Threat to democratic freedoms

The following letter was published in the Canberra Times today.

I sent it because I am very concerned about what is happening to political freedom in Australia. Am I being paranoic or do others share my concerns?

Text of letter follows.

Both Brian Toohey (“Eroding State power” Sunday Canberra Times 9/7/06) and Jack Waterford (“By all accounts a government that can get away with anything”, Public Sector Informant July) have recently warned that that the checks and balances to federal government power in Australia are steadily crumbling. These are timely warnings.

The growing concentration of power in the Executive is evident in:

  • the increasing tendency of Canberra to use its financial power to dictate to the States on traditional state responsibilities, with Peter Costello foreshadowing further moves in he same direction;
  • the stifling of the role of the Senate and its committees as watchdogs and scrutineers;
  • the steady diminution in the role of independent statutory bodies in industrial relations, human rights and administrative oversight;
  • the blatant stacking of key statutory boards and Benches with like-minded people;
  • the diminution in Ministerial responsibility and lack of accountability of ministerial minders;
  • the increasingly farcical operation of Parliamentary Question Time;
  • the recent change in methods of appropriation which will make the Government less accountable for its spending;
  • the changes to the Electoral Act which will make it harder for some citizens to vote and increase the secrecy veil on political donations; and
  • the gradual silencing and intimidation of non-government organisations such as welfare, environmental and youth groups.

And all this comes on top of the huge natural advantage conferred by incumbency and the well-known capacity of Ministers to obfuscate and misinform the public (including through the misuse of public advertising for political purposes).

This is starting to look like a real threat to our democratic freedoms.

Fred Argy

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WeekbyWEek
15 years ago

Excellent letter.

But is it as simple as ‘doing the opposite’?

Tony Harris
Tony Harris(@tony-harris)
15 years ago

The problem has been clear enough for more than a hundred years and the solution is something like minimal state liberal/libertarianism. See if you can sell that Fred!

phil
15 years ago

Even in a minimal state, don’t you reckon the institutions of governance could be set up to achieve what the lying rodent and co are doing with lots more resources, eg handing meida control to a very few players, minimising the points of accountability within Parliament, setting the policy environment to achieve a state of fear (yes, IR).

Andrew Reynolds
15 years ago

Phil,
The whole point of a minimal state is that the State does not have the resources – the people do. The government would not be able to hand control of the media to very few as it would not have the control to hand. It would not set the policy environment on IR as it would not have the power to do so.
I have said it before and I will say it again: it never ceases to amaze me that some can say, often in the same sentence, that the government is doing bad things but that it should have more power. Remove the power from the government and guess what? It then cannot abuse the power.

patemi
patemi
15 years ago

I bet this isn’t what Fred Argy was hoping to elicit! For my part I’d say that he is being a bit paranoid, especially with reference to the last two points. In fact the last is so ridiculous it makes the others look non-serious just by association. Which with respect of the first, third, and fourth points is quite easy.

The second, fifth, sixth, and seventh points are legitimate points of concern. How serious they are I don’t know – certainly none of them are irreversible or permanent. And in contemporary Australia, the media is clearly the most effective of all those mechanisms, except it isn’t on the list, probably because you would need one very partisan and selective hack to make our contemporary media an easy fit for the ‘reduction of liberties’ narrative.

In fact the only one I really don’t like is the degradation of ministerial accountability. It may be the inevitable result of the confluence of cabinet government, Presidentialism, and ministerial inadequacy, but I don’t like it. Sadly, the part of Presidentialism I like best is the one we don’t have – the prerogative system of executive appointment!

All that said, clearly, our Constitutional system is pretty solid – it is already one of the oldest in the world, and it shares the oldest non-tribal constitutional pedigree I am aware of. And I tend to think that this is mainly because of its relative flexibility in the hands of the government of the day, which in turn gives them a chance to actually govern. If we don’t what they do, we have a number of options, most prominent, and effective, of which is to not vote for them.

Of course, if you are a green, or a communist, that option is basically neutered so understandably you think that government-funded ‘oversight’ sinecures are the lynchpin of our democracy. But they aren’t.

phil
15 years ago

Andrew – point taken, more or less, (I was angling towards a leigislative – maybe constitutional – framework which said “the government does this and this, and anyone else is free to do the rest”. But my question in relation to your phrase “the people” would be “which people”? And my educated guess would be “the people with resources”. And it would be forever thus.

Andrew Reynolds
15 years ago

Phil,
We (almost) all have resources, even if it is only our labour. The very few truly without even that do need help, but I may disagree that an entire government bureaucracy is the best way to supply that help.

Fred Argy
Fred Argy
15 years ago

Patemi, I am surprised that you dismiss the last point as “ridiculous”. You should look at some of the papers produced for The Democratic Audit of Australia (which has its own web site). Marian Sawer sees community-based advocacy organisations as absolutely essential to a deliberative democracy. They help ensure “a wide range of voices are heard in public debate” and “someone to advocate on behalf of those affected by government policies but unable to speak for themselves”. It allows all citizens to participate – directly or indirectly – in the political life of the community.

Government leaders, with an aura of authority and with good communication skills, can greatly influence the climate of opinion. They have greater financial resources at their disposal than their opponents and easy access to an often uncritical media. They can release selective information, obfuscate, denigrate their critics, intimidate recalcitrant journalists and discourage ‘unfriendly’ comments from persons (including academics) or community groups that are dependent on government grants or contracts or tax immunity. The community groups are critical players.

And what has been happening to Australian NGO’s? These organisations depend on government support and under Howard about 76 per cent of them say that the funding has become subject to restrictions on their ability to comment on government policy and that it is preventing them from engaging actively in public policy debate. For example, churches can speak up for the homeless and poor but if they question government policy on these issues they risk losing its charitable status. I could go on and on. To me the last point in my letter is the most worrying of all.

Patrick
Patrick
15 years ago

Sorry, I am actually Patrick, not (at least not entirely) ‘patemi’.

The one about churches losing their charitable status strikes me as a bit odd. Political advocacy has always been incompatible with charitable status, and for pretty obvious reasons (if you are a political organisation then you should call yourself such and there is much less perceived social benefit in your receiving donations) but with a much wider margin for religious orders. Certainly I have never heard of any such threat, although I tend not to know much about churches plural.

Frankly, I don’t believe the media are ‘intimidated’ and now less than ever (although they may be incompetent), nor am I aware of any non-anecdotal non-biased evidence about academics being intimidated, and with just my own extremely casual observation of ‘debate’ and ‘community organisations’ there is no lack of criticism of the government from all quarters.

I am quite surprised, in fact, that you have basically taken the argument right onto the territory disputed by the other commenters! And on this issue I basically agree with them – I don’t accept at all that the government is obliged, nor even should, fund community groups or expression. In fact quite the contrary, I believe that the government should leave this field as clear, not necessarily even, as it possibly can. A belief an order of magnitude stronger in this day of blogs and internet.

People who think that ‘were they simply informed enough’, the masses would agree with them, are largely delusional. I went through my own great liberal intellectual illusion-shattering phase shortly after my marxist phase, around when I finished High School. The great majority don’t think like you, nor like I, and no amount of publicly funded speech will change that. What changed in my case was that my democratic convictions (and conservative temperamement) came to temper my intellectual (largely libertarian and liberal) convictions – now, I believe that if you can’t ‘sell’ it to the ‘people’, there is probably something wrong with it, be it no more than that it is too different.

On the bright side, that kind of thinking was what convinced me to support the welfare state :)