Legislative Council: Wednesday, February 22, 2023


Matters of Interest

Smart Cities Initiative

The Hon. R.B. MARTIN (15:24): Earlier this month, many of us had a chuckle at the unusual behaviour that was happening around Salisbury council and the response of a few to the Smart Cities initiative. I, for one, thought that adopting innovative technological solutions to common resource management issues was a good approach. Why would we not want a system that manages bin collections from our parks when they are almost full, rather than collecting them when they are empty or, much worse, overfull, and certainly why would we not want more security cameras to make people safer and to help manage crime?

What seemed logical to me was clearly not a view held by the 80 or so protesters who turned up at the council chambers to have their say. What was being espoused by the protesters and their organisers was that the Smart Cities initiative was akin to forcing people to live in an open-air prison. Leaving aside the ridiculousness of that comparison, they falsely argued that facial recognition software would be used to track everyone's movements 24 hours a day and that 5G telecommunications towers would be used to maim people.

The fact that the council had to move a motion confirming they were not part of a global conspiracy and would not be installing microchips into residents was, to me at least, quite extraordinary. While most of us may laugh at this, it is unfortunate and, to be honest, a little scary that there were people so deluded by the conspiracy theories that such steps had to be taken.

Police Commissioner Stevens condemned the protesters for wasting valuable police resources to manage the protest. While that is a point well made, there is something much bigger and more fundamental at stake. Australia truly is the lucky country. We have a comprehensive set of public institutions, like the police force, that were created to support community wellbeing, maintain and protect our rights and promote public safety.

Today, these institutions are broadly well respected and trusted, but this could be at risk. I believe the false and misleading information provided to vulnerable people can have dramatic consequences. If this misinformation seeks to erode public confidence in institutions like the justice system or perhaps the electoral system, dire consequences for our community and our democracy could result.

The Australian Electoral Commission and the Electoral Commission of South Australia are trusted, competent managers of elections and through their role advise on the installation of elected members and, in turn, governments. They take this most important role seriously and the Australian public trusts the results they provide. We have not, so far, had a situation where elections were reported to have been stolen, nor have we heard suggestions of corruption in these respected reliable bodies.

Thus far, people and parties across the political spectrum have remain united in our trust and our esteem of these important institutions that work hard to safeguard the integrity of our elections and this trust is vitally important to the maintenance of both a genuine democracy and a functioning society.

If trust is broken in these systems, we could well see ourselves follow the deeply alarming path of the United States, where a divided population is at odds with itself, and egos and a highly successful campaign of misinformation led to the storming of the Capitol on 6 January 2021. The terrible scenes of elected members and staff being rushed through the building by armed security was one of the most frightening things I have seen and not just for the violence and destructive behaviour of the protesters but for what it said about American society.

America seemed to have hit a tipping point, driven to be at war with itself and with faith in its institutions destroyed by so much misinformation and the misinformation came from a dangerous and self-serving place. It was strategic and deliberately dishonest, not simply ill-informed. By shaking the foundations of trust in the integrity of their institutions, the forces promoting insurrection intended to drive the average person away from the polls and by preaching to the fringe they would turn out voters who were inspired by this misinformed rhetoric.

The people telling the lies were trying to create an opportunity to cling to power, not to serve the best interests of society, and that is something I fear we could see attempted in South Australia if what we saw in response to the Salisbury council's Smart Cities measure is allowed to proliferate. How do we combat it? With truth, with good and accountable government and by explaining why we are doing things.

Thorough and honest communication with the electorate goes a long way towards ensuring that people who may be susceptible to misinformation are hearing from their elected representatives, and they feel heard by them as well. We will not convince everyone, but by being clear about our intentions we can make sure that people are fully informed when they turn up at the polls and that they continue to respect the importance of exercising their precious and fundamentally important right to vote at each election.