What is Happening to Australian Democracy ? New IR Changes highlight concerns 1


What is Happening to Australian Democracy
by Fred Argy (1)

Australia nominally has all the right democratic institutionsregular elections, parliamentary sovereignty, ministerial responsibility, an independent judiciary, federalism, a non-partisan and expert public service and a free press. But these institutions dont always work the way they should and democracy is not just about formal institutions; it is also about how the public opinion climate is formed, how well-informed citizens are and their capacity to actively participate in public debate. At both these levelsinstitutional and participatorythere is cause for concern.

At the institutional level, one could point to the growing concentration of power in the executive and more particularly the Prime Minister and his office minders; the increasing propensity of Canberra to dictate to the States on policies and priorities; the prospect of a diminished role for the Senate as watchdog and scrutineer and as a source of publicly available information (2); the silencing of the public service in its dealings with the public; and the refusal of Ministers to accept responsibility for failings of their departments or their minders.

Of no less importance to a healthy democracy is the way opinions are formed. Here, incumbency offers a huge advantage. Voters are generally ill-informed on most public policy issuesunderstandably so, given the cost of acquiring information. Government leaders, with an aura of authority and with good communication skills, can greatly influence the climate of opinion.

They have greater financial resources at their disposal than their opponents and easy access to an often uncritical media. They can release selective information, obfuscate, denigrate their critics, intimidate recalcitrant journalists and discourage unfriendly comments from persons (including academics) or community groups that are dependent on government grants, contracts, or tax immunity. They can make political appointments to independent statutory authorities, whose views and decisions subsequently impact on public opinion. And they have ongoing access to advice from experienced public servants.

In view of this incumbency advantage, it would be quite reprehensible for governments to use public money for partisan propaganda in the guise of information. Yet this abuse is rampant in Australia today, at both State and Federal levels. The Howard Governments advertising budget has grown markedly during the last eight years (totalling nearly 2 billion dollars since 1996 (3), and has tended to peak close to election time. Much of the advertising (such as on superannuation choice, bushfire protection, anti-smoking, defence recruitment, national security alert etc.) is about legitimate dissemination of information. But much is not.

Ideally, information advertisements paid for by public money should relate to legislation already enacted (or at least fully discussed by the Parliament) and any judgmental argumentation in them should be scrupulously balanced, with alternative views presented. The ads should also be subject to independent oversight. Recent advertisements such as on GST in 1998, on Medicare in 2004 and most recently on industrial relations (IR) reform fail these tests. The decisions were made by a Government Committee (the Ministerial Committee on Government Communications) which is not accountable to Parliament or answerable to Cabinet and not subject to independent oversight.(4) Nor can their content be described as non-political. The Broadcasting Services Act offers no great impediment to the broadcasting of blatant political advertising by governments using taxpayers funds. (5)

The current IR newspaper ads (responding to pre-emptive advertising by the ACTU) are said to cost $20 million and are particularly controversial. Unlike the Medicare ads, which related to new legislated rights, the IR ads relate to a proposed and unlegislated policy changeone that is highly divisive. And they do not tell a full and balanced story.

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