The Politics    Monday, November 29, 2021

An epic troll

By Rachel Withers

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison during Question Time today. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Prime Minister Scott Morrison during Question Time today. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Who is the government’s “anti-troll” law actually designed to protect?

The Coalition that wants governments to step back from people’s lives is preparing to step into them on several fronts. The arrival of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 – a not altogether unexpected curveball, and the reason many advised against Scott Morrison’s aggressive “step back” rhetoric in the first place – has seen the government suspend flights from nine countries, as states reinstate quarantine and isolation requirements. Government leaders are trying to project calm, but will not hesitate to take “additional steps”, Health Minister Greg Hunt said this morning, with national cabinet set to meet on Tuesday afternoon. It’s rather a shame that Australia still doesn’t have purpose-built quarantine facilities for moments such as this. The Coalition, meanwhile, is ready to step into people’s online lives through its new “anti-troll” legislation, announced over the weekend – a unifying and well-timed distraction from last week’s parliamentary chaos. The law would force social media companies to collect users’ details, and reveal their identities for defamation cases or bear the costs of payouts themselves. But who is this law – which would make Twitter accounts more transparent than trust fund legal fee donations – actually designed to protect?

The government has spent much of the past 24 hours talking up its “crackdown” on “cyber bullying”, with a special focus on the safety of women and children (and some swipes at Labor for not taking the issue seriously). The prime minister has been heard railing at length against the “bots and bigots and trolls”, while Attorney-General Michaelia Cash popped up to give one of her rare media appearances, telling 6PR that the legislation would put social media giants and anonymous trolls “on notice”. (The assistant attorney-general, Amanda Stoker, was today called out over her own former anonymous “Mandy Jane” account, which she was caught using to defend herself in the third person.) The social media crackdown rhetoric is expected to play well among the suburban voters Morrison hopes to appeal to (especially now that he’s having such trouble pushing ahead with his religious discrimination bill), while Nine has published a poll showing that 71 per cent of Australians favour better regulation of the social networks.

But, much as the government might pontificate about protecting children, the defamation-focused laws seem far more geared towards protecting the powerful from criticism, allowing those with the means to pursue defamation proceedings to “unmask” their (often far less powerful) critics. The law would not actually ban anonymous accounts, or do much to curb rates of online bullying, experts say; rather, it would force social media companies to out anonymous figures who had upset public ones, who already have vast platforms to defend themselves. (It also wouldn’t do much about online misinformation, much of which is currently being spread by the government’s own MPs.) As activist Sally Rugg tweeted, the law would further silence those such as public servants, teachers and nurses, who are often not allowed to post about politics under their own names due to their employers’ strict HR policies, thus dissuading them from participating in public discussion. MPs, meanwhile, would be able to go on saying whatever they like under parliamentary privilege. As Crikey’s Bernard Keane notes, anonymity is something the Morrison government regularly uses to its own advantage – and it’s a privilege it wants to reserve for itself.

We can expect the government to keep beating this legally ambiguous drum for the remainder of this final sitting week of the year, with the rest of its legislative agenda too toxic to touch. And after that we can expect… not very much. The government has just released its shockingly bare 2022 sitting calendar, containing only 10 sitting days in the first half of the year, and a March 29 budget – apparently the earliest ever. Many had begun to assume that Morrison might lean towards a March election over a May one in order to avoid too many chaotic parliamentary sitting weeks in the interim. Instead, he’s simply eliminated the bulk of them.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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