THE ASSAULT ON TRUTH AND ACCOUNTABILITY IN AUSTRALIAN FEDERAL POLITICS
THE WHEELER CENTRE,MELBOURNE
SHADOW MINISTER FOR CONSTITUTIONAL REFORM
MEMBER FOR ISAACS
THE ASSAULT ON TRUTH AND ACCOUNTABILITY IN AUSTRALIAN FEDERAL POLITICS
THE WHEELER CENTRE
TUESDAY, 28 JANUARY 2020
It is a pleasure to be here at The Wheeler Centre as a guest of Per Capita. Per Capita will be known to many of you as an independent, progressive think tank, dedicated to social justice, and to advocating for an Australia founded on principles of fairness, shared prosperity, and a strong sense of community. I thank Per Capita for the opportunity to speak this evening.
I would also like to extend my thanks to The Wheeler Centre. The Centre was established to drive the development and celebration of literature in Melbourne and beyond, and to foster broad public engagement in books, writing and ideas. Over the past decade the Wheeler Centre has succeeded admirably in these objectives and through that, the Centre has made a valuable contribution to the cultural and political life of Victoria, and of our nation. The Centres activities are no doubt at odds with the current Prime Ministers desire for a nation of quiet Australians, and I wish the Centre every success in its ongoing work.
The assault on truth and accountability in Australian federal politics may sound a little dramatic, but as events over recent months, and the Government's response to criticisms have demonstrated, these attacks are becoming ever more common and pronounced.
I firmly believe that this assault on truth and accountability in our politics poses a real and growing threat to our nation.
Over the last fifteen years, multiple studies have shown a precipitous decline in the Australian peoples trust in, and respect for, both politicians and our political institutions. A study conducted by the Social Research Institute at Ipsos in mid-2018 found fewer than 41 per cent of Australian citizens were satisfied with the way democracy works in Australia. This worrying figure was less than half what it was in 2007, when 86 per cent of Australian reported being satisfied with our democracy.
Most of the decline has occurred since 2013, when 72 per cent of Australian citizens still reported being satisfied with our political system. Of particular concern to me is that a significant majority of younger Australians those who are usually most impassioned and hopeful about the future are dissatisfied with our politics now. And in mid-2018, only 31 per cent of Australians across all age groups said they trusted the Federal Government. I do not imagine that index of trust will have improved at all in the last year and half since the survey was undertaken and certainly not over this last turbulent month.
There are many causes for this worrying decline in trust in politics. One cause is the hyper-partisanship of contemporary political debate, which is amplified in the often fact-free, ideological echo-chambers constructed on social media platforms. At the same time, the quality of traditional journalism is declining, as the relentless pace of the daily media cycle increases while commercial news organisations cut editorial staff in response to declining revenues, and some replace journalism with partisan political campaigning masquerading as news.
Ongoing attacks on the ABC by successive Coalition Governments, including through repeated, brutal budget cuts, threaten to undermine the capacity of the ABC to deliver the scope and quality of news reporting Australians expect, despite the ABCs status as one of the most trusted and impartial institutions in the nation. Indeed, it seems the Coalitions ongoing attacks on the ABC are largely because of the integrity of its news coverage.
Another key reason for the disillusionment with our politics is that our political system is not delivering solutions to the problems we face as individuals, as communities, and as a nation. I believe this last point is of critical importance, and it is deeply entwined with the subject matter of this speech. Because it is simply not possible for the Australian Government to grapple with the reality of the pressing problems we face if the Governments starting point is pretending that those problems do not exist.
This dangerous approach to governing, founded in marketing a political brand rather than responsibly leading the nation, has its most concerning impact in the context of our national response to the challenges, threats, and opportunities arising from climate change. The consequences of refusing to take responsibility for the challenges we face, and often denying those problems exist at all, will be compounded by a government responding to all policy failures with only marketing solutions.
Part I: How the assault on truth and accountability in Australian federal politics is currently unfolding
I sometimes hear people spouting the glib line in response to criticism of some government failure: The Government was elected just last year and if the people don't like it they can vote them out next election. But we do not live in an elected dictatorship, in which the only mechanism for accountability is an election every three years. To the contrary, our system of government operates or should operate under the rule of law, and it has evolved many institutions and processes to ensure the ongoing accountability of the government to the people who elected it, most of which are intended to operate continuously throughout the duration of office.
Some of those systems of accountability are entrenched in our Constitution. Some mechanisms are statutory or arise from the common law, and many others arise from the rules that the Parliament has made for itself and from conventions developed over generations of democratic practice in the United Kingdom and here. Other mechanisms of accountability, like the Fourth Estate, exist outside the government entirely, but their operation is no less critical to the health of our democracy for that.
One thing that all these accountability mechanisms have in common today is that they are all, to a lesser or to a greater extent, under threat.
There is no time this evening to discuss in any detail these many mechanisms of governmental accountability, and how each is currently being degraded. But I will highlight a few of those that I have particular concerns about.
The doctrine of Ministerial Responsibility
One of the core principles of the Westminster system of government is the principle of individual and collective ministerial responsibility. The principle is of critical importance, because it ensures that responsibility for what happens in a portfolio ultimately rests with the relevant minister. That isn't to say that a minister will be personally blamed for every problem in their portfolio, but it does mean that they will be expected to determine where responsibility properly lies, and to take appropriate action in response. It means that the buck stops somewhere. This means that an excuse like I had no sight of that (proffered by the Home Affairs Minister Mr Dutton in respect of the questionable awarding of a half billion dollar contract to Paladin for services on Manus Island) do not relieve the minister of responsibility.
The Statement of Ministerial Standards published in August 2018 under Mr Morrison's authority includes a foreword from the Prime Minister which commences with:
The Australian people deserve a Government that will act with integrity and in the best interests of the people they serve.
Serving the Australian people as Ministers and Assistant Ministers is an honour and comes with expectations to act at all times to the highest possible standards of probity.
Principle 1.2 states of that same Statement stipulates that:
In recognition that public office is a public trust, therefore, the people of Australia are entitled to expect that, as a matter of principle, Ministers will act with due regard for integrity, fairness, accountability, responsibility, and the public interest, as required by these Standards.
In essence the doctrine mandates high standards of probity from all ministers in the conduct of their official responsibilities (and to some extent in their private conduct too). A failure to adhere to those standards should result in that minister stepping down, or if they refuse, being stood down by the Prime Minister.
The principle of ministerial responsibility has worked well for centuries as a key accountability measure in Westminster democracies, but over recent years in Australia its role has withered.
The sports rorts affair unfolding over the last two weeks is a brazen example of what I'm talking about. The lack of responsibility being taken for this abject failure of probity, in clear breach of Mr Morrison's own Statement of Ministerial Standards, is particularly evident in this context
Once again, we have seen the assault on truth and accountability unfolding as Mr Morrison and his ministers initially responded to the scathing Auditor-Generals report by peddling facile half-truths or outright falsehoods like every project funded was eligible or no rules were broken. These talking points were trotted out in the hope the Government could just market its way out of the scandal. It says a lot about what the Government thinks it can get away with that senior ministers repeated such brazenly misleading assertions in the face of the published report of the Auditor-General. Because that report shows clearly that the Liberal and National Parties deliberately and comprehensively rorted a community sports program for their own political benefit, quite possibly without legal authority. And they did so in cynical disregard for the deserving clubs and communities that had applied to the program in good faith expecting that money would be distributed based on merit.
Of course, evidence is now emerging that while Senator McKenzie was formally responsible for the rorts as Sports Minister, many Coalition ministers may have also been involved. Indeed, it seems the scheme may have been driven from the Prime Ministers office itself, which would explain why Mr Morrison has so far refused to act.
Of course, Senator McKenzie is not the only minister of this Government who should have resigned, or been sacked. To cite only two of numerous other examples, Senator Michaela Cash and Mr Angus Taylor have each engaged in conduct that the vast majority of Australians would be appalled at, and which is the antithesis of the highest possible standards of probity required by the Statement of Ministerial Standards. Yet they continue as ministers in the Morrison Government, with no suggestion that the Prime Minister has the slightest intention of holding them to the standards the Australian public rightfully expect.
In 2013 Lieutenant General David Morrison, then Chief of the Australian Army, memorably declared that the standard you walk past is the standard you accept. Mr Morrison used the same words at a press conference on December 2018 when he announced the appointment of General David Hurley as the 27th Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia. Mr Morrison went on to say [i]ts a phrase that embodies what Australian leadership is all about.
It is also a phrase that nobody will ever apply to Mr Morrison.
Since Mr Morrison was so taken with this phrase, we can only conclude that he accepts the standards demonstrated by Senator McKenzie, Mr Taylor, and Senator Cash in their ministerial roles.
Accountability and Parliament
The nature of our modern party political system means that a parliament controlled by the governing party is very unlikely to bring the full force of its powers to bear directly against its own Prime Minister and Cabinet. This is why the Opposition has such a crucial role in using parliamentary mechanisms to hold governments to account, whether through Question Time, asking questions on notice, or through the use of the Senate Estimates or the parliamentary committee system, all of which can provide effective means to scrutinise and challenge government action.
Unfortunately, the efficacy of these mechanisms has also diminished significantly over recent years. Because to some extent these mechanisms rely on the governments respect for long-standing democratic conventions. If a government is willing to trash the conventions that define our democratic processes, then it can do much to frustrate those processes. I do not say that the Labor Party has always behaved perfectly in this regard, but since Tony Abbott's election in 2013, we have seen a new contempt for parliamentary accountability mechanisms, a contempt that is deeply worrying for our national politics.
This contempt extends to Freedom of Information laws, which are now, as a matter of course, subverted by ministers and their departments. Since an open declaration in 2013 that the Government was now playing hardball on Freedom of Information, ministers and their departments appear to have made secrecy rather than transparency their primary objective in responding to requests for information.
Few politicians would seek to argue, in public at least, against the statement by United States jurist Louis Brandeis that sunlight is the best disinfectant. The sports rorts affair is just one of a very long list of scandals over recent years that demonstrate what happens when politicians govern in the shadows.
There are other institutions whose role is also essential to truth and accountability in our politics, and that are also under attack and none more so than the Fourth Estate, which plays a critical role in holding all governments to account.
There are many threats to the viability of quality news reporting in Australia today, including national security laws which suppress the public's right to know, outdated defamation laws, and the economic disruptions arising from the transition to the digital era. However, of particular concern in this context are the recent police raids on the home of a News Corp journalist and the ABC headquarters, the effect of which was to intimidate journalists and news organisations who have dared to publish stories that embarrass the Government. The Government has still refused to rule out prosecuting journalists for doing their jobs.
These raids were, in part, justified by the apparent need to track down the source of leaks which embarrassed the Government. But we have seen countless other examples of this Government leaking confidential information it believes will benefit its marketing strategies. These leaks are never seriously investigated, even when it seems clear that the source of the unlawful breach is from the ministers office.
And I have already touched on the damage to the ABC that has been inflicted by this Governments repeated public attacks and vicious budget cuts. Again, this is a topic worthy of a speech on its own.
This Government has also undermined accountability by engaging in an orgy of stacking of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal with former Liberal staffers, political mates, and failed Liberal Party candidates. The numbers are astonishing. Since 2013, this Liberal Government has appointed at least 65 former LNP state and federal parliamentarians, failed political candidates and Liberal staffers to the AAT. Many have no legal qualifications. And before someone groans but both parties do it, by way of contrast to the Liberals dismal record, the previous Labor Government appointed just two Labor-linked members to the AAT over six years in office, both of whom were eminently qualified and who served with distinction. Only time will tell what the full impact of treating the AAT like a taxpayer funded, Liberal Party employment junket is on the work of an institution that was established to provide accountability in the form of an independent review mechanism for decisions made by the Federal Government.
As Shadow Attorney-General I feel I must also mention the attacks on the independence of the judiciary by this Government, which at its worst required the Solicitor-General to be dispatched to the Supreme Court in Melbourne to argue why three current ministers should not be held in contempt for seeking to influence the court in its deliberations on a sentencing matter. The three ministers, Mr Hunt, Mr Tudge, and Mr Sukkar, all of whom studied law, didn't feel they should even bother attending the hearing regarding their contempt. Only when it became clear that the court was unimpressed by their arrogant disregard for the seriousness of their actions, and that a finding of contempt was likely, did groveling apologies from the ministers suddenly flow.
There is so much more I could say about the deliberate undermining of our nations once robust accountability mechanisms and institutions, but I want to move on to one specific example in order to illustrate just how dangerous this trend is for our nation.
Part II: The attack on truth and accountability in the context of climate change policy
While the unfolding sports rorts scandal provides a vivid example of what I have been talking about today, in the few minutes remaining before I turn to your questions I want to focus on an incomparably more serious problem facing our nation that the Government has comprehensively and now catastrophically shirked its responsibility for, and that is the problem of climate change.
The failure of the Australian Right, which now dominates the once-Conservative Liberal and National parties, to act on climate change, and indeed, to spend decades denying the reality of it, has resulted in one of the most catastrophic policy failures in our history as a nation. Liberal Party climate denialism and obstruction have caused a slow-motion policy train-wreck over the last twenty years, but events are accelerating rapidly now. It may soon become apparent whether the failure of responsibility and leadership by the Liberal and National Parties in the context of climate change turns out to be the most significant, and disastrous failure of leadership in our nations history.
The Liberal and National parties mendacious but effective war against action on climate change provides us with a depressingly huge array of examples of Australian politicians at war with truth and accountability. I fear we would be here past midnight were I to try to discuss even a representative group of these examples this evening.
This Summer, Australia burned. 33 people have already died and many more have been injured. Over two thousand homes have been destroyed. And thousands of Australians will carry the psychological scars for the rest of their lives. Perhaps a billion native animals burned to death, with a number of species now facing extinction. The economic cost to our nation will be measured in the billions. As I speak dozens of fires continue to burn, and of course, this fire season is far from over. When this season is finally over, maybe by April, the next fire season will be on us again in less than six months.
While we can never know the counter-factual of what would have been if the nation was better prepared for this fire season, it is crystal clear that the Federal Government failed to adequately prepare for the ferocity of the fire season. They were unprepared in part because they had refused to heed the warnings that our scientists and retired fire chiefs were providing, warnings which any responsible government would have taken seriously and responded to appropriately. The Prime Minister refused to even meet with a delegation of distinguished former fire chiefs despite constant and very public calls for him to do so.
Indeed, a Federal Government that wasn't captured by its own lies and marketing spin about climate change would have known, even without further warnings from emergency services chiefs, that the fire seasons were lengthening and bushfires were intensifying as a consequence of climate change. These warnings have now been issued from multiple sources many years now. Perhaps nothing exemplified this Governments arrogant denial of the reality of the threat our nation was facing than the Prime Minister deciding that the unfolding bushfire crisis was a good opportunity to take a secret holiday in Hawaii.
Australia has the highest per capita carbon emissions in the world, and the conservative governments of John Howard, Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and now Scott Morrison have all failed utterly to address that fundamental problem. While it is obviously true that climate change is a global problem requiring global solutions, the unwillingness of the conservatives to even try to get our own nations emissions under control, and to now focus on dodgy accounting tricks to try to avoid being accountable for our nations pollution, undermines the capacity that Australia once had to try to lead the international community toward meaningful action.
When Labor was last in office I worked with then Minister Greg Combet on our climate change response, representing Australia at the major international climate change conferences. At that time Australia was welcomed with open arms as a global leader on climate action, and we had significant influence in the international community because of the action we were taking here at home. Today, Australia is an international pariah, loathed by our Pacific neighbours for our climate denial, and as a wealthy nation unwilling to do our share, we have zero credibility when it comes to calling on other nations, including the biggest polluters, to act.
The track record of Coalition governments here speaks volumes. On taking office in 2013 the Coalition destroyed the emissions trading scheme that Labor had established and that was already working to bring down our emissions; it abolished the climate change portfolio altogether; it entirely defunded the Climate Council; it tried to destroy the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and repeatedly attacked the renewable target and actively worked against the renewable energy sector. The Coalitions policy incoherence on climate change and energy has contributed to huge increases in power prices over the last seven years, while at the same time the enormous opportunities of the renewable energy economy, highlighted by Professor Garnaut in his latest book, are being squandered.
There is so much more that I could say on this topic, but I think it is clear to all that a national government that lies about and refuses to take responsibility for the fundamental challenges we face as a nation is manifestly unfit for office.
And this is why the war on truth and accountability in our federal politics so dangerous to our people, and to our nation. Because the ability of a government to avoid accountability for its lies and for the consequences of its failures, allows it to continue to govern, no matter unfit it may be for the role. In the context of climate change, and many other policy areas as well, this Government has sought to avoid accountability for its failures to the lasting cost of our nation.
Conclusion: What is to be done?
As I said at the outset, this is a rather gloomy topic.
But things are not hopeless. There are many practical actions that can be done to improve our political system, and the Australian peoples trust in it.
One of those actions is to establish a National Integrity Commission. And by that I don't mean the pathetically weak and secretive body that the Prime Minister and his Attorney-General proposed more than a year ago. The Morrison Government had to be dragged kicking and screaming to even grudgingly admit that such a body was necessary, and if we are to judge them by their actions to date, they have no intention of creating an integrity commission that would be worthy of its name. What is needed is a National Integrity Commission with all the independence, powers and resources of a standing royal commission into corruption in the federal sphere, able to hold public hearings whenever the commissioner believes it is in the public interest to do so.
I also believe it is vital that urgent steps are taken to strengthen freedom of the press and fight to restore the Australian public's right to know what their government is up to with their money and their rights and freedoms behind closed doors.
When it comes to responding to climate change, some of the solutions are so obvious it is painful to state them. The cardinal requirement is for the Prime Minister and the members of this Government to stop lying about climate change. Though this simple prescription for change seems beyond the capacity of the Liberal Party as it now exists, such a change in orientation would open the way for all kinds of changes, such as:
- Listening to the warnings of our emergency services chiefs, and making appropriate preparations in response so that our nation is better prepared to prevent and to respond to the climate change intensified natural disasters we are now experiencing;
- Listening to the warnings of our leading scientists and scientific organisations, such as the CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology, as well as international bodies such as the IPCC, and adjusting our national energy, industry and environmental polices accordingly;
- Looking at the transition to a clean energy economy as an opportunity for new jobs and industries on a vast scale, and having the vision to manage the transition as a truly national initiative, carried out in the national interest, which includes ensuring that workers in old, polluting industries have opportunities in the new industries that are being created.
In Professor Garnaut's recent book about Australia's opportunity to become a low-carbon energy super-power, he laments that in Australia today (and I quote):
public policy based on marshalling knowledge through research and analysis, and then nurturing public understanding of the issues, seems a distant dream. That it is not the contemporary reality is the essential problem behind the tragedies of ... policy on climate change and the energy transition.
But Professor Garnaut is not without hope, also writing that: If we are wise, we can change the political story of climate change in this nation.
It is my sincere hope that we will turn away from the relentless attacks on truth and accountability that have so eroded the health of our democracy, and that increasingly threaten the wellbeing of our people and our nation. Returning to the path of wisdom, I am confident we will be able to meet the challenges, and grasp the opportunities, of this coming decade.