Advance Australia where?

As the Dunkley byelection looms, the influence of shady lobby groups such as Advance Australia should be attracting more scrutiny

For weeks now, the gormless cowards at Advance Australia have been trying to poison the electoral waters of Dunkley in the lead-up to tomorrow’s byelection. Buoyed and deluded by last year’s Voice referendum result, the shadowy group of rich, far-right extremists has thrown some of its money and a great deal of prejudice at the byelection in the hope that the Trumpian schtick will stick in Dunkley.

In recent days, Advance – which claims to be the conservative equivalent of GetUp! (it isn’t) – has abandoned its fearmongering on borders and asylum seekers. Despite Advance’s best efforts to control the narrative, polling has highlighted that the good people of Dunkley are able to differentiate between actual local organised crime and hypothetical crimes yet to be committed by those released after the High Court ruling that found locking up asylum seekers indefinitely to be unlawful.

It seems the lobby group has actually heard what voters have been saying, and has since turned its hysterical campaign to the cost of living, with today’s full-page ad in the Herald Sun showing a quote from Langwarrin resident Eve: “My family has been living in Langwarrin since 1984. The cost-of-living crisis is real. We feel completely let down by the Prime Minister and the Labor Government. We need to take the opportunity this Saturday to send a message and put Labor last.”

It almost looks like a run-of-the-mill scare campaign.

Enter Sussan Ley, the personification of how low the bar is for the political class. Ley, who was forced to resign from the ministry amid an expenses scandal back in 2017 (in which she “impulse” purchased an apartment during a taxpayer-funded trip), is now the deputy leader of the Opposition. Her shocking but not surprising contribution on social media came after it was reported during yesterday’s Question Time – the last sitting day of parliament before a crucial byelection – that one of the 140 recently released asylum seekers had been arrested. Some within the Opposition ranks must surely have thought that this was the smoking gun needed to secure Dunkley. Ley tweeted: “If you live in Frankston and you’ve got a problem with Victorian women being assaulted by foreign criminals, vote against Labor. If you do not want to see Australian women being assaulted by foreign criminals, vote against Labor. Send Labor a message.”

The “vote Labor and you or a loved one will get violently assaulted” spiel outraged progressives, bewildered punters and appeased the Coalition’s political backers. In a normal media and political landscape, this opportunistic interposition would have been followed by a backdown when it was subsequently revealed that the arrest was a case of mistaken identity and all charges were dropped. But did this give the Opposition and Sussan Ley pause to reconsider their attacks? To stymie their fearmongering when confronted with the facts of the situation? Of course not. At the time of writing, the tweet was still up, and Ley has since doubled down.

It helps ensure that Ley will not only be remembered as a mediocre member of a mediocre government, but also as a shameless, fearmongering extremist, prepared to say anything to appease cookers inside and outside her party. What a legacy.

It all points to a new low in Australian political discourse, one that was painfully previewed during last year’s referendum and is now on full display in the Harvey Norman Daily (aka the Herald Sun). Our politics is increasingly funded by vested interests who are willing to lie and smear, and poison any democratic well they come across to get their own way.

The truly flabbergasting element of all of this is that it doesn’t have to be this way. Almost nine in 10 Australians want to see laws that protect against lies in political campaigning. It would mean democracy lurkers like Advance and blunt instruments like Clive Palmer wouldn’t get away with the bile they’re all too ready to spout.

There are other shadowy forces threatening Australian democracy. A new report by Guardian Australia shows the wider involvement of the aptly named consultancy group Whitestone Strategic, which was contracted to the official “No” campaign in last year’s Voice to Parliament referendum. Documents obtained through freedom of information requests show Whitestone’s work has extended beyond the referendum: it has received almost $135,000 in taxpayer money over the past two years to help conservative politicians craft their messaging, including $70,000 from the real voice of Aborigines everywhere, Jacinta Nampijinpa Price. Our need to have real-time reporting on money that changes hands for political gain has never been more crucial.

There are billions of people across the world that would love to have the democratic freedoms we take for granted in Australia. The biggest risk is that we take our democracy too much for granted, allowing it to be exploited by well-heeled groups pushing fringe viewpoints at the expense of society and democracy itself. Whatever happens in Dunkley tomorrow, it doesn’t have to be this way.

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