The involvement of the Australian Federal Police in federal politics is not only an issue in itself but also an example of a certain sort of politics. With an election still fresh in our minds we tend to emphasise that type of politics, which is about democratic control by parliament and government of the levers of government administration.
That type of politics is about elections, parties, the public service and popular representation and is part of the rough and tumble of democracy. It is exemplified by Prime Minister Scott Morrison calling his public service chiefs together after the election to give them a pep talk.
What the AFP represents is the other side, continuity rather than democratic change. These are the things that elections don't change, including the defence forces, the police, the security and intelligence services and the courts.
Also included are certain economic institutions, like the Reserve Bank. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation also fits into this basket. Morrison doesn't call the leaders of this group together. They are not his "team" in the same way.
The government presents itself as in control of the more common type of democratic politics. But when it comes to the "non-democratic" type it is quick to proclaim that it is not in control and should not even be held responsible. The emphasis is all on the independence from government of these bodies.
Yet the independence is never complete, whatever the government might choose to insinuate. The government still controls senior appointments, budgets and legislative guidelines. It sets up these so-called independent bodies to do their work and can rein them in if it wishes to.
The government can also criticise these institutions when it chooses to do so or can allow its backbenchers and individual ministers to do so. The ABC is a case in point because it is seen as fair game.
Even the courts are not free from conservative criticism if they are seen to be too lenient in sentencing or too willing to stand up for themselves.
If the government really can't exercise control over such privileged bodies then we need to know more about their internal operations. Who leads them? What drives them? And above all, in what ways can the principles of democratic control and transparency be exercised?
Yet it is difficult to answer these questions as these bodies are rarely transparent enough. They carry themselves with a hauteur, which sends out signals that they are not to be tampered with because they are doing work that is above politics. That is a very hard outer shell to break down. Those who try have their own credentials called into question as not being loyal enough to higher principles.
In the case of the AFP, the recent instances of both ABC and News Corp journalists having had their offices, and in one case their home, raided have raised a raft of questions about the impact of such investigations on both whistleblowers and journalists themselves. They have also raised questions about the role, if any, of the responsible minister, Peter Dutton, who has dismissed such suggestions as ridiculous and absurd.
Let's assume for a moment (a big untested assumption) that the investigations were appropriate and instigated solely at the initiative of the AFP. That is not the end of the matter because it then puts the focus directly onto the judgment of the police.
The questions for the police leadership then become the standards they use in choosing which cases to investigate, the way they go about such investigations, and the timing of the public raids on premises.
The latter has occurred on these occasions in such a way as to maximise publicity, much of it negative and highly politicised. Are the federal police innocent victims thrust into such a position or could they manage their affairs with a greater eye to public consumption?
The AFP is generally respected and its recent inquiries, including into areas such as child sexual exploitation and international air disasters, have considerable public support. Its work is often heroic and unsung.
That does not mean it should be above criticism. But it does make such criticism difficult because the AFP is something of a sacred cow and many in the community think of it as beyond reproach.
The same is true in a different sense of another "non-democratic" body, the Reserve Bank. Governments are supposed to also keep the responsibilities of the bank at arms-length. The benefits of this stance are that difficult monetary decisions, such as setting the level of interest rates, are avoided by government.
As much as it might like to government can't intrude on the bank's territory. It can appoint the members of the RBA board and set guidelines as to how it should address its responsibilities, but then must keep its distance.
Effectively this gives the central bank enormous power, which we can only hope it exercises wisely. It controls one of the two main economic levers, monetary and fiscal policy, at the nation's disposal. Ultimately political responsibility for the economy sits at the government's door despite having one hand tied behind its back.
Recently the RBA decision to postpone cutting interest rates until the first opportunity after the federal election rather than during the campaign was a good illustration of that enormous power. That it passed without much critical comment reflects on the standing of the bank.
There is continuing tension between democratically elected governments and these sacred "non-democratic" institutions. Getting the balance right is one of the most awkward yet important aspects of our political system.
- John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University