A fundamental plank in our democratic system is that governments are answerable or accountable to citizens for their actions (or inactions). This involves a mix of institutions, laws, regulations, codes, policies and procedures, which together provide a framework of checks and balances.
This framework includes formal arrangements such as establishing and managing special agencies like human rights commissions or ombudsmen, question time in parliament, freedom of information provisions, Senate estimates hearings, royal commissions and parliamentary investigations, as well as more informal ones such as press conferences and ministerial statements. These practices collectively aim to build integrity, transparency and accountability.
Specific agencies have proven to be important bulwarks against corruption, maladministration and misconduct, and make essential contributions to integrity in government. Yet recent Coalition governments appear to have a fear of them as independent bodies. Coalition governments have railed against the Australian Human Rights Commission and its former president Gillian Triggs, publicly admonishing her, cutting the agency's budget and limiting the capacity of the commission to undertake its investigative role.
The Coalition also failed to properly fund the office of the Information Commissioner, who was reduced to running his office from his own home. This raised concerns about executive government overreach given Parliament had formally rejected legislation to abolish or limit the scope of the Commissioner's office.
Despite years in gestation, a federal anti-corruption commission has yet to be implemented and its exposure draft has been widely criticised as toothless and potentially impotent. And at the international level, Prime Minister Morrison has recently asserted Australian independence from human rights frameworks operated by international integrity agencies.
Question time remains an unreconstructed farce. Genuine accountability has for years been eroded by the use of "Dorothy Dixer" questions and obfuscating ministerial responses to genuine questions. Australian parliaments generally are well aware that these kinds of practices diminish accountability, as many states have already introduced reforms to address the issues. And the Federal Parliament's solution? Hold yet another parliamentary inquiry - the usual deny, delay and obfuscate approach to these kinds of problems.
The Right to Know Coalition has ramped up its concerns about protection of whistleblowers and journalists, just as the government has hardened its stance. The government's focus on criminality aspects of the issue, and references to extreme cases where journalists may have gone too far, only mask the fundamental abuses of accountability, especially the freedom of information provisions.
Recent governments have made a habit of not giving answers to questions asked by journalists and others who rightly want answers about government policies and/or inaction. Thus far the policy deficit is clear on major national issues such as climate change mitigation, energy, drought and water distribution, immigration and population growth, underemployment and economic growth. These issues demand answers, and the present government, in particular, is not providing them.
To often, the public has had to accept responses such as "there's nothing to see here", "I won't respond to gossip", "now is not the time to discuss this policy", or the use of deliberate obfuscations and unproven "alternative facts". Then there is the complete refusal to answer questions at all, such as Government Services Minister Stuart Robert's response to questions about Robodebt, or the Prime Minister's batting away of important questions about asylum seekers with the response that these were "on-water" matters.
Obfuscations come straight from the Donald Trump playbook of attacking dissenting voices. Proposals for increasing Newstart provoked a response that welfare recipients would only squander the increase by spending on drugs and alcohol. Peter Dutton's response to climate change activism was to suggest that protesters should face mandatory imprisonment and lose their unemployment benefits. Similarly, Nationals leader Michael McCormack referred to those expressing concern about links between bushfires and climate change as urban, "woke", lefty lunatics. None of the substantive issues involved in these situations were then addressed by the government.
At the heart of the problems with the system is the failure to accept, let alone promote, integrity. In the past, some have actively promoted greater integrity, including former Labor senator John Faulkner and independent parliamentarians Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor, who negotiated some changes to parliamentary procedures to improve accountability. In the 1980s, Labor introduced a number of provisions to enhance transparency and accountability and "let in the sunlight". However, most Australian governments and few leaders have championed accountability as a crucial issue in a robust democracy.
Labor senator and former ACT chief minister Katy Gallagher is on record saying she has been shocked at the lengths to which the present government has gone to hide information and abuse accountability mechanisms. She seems to have few active supporters for greater open government, despite research undertaken by the University of Canberra's Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis revealing there is cross-generational support for increasing the level of government transparency and accountability.
Perhaps the present government might heed this show of support for more accountable government and actually respond to it - as one might reasonably expect in a democracy. How good would that be?
- Dr Chris Aulich is an adjunct professor at the University of Canberra and an Honorary Fellow at the Institute of Governance and Policy Analysis.