Preparing for a Dictator Down Under?

ASIA--PACIFIC, 21 Mar 2022

Brian Martin – TRANSCEND Media Service

15 Mar 2022 – Could Australian governments be laying the foundation for a repressive ruler?

Australia has a reputation as a stable, prosperous democracy. There are no looming external threats and no violent opposition movements. Yet despite this, in the past two decades Australian governments have passed numerous laws giving police and security agencies ever more powers for surveillance and repression.

These laws are intended for dealing with terrorists, paedophile rings, organised crime and other dangers to the public. There is little indication that Australian governments or agencies have plans to start applying their powers against civil society groups, but the potential is there.

It’s useful to understand Australian laws as part of a wider worldwide pattern of struggles between governments and citizens. Around the world, empowered citizens have learned how to bring down repressive governments. Think of the Philippines, where the people power movement in 1986 ended the rule of president Ferdinand Marcos. Think of Indonesia where President Suharto rose to power during a genocide in 1965-66 and maintained power until 1998. He capitulated not to an armed resistance movement but to protest in the streets. Then there was Serbia where the student-led movement Otpor, which used humour as its trademark form of resistance, inspired popular opposition to ruthless president Milosevic, causing him to resign after a fraudulent election. Otpor succeeded after bombing by NATO, which devastated the country, did not. There are other examples of popular resistance such as the Occupy movement, Black Lives Matter and #MeToo.

Sophisticated rulers understand the danger. Some of them, such as in Russia, China, Turkey and Egypt, have developed methods to keep populations under control and help prevent the rise of popular opposition movements. These same methods are ideal to lay the groundwork for a more repressive government in a place like Australia. With the right sort of preparation, all it would take is the election of a suitably devious leader, one who will use the available apparatus to maintain and cement power. Trump tried this, but he was an incompetent amateur.

To help think about what’s happening, imagine that you want to prepare Australia for a ruthless ruler, so that little additional effort will be needed to subjugate the population. Five methods are important: monitoring the population, ensuring impunity for state agents, pacifying protest, creating enemies, and fostering public acquiescence.


An important part of preparing for a dictator is monitoring the entire population, so the government – especially secret parts of it – can track everyone’s movements and conversations. With this sort of monitoring, it is a short step to squashing budding resistance. But how can such a monitoring system be justified? Easy. Just say it’s there to protect the population from terrorists. Or from dangers like cyber criminals or paedophiles.

In Australia, the legal basis and apparatus for comprehensive monitoring are well advanced. For communications, metadata retention and encryption breaking enable the pervasive tracking of threats to those in power. For the location of individuals, car tracking systems help, and so do the myriad security cameras. The use of credit cards enables the identification of transactions, including when and where they occurred and exactly what was purchased. Most effective of all is the ubiquity of mobile phones, which enable tracking people’s locations and activities. Access to social media activities offers a better understanding of people’s desires than users themselves. Government participation in the world’s most extensive surveillance system is a bonus.


A second important part of preparing for a dictator is ensuring that state agents — police, military, spies — can undertake activities without restraint. In Australia, this has long been the case, exemplified by existing secrecy provisions that make most government employees afraid to expose abuses. Then there have been recent improvements: laws criminalising whistleblowing and journalism relating to national security. In Australia, “national security” is so broadly conceived as to encompass just about anything. These laws are a step towards the holy grail of abusive rulers — impunity.

Pacifying protest

Third, protest needs to be kept under control. Knowing that popular opposition is a dire threat to authoritarian regimes, the challenge is to give the appearance of allowing opposition while throttling it.

In Australia, laws restricting the right to strike have proved very effective in curbing worker activism. Strikes are legal but only if trade union leaders jump through procedural hoops. As long as trade unions follow the law, workers are kept in check.

Then there are activists, for example animal liberationists and climate campaigners. Laws against protest can help, but just as valuable are laws that hamstring facilitators of protest: non-government organisations with charitable status that intervene in social issues by making public comments rather than restricting themselves to welfare tasks.


Fourth, it is essential to condition the population to think in terms of us and them, with “them” being some out-group that can be stigmatised and scapegoated. Dictators need to have enemies, external or internal. The traditional out-group has been foreign enemies, preferably ones that are far away and look different. Perhaps more effective is to find out-groups closer to home. There are lots of choices: terrorists, criminals, paedophiles and asylum seekers. Usually, the weaker they are, the safer it is to paint them as dangerous threats to “our” way of life and justify strong measures to penalise them. The point of this is to encourage people to look downwards and definitely not to turn against the rich and powerful.

Outrage needs continual reinforcement. So it can help to find new targets for fear-mongering, ones that can be positioned as being “them” and not “us.”


Fifth, to prepare for a dictator, people need to be accustomed to acquiescing. They need to feel it is their duty to obey those in command, and even to serve the powerful without being asked. They need to acquiesce to surveillance, to gross economic inequality, to corruption and to cutting back on human rights.

This is one area where too many Australians are pushing back. Despite laws discouraging protest, there are thousands of groups and initiatives. Numerous issues are triggering resistance, most notably climate change, but also sexual assault and treatment of Indigenous people and refugees. Creating out-groups doesn’t always work all that well, as some of them fight back and build broad alliances.

For a while, it looked like Covid provided the ideal opportunity to foster acquiescence. Those who opposed control measures provided a convenient new out-group. Rulers around the world have used Covid as a pretext for repressive control. But in Australia, the initial acquiescence began cracking, with protests in the streets and lots of individual discontent.


Australian leaders have done what they can to prepare the country for a much more authoritarian government, one that will trample civil liberties and crush sources of resistance. Governments have taken the lead in this process by setting up systems to monitor the population, ensure the impunity of state agents, pacify protest and get people to think of the world in us-them terms, with “them” being relatively powerless groups.

So far, though, widespread acquiescence has not been achieved. Activist-minded Australians have learned from people-power movements around the world, and contributed to them. The proud tradition of worker activism includes the Australian innovation of green bans, while climate activism has been a continual thorn in the side of one of the world’s most highly entrenched fossil-fuel lobbies. A dictatorship may not be around the corner, but you can’t blame the government for not doing its best to lay the groundwork.


Brian Martin is emeritus professor of social sciences at the University of Wollongong, Australia. He is the author of 21 books and hundreds of articles on dissent, nonviolent action and scientific controversies, and is vice-president of Whistleblowers Australia. Website:

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 21 Mar 2022.

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