ACT Council of Social Service Inc.

Justice | Equity | Social Inclusion | Reconciliation

Media appearance: Op ed - Strong citizen voice a vital spark to invigorate election

9 June 2016

By Susan Helyar, Director, ACTCOSS. Appeared in The Canberra Times, 9 June 2016.

It's common to say that we are living in an era of speed defined by the rapid demise of long held assumptions.

Everything is shifting, from assumptions about the longevity of first term national leaders to boundaries between private and public behaviour. Some changes are healthy but others erode the foundations of civil society.

Workplaces are increasingly demanding no separation between our personal, online and civic lives.

Workers are told taking part in public conversations and activist spaces could expose them to perceived conflicts of interest and they need to avoid controversial issues that could bring their employers into disrepute, even when venturing into topics that have scant connection with their paid jobs.

Here in the ACT, The Canberra Times recently reported public servants were being warned to watch their Facebook likes and shares during the election campaign. A core foundation of democracy is not that public servants must hold or express views consistent with those of their employers. It is that public sector advice and internal decision making processes should ensure the public interest trumps the political interests of the government of the day.

Another foundation that is being challenged, right in the middle of a federal election campaign, is the right of ordinary people and public intellectuals to question, provoke and galvanise us.

Safe Schools founder Roz Ward was briefly stood down from her staff position at Latrobe University for expressing opinions about the Australian flag on her personal social media page. While people might not agree with her views, she is hardly the first person to criticise the flag and there is a long tradition of public intellectuals from left and right making comments outside their fields of work.

This overreach by an employer was overturned following community outrage, presumably by some people who had jobs and who had not checked in with their employer if their expressions of outrage were approved by their boss.

What is odd is the misalignment of expectations in the new media spaces for Twitter and Facebook as compared to radio and television. On those old media platforms there has never been a requirement on ordinary citizens to avoid thorny matters when asking questions on talk back radio or current affairs debate programs.

Men and women who had reached the old media pinnacle of hosting their own show had the privilege of broadcasting their opinions, arguing or agreeing with callers, putting high profile guests either on the spot with uncomfortable questions or giving them free rein to argue their position on an issue of public importance. They gained ratings success with controversial and provocative expressions of views and welcomed robust input from their listeners.

Maybe it is the fear that Facebook and Twitter, for all their faults and limitations, open up conversations in ways that these old media stars and stables resent.

These more open platforms have enabled people with only an electronic device and a strongly held opinion to move beyond being cut off by a shock jock radio host and instead inject themselves into, gain a following for and potentially shift the public debate.

Old media have realised they will be left behind if they can't adopt some of the tools of new media.

Thus the television program Q&A is born - integrating ordinary people's questions and views via new and old media forms to engage directly with opinion shapers and decision-makers.

But old media, and some major employers, can't really cope with the views of ordinary people disrupting complacent commentary.

We saw how talk back radio and tabloid newspapers vilified Duncan Storrar after asking a question last month on the ABC's Q&A program about the Federal Budget, tax cuts and income inequality.

Mr Storrar was not running for office, serving the government of the day or building a public profile.

He was a person with a disability experiencing a low income. How dare his opinion derail the dominant narrative?

The ACT Council of Social Services was one of the first organisations to sign up to a communitywide Civil Society Statement of Concern about the media treatment of Mr Storrar. One reason we did that is because we see the ability of people to speak truth to power as one of the foundations of civil society that can, and needs to be, strengthened in this time of rapid technological change.

We need the voices of people living through this period of profound social, environmental and economic changes, to be loud, clear and shared widely.

This can only happen when people feel safe to open their lives to us without the risk of public vilification or an employer playing the reputation risk card. It may just be the spark that will invigorate the bleak and disengaged federal election campaign.