Political threats a danger for democracy - Transcript, ABC Canberra





SUBJECTS: Increasing threats to politicians and political staff; Canberra protesters; the federal election.

ADAM SHIRLEY, HOST: When you get talking politics, how do you express yourself? Do you get a bit passionate? It's understandable. Fiery? It’s a bit on the margins. Aggressive? Politicians, journalists, you listening now, I want to have a frank discussion about the words, the sledges and the abuse that can seep in and what that can lead to. The federal Member for Fenner here in Canberra, Andrew Leigh, was last week granted a personal protection order in the ACT Magistrate's Court. He doesn't want sympathy, he doesn't want sorrow. What he does want is for us to be aware of the way the environment is changing for MPs. Dr Leigh, thanks for your time today.


SHIRLEY: I know that discussing the specifics of the protection order is problematic. But in very general terms, why have you sought it and needed it?

LEIGH: It's because of the nature of a particular threat that we faced in the office, and that's a challenge to me being able to do my job as an MP and to engage with the general public. One of the things I really love about representing Canberra is being out on the street stalls, door knocking, engaging directly with people. And the last thing I want to do is to be forced to retreat from that sort of activity. But I mentioned it publicly, Adam, because I think it is important for people to know that the environment is changing. The sort of toxic brew that we've seen in the United States now has a situation where there's more Americans that believe in the wacky QAnon conspiracy theory - that the government's controlled by a Satan-worshipping paedophile sex trafficking ring - then there are left handers in America. Fifteen per cent of Americans believe in QAnon. In Britain, there's been two members of parliament killed over the past decade, just doing their jobs. And so we need to make sure in Australia that we carve out a safe space for political discourse, for people to disagree without being disagreeable. Because if we lose that, I think that is really a danger for democracy.

SHIRLEY: So what does this protection order mean for you, for your office workers, colleagues, and for your family, Dr Leigh?

LEIGH: It means we can get on with doing our job. I've got a duty to my staff to make sure that I provide them a safe workplace, and so they need to know than when they're out with me on street stalls that they're going to be safe. We've just had a review into the parliamentary workplace culture from Kate Jenkins, and a lot of that conversation focused on what goes on in Parliament House, as it should. But part of the parliamentary workplace is being out in the community and engaging with people. And I've got to say, Adam, it's really important to be doing that. I was out in the community on Friday afternoon at a street stall in Charnwood and had a whole range of really interesting conversations. Some people who agreed with me, some people who will never vote for me, but a whole lot of people who took the time to share their stories, and I’m a better politician for having spent that hour at the Charnwood shops on Friday. The reason I got the personal protection order is so I can continue doing that sort of activity without being shut down.

SHIRLEY: Is this the first kind of protection order you've ever had to take in your time in politics?

LEIGH: Yes, it is for me, but this is certainly not unusual if I look across colleagues. I've spoken to many people on both sides of the parliament who've had to deal with the same sort of thing, and it's public knowledge that my colleagues Madeline King and Kristina Keneally have faced threats, that my colleague Ged Kearney had her office vandalised. This sort of thing is becoming sadly more common, and one of the challenges I think is that there's groups that are whipping each other up online and sharing tactics. They're attacking both sides of politics. I've never minded being criticised - in fact, I think that's one marker of a healthy democracy. But it's when you try and shut people down that then that becomes a real danger.

SHIRLEY: Andrew Leigh is with us, federal Member for Fenner. My name is Adam Shirley. Power outage across the inner north of Canberra, it looks like - 1200 customers affected in Braddon, Dickson and Lyneham, we're told by Evoenergy. Lights are out on some parts of your major roads, including Northbourne Avenue. Please drive and tread carefully as the power's out, don't know when it's back on. Dr Leigh, you said on Friday you never imagined a situation when you got into politics in 2010 and having to take this action to the courts. What are you talking about there?

LEIGH: It's the rise of much of the extremism that we've seen over recent months. I mean, Canberrans have borne the brunt of it with protesters shutting down parts of the Parliamentary Triangle. Even today, I was driving around to enter the back of Parliament House because the main entrance from Commonwealth Avenue has been shut down. I don't mind peaceful protesters at all. They've got an important place in a healthy democracy. But it's when that goes to harassing people and to attempting to shut things down. Of course, they shut down the Lifeline bookfair before they attempted to shut down the parliament, and that sort of activity is a copycat activity that's running across the globe. We've seen it everywhere from the United States Capitol riots to the Ottawa truck protesters. It's a challenge to those of us who want to carry on a civilised conversation, who want to differ on ideas, but who believe that other voices have a right to be heard.

SHIRLEY: So you've explained there in part how this aggression, this intensity has been allowed to grow and to manifest. To what degree do politicians, journalists, citizens have a role to have played and maybe a blame to accept in it?

LEIGH: Yeah, I think it's really important for all of us to do what we can and to be pretty insightful in how we deal with misinformation. Two good books out by Van Badham and Ed Coper in recent months have shaped my thinking quite a great deal. There’s the notion that one of the best ways of getting ahead of disinformation is what Ed calls ‘prebunking’ - to get out there and make clear that disinformation will be used. Van Badham talks about the importance of conservative politicians standing up to those who have extremist ideals. So this is very much an issue for all of us across the political spectrum. I've been heartened by the support that I've gotten from parliamentarians on all sides since I mentioned the personal protection order on Friday, but I think there's a good job of work to be done. And it's also about economics as well. We need to make sure that people are seeing good opportunities for themselves and for their kids. Because we know that economic discontent can often breed extremism.

SHIRLEY: From a personal perspective, Dr Leigh, in the time I've been covering politics now in this region for quite some years, I felt somewhat at arm's length when I take issues with sentiments from both politicians and journalists like ‘baseball bats’, ‘civil wars’, ‘throwing in grenades’. I mean, how much does that sort of language, which is sometimes accepted within the political commentariat, how much does that language empower some of this stuff?

LEIGH: It's an interesting question, Adam. I've always thought those metaphors weren't terribly problematic. But you're right, we ought to be inclined to use them less in an environment in which there is true violence being wielded. And I should be clear that white middle-class blokes like myself in politics are bearing the least of it. The worst vitriol is directed towards my female counterparts, and particularly those from non-Anglo backgrounds. The toxic brew of racism and misogyny is really nasty, and is often aimed at driving those women out of the public space and out of social media. So we need to be particularly mindful of the way in which this impacts on vulnerable groups.

SHIRLEY: I was going to ask you about the degree of privilege you have, like I do, as a middle-class white man in a reasonably comfortable area like Canberra - just how damaging, how shocking will this be for other people in any part of the political process?

LEIGH: I think it's important to recognise it can happen anywhere. I mean, you look at the two British MPs who were killed - one was Labour, one was a conservative. You look at the attacks that have happened in the United States, and some of the greatest vitriol has been extremists turning on moderate Republicans. So we are at risk if we allow those extreme elements to dominate the conversation. They are very good at tactically looking at how to shut people down and shut down opposing voices. And we need the centre to hold. We need a vibrant ideas-based conversation at the centre of Australian politics, and not to have people give up and just run towards the fringes, to think that everything is broken and that politics is only run by a corrupt cabal. There are good people on both sides of politics, and engaging in that ideas-based conversation-

SHIRLEY: Any minor parties and the independent candidates, would you include them in that in that conversation?

LEIGH: Absolutely. Absolutely. So we need to make sure that that conversation holds. And sustaining that part of democracy is work for all of us, which I think goes back to your point before, Adam.

SHIRLEY: I’ve seen some commentary already that this is shaping as one of the more nastier election campaigns in history. Given your recent experience - your need to involve the courts and some of the other wording and some of the other events of recent times - how important is it to try and avoid that, in your view?

LEIGH: It's absolutely critical, Adam. I mean, I'm always up for a reasoned debate about policies that people are actually putting forward. But when the election is fought over fear campaigns, where you've got people making allegations about policies that no one's advocating, when you've got candidates who are just lying in order to try and win office, then that's ultimately a betrayal of our democracy. The elections, the best elections in Australian history have been fought over competing visions and values for the nation. But if you're fighting using a farrago of falsehoods, then you're doing a disservice to yourself and to the country.

SHIRLEY: Just on this recent issue and then your need to get protection order, has it made you doubt at any point whether politics is the right area for you and for others, as well?

LEIGH: Never, and that's one of the things that I think is really important for any of your listeners who are considering getting involved in politics to know. I took this step because I want to make sure that politics is a safe space for myself and for my staff. And I want to ensure that for others who might consider entering politics, that this continues to be an activity where they can be safe as they engage in the big conversation about building a better nation. So that's work that I'll always be engaged in.

SHIRLEY: It’s a challenging series of days, I know. I appreciate your time in speaking about it and the importance of how to lower the temperature, Dr Leigh.

LEIGH: Thanks for the conversation, Adam.

SHIRLEY: Dr Andrew Leigh is the federal Member for Fenner and, as you heard him say, he's had to take a personal protection order out via the ACT Magistrates Court just last week.


Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.