Ideas for a brighter future for all

Power, populism and principles

The existential threat to Australian democracy

"We are all products of our personal histories, of events that mark us and those we transcend. But formative years littered with the sounds of a turbulent, divisive, angry, claustrophobic, frustrating and exhilarating time linger in our personal echo chamber and shape responses that may be hard for others to understand... Exposure to outrageous abuses of power, petty vindictiveness, wilful ignorance and self-serving denial is likely to fuel outrage and a heightened sense of justice and, if the punishments are not too high, a determination to change things.

Julianne Schultz, ‘Disruptive Influences’, Griffith Review 21: Hidden Queensland, August 2008

We are entering a uniquely dangerous time in Australian politics – not just because of the substantive risks the COVID-19 delta variant poses to the unvaccinated, our beleaguered health system(s) and the exhausted professionals holding it all together. Not just from the economic threats following Australia’s performance at COP26 in Glasgow, which Lord Debden, Chair of the UK Government’s Climate Change Committee, described as ‘a great disappointment to the rest of the world’. Not even from the spectre of more extreme climate risks as summer looms.

Compounding these existential threats is the risk that core tenets of Australian democracy, which have become weakened and frayed in the past two decades, will be completely eroded. And worse, that the flagrant abuses revealed about the Morrison government’s desperate efforts to hold power ahead of the 2019 election will be repeated. It remains unrestrained by its never-delivered commitment to establish a Federal Integrity Commission and emboldened by the lack of consequences for what, by any measure, is an egregious record by Commonwealth standards. That its disdain for scrutiny and accountability will become normalised as the way politics is done. And that like other once great democracies, Australia could sleepwalk towards authoritarian populism as key institutions are cynically attacked and undermined.

As someone with lived experience of a regime so consumed by its determination to cling to power, a regime unconcerned about and unmoored from principle or a raison d’être beyond its own survival, I’ve found the past three years chilling and shocking in equal measure. Chilling because the parallels with the Joh Bjelke-Petersen regime of my childhood are so apparent, and shocking because never once did I imagine a repeat of those dark days was possible – and certainly not in the federal jurisdiction. Thirty years ago, the Fitzgerald Inquiry exposed the interlocking and self-reinforcing networks that entrenched corruption throughout Queensland’s political institutions – not only its police service – and maintained the National Party’s iron grip on power. I see echoes of the attitudes, cultures and practices of that unlamented regime.

There are parallels too to the well-documented threats to democracy that have been manifesting internationally. The Liberal Party admires and has close ties to the Republican and Conservative parties in the United States and Britain respectively. Scott Morrison borrows heavily from Boris Johnson’s political playbook, just as Johnson and Steven Harper in Canada adapted campaign strategies pioneered during John Howard’s long tenure as Australian Prime Minister and exported by political consultancy firm CT Group (formerly Crosby Textor).

It didn’t begin with Scott Morrison, but under his tenure, it has become appreciably and, I fear, irredeemably worse. The Prime Minister has presided over flagrant abuses of and disregard for traditions and conventions that have guided political practice in Australia’s Commonwealth and were accepted by both sides of politics as appropriate and necessary restraints on executive power. Its recent defiance of a Speaker (Tony Smith) who was admired on all sides of the House for his fairness and regarded by many as the best in modern times compounds a long list. This list includes rorting and misuse of public funds, particularly through discretionary grants programs; a penchant for secrecy and brazen refusal to answer questions or conform to reasonable expectations of accountability to parliament or in the media; and a failure to enforce the Ministerial or other Codes of Conduct or to concede accumulating evidence of widespread abuses of power with respect to public appointments, the independence of public sector agencies, statutory bodies and the like.

Indeed, on the day that a Facebook ban left satirical website The Chaser as Australia’s only news site, it published what it termed ‘A complete list of the Liberal Party’s corruption over the last 7 years’. In February 2021 it ran to 124 items. The Monthly’s February 2021 issue – cover line: ‘A Government of Endless Scandal’ – featured an essay documenting the ‘systemic lack of accountability’ at the Morrison government’s core and the ‘culture of secrecy’ cultivated by the Prime Minister and enforced by his private office. This preceded the Brittany Higgins sexual assault allegations and further allegations that brought into question the conduct of senior Cabinet ministers. Morrison’s insensitive handling of both ignited the rage of women across the country, prompting demonstrations and a flurry of reviews, inquiries and commitments to fully implement the recommendations of the Sex Discrimination Commissioner’s 2020 Respect@Work Report. This promise was subsequently abandoned, with the government legislating only six of the report’s twelve recommendations.

Revelations followed that the federal government had botched the vaccine rollout. This was because state and territory governments – who routinely deliver flu and other vaccine programs through their health and hospital systems – were effectively sidelined. ‘Scotty from Marketing’ – the hashtag that stuck because it captured the Prime Minister’s reflex to prioritise politics over policy (a theme that recurs in opinion polling) – had reportedly calculated that an effective, Commonwealth pandemic response would yield electoral benefits at the early poll he had planned to call for October. In a few short months (that felt longer due to extended lockdowns following the dramatic spread of the delta variant from New South Wales to the Australian Capital Territory and Victoria), the perception that the government’s modus operandi is characterised by a lack of transparency and accountability and a determined avoidance of scrutiny became mainstream. It is widely observed among journalists, experts, commentators and practitioners – including former Coalition members.

Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull claims he is deeply troubled by ‘a culture of entitlement, a culture of non-accountability’ within the government. This was evident when the government attempted to legislate to ensure that National Cabinet documents should remain secret following an Administrative Appeals Tribunal finding that this leaders forum – hastily convened by Morrison to replace the Council of Australian Governments as the primary mechanism for intergovernmental co-ordination – was not a ‘sub-committee of the federal Cabinet’ and therefore not exempt from Freedom of Information laws. The Senate committee tasked with reviewing the draft of the Bill heard evidence from experts including the Australian Human Rights Commission. The commission opposed the Bill, arguing the need to ensure ‘that Executive power is not unnecessarily or permanently expanded…as this would have negative implications for democratic principles and the rule of law’. Constitutional expert Professor Anne Twomey described the Bill as ‘bizarre’ and ‘an attack on the rule of law’. Representatives of the Accountability Round Table (which maintains a rorts register that tracks the misuse of public funds by Commonwealth and state governments) went further, claiming it represented ‘a frontal attack on the entire constitutional system of responsible government’.

Leadership and Populism

In a race to the bottom that continues to plumb new and apparently bottomless depths, it might seem naive to look for tipping points. But for me it felt like one was reached in July 2021 when the Minister for Finance and Leader of the Government in the Senate, Simon Birmingham, was questioned about the rorts exposed by the Australian National Audit Office’s report into the Administration of Commuter Car Park Projects within the Urban Congestion Fund – and defended the scheme, noting ‘the Australian people had their chance and voted the government back in’. Since when did a minister – whose constitutional and legislative responsibilities include oversight for ‘government financial accountability, governance and financial management frameworks, including grants and procurement policy and services’ – so belligerently defend the indefensible? I expected more of Birmingham, a moderate, and his surrender to partisan interests is a significant failure – a betrayal of his responsibilities both as a minister and a senator. Australians rightly expect their elected representatives to prioritise their constitutional obligations above political expediency. And that they will act as stewards who safeguard and ensure the resilience of our democratic institutions, not undermine them.

Read more at Griffith Review


Professor Anne TiernanDr Anne Tiernan is a leading Australian scholar in public policy. Her career spans higher education, federal and state government, consultancy and teaching. Now managing director of mission-led consultancy firm Constellation Impact Advisory, Anne consults regularly to organisations committed to purpose and positive impact. She has written extensively on the political–administrative interface, governmental transitions, policy capacity and executive advisory arrangements. Her publications include The Oxford Handbook of Australian Politics (co-edited with Professor Jenny Lewis, 2021), Lessons in Governing: A Profile of Prime Ministers’ Chiefs of Staff and The Gatekeepers: Lessons from Prime Ministers’ Chiefs of Staff (both with RAW Rhodes, Melbourne University Publishing, 2014), Learning to be a Minister: Heroic Expectations, Practical Realities (with Patrick Weller, Melbourne University Press, 2010) and Power Without Responsibility: Ministerial Staffers in Australian Governments from Whitlam to Howard (UNSW Press, 2007).

Dr Tiernan is a National Fellow of the Institute of Public Administration Australia and a Fellow of the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG). An Adjunct Professor with Griffith University, and previously a member of the university’s senior leadership team, Anne served as inaugural Dean (Engagement) of the Griffith Business School, where she led development of the Group’s internationally acknowledged Engagement Strategy and operating model.


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