Josh Bornstein: Australia is suffering a democratic recession – and we can’t blame COVID

The Morrison government has been described as the 'most corrupt' in Australian history.

The Morrison government has been described as the 'most corrupt' in Australian history. Photo: AAP

Australian democracy is in serious trouble and it has nothing to do with the severe pandemic restrictions that we have endured or the recent arson attack on the Museum of Australian Democracy in Canberra.

The situation that we now confront has been brewing for many years, but the democratic deficit has accelerated rapidly under the Coalition government.

Stanford University’s Larry Diamond argues that a global democratic recession began in 2006 and has deepened since then under the weight of the sustained undermining of institutional checks, political opposition, independent media and civil society organisations.

The current authoritarian onslaught in the US is reflected in red state laws that seek to stop its citizens voting at elections, the politicisation of its courts and the increasingly unhinged attacks on its universities.

Although the situation here is not yet as extreme, many of the anti-democratic undercurrents that have driven conservative politics in the US and parts of Europe have infected our politics.

Like their counterparts in the US, our conservative parties have set fire to the Enlightenment – as underlined by the attacks on science and fact finding, the propagation of disinformation by social media and the Murdoch empire, and the Trumpish antics of prominent politicians.

Bridget McKenzie was forced to resign as a result of the #sportsrorts controversy. Photo: AAP/TND

The ‘most corrupt’ government in history

Former science minister Barry Jones argues that the Morrison government “is the most corrupt Commonwealth government in our history”.

He points to the industrial-scale misuse of taxpayer funds that has allowed the Coalition to cheat at elections. Sports rorts, car park rorts, regional rorts to name a few.

Such corruption has been normalised by the Morrison government, which will not introduce an effective integrity body because it fears that such a body would provide the accountability that will bring an end to the misuse of taxpayer’s money.

No matter the scale of their wrongdoing, government ministers are no longer accountable.

They tough out scandals and remain in office.

For the first time in our history, we have an Attorney-General who refused to co-operate with an AFP investigation into suspected criminal conduct. No minister took responsibility for the Robodebt disaster or for the many billions wasted in providing JobKeeper to highly profitable companies.

The same story applies to the federal government’s bungled vaccine rollout, described by Malcolm Turnbull as “the biggest failure of public administration” that he could recall.

In fact our growing democratic deficit runs much deeper.

Democracies depend upon complex systems of checks and balances which are provided by its key institutions including its courts, the public service and the media.

When those institutions function well, they operate to prevent abuses of power.

Institutions undermined

Our courts and tribunals have undergone an anti-democratic cultural revolution.

The Fair Work Commission has been overwhelmingly stacked with a series of Coalition supporters and employer representatives including most recently former politician Sophie Mirabella.

The tribunal that reviews the legality of government decisions, the AAT now resembles a resting place for former Coalition political candidates and political advisers.

The public service has been both hollowed out and severely compromised by partisan appointments and a culture that suppresses accurate information and independent advice.

Those in its senior ranks frequently speak the language of government talking points.

In order to placate the federal government and its most generous political donors, the corporate regulator ASIC has been rendered weak and ineffective.

The Morrison government has flagged time and time again how it punishes institutions that criticise it or seek to make it accountable.

The Australian National Audit Office, which exposed its corrupt misuse of taxpayers money in the sports rorts affair, has suffered repeated funding cuts.

ABC funding

The Morrison government has presided over a tense relationship with the ABC. Photo: AAP

Fourth Estate attacked

So too has the most trusted source of news and information in the country, the ABC.

It has been diminished by decades of hostile board appointments, reviews and inquiries and Coalition campaigns, echoing the experience of the BBC.

Despite the valiant efforts of its outstanding journalists, the ABC is wracked by a culture of fear with editorial and staffing decisions frequently made with an eye to how they will be received by the federal government.

In the age of disinformation which we now all inhabit, a strong and independent ABC is more important than ever.

Anti-democratic politicians routinely target universities because of their unique role producing new research and teaching that questions the status quo.

The Morrison government’s latest salvo in its culture war is forcing universities to double the cost of studying the humanities to deter students.

Strong democracies also depend on having diverse and robust civil society organisations.

But our charities, community legal centres and other NGOs are effectively silenced by punitive contracts or statutory provisions which restrict their capacity to advocate on matters of public policy.

They have largely disappeared from public view.

Some of the most repressive anti-union laws in the OECD have severely diminished the critical democratic role that trade unions play; both in the workplace and on the political stage.

A healthy democracy requires healthy unions just as a healthy economy needs healthy wages growth. On both tests, we are failing.

We should celebrate the fact that a recent government attempt to introduce voter identification failed because voting at elections is the ultimate expression of our democracy.

The looming federal election provides the opportunity to start the process of repairing and restoring our democratic health.

Josh Bornstein is a lawyer and writer. Twitter @joshbbornstein

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