of Eurofi, the financial industry lobby group. Bankers and financiers dominated reform advisory groups at the European Parliament (several MEPs admitted to having relied on lobbyists to draft amendments to financial reform proposals) and at the European Central Bank. Indeed, its president, Mario Draghi, was asked by the EU’s ombudsman to step down from the secretive Group of Thirty bankers club. His membership created a perception that ‘compromised’ the ECB’s independence, the ombudsman found, and constituted a form of ‘maladministration’. Draghi refused to resign. Senior European bureaucrats were poached as lobbyists at financial institutions including BNP Paribas and the Royal Bank of Scotland. A former EU competition tsar went to Bank of America Merrill Lynch, and José Manuel Barroso, twice commission president and the former prime minister of Portugal, joined Goldman Sachs, where a string of other high-ranking EU figures have also worked. The first EU commissioner for financial regulation, Jonathan Hill, also a Conservative Life Peer in the House of Lords, quit the post two days after the Brexit referendum to take a role at lobbying house Freshfield Bruckhaus Deringer.
It wasn’t until January 2014 that draft reforms were released by the European Commission, but in the face of the banks’ influence operation, they never went any further. Six years after the Liikanen Report was produced, and a full decade after the financial crisis, the reform push was simply abandoned. In July 2018 the European Commission issued a press statement saying it had ‘decided to withdraw the proposal’. The rule of law was subverted before the law could even be promulgated.
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The backroom victory by the financial sector lobby might have gone unnoticed by most Europeans, but the crisis that prompted the attempt at reform has not. Nor the many years of austerity that followed. The curbs on public spending and the increases in tax became associated with the European Union. People felt a new suspicion not just about Brussels, but also about democracy itself. Support for the EU fell to only 41 per cent in March 2013. In southern Europe, where unemployment and austerity hit hardest, ‘satisfaction with democracy’ plummeted to below 30 per cent. Only one in four felt ‘trust in government’. For people long parched of a sense of political power, the enforced poverty kindled flames of fear and distrust. So when, in 2015, a surge of Syrian and sub-Saharan migrants arrived seeking refuge, it was as though someone had flooded the continent with kerosene.
The migrant crisis became a blaze fanned by opportunists. Far-right parties, tolerated at the fringe of politics for decades, found new purchase. In Hungary, Poland, Greece, The Netherlands, Estonia, Slovenia, Spain, Austria, Germany, France, Italy and the Czech Republic, anti-migrant, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic rhetoric prospered. Scapegoats of any kind were welcome. After half a century of peace and prosperity, the European experiment soured.
There have been 3.4 million requests for asylum since 2014, and xenophobic nationalism has found voice on the continent once more. In Germany, Sweden, Greece and France, parties with fascist roots and white-power networks discovered a growing voter base. Many spouted anti-EU dogma. Several found themselves in power, and began trying to rewrite the rules on representative government. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán has boasted of leading a new ‘illiberal democracy’, in which checks and balances are being gradually stripped away.
There are a number of preconditions for the political upheaval occurring in Europe, the internet and communications technology not least among them. Russia and others have played a considerable role seeding misinformation in the social media ecosphere. But there can be little doubt that the searing anger felt by many in Europe today—an anger that has proved fertile ground for populists—can be traced to the conduct of banks, the financial crisis and the emergency bailouts paid for by taxpayers. The fact that few if any of these villains faced penalty, and that they thwarted new laws designed to prevent them reoffending, is a striking demonstration of the ability of large corporations to evade the rule of law. It’s a corrosion of one of the four key institutions of democracy.
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The two remaining pillars are twin principles: competition for power, and political participation. Combined, they are critical for liberal, pluralist government because one cannot exist in any real way without the other. These too are under threat from purchase of influence by the wealthy. Campaign contributions are rigging the contest for political power in favour of those amenable to the desires of donors. Meanwhile, the ability of the public to properly participate in political discourse is being nobbled because the real policy debate—not the snippets ferreted out by the media—is being held between business and government in almost complete darkness. It’s an opacity that has fostered a culture of self-enrichment, that in Westminster, to take but one example, has reached plague proportions.
In 2007, Conservative Party backbencher David Maclean came to prominence when he proposed to exempt the parliament from the Freedom of Information Act. Maclean was prompted by an application seeking the expenses claimed by British politicians. It turned out Maclean, along with a great many of his parliamentary colleagues, had a fair bit to hide. When it did come out, Maclean was revealed to have claimed from taxpayers £20,000 worth of renovations to his private farmhouse in the period before he sold the property for £750,000. The abuse exposed in the scandal was widespread—the redesignation of second homes, the subsidising of property development and the evasion of tax—and led to a near political crisis in London. Scores of politicians were caught out. Four parliamentarians were jailed for false accounting, others were suspended, and there was a string of resignations from office. Almost £500,000 was repaid to a jaundiced electorate.
After resigning from the House of Commons amid the furore, citing poor health (he has multiple sclerosis), Maclean was ennobled in 2011 and made a member of the House of Lords. He became Baron Blencathra, and was placed on £5500 a month plus expenses. But it seems this was insufficient. In his first year as an English nobleman, the new baron began moonlighting as a lobbyist for the Cayman Islands, a notorious tax haven. It was only after investigations by the parliament’s standards office that the baron deemed it necessary to apologise.
Maclean was not the only one attempting to tread an imaginary line between public duty and private enrichment. It’s become something of a sport in Britain, where a club of eminent peers and elected MPs have for years been copping fees to peddle influence and, sometimes, to conspire in the evasion of parliamentary rules. Some of them were stopped only because of undercover sting operations mounted by the media. In 2013, Patrick Mercer was forced to resign from the Conservative Party after the BBC secretly recorded him signing a contract to lobby Westminster. Soon afterwards, Lord Laird of Artigarvan, Lord Cunningham of Felling and Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate resigned or faced party suspensions after being exposed for having accepted similar lobbying jobs (though Cunningham was later exonerated).
The House of Commons constitutional reform committee condemned these revelations for the damage they did to the Westminster democratic institution: ‘Newspaper reports alleging close contact between politicians and lobbyists do nothing to reduce the suspicion felt by many ordinary people that large corporations or wealthy individuals have disproportionate influence over political decision making.’ At the time, David Cameron’s administration was already running its ruler over a set of lobbying reforms. But the proposal was being steadily whittled down behind closed doors. When new laws were finally passed, they were so littered with loopholes that many prominent lobbyists were able to continue working without registering under the new scheme. In 2015, Transparency International identified 2735 lobbyists meeting British MPs in just three months, yet only 96 lobbying firms appeared on the register.
It’s not the isolated instances of moonlighting lords or barons that matter so much. What matters is that there now exists in the home of Westminster government a pattern of conduct so profoundly contrary to democratic civil life, it gnaws at the public trust. It says that rather than a popular imperative, democracy has become a matter of personal discretion among the rich and the powerful. It’s not just my view. Here’s how Cameron once put it:
I believe that secret corporate lobbying, like the expenses scandal, goes to the heart of why people are so fed up with politics. It arouses people’s worst fears and suspicions about how our political system works, with money buying power, power fishing for money, and a cosy club at the top making decisions in their own interest.
• • •
The Brexit referendum in 2016 was an opportunity to do things differently: Britain was promised a truly democratic exercise in which ordinary citizens would decide whether the country should remain a member of the European Union. The result was 51.9 per cent to 48.1 per cent in favour of leaving the EU. In a nation with a population of 65.7 million, the margin (1,269,501 votes) was wafer-thin. There’s no question the result reflected a resentment—keenly exploited by Brexiteers—with the elite of society and politics. After years of expenses and lobbying scandals, and after the worst financial crash in decades, many saw the referendum as a way to kick their betters in the teeth.
In January 2020 Britain at last quit its membership of the European Union. After Boris Johnson won a handsome majority at a general election, the man who was a figurehead of the Vote Leave campaign finally led Britain in rainy ‘Brexit Day’ celebrations. Whether, in the long run, London’s departure from the EU is to its advantage is far from certain. But the cost of the 2016 referendum and the rancorous public debate that followed is already becoming clear: a significant bruising of faith in the very institution of political suffrage. And that’s because the Brexit vote was polluted by big money, and by a mass disinformation campaign better understood as psychological warfare.
The voices arguing for Brexit ahead of the 2016 referendum were varied, but the forces behind them were depressingly familiar. Of the total £24.1 million that financed the campaign to quit Brussels, more than 70 per cent of the money came from just a handful of Britain’s wealthiest businessmen. A funds manager donated £1.69 million. The founder of one of Britain’s largest financial services companies gave another £3.2 million. A retired Conservative peer who made his fortune selling cars handed over £1 million. And a businessman who runs a £6.5 billion hedge fund donated £873,323. But the biggest moneybag of all was a previously unknown insurance tycoon. Arron Banks emerged from nowhere as the largest political donor in British history. He was a major backer of UKIP (the United Kingdom Independence Party) and its former leader Nigel Farage, and he also gave more than £2 million to the pro-Brexit group Grassroots Out.
His biggest contribution, though, was a staggering £8 million loan to the Leave.EU campaign—the most generous political donation ever recorded in Britain. In all, the insurance salesman bankrolled the leave campaign to the tune of £12 million in donations, loans and in-kind contributions. With multiple offshore companies domiciled in tax havens, and with extensive links to high-profile Russian figures, speculation in London ran rife that Banks was somehow a conduit for the Kremlin. Britain’s electoral funding regulator made findings against Banks for the falsification of statutory reports and the use of an impermissible Isle of Man corporate vehicle. But the National Crime Agency, when it turned to investigate the potential criminal offences referred to it by the Electoral Commission, cleared him. It found no evidence Banks had ‘acted as an agent on behalf of a third party’.
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If the Brexit vote was not tainted by Russian money, it certainly was by what campaigners chose to do with that money. The referendum was a Petri dish in which a disinformation experiment was tested, with devastating effect. Citizens trying to make sense of the Brexit debate were oblivious to what was being done, but through their social media feeds rolled an unprecedented tsunami of emotional falsehoods and carefully constructed propaganda designed to turn people away from half a century of prosperous relations with Europe. Few could have known it, but the memes and advertisements that flooded their online lives had been reconstituted from their own internet habits.
Pro-Brexit groups pumped out highly misleading advertisements. Many believed the ads constituted outright xenophobia. Some of the Facebook pages warned that the EU was stopping Britain from being able to ‘Protect polar bears’. Others claimed Turkey, with its ‘Population of 76 million [is] joining the EU’, before asking, ‘Good idea???’ Preposterously, another said: ‘Britain’s new border is with Syria and Iraq: Click to save our NHS’. A Leave.EU online post shouted, ‘Immigration without assimilation equals invasion’. Days before the vote, a new UKIP poster was released that showed a long line of dark-skinned migrants in a queue; stamped over the photograph were the words ‘Breaking point: We must break free of the EU and take back control’. A few hours later, a right-wing extremist shouting ‘Britain first’ shot and killed a Labour MP, Jo Cox.
More than half of Vote Leave’s campaign cash was spent with a tiny Canadian data firm called AggregateIQ. The company was deeply tied to Cambridge Analytica, a global political messaging firm associated with Trump consigliere Steve Bannon and far-right US political donor Robert Mercer. Cambridge Analytica self-immolated in the face of multiple investigations into the illegal harvesting of 50 million Facebook user profiles. There’s no suggestion AggregateIQ had any role in the improper scraping of data, but the firm was at the frontier of new algorithm-led profiling techniques that targeted swing voters using social media.
The technology is cutting edge, but its roots are in old-school propaganda warfare. Cambridge Analytica, for example, had as its ‘director of defence operations’ a former British military commander who ran psychological operations in Afghanistan. The Guardian brought into the open much of the squalid detail of how such operations have manipulated voters around the world. And although it relies on campaign impulses that are decades old—suppress the enemy’s vote and inflate our own—the internet has become rocket fuel for the machinery that enables it, capitalising upon voters’ fears to sway elections.
It’s a radical challenge to democracy because it dilutes civil life—the exchange of truthful information on which to base political decisions—and because it creates dishonest advantages in the competition for power. It’s anathema to core democratic principles, according to David Miller, a Bath University authority on psychological warfare:
[It’s] an extraordinary scandal that this should be anywhere near a democracy. It should be clear to voters where information is coming from, and if it’s not transparent or open [about] where it’s coming from, it raises the question of whether we are actually living in a democracy or not.
It’s impossible to say how influential all of this was. But one pollster, Ben Page, said ‘when something is very close, as this was, anything can make a difference [including] targeted Facebook advertising’. But maybe the exact impact of this new science is beside the point, because a psyops operation against millions of unsuspecting voters, funded by obscure interests, simply must offend the most basic concept of fairness. It sullies the quality of information upon which voters rely, it traduces reasonable debate and the exchange of opinions critical to a culture of civil life, and it tips the playing field to one side in the contest for power. As what really happened in the Brexit referendum was gradually revealed, the revelations ate further and further into the social capital on which British democracy relies.
• • •
Following one of the driest winters on record, there was rain last summer, and with it hopes the drought may be coming to an end. But for inland Australia, the long-term picture remains bleak. Climate change is driving temperatures to unprecedented levels, the yields of primary producers are in decline and inland communities have been told to expect continued water shortages. It was to meet these kinds of challenges that the Murray–Darling Basin Plan was originally conceived. And yet, 12 years after the plan was announced, the stretch of the basin system that runs through New South Wales was in virtual collapse.
In July 2019 the new regulator, established after Four Corners’ exposé, declared the river ‘an ecosystem in crisis’. The authority warned the benefits afforded to irrigators by the NSW Government helped push the state into drought years earlier than necessary and urged a rewriting of the rules to correct the imbalance. But rather than adopt its recommendations, the state instead launched a scathing attack on its own regulator and demanded a review of its work. That eight state and federal inquiries, including a royal commission, found evidence the administration of the river system was tipped too far in favour of big business seems to matter not a jot. The political machine is humming along once again, the public interest secondary to those whose money might oil the engine.
The institutions that buttress a functioning liberal democracy are wilting in the face of corporate wealth. The rule of law, the protection of individual rights, the participatory civil culture central to informed debate and even the contest for power itself—these are not to be mistaken for bedrock, even in a society such as Australia enjoys. They are fragile. They require careful tending to. History is studded with examples in which each of these pillars has been nudged aside in favour of private gain.
Now, in the twenty-first century, a new challenge to democracy has surfaced. Big money is still doing all the things it has done since the evolution of modern, televised political campaigning: it is funding politicians and their parties, it is camouflaging its interests under AstroTurf, and like submarines, its lobbyists are being dispatched to torpedo public-interest regulation. But today it is also doing something else—it is giving favoured political vehicles the means by which to wage psychological war
Less than a century since the rise of fascism dragged the world into its last global war, the forces of autocracy are on the rise again. Democratic instincts are being stamped down with renewed confidence by China and Russia, both emboldened by the withdrawal of the United States and Britain from their roles as liberal standard bearers. We mustn’t make the mistake of assuming that democracy is forever. It requires much more than nostalgia, and much more than just good faith. If Australia is to fend off a collapse in the public trust, it will need something beyond rural pantomimes during elections. If meaningful representative government is to survive this century, it requires a fightback against those who wish to use their wealth to rig the system in their favour. There needs to be the truthful exchange of information, the blind enforcement of laws written in the interests of all the people, and there needs to be a scrupulous fairness reintroduced to the political contest. Because without these things, all we’re left with is a bedtime story.
Linton Besser is a foreign correspondent and investigative reporter.