Assessing democratic governments from first principles

Jan 1, 2021

Australia regularly gets rated as one of the best performing representative democracies in the world. But anyone who regularly reads the posts by wise and experienced writers on the Pearls and Irritations site must surely wonder how that can be.

Are the assessors in the international agencies all wearing rose coloured glasses, or are their assessments simply too superficial? Maybe the others are all so bad that we simply rate highly for that reason? Let’s take a closer look.

Back in the early years of my long life (I’m 82) my Dutch engineering professor taught me to tackle every tough problem by taking it back to first principles – so let’s start there.

An ideal democratic government which genuinely sought to govern for the community at large would be completely open and transparent, limiting the use of secrecy to that tiny number of issues which can genuinely be classified as critical to national security. Such a government would be keen to tell us about everything it was doing, because it would validly expect us to be grateful for its efforts.

But we have a two-party system in which the two legacy parties have a stranglehold on power, and party politics is fundamentally about getting more for your tribe, generally at the expense of the other tribe. The instant a government begins to try to hide its actions from public scrutiny you know for certain it is no longer governing for the community at large. And the greater the secrecy, the more this is so.

So let’s rate the Morrison government by examining the extent to which it goes in order to restrict and manage the flow of information to the community – such behaviour being a clear sign of departure from democracy. A recent paper by David Hardaker published on Crikey.com.au and available here provides some alarming detail about this behaviour.

“In 2018 Attorney-General Christian Porter called on rarely used powers to hide large chunks of an unflattering audit conducted by the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) into a $2.2 billion deal with French arms manufacturer Thales.

Porter claimed that publishing the full ANAO report would prejudice Thales’ commercial interests and threaten Australia’s security, defence or international relations.

Auditor-General Grant Hehir maintained he was unaware why national security concerns were used to justify the omissions.”

“The 2018 certificate (applied by Porter) establishes a precedent which, if repeated, may affect parliament’s scrutiny of the executive by limiting the auditor-general’s independent and public reporting to the parliament,” Hehir wrote in a submission to a parliamentary inquiry.”

A government stacked with spinners

“As immigration minister Morrison turned secrecy and media control into his weapon of choice through Operation Sovereign Borders.

Details released to the Senate as reported by Fairfax showed that by 2014 Morrison’s departments of immigration, border protection and Australian customs employed more than 95 communications staff and spin doctors at a cost of at least $8 million a year.”

“An ANAO review of communications and marketing showed that by 2018 Morrison’s old departments, largely moved into one mega department of Home Affairs, employed 214 staff in communications and marketing roles.

Defence employed 168 staff, a number which excludes those in each of the army, navy and air force. Other major employers of spin were the Department of Human Services (responsible for Centrelink and Robodebt) with 286 staff, and the Australian Taxation Office with 493 staff; as well as the famously slow-to-respond Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade with 79 staff.

Yet, as any journalist will attest, for all the communications staff it is near impossible to get any meaningful answer from a government department. Under the government’s rules of engagement journalists must email questions which the department may or — as is more often the case — may not answer.”

Of course, actions like the now infamous federal Sports Rorts affair and the recently revealed matching behaviour by the NSW government serve as indicators of a very deep undemocratic malaise common to most of Australia’s governments, past and present, with federal Labor’s famous Ros Kelly White Board affair right up there with them.

The fact that the NSW premier shrugged off her behaviour as routine Pork Barrelling, and that the symbolic resignation of Bridget McKenzie from the federal ministry had no other consequences (and doubtless will be rewarded down the track), demonstrated beyond doubt that our politicians have completely lost sight of the fact that they manage government revenue strictly as Trustees, with all the moral and ethical responsibility that trusteeship implies. How can the breach of that trust not be a criminal offence punishable by a long jail term? Of course, the fact that both sides of politics routinely indulge in such behaviour is a reflection on party politics much more than on current governments.

So party politics really is a serious threat to Australia’s democracy and, since literally everything Scott Morrison does appears to be primarily for party political purposes, I see the Morrison government as being a very long way from a high standard democracy. Rather, it seems to be living proof that Donald Horne’s facetious “Lucky Country” label was right in 1964, and is still right today.

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