Power, populism and principles

The existential threat to Australian democracy

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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’.

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.

Such unwillingness to abide by inherited traditions and practices intended to embed integrity and accountability in our system of government should sound an ominous warning to all Australians. This is a governing elite prepared to trash constitutional conventions – the unwritten rules intended to ensure appropriate standards of political behaviour – in its quest for political power. These depend on the willingness of those holding executive power to exercise self-restraint in the long-term national interest.

This matters to me. I’ve spent my professional life researching and trying to support integrity, accountability, transparency and good governance at all levels of Australian government. I’ve seen this pattern of conduct before. I’ve lived it, which accounts for the sense of unease and foreboding that I have felt watching these developments accelerate in recent years – emboldened and perhaps enabled by similar patterns overseas. A growing number of Australians from all walks of life share my concerns about threats to our nation’s democratic governance. Citizens’ loss of trust in Australia’s political leaders and institutions is reflected in a range of survey data, including the annual Edelman Trust Barometer (which examines trust across the major institutions of business, government, the media and not-for-profits) and the longitudinal Australian Election Study. Edelman’s mid-year survey, published in July 2021, reported that a resurgence in trust in its February 2021 annual survey – reflecting confidence in Australia’s handling of COVID-19 – had been a ‘false dawn’. It found that at the end of May, levels of trust ‘fell sharply across all four institutions’. Edelman also confirmed an ‘alarming trend’ it had reported previously as Australia again recorded the largest trust inequality anywhere in the world – a gap of twenty-eight points between the ‘trusting informed public’ (well-informed adults in the top income and educational brackets) versus the more cynical mass population.

Voters have always been sceptical about the motives and performance of politicians. A degree of distrust is inevitable and indeed healthy in a democracy. But we now inhabit a post-truth world in which, as Peter Pomerantsev writes in Granta, politicians no longer care about ‘whether they tell the truth or not’. American writer Anne Applebaum, whose book The Twilight of Democracy traces the rise of authoritarian populism – including in liberal democracies – argues that authoritarian leaders propagate ‘big lies’ and harness marketing techniques and social media to spread them. And that ‘all of them encourage their followers to engage, at least part of the time, with an alternative reality’.

But truth and trust are fundamental tenets of liberal democracy. This accounts for growing alarm on all sides of politics about the brazenness, velocity and corrosive impact of populist leaders’ lies. Journalist Annette Dittert, who is London bureau chief for German public broadcaster ARD, describes Scott Morrison’s ‘forever friend’ Boris Johnson as having a ‘pathological relationship with the truth’. Biographers, former colleagues, journalists, political opponents and – spectacularly – the French president have questioned Morrison’s honesty, highlighting his tendency to deny he has said things that are on the public record. This augurs badly for Australia because democratic accountability depends on the public having access to objective truth and verifiable facts. Dittert notes that ‘when that access is destroyed by an unassailable executive, there is the danger of an authoritarian government in the guise of democracy’.

Here again the Queensland experience is instructive. Bjelke-Petersen’s regime was unconcerned about the truth. The corruption it enabled and refused to acknowledge, although it had long been an open secret, had a name – ‘The Joke’ – that evoked its illiberal absurdity. Yet Bjelke-Petersen was a master of the media, pioneering techniques of image management, control and spin that are now mainstream. And so, as Julianne Schultz noted more than thirteen years ago in Griffith Review 21: Hidden Queensland, ‘Although the system was broken in countless ways, it was also resilient.’ It seemed impervious and took a long time to die. Its eventual demise was the outcome of the sustained activism, effort and the courage of generations of unlikely allies. These included members of the governing National Party and the police service who could no longer stomach the abuses, hypocrisy and lies, as well as the law, media, universities, community groups and ordinary citizens.

All understood the accumulated social, human and economic costs of corruption – the lost opportunities, the flight of human capital and talent, some of which never returned.

Thirty years on, hamstrung by the National Party’s refusal to support more ambitious emissions reductions by 2030, Australia stands on the precipice of opportunity costs and punitive measures from financial markets and trading partners that portend even more profound consequences. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. The party’s leader, Barnaby Joyce, cites the late Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen – who he never met – and his wife Lady Flo Bjelke-Petersen as mentors. The contempt of the Prime Minister and senior ministers for scrutiny and accountability sounds a distinctive echo that resonates in my memory but presents an infinitely more clear and present threat to Australian democracy. This is because many of the key institutions that (eventually) brought down Bjelke-Petersen’s corrupt regime have been seriously – perhaps fatally – weakened. Everywhere democratic safeguards are under attack, including the media (particularly investigative journalism and now the ABC), universities, professional organisations and stakeholder groups prepared to hold the government to account, and the parliament itself. These are the very institutions of self-governance where everyone participates, not only elected officials and those employed in the public sector.

My concerns about the present derive from witnessing such attacks in the Queensland of my youth. In leadership cultures where the ends justify the means, in which rules are seen as impediments rather than safeguards, incumbents and their facilitators (because such regimes cultivate and rely on the unwavering loyalty of dependants and boosters) will do ‘whatever it takes’ to preserve their actual and vicarious privileges. The insidious accretion of what begin as small incursions, shortcuts and sharp practices accumulates such that erosion of the conventions, norms and standards of accountability and conduct becomes normalised and systemic. The hollow log riddled with dry rot. As journalist Matt Condon has vividly demonstrated in an award-winning book series that documents Queensland’s descent into corruption, its form was comparatively banal. While profoundly debilitating, its damage and impacts were local and relatively constrained to its own geography and then relatively small but dispersed population. A national government with authoritarian impulses that acknowledges few institutional restraints and has weaponised incumbency poses a threat an order of magnitude far greater than Sir Joh.

My focus in this series is on things that Australians who are concerned about a democracy that has been mostly successful, innovative and resilient should now care about, and deeply. My choice of the word ‘care’ is intentional. It connotes a concern for, and relationship with, something inherently valuable, something that needs to be nurtured and sustained by the attention and effort of those with a stake in its – and their own – future. That’s all of us.

The series is organised around five core ideas, or five ‘C’s’: consequences, connection, collaboration, compact and character. All point to the need for another, perhaps the most important of them all: courage. The courage to imagine, make and effect change; to act rather than hope; and to not be overwhelmed and intimidated by the status quo. The Queensland experience shows change can happen and that with vigilance and a robust integrity framework – including an anti-corruption commission with appropriately wide-ranging powers – public intolerance of the misconduct enabled by unbridled executive power can be made to stick.

Applebaum argues that constitutional checks and balances have never guaranteed stability. ‘Liberal democracies always demanded things from citizens: participation, argument, effort, struggle.’ This means more than simply turning up to vote on polling day. It means accepting that we have an obligation to be informed, engaged and committed to act to protect our democracy. This includes a willingness to call out and demand action from elected representatives to address a lack of transparency and accountability and other breaches of the unwritten rules.

But as the Queensland experience shows, this is not enough. The change we need requires sustained commitment, political organisation and a lot of courage. Australians need to be clear-eyed about the trajectory that Australia’s democracy is on – the fragility and precarity of our system of government. On polling day, we face a critical choice that will have global as well as national significance.

Australians have seen the consequences of post-truth, partisan division in the United States and the assaults on its democratic institutions – on elections, the civil service, the media, the courts and ultimately the Capitol – that accompanied it. Something similar is afoot in Boris Johnson’s Britain. We should not be so arrogant as to imagine it could never happen here. If we are to avoid a descent into authoritarian populism, corruption, incompetence and policy failure of the kind experienced internationally, Australians should care deeply and passionately about democracy and become active to defend it.


‘A great disappointment to the rest of the world’, ABC RN Breakfast with Fran Kelly, 8 November 2021, https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/breakfast/top-uk-climate-advisor-pans-scott-morrison-climate-goals/13620916

‘A complete list of the Liberal Party’s corruption over the last 7 years’, The Chaser, 18 February 2021, https://chaser.com.au/national/an-exhaustive-list-of-the-liberal-partys-corruption-over-the-last-7-years/

‘ABC chair Ita Buttrose accuses government of political interference over complaints handling enquiry’, ABC News, 14 November 2021, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-11-14/abc-ita-buttrose-accuses-government-of-political-interference/100619454

‘Australia’s false dawn’, Edelman, 19 July 2021, https://www.edelman.com.au/australias-false-dawn

Australian Human Rights Commission, Respect@Work: Sexual Harassment National Inquiry Report, 2020, https://humanrights.gov.au/our-work/sex-discrimination/publications/respectwork-sexual-harassment-national-inquiry-report-2020

Curtis, Katrina, ‘“Gaming the system”: Coalition MPs tired of defending Porter’s anonymous donors’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 21 October 2021, https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/christian-porter-s-blind-trust-to-be-examined-along-with-anonymous-donors-20211021-p591xa.html

Dittert, Annette, ‘The politics of lies: Boris Johnson and the erosion of the rule of law’, The New Statesman, 15 July 2021, https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2021/07/politics-lies-boris-johnson-and-erosion-rule-law

Hurst, Daniel, ‘The Australian people had their chance: Finance minister dismisses criticism of Coalition’s car park fund’, The Guardian, 4 July 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/jul/04/the-australian-people-had-their-chance-finance-minister-dismisses-criticism-of-coalitions-car-park-fund

‘Ministerial responsibilities’, Senator the Hon Simon Birmingham, https://www.financeminister.gov.au/ministerial-responsibilities

Murphy, Katherine, ‘“Menacing controlling wallpaper”: Banks says her three months under Scott Morrison were “gut-wrenching”’, The Guardian, 5 July 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/jul/05/menacing-controlling-wallpaper-julia-banks-says-her-three-months-under-scott-morrison-were-gut-wrenching

Parliament of Australia, 16 August 2005, https://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/search/display/display.w3p;query=Id%3A%22chamber%2Fhansards%2F2005-08-16%2F0078%22;src1=sm1

Pomerantsev, Peter, ‘Why we’re post-fact’, Granta, 20 July 2016, https://granta.com/why-were-post-fact/

Savva, Niki, ‘Speaker who restored respect to the House will leave a gaping hole’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 14 October.

Tiernan, Anne, ‘Accountability is under threat. Parliament must urgently reset the balance’, The Conversation, 28 October 2021, https://theconversation.com/accountability-is-under-threat-parliament-must-urgently-reset-the-balance-170530

‘Trust in government hits all time low’, Australian Election Study, 8 December 2019, https://australianelectionstudy.org/trust-in-government-hits-all-time-low/

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