In 2004, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution that lays out seven ‘essential elements’ of democracy, including:
- • Separation and balance of power
- • Independence of the judiciary
- • A pluralistic system of political parties and organisations
- • Respect for the rule of law
- • Accountability and transparency
- • Free, independent and pluralistic media
- • Respect for human and political rights; e.g., freedoms of association and expression; the right to vote and to stand in elections
Checks and balances – such as independent statutory watchdogs, our independent court system, the rule of law, press freedom, and the ability of non-government organisations to speak freely – are vital to the health of our democracy and for protecting human rights, particularly in the absence of a constitutional or legislative bill of rights.
Since taking office, the government has actively undermined these protections.
Gillian Triggs submitted the AHRC report on children in detention to the government in November 2014. In December the government cut funding to the commission by 30%. By February they were demanding her resignation.
In February 2014, the head of Infrastructure Australia, Michael Deegan, slammed the government for plans to overhaul the organisation that he said “would damage independence and transparency in infrastructure funding.”
The Business Council of Australia expressed similar concerns.
“The BCA is concerned the bill in its current form provides for ministerial powers that could be used to prevent Infrastructure Australia from assessing certain classes of projects and which require the publication of project evaluations only under direction by the minister,” Ms Westacott said.
Two weeks later, Deegan resigned.
Today we hear that the chair of the Abbott government’s climate change advice agency, Bernie Fraser, has resigned without explanation.
“It is understood Mr Fraser had a difficult relationship with Environment Minister Greg Hunt. Fairfax Media understands Mr Fraser announced his decision on Tuesday after an all-day meeting of the authority. Many of his colleagues are believed to be deeply saddened by his departure. He is not believed to have quit due to personal problems such as a health issue.”
Government interference was also apparent in their directive ordering the independent Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) to stop investing in wind and small-scale solar projects.
In the days before the election, Howard and Costello both advised Joe Hockey to keep Martin Parkinson as head of Treasury. But that call was ignored by Mr Abbott, who announced Dr Parkinson’s resignation in his first official act after being sworn in.
”You’ve got to understand that incoming governments do very much want to place their stamp on the economic policy of the country and that is exactly what we are doing,” Mr Abbott said.
”We are placing our stamp on the economic policy of the country and let there be no doubt, let there be no doubt, that Australia’s policy direction changed very substantially back in September.”
We have seen the exodus of basically every executive at NBNco over the last few years. At Delimiter, they ask the question “One wonders, one really does wonder, why so many executives signed up to help build the company but then quit so soon after. Could it be the complete and utter politicisation of the project, perhaps?”
Since Michael Pezullo took over as head of the Immigration Department last October, there had been 15 transfers to other departments by executives and another three senior bureaucrats had retired by mid-May.
Pezzullo told Senate Estimates that departing executives had told him they simply did not fit in with Immigration’s new direction under the Abbott government. He said that a number of his veteran senior bureaucrats had told him during “very sensitive” discussions that the Immigration Department they had joined was different to the one that was emerging under the reform now under way and that it was time for them to go.
Staff numbers at the ATO have been slashed by well over 2,500. Experienced staff are being made redundant and replaced by lower skilled new people.
About 450 Tax Office middle managers slated for redundancies will walk away with golden handshakes worth just under $90,000 each on average – an estimated $40 million in payouts as the ATO opts for a cheaper workforce. The latest cuts come after at least 780 executive level public servants were made redundant during the 2014-2015 financial year
Commissioner of Taxation Chris Jordan told the workforce in his regular bulletin that entry-level tax officials were to be hired.
The Australian Services Union, says the tax office, which has endured a torrent of criticism directed at its ability to collect the nation’s revenue, was getting rid of its most experienced and capable tax professionals, which seems counterproductive as it has been shown that every $1 spent by the ATO on investigation returns $6.
Even the courts are being sidelined.
Migration and counter-terrorism laws are granting extraordinary powers to be exercised at the personal discretion of ministers with court scrutiny curtailed. In a recent hearing into legislation that sought to restrict court review of asylum seeker decisions, Senator Ian Macdonald said the government “doesn’t want to be beholden to the High Court who will pick every comma in the wrong place”.
Legislation has been introduced to ensure there are no consequences under Australian law if the government fails to comply with international human rights law.
Likewise, the government is seeking to strip citizens of the right to contest development decisions on environmental grounds, labelling court action to uphold our laws as vigilante litigation.
A combination of funding cuts, changes to funding agreements and intimidation has been used to stifle advocacy by the NGO sector.
Funding can no longer be used for advocacy and no-gag clauses were removed from contracts. The threat of funding cuts has created a climate in which organisations are reluctant to speak out for fear of moving to the top of the list for the next round of cuts. Charity status is also under threat for political advocacy, unless you are a right wing think tank.
The ABC has had government interference in its programming and press freedom is being curtailed by new anti-terrorism laws that threaten up to 10 years’ jail for journalists and others who disclose information about operations the Attorney-General has deemed “special intelligence operations”. Journalists attempting to pierce the secrecy around the harm being done to asylum seekers have repeatedly been referred to the federal police in attempts to uncover confidential sources and whistleblowers.
Increasingly, the AFP and ADF are being employed in politically driven pursuits, with police raids being filmed and requests being made for a list of national security related things to announce and for bombing runs to be started before the byelection. We have seen the transformation of immigration and customs into a paramilitary force and the use of the Navy to deter asylum seekers.
Executive director of the Human Rights Law Centre, Hugh de Kretser, sums it up well.
“This undemocratic slide is deeply concerning. We need political and community leadership to respond; to create a climate in which the independence of institutions is protected; where the separation of powers and the rule of law are understood and respected; where freedom of information, not secrecy, is the standard; where NGO advocacy is valued, even when it is uncomfortable for government.”
It is up to us all to fight for our democracy and to demand transparency and accountability from those who would seek to rule rather than represent.