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Australia’s silent state – Government betrays democracy

By Steve Davies

The silence

Successive Australian Governments and the Australian Public Service are used to dominating political decision making and discussion. Government speaks, mainstream media reports and from time to time there are rumblings from the community. In the main Australia has been a fairly silent state.

The political culture that has evolved is very much one of ‘being in charge’ and exercising power. That culture has not changed and what has grown up around it are practices that enable very serious abuses of power.

Community concern over the conduct of politics has grown massively in recent years and reached fever pitch under the Abbot government. People shared their concerns and information – and agitated for change. Persistent public discussion, especially on social media, was threatening the government and Tony Abbot was replaced.

Clearly, the Turnbull government has been focused on calming public discussion – of returning us to Australia’s silent state. Business as usual.

Unfortunately, the practices that provide the capability to abuse power remain. The continuation of these practices – all paid for with our taxes – are the building blocks of Australia’s silent state and are a betrayal of our democracy

Clearly, the culture of politics, government and the public service needs to change. Certainly, the capability to abuse power needs to be dismantled.

Abuses of power

Our recent post Bad Behaviour in the Public Service describes the Australian Public Service’s abusive use of psychiatry to label and intimidate public servants. The following statement by eminent psychiatrist Professor Allen Frances sums up the situation:

the power to label is the power to destroy.

This is precisely the power that the Australian Public Service has given itself – and uses against public servants. And don’t think for one minute that members of the public aren’t labelled and dismissed.

This is not the only form of power the Australian Public Service has given itself with the permission of successive governments. They have also given themselves extensive administrative and legal powers. All well and good if these powers are used to deliver to the public, respect our democracy and give us decency in government.

Problems arise when these powers are used to censor, intimidate and silence citizens and public servants – great harm is caused to individuals, a culture of lawlessness takes hold and democracy is betrayed. Sadly, this is what has been happening for a long time. The proof?

  • The millions of dollars wasted on trumped up psychiatric assessments and so-called human resource management.
  • The millions of dollars shoveled into the coffers of legal firms in order to win at all costs.
  • The millions of dollars spent on an army of administrative workers whose work contributes to masking the flagrant disregard for the Australian Public Service Code of Conduct, the flaunting of the model litigant rules and the gaming of the legal system.

Who does this hurt? Any member of the public who questions or disputes the actions of government agencies. Any public servant who, at even a low level, dares to question. Any public servants deemed to pose a risk – and that includes those who complain about being bullied and mobbed.

Why does this happen? Simple. Because the culture of government is riddled with an obsession with reputation, risk and always being right. Regardless.

What are the personal drivers behind this state of affairs? Two words – comfort and power.

What is the proof? Again this is simple. Strip away the spin and it is the Australian Government and its public service that are spending big money on this dangerous nonsense.

Actually, no. Don’t take away the spin. They spend millions, that is to say our millions, on that (spin), as well. It comes with the entire abusive package. Spin, what passes for communication with the public, is very important. No cost or effort is too great to preserve comfort, power and control. And to shape the perception of the public.

Hold this thought. The Australian Government and its public service are very concerned about how social media has shifted the communications dynamic between the public and them. We actually have the former Prime Minister, Tony Abbot, to thank for that. The peasants (us), were revolting and something had to be done. Tony Abbot is no longer PM and the government has changed its tone.

Betraying democracy

So here’s how it works when members of the public get noisy or, god forbid, challenge the Australian Government and its public service.

Silence – Raise a thorny issue and you will be ignored and, hopefully, go away.

Provide a BIFF response – This is interesting as responses given, whether by politicians or government agencies follow this pattern:

  • Keep your response brief.
  • Be informative – ‘just the facts’.
  • Adopt a friendly tone
  • Be firm

I don’t know if the High Conflict Institute intended for its approach to be used to spin the public, but I do know of some public servants who are enamoured of the high conflict notion. (Read more about BIFF responses here).

Most people call this being fobbed off. It is.

And think about this. If your circumstance is such that you persist you can always be labelled a high conflict person, subjected to psychiatric assessments, labelled a vexatious complainant or litigant and hounded from one end of the bureaucracy to another.

One version of the truth – This is the other driver. Australian Public Service agencies have long seen themselves as being the purveyors of THE TRUTH. That’s the service they provide to the Australian Government and what the public is meant to swallow.

The trouble is that public expectations have shifted and the embrace of social media has disrupted the one version of the truth thing. But that’s OK. There’s always media monitoring, metadata and the censorship of public servants.

It is much more convenient to deal with the mainstream media. Fractious as they can be they do provide a more manageable megaphone and relationships are well established.

Controlling public discussion – In contrast, managing and controlling public discussion is much harder. Especially when that discussion takes place via social media for all to see. This is why the Australian Government and its public service prefer to deal with the mainstream media. This is why they actively seek to chill public dialogue and censor public servants. This is one of the key reasons why they surveil and monitor.

So what does this mean for us? What these communications antics are all about is serving the Australian Government by promoting one version of the truth and preserving reputation. At one level that’s OK. At another it is a recipe for group think, manipulation and abuses of power.

What is not being asked is what it means for our democracy and society when this manipulation of the public is taking place against a backdrop of entrenched and normalised systemic abuses of power that directly and indirectly touch every man, woman and child in this country.

This is not a good recipe for decency in government and public service by a long shot. It is a betrayal of democracy, makes a mockery of open government and is an abject betrayal of the public that the government is meant to serve. All in the name of inducing silence, promoting self-censorship and preserving comfort and power.

Is this a conspiracy? If you want to call risk management, reputation management, communications management and the scooping up of vast amounts of information a conspiracy you are not that far off the mark. Certainly, there is a lot of over reach and vast amounts of money and effort are put into enabling abuses of power. And certainly there is a powerful convergence of interests driven by the culture of successive Australian Governments and the Australian Public Service.

As for smoke filled rooms, alien invasion and pouring mind controlling substances into the water supply. Forget it.

So, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten my questions to you both are:

  • What are you going to do to fix this mess?
  • What are you going to do to stop our taxes being used to fund abuses of power?
  • What are you going to do to focus public service effort on more positive endeavours?


This article was originally published on Ozloop.



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  1. Jack

    There has been a lot of good work done by the folks at Gumshoenews that prove “Bryant didn’t do PAM”

    There is a petition going that has collected hundreds of signatures, (1,725 ) that will be presented to the Premier of Tasmania soon, by Cherri Bonney, also the person who wrote the song dedicated to Bryant, “Wish I Knew How To Be Free.”

    This is a massive example of government censorship and coverup, and for anyone who cares, an opportunity to do something about it.

  2. James Mason

    Turn-bull ..

    A composting method of rotating garbage (colloquially used in Oz for bull-shit/rubbish/crap, ie. something of little or no value) to make a material that is of ‘quality’ usually for use on vegetable ‘gardens’ (‘vegies’ also has been used as a metaphor for the sheep of ‘society’)..

    It was once a hand operated system but nowadays we have ‘machines’ for easy rotation .. (could also be a metaphor for removal/rotation and/or replacement of a politician/business ‘villain’/religious ‘caretaker’ of children .. that seems/appears to have put the public off-side, (they usually get away with a slap on the list and/or relocation to one of the worlds beauty spots and on a high retainer, poor bastards!!!)..

    SOMETHING must be done to change this moral theft of a once great country .. NOW

    PS. Well put Steve .. thanks!

  3. cornlegend

    What you don’t realise is the LNP are trying to protect us with their secrecy and sins of omission,
    All these right wing turkeys went to the Donald Rumsfeld School of Responses .
    They all abide by the Donald classic

    “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”

    Donald Rumsfeld

  4. Was once senile now lunarophobe

    Betraying democracy???
    It is alright for dinatali’s children to make deals on preferences but not any other minor parties. Why not? The poor dear loonies have ignored the fact that anyone voting above the line is abrogating their voting rights. They lack understanding any of the majority aspects of democracy so why should they care about hypocrisy?
    I am sad that I will have to preference turnball’s twit ahead of the greens.
    Of course there is a chance that someone in the greens will see that honest preferences would mean voting for as many individuals as desired below the line then make the top in preferential order.

  5. corvus boreus

    A committee recently tabled a report to parliament with two simple, basic recommendations to parliament to rectify problems with the existing senate ballot system. (and abuses arising).
    The recommendations were to more choice above (more than [1]) and less onus below (>12 instead of all).
    These recommendations would give voters greater direct electoral choice without obliging anyone to change the way they vote.
    Unfortunately, when the coalition tabled senate electoral reform proposals, they had altered from the actual recommendations (funny that).
    Under the tabled reforms’, the below-the-line option has slightly more leeway given for numerical error, but the voter is still obliged to fill out the entire bloody thing, which is the main problem that needed fixing in the first place, as few (<5%) do this, and many who try to screw it up and end up voting informally.
    I despair at the ability of our phuqwit parliamentarians to turn reasonable recommendations into crappy legislation.

  6. Bronte ALLAN

    What a huge lot of “truths” Steve! Pity that ALL our obscenely over-paid so-called politicians did not try to achieve truths in ALL they say & do! And to think the over-paid inept “public service” (sic!) are, it seems, the main transgressors in hiding etc any “truths”, what can we do? Your suggestions have great merit. As for the voting “debacle” that is caused by the two main parties insisting on forcing any one with sense, voting “below the line”, why not allow the voters to place 1,2,3 for just the persons/groups they want to vote for? Surely, this would to a great extent, alleviate the anguish & mistakes that occur now with having to number ALL “below the line” in numerical order–which could be as many as 100 votes, or thereabouts! Makes sense to me!

  7. corvus boreus

    Bronte ALLAN,
    The committee recommendation I referred to above would have given voters just that kind of option, only ‘below the line’.
    For state voters, they could have numbered off the 12 people (or 6 in a 1/2 senate ballot) they wanted in the senate, and marked off as many ‘spares’ as they wanted, without having to sequentially number the full board (last NSW senate field was 129 candidates).
    More people would be likely to make a fully informed choice below the line, with much less chance of error (informal).
    This simple, workable option, which gives the voter greater direct choice without infringing on existing (ATL) preference arrangements, was a principle recommendation of the senate electoral reform committee, but somehow it ended up being conspicuously absent from the proposals released in parliament today.

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