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Have Australians lost the ability to politely disagree? Can we still have a civilised national conversation on big questions like the Voice to parliament?
An ugly week began with an alleged assault on NT Chief Minister Natasha Fyles – which at least some people didn’t seem to take seriously – and ended with boxer Anthony Mundine posting a video of himself saying he wanted to beat up Yes campaigner Thomas Mayo.
Darwin real estate agent Suzi Milgate “pied” Fyles – the footage was widely shared – at Darwin’s Nightcliff markets and has been charged with aggravated assault. She told the ABC that “a cream pie is not assault” and that she had two grievances with the chief minister: Fyles had not listened to her concerns over crime rates; nor over the NT government’s mandatory COVID-19 job policy.
NT Chief Minister Natasha Fyles speaks to the media after the attack with a bruised left eye.Credit: AAP
Mundine said he had made the call for Mayo to step into the ring with him because the Yes campaigner had broken “tribal law”. Mayo was left shocked by the comment and added his disappointment the Voice debate had descended to that level.
Fyles put on a brave face, calling out the “violent assault” but promising she would still mingle with punters out and about in Darwin.
“One of the great things about the Territory is you can see members of parliament out and about in the community, you can approach them,” she said. “I’m always up for a conversation. I’m always up for a tough conversation.”
But the brave face couldn’t hide the fact that she had a black eye.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese was scathing about responses to the attack, bringing it up unprompted in two press conferences.
“People think that’s just a bit of cream thrown,” he said on Tuesday. “It was a plate smashed in the face of the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory, who was going about her day and thought it was a friend approaching. The consequences of that could have been much more serious than they’ve turned out to be.”
The Fyles and Mundine incidents point to a growing incivility in Australian public life fuelled by a breakdown in trust in governments, institutions and the media.
Social media has been the accelerant. The Voice to parliament debate has suffered greatly as a result, often heading down rabbit holes rather than prompting debate about the sticking points.
Anthony Mundine.Credit: Jessica Hromas/SMH
It doesn’t take much effort to find vile threats being made against Lidia Thorpe, Linda Burney, Nyanggai Warren Mundine and Jacinta Nampijinpa Price online.
A spokeswoman for the Australian Federal Police confirmed that reports of harassment, nuisance, offensive and threatening communications against parliamentarians and their electorate offices have increased in the past two years, including via social media.
One former politician, who asked not to be named as they no longer had personal police protection, said the tone of community discourse had notably changed for the worse in the last decade.
“There is an anger that has been unleashed, possibly by frustrations with COVID and lockdowns, most certainly by the spread of disinformation online, and probably due to the way in which the American political conversation has changed,” they said.
“We can’t deny that Trump and his cheerleaders in the more partisan media have undermined the common ground that used to hold our political debates together,” they said.
“We have lived for so long in a country where the PM can stroll down the street to the local shop, which he did recently (to purchase a Marrickville pork roll). That may not be possible in the months and years ahead.”
Liberal senate leader Simon Birmingham said the rise in anonymity and extremism online had created a more disturbing trend: “With so many outlets for intolerant views on the left, right or just downright conspiracies more people are becoming more emboldened.
“In a world where people can get more information from more sources than ever before, many are also tending to only consume news or media that reinforces existing views or prejudices rather than challenges or moderates them.”
Deakin University expert on political violence Lydia Khalil says there is a long history of politicians and other powerful figures being “pied” – Bill Gates and Rupert Murdoch for example – and the incident is at the lower end of the spectrum of threats.
“It’s not great behaviour, but we are seeing more of this because people are feeling disenfranchised, people are feeling their voices are not being heard,” she says.
“One of the issues we need to address is trust … the Edelman Barometer measures trust in government and Australia is low and it has gone down.”
But Professor Josh Roose, an expert on political and religious violence at Deakin, says given incidents such as the murder of English MP Jo Cox in Yorkshire in 2016, “it’s not enough to say this is just a pie in the face, this isn’t a big deal”.
“Polarisation has become a significant issue in western democracies, there are multiple reasons including social media, the pandemic accelerating developments and rapidly deepening economic inequalities.
“People aren’t going to church anymore. Trade union memberships is at 10 per cent. People don’t have the institutional connections to support them any more. We need to rebuild the bonds of citizenship, of civility, of respect.”
On that point, it’s hard to disagree.
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