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Assaults on democracy

Parliament House - the centre of our democracy (image by holam.com.au)

Parliament House – old and new – the centre of our democracy (image by holman.com.au)

There are at least two fundamental requirements for a functioning democracy. In various ways, in recent years, we have seen political parties in Australia attempting to subvert and limit these requirements. This is an assault on democracy itself. It may not be deliberate – political parties, like business entities, will work within the constraints of the law to achieve their ends, and loopholes and aggressive tactics are a part of the game. But dress it up how you may, attempting to coerce the workings of parliament and the electoral choices of a population is anti-democratic even if done within the limitations of the laws of that democracy.

In the business sphere, there is an overarching structure to act as a check and balance. The courts, and above them the legislature, ensure that eventually businesses that exploit loopholes to the detriment of the community can be brought back into line. Through the testing of legislation in the courts, through the drafting of new laws and regulations, there are means to help ensure that the system is fluid and no entities can subvert the intention of the regulations to which all businesses are subject.

Politics has no such overarching structure. The limits on politics are the various parties themselves – where one party oversteps the bounds, the only bodies that can pull them up on it are other political parties. Some of the time this works. And sometimes it does not.

Given untrammelled power – for instance, control of both houses of Parliament – a government can adjust the goalposts in such a way as to benefit their own interests and continued dominance. When the cycle turns, as eventually it must, an incoming government is then able to either take advantage of the changes the previous government has wrought, or to reverse the changes and implement their own.

The Australian constitution holds various aspects of our democracy sacrosanct and to change these requires a referendum. The basic mechanics of elections and parties and the existence of two houses are not in danger. There are plenty of other ways that a political party can act to extend its own hegemony, and any number of ways that the intent of a democracy can be subverted by the details.

Basic requirements for a healthy democracy include the following.

1. A free press

Or more accurately, even and impartial coverage and analysis of the issues. Fundamentally, Australian democracy is about vision. In a hundred policy areas each government has to balance the requirements of the community and the best interests of the country. In order to effectively judge the promised approach of a candidate government to each of these areas, in order to accurately evaluate the needs of Australia’s present and future, clear and informative reporting is needed.

In Australia, the media environment is skewed. Various reports have pointed to the obvious bias in the large majority of Australia’s news media. Against this bias, only the minority Fairfax and the public broadcaster ABC attempt a more balanced view. Readers of this blog will understand that “more balanced”, to the conservatives, reads as “rabid pinko”. A detailed analysis of the relative bias of the ABC vs News Ltd is outside of the scope of this article. What is not, is that the Coalition is currently openly discussing curtailing the ABC’s power to operate in the news arena.

“He said there was a compelling case to consider breaking the ABC into two entities with the traditional television and radio operations protected to ensure services in the bush and regional Australia, while the online news service could be disposed of.” http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/turnbull-defends-abc-but-colleagues-want-to-preach-it-a-lesson-20131203-2yotw.html#ixzz2mS3lekiz

Of course, the Abbott government has form in the area of suppressing balanced information from the populace. In just a short three months in office, they have disbanded information bodies, restricted the information flow out of government, suppressed information on the grounds of “operational matters” despite said information being available to those not unfortunate enough to live in Australia, and continued the active dissemination of misinformation, half-truths and blatant untruths.

2. Robust representation in the Parliament

In a representative democracy, not every member of Parliament is going to belong to or be sympathetic to the government. Those members and senators elected to represent the opposition and independent parties – even those who do not represent a party at all – are not there to warm chairs. They are not elected to become a part of the government machine and uncritically support any intentions of the government of the day. Instead, they are there to be a dissenting voice, and hopefully through negotiation in the interests of the people they represent, to improve proposed legislation through amendments. The operation of the Parliament and Senate in this regard is a deliberate structure to ensure that all new law is viewed through the lens of more than one stakeholder; to ensure that legislation that benefits one group does not act unfairly to the detriment of others.

Both Labor and the Coalition in recent years – and as recently as the current sitting of Parliament – have taken, and are taking, actions to subvert this function. Such actions include scheduling complicated legislation for debate and passage in unfeasibly short timeframes. For examples of this – on both sides – you need look no further than the carbon “tax”. Labor provided a package of legislation running to over 1000 pages to the Parliament with eight days to read, understand, debate and vote on it. In response, the Coalition has given the repeal of the carbon tax – eleven bills, to be discussed together – just three and a half days of debate. It would be bad enough if it were just the “tax” being debated, but tied up in the repeal are dozens of climate bodies, administrative bodies, funding arrangements, and associated clean energy infrastructure.

Arguably, however, the Coalition has been worse in their abuse of the processes of Parliament. During the previous term of government, they brought few amendments to the house, preferring instead to grandstand, disrupt proceedings with continual calls to suspend standing orders, and in most cases in Question Time to ask not one question relating to their own portfolios. This was not effective representation of their constituents. But the worst was yet to come.

In the current term, in addition to electing a clearly partisan speaker to the chair of the House – Bronwyn Bishop, who remains in the party room and is an integral part of the Coalition’s governing body – they have also taken actions that in one fell swoop ensure the failure of any amendments to legislation and disempower any independent voices. The attempt to vote on all proposed amendments as a block ensures that a flaw in one amendment, or contradictory amendments, or an extreme position on behalf of one proposal will knock out all the amendments at once. As Penny Wong stated in parliament, this is procedurally impossible. She might have added, deliberately so – it is a flagrant breach of the intention of amendments. (I am unable to find references online to this abuse of process. If you can provide a link, please leave it in the comments.)

Understandably, governments want to implement their policies. But subverting debate using procedural methods is as much an assault on democracy as is continual sabotage of proceedings using points of order and interjections.

Does anybody even listen to Parliament any more?

The majority of the Australian people remain minimally aware of the vagaries of Parliament and how it operates, far less the way that it is intended to represent the interests of non-governmental political parties. Tony Abbott and some sections of the news media deliberately play to this disaffection as they talk about a “mandate” for the government to implement its policies and report scant, if any, details of the proceedings of legislation through the parliament. Regardless, the details remain critically important. These are our representatives, this is our government, and any attempt to usurp the proper processes of democracy is an assault on everyone’s rights – whether you support the government of the day or not. Accordingly, those who are politically aware and interested need to draw attention to these abuses wherever they may be found. Only by showing that people are watching, and that we care about the concept of democracy as much as about its outcomes, can we avoid permanent and catastrophic debasement of government in Australia.

31 comments

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  1. M. R.

    WHO said there was a compelling case? – I see it wasn’t Malcom, so presumably it was the weasel at the head of the pack, yes?
    How do we carry out this drawing of attention? – we don’t all have an arena to do so … and anyway, you’re preaching to the converted. BUT DON’T STOP, for heaven’s sake! [grin]

  2. OzFenric

    Sorry, should have indicated – the quote was from our good friend Cory Bernardi. Several others including Bronwyn Bishop also spoke attacking the ABC. Turnbull defended the broadcaster – you have to give him credit.

  3. Gail T

    If politicians were permitted to speak in parliament it might help. I have today written and asked the shadow attorney general and I hope it is still Dreyfus to remind Bishop that Impartiality of the Chair does not mean the chair she is sitting on,
    It is she the Speaker who has to be impartial. The chair being inanimate has no obligations to be impartial but she has.
    If she continues to be partisan then action can be taken.

  4. OzFenric

    Thank you Kaye Lee. That is exactly what I was looking for.

  5. OzFenric

    I suspect that this was a well thought-out policy. Passing a block of contradictory amendments was never going to happen. And consider – if there was any likelihood of the Greens and Labor agreeing on an amendment that might actually go through, all the Coalition has to do is propose an amendment so ridiculous that nobody could vote for it. Whichever way you cut it, it ensures that the Coalition’s legislation goes through without change. Of course, that was always going to happen anyway, with the numbers in the House, but it prevents extended debate and curtails Hansard. I see that this motion passed on the numbers and will have been implemented. Whilst the actual outcome on process in the current term is limited, it sets a very dangerous precedent.

    I note also that it seems all but impossible to see this even reported in the MSM. This is exactly the kind of abuse of process that ought to have Australians up in furious protest.

  6. John Fraser

    With the latest revelations of Australian spying I wonder if Australia’s spying services have not been helping out the Liberal party.

    The DSD has told the “5 eyes” that they can have meta data … without any strings atached (a phase repeated in relation to Gonski money).

    Brandis has wasted no time in ordering raids on Australian citizens.

    AFP appears to be sitting on their hands when it comes to investigating political matters in relation to Liberal MPs.

    Looking at Liberal MPs in the highest echelons they certainly give the appearance of one who has eaten the canary and know that no one can touch them.

    The power behind the Liberals is not only Murdoch and Pell but also some very powerful shadows.

  7. Kaye Lee

    “Go through the sorts of ideas that the Leader of the House has put forward—and we respect that he is new to the job—but he has put forward that all non-government amendments will be voted on as one. So if we have a circumstance where there are members of the crossbench who put forward amendments to the same clause that are different to the amendments put forward by the opposition, we will vote on those amendments as one block. We actually have a situation where the government have put forward a resolution where contradictory amendments get voted on together. It is absolutely procedurally impossible for that to be implemented.

    We have a motion from the person who is meant to lead debate in this House which, if followed through, will create a possibility within this House that we get contradictory amendments to the same bill at the exact same moment. We have had situations previously where debate has been sought to be managed and where it has sought to be managed in the ordinary event it happens which is after there has been a long and protracted debate, not as we have today where it is being gagged after only one person has spoken. We have only had one speech on these bills.”

    http://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/search/display/display.w3p;query=Id%3A%22chamber%2Fhansardr%2F585f8e84-c281-4991-9ab8-437f9b9ff0f8%2F0038%22

  8. Kaye Lee

    Avec plaisir 🙂

    And thank you for highlighting this abuse of process which is yet another example of the total incompetence of this government. If the Greens propose an amendment and Labor proposes a different one, and the single vote on amendments actually got passed, you would then be in the position of having just committed to do what might be diametrically opposed ideas. Too bloody ridiculous. They truly don’t think anything through do they.

  9. bernylBerny

    I am totally scared sh!tless after reading the recent commentary, as should ever Australian be. I’m 70+ years old, and while I’ve seen some pretty bad things happen in Oz, I’ve never in my life seen anything as dangerous to our [free] democracy. I’m sick to my stomach thinking about how our future is being groomed to accommodate rich people only. Back to the dim dark ages when money was worshiped above everything else, and human life meant very little in the pursuit of opulence. God help us!!! Liberal voters will rue the day they voted for this current bunch of heartless, mindless hooligans.

  10. rosellajam

    So…the ABC has reported something that the LNP doesn’t like and they are not happy. Bullying is their default position on everything because they have nothing else; integrity or vision for example.
    “We will have no press but the Murdoch Press”!! Bernadi is a worm; even lower than the rest of the stinking bunch.

  11. Kaye Lee

    “The Greens say the attorney-general George Brandis needs to explain his decision to authorise raids by the intelligence services in the past 24 hours, branding his conduct analogous to the controversial Federal Bureau of Investigation chief, J Edgar Hoover.

    Brandis on Tuesday approved warrants for agents of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (Asio) to raid the office of a Canberra lawyer, Bernard Collaery, who is at the centre of an espionage case involving Australia and East Timor in 2004.

    The passport of a key witness and whistleblower in the case, a senior retired officer of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (Asis), was also confiscated during the raids. The former Asis official was detained and searched.”

    http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/dec/04/timor-leste-spy-brandis-likened-to-notorious-fbi-chief?CMP=soc_568

  12. ()

    Are you aware that Alexander Downer’ became an advisor to Woodside Petroleum through his lobbying firm, Bespoke Approach? Could that be ‘payback’? ‘Corruption’ writ large? Oh the ‘standards’ they set.

    One of Rudd’s great mistakes was NOT to have a Royal Commission into the AWB scandal..

  13. Kaye Lee

    East Timor will launch a case in The Hague on Thursday to have a $40 billion oil and gas treaty it signed with Australia ripped up. It alleges Australia had the advantage in negotiations because of spying conducted by the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) in Dili, which it claims was ordered by then foreign minister Alexander Downer.

    Yesterday, ASIO officers raided the Canberra office of lawyer for East Timor Bernard Collaery – currently in the Netherlands preparing for the case – and cancelled the passport for a retired spy expected to give evidence.

    Attorney-General George Brandis has confirmed he approved the warrants to conduct the raid, but denied it was done to affect the arbitration at The Hague.

    East Timor claims ASIS used the cover of Australia’s aid program to install listening bugs inside the East Timorese cabinet room so it could spy on sensitive information during oil and gas negotiations in 2004.

    The two countries were working on a deal to share revenue from the oil and gas deposits under the Timor Sea, called The Greater Sunrise fields.

    Woodside Petroleum, which wanted to exploit the field, was working hand in glove with the Australian government and senior ministers to score the best possible deal.

    Mr Collaery says the details in the allegations have not been made public until now.

    “The director-general of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service and his deputy instructed a team of ASIS technicians to travel to East Timor in an elaborate plan, using Australian aid programs relating to the renovation and construction of the cabinet offices in Dili, East Timor, to insert listening devices into the wall, of walls to be constructed under an Australian aid program,” he told the ABC.

    Mr Collaery says a star witness who ASIO questioned last night was “not some disaffected spy” but the former director of all technical operations at ASIS.

    He says the former ASIS operator decided to blow the whistle after learning Mr Downer had become an adviser to Woodside Petroleum in his years after politics.

    http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-12-04/asio-arrests-key-witness-in-east-timor-spying-scandal/5132954

  14. Stuart Dean

    This is depressing. Soul destroying stuff. If you can watch this documentary (1hr 50mins) as it has relevance to this thread, you may learn how America and the world have been duped for 100 years.
    Just watch the first 10 minutes, if you can: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kE8RtL3azDg

  15. hilderombout

    I hope that East Timor will win in the Hague. And that Bernard Collaery will have enough evidence with him to succeed in getting the agreement between Australia and East Timor shredded. I don’t care how many politicians or ex- will fall because of this but i do wish they will take George Brandis with them.
    And as far as the ABC is concerned, it is better to get rid of Cori Bernardi instead IMHO.
    I think that the liars are so afraid of being found out to be a puff of hot air that they will do anything to destroy this country so as to keep up their pretences. Their claim to be adults is nothing but a mask to hide that they are in fact the opposite: a club of inane frustrated teenagers (apologies to real teenagers) in grown bodies drunk on the drugs of power. I was trying to watch QT – again- but i had to switch the TV off or i would have done it severe damage and i can’t afford a new one at the moment.

    This government can’t hide forever and i was quite pleased that the cracks within their ranks are appearing loud and clear through Ian McDonald. Great news, Kaye Lee! Thank you.

    We can’t let this continue. We have to find new ways in which to make this government obsolete. A tit for tat method does not seem to be effective. Not entirely sure how to succeed yet but we will in the end, no doubt about that.

    Thanks OzFenric for this well thought out article. Much appreciated.

  16. lawrencewinder

    Cory “Beastiality” Bernardi…. and Brandis… it’s all .”..look over there a rabbit,” shielding themselves against the glaring whiff of corruption emanating from the Timor treaty and seemingly with Alex “Things-that-Batter” Downer’s fingerprints all over it.
    It is becoming harder not to see this IPA mentored rabble as more fascist than democratic.

  17. Kaye Lee

    Worms are hermaphrodites so Bernardi can go F#$% himself.

  18. Kaye Lee

    Oh I think the reference is clear 🙂

    Thank God for a Coalition Senator with enough ticker to call a spade a spade. I don’t want my country run by Peta Credlin and Mark Textor. I don’t want them dictating policy and strategy and restricting the public’s access to their elected representatives. These people are all about advertising and spin and image – smoke and mirrors. They polished the turd and now think they run the show. Well it’s time we ALL did what Senator MacDoanald is doing and stand up and say “Who the hell are you?”

  19. Terry2

    Yesterday, Abbott’s office called a press conference for the PM to stick it to Labor for not supporting his legislation repeal program: all went well until he fluffed his rehearsed lines and said:

    ” Labor is giving the Australian people the thumbs – up” by not supporting the repeal etc”

    He then called for a camera retake and said :

    “Labor is giving the Australian people two-fingers” by not supporting the repeal etc”

    This is blatant manipulation of the media in my view and I am pleased that the ABC covered both attempts in their evening news but their will be a price to pay.

    Watch out for a continued assault on the ABC by the government and Murdoch press; the next move will be an enquiry and then dismembering of our national broadcaster : Murdoch’s pound of flesh for putting this mob into office.

  20. Kaye Lee

    Prime Minister Tony Abbott refers to her as ”the boss” and Peta Credlin is proving why, stamping her authority on the make up of the government.

    Fairfax Media has learned Ms Credlin, who steered Mr Abbott’s path to The Lodge as his chief-of-staff, is deciding every government appointment from top ministerial aides right down to the electorate staff of new MPs.

    She sits at the head of the government’s ”star chamber”, which has already knocked back some applicants put forward by cabinet ministers.

    Sitting on the star chamber panel are federal Liberal Party director Brian Loughnane – Ms Credlin’s husband – along with John Howard’s former chief of staff, Tony Nutt, and ministers Michael Ronaldson and Kevin Andrews.

    Appointments already made suggest a strong emphasis on previous experience in the Howard years of government and a direct working connection to Mr Abbott or Ms Credlin.

    ”It’s fair to say they are putting the Howard band back together but there are three key categories: Credlin loyalists, Abbott loyalists and Howard loyalists,” said a Liberal source.

    Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/credlins-star-chamber-rewarding-liberal-party-loyalists-20131004-2uzyu.html#ixzz2mTXfCFbR

  21. Kaye Lee

    Downer becoming an advisor to Woodside Petroleum just fits in with what many Howard era politicians did.

    Then Parliamentary secretary Warren Entsch’s concrete company won a massive government contract in breach of the code. Peter Reith was appointed as a consultant to defence contractor Tenix immediately after resigning as defence minister. Health minister Michael Wooldridge signed a $5 million building deal for the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners and days later, after resigning as health minister, was employed by the college as a consultant.

    Government is just a stepping stone for this crew.

    http://www.senatorjohnfaulkner.com.au/file.php?file=/news/HQRYPBHXRQ/index.html

  22. doctorrob54

    Not commenting on intelligence in relation to national security is one thing.But not commenting because a
    maggot like Downer instructs ASIS to bug business meetings of corporate entities to get the upper hand on
    business deals is corrupt.I fully expect Shorten to capitalize on this and begin to blow them out the water.
    Not so much for what they did then,but the fact that the present libturds are using the intelligence services to cover it up,protect the corrupt and interfere with due process of the court case in The Hague.

  23. Lee Wilmott

    I have been watching parliament and it is corrupt lead by a corrupt government.

  24. helenmarg

    Well said Paul. Appalling speaker as well as the Dreadful government ,no manners or credibility in their answers etc. I cannot watch QT any more.

  25. Paul Raymond Scahill

    I only hope Gail T is right because the old “Witch” Bronny Bishop is anything but impartial. I remember when Tony Rabbott first installed her to the chair, with the Duchess of Skirt, sorry Sturt that she would be an impartial speaker. My observation, and I guess anybody who had any degree of impartiality would be astounded by her decisions. She must be over 80 years of age because she gives one the impression that she is bereft of hearing and that she indeed is of impaired vision. I would think that she should be pensioned off and another by-election called for.

  26. Kaye Lee

    “Australia will be quite different in a few years’ time because a Coalition rather than a Labor government has been calling the shots, and calling them with a preference for freedom,” Abbott said.”

    At least I agree with half of what he says for once.

    Unfortunately the link to this article from The Guardian does not appear to work? Just like the ABC continually dropping out during interviews. I wonder……..

  27. Terry

    Funny how when the left side of politics were in government their suggestion of regulating the press were met with cries of disdain and from in particular the right leaning news limited,now the right side are in and are being questioned on their particular behaviour from the supposedly left leaning ABC the news limited bandwagon are calling on regulations of the ABC…does the word hypocrisy mean anything?Freedom of speech should live on.

  28. Kaye Lee

    We start with assaults on democracy. We end up with a police state. I would suggest that messing with the International Law Court will not end well. Can someone explain to me how, under the guise of “foreign aid”, we build cabinet rooms for the East Timorese, at the same time building in bugs to allow an oil company to gain a negotiating advantage, and claim that this is “national security”?

    What the hell are these people doing?

    http://www.independentaustralia.net/politics/politics-display/abbotts-dark-state-war-powers-invigilation-and-trust,5956

  29. doctorrob54

    Ranting and raving by bernardi and cohorts about ABC BS is one thing ,but using ASIS to bug a business meeting by Downer to gain a better corporation deal is worse than insider trading.This has nothing to do with National Security,this is just a bloke using improper power because he has mates with the equipment to do a number for him.This is not just Downer being exposed for the crooked slime bucket he is.But also how our security industry can be misused for a non security totally business venture.And now with the libturds back in power we have his mates now using ASIO on the pretense of National Security again,but just as corruptly,from this information getting out because it is nothing more than but a blatant crime.
    For Gods sake this is known now by everyone,the world,the arbiters in The Hague are waiting,It is now time for the whole of Parliament to erupt,even walk out if need be and revolt.Greens,Labor,Indep. the lot,don’t worry about the papers but all television world wide will broadcast.Nothing to lose and all to gain.

  30. Buff McMenis

    What a remarkably good article and what clear insights into the corrupt practices of this so-called government! And the comments following have been accurate and make a difference to the feelings I have had lately that I was the only person feeling so “down” about our future and that of my children and grandchildren! I want to fight but does one voice make a difference? You bet your sweet bippy it does! The more of us who can get their fears and anger out into the masses of the great unwashed and make them realise what they have done the better it will be! So keep it up, people .. you make my anger worth it! >:(

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