Big Brother alive and well in Canberra
Since the inception of modern democracy, the separation of powers has functioned as a guarantor of individual liberty and honesty in government. In 1901, the Commonwealth implemented this principle through the creation of autonomous and competing branches and agencies, each serving to keep the others in their proper place.
“Our system of government is one of checks and balances,” wrote former Treasurer Peter Costello. “Checks and balances prevent us from the excesses that misguided ideas might otherwise lead to.”
But over the past two years, those checks and balances have been seriously eroded by Kevin Rudd’s obsession with centralised power and micromanaged administration.
The steady emasculation of the Australian Public Service under the current Labor Government has long been one of the worst kept secrets in Canberra. Even Kevin Rudd’s own Ministers have been sidelined by control-freaks from the Prime Minister’s Office who seek to dominate every detail of the political news cycle.
This unprecedented accumulation of raw power has become so pronounced that even ex-Labor heavyweights have expressed concerns about its corrosive effect on our democracy. The Weekend Australian recently quoted former ALP Minister Robert Ray describing the Rudd Government as “an extreme centralist outfit, bordering on a command regime”.
Peter Walsh, the Labor Finance Minister under Labor Prime Ministers Hawke and Keating, was even more outspoken, declaring Rudd to be: “capricious. He sees himself as some sort of Platonic philosopher king.”
But much more ominously, the Weekend Australian also revealed that Kevin Rudd’s intrusive tentacles were infiltrating Commonwealth agencies whose statutory role is the autonomous monitoring of government. “They are blind to our independence” said one senior official of a Commonwealth oversight body.
Rather than working at arm’s length from government to prevent mismanagement and corruption, these statutory agencies are now forced to function as political auxiliaries of the Prime Minister’s Office.
They are routinely required to warn the Government of awkward media stories and thorny issues likely to come up during Senate Estimates hearings.
The resulting conflict of interest is both obvious and undeniable. The autonomy of these agencies as independent government watchdogs has been subjugated to the Prime Minister’s demands that they advise the Government on strategies for avoiding political embarrassment.
In his megalomaniacal quest for absolute control, Kevin Rudd has bullied and intimidated statutory oversight bodies of the Commonwealth into political submission.
While this is all bad enough, the Rudd Government is white-anting Australian democracy on other fronts, as well. Three weeks ago, the Rudd Government announced a new set of rules governing the Members’ & Senators’ parliamentary Printing and Communications Allowance.
The Coalition supports genuine reforms of Parliamentary entitlements. But the fine print of Labor’s regulations has created a regime of political censorship that threatens MPs’ ability to interact with the people who sent them to Canberra.
The new regime has created an unelected committee whose task is to vet printed material put out by MPs or Senators using the Allowance. There is no avenue of appeal from its decisions.
At the heart of the problem is a prohibition on “electioneering” that is applied to commercially printed material funded by MPs’ Parliamentary entitlements, or internally produced material sent out using the Allowance.
The vetting committee has interpreted this ban on “electioneering” to forbid any strong criticism of the Government.
The rulings of this committee have conjured up a list of prohibited words that reads like something out of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four. The adjectives: Disgraceful, Reckless, Flawed, Unfair and Incompetent – just to mention a few – have all been flushed down Kevin Rudd’s memory hole. The censor’s black pen has struck these terms out of MPs’ correspondence with their constituents.
During Senate Estimates, it even emerged that copies of Hansard containing disparaging language towards the Government would also fall under the ban. Thus MPs may say anything they like about Kevin Rudd and his Ministers in a Parliament House speech, but they are prohibited from posting the official parliamentary transcript of those remarks to their constituents. How bizarre is that?
The committee’s definition of electioneering also seems to be quite selective. It appears that laudatory language that sings the Government’s praises may be deemed legitimate and allowable. As a result, these new communications regulations come across as a one way street that is all gain and no pain for Labor.
In that classic James Bond movie, villain Auric Goldfinger utters the memorable line: “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action.”
I am not quite ready to accuse Kevin Rudd of deliberately subverting Australian democracy for his own advantage. Yet I have submitted a Motion of Disallowance in the Senate that would nullify these regulations.
I plead with the government to work with the Opposition to put in place a set of rules that are sensible not censorship.
Liberal Michael Ronaldson represents Victoria in the Australian Senate and serves as Shadow Cabinet Secretary for the Federal Opposition.
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