by Ebony Bennett
[Originally published in the Canberra Times, 08 Ausgust 2020]
I was struck by something former prime minister Julia Gillard said this week. On an Australia Institute webinar about mental health, Ms Gillard, current chair of Beyond Blue, said: “I think this [pandemic] has been a reminder that when the going gets tough, government really matters, and who is running government really matters … I also hope we take the sense with us that expertise matters.”
She is absolutely right. Even in wealthy Western democratic countries like the United States, Sweden and the United Kingdom, when the going got tough and those governments didn’t get going, citizens began dying in their thousands. A thousand people are dying each day in the United States. Government really matters, and who is running government really matters.
For many years, Australia Institute research has shown trust in government declining; hitting some all-time lows as people responded to frequent leadership spills, entitlements scandals, gridlock and rorts.
But the pandemic has reversed that. A global survey of several countries, conducted by the Australia Institute, has shown that government is the most trusted source of information relating to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the institution most trusted to lead the world out of the current economic crisis. People have turned to government to manage the pandemic and its subsequent economic fallout. In turn, effective governments have looked to experts to guide them. As has the public. The ABC’s Norman Swan became a household name, in part because of his clear advice and because he’s upfront about when he doesn’t know the answer. Similarly, you can now buy cushions and blankets emblazoned with Victorian chief health officer Brett Sutton’s face, such a figure of reassurance has he become.
For people who think the government has a responsibility to serve its citizens – people who would prefer free childcare and high-quality aged care over cuts to the public service, for example – this newly restored trust in government is welcome news.
The crisis response from governments has been far from perfect, but in most states and territories it’s been pretty bloody good so far. WA’s Labor Premier Mark “There’s nothing wrong with going for a run and having a kebab” McGowan has kept his good humour and a hard border, which has not only proven effective in terms of eliminating COVID-19, but popular with West Australians. Tasmanian Liberal Premier Peter Gutwein removed the efficiency dividend for the public service and extended support to temporary visa holders stranded in his state (all while the federal government was basically telling them to bugger off). Most states have successfully eliminated community transmission, to their credit.
But this trust won’t last if governments misuse it. Just a few months into this pandemic, we have seen a massive expansion of unchecked executive government at the same time as Parliament has been cancelled both federally and in some states, allowing the executive to avoid scrutiny when it’s needed most.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison initially suspended Federal Parliament for six months, putting in place zero accountability measures to replace it. It took public outcry and pressure from a group of highly respected former judges for the government to agree to establish a committee that could scrutinise its decisions while Parliament was suspended.
Victoria’s Upper House sat in defiance of advice from the chief health officer that it was not safe to do so, but they should not have had to. Let’s be frank, there is absolutely no reason our democratically elected parliaments should not be able to sit during the pandemic. We’ve all had to learn how to use Zoom and Teams – it’s surely not beyond the capabilities of politicians to make their workplace COVID-safe.
Scrutiny, transparency and accountability have never been more important. The Victorian government is enacting harsh restrictions on freedom of movement to quash the outbreaks, enforced by a punitive police response. In news that should send a shiver down all of our spines, Peter Dutton has confirmed that the Australian government could spy on its own citizens under a cyber security plan. That’s horrifying on several levels. The Prime Minister has replaced COAG, an imperfect body that was nevertheless much more transparent than the secretive national cabinet system that has been put into place.
Now, I’m not saying Premier Andrews should not have imposed the restrictions – clearly they are needed to stop the outbreak. And every day he fronts up to the media to answer any and all questions. Everyone in the country (except for a few obvious exceptions) is willing Dan Andrews to succeed. Nor is the spirit of cooperation fostered by the national cabinet without merit. But parliaments are the forum for our elected representatives, and suspending them during a crisis is as dangerous to democracy as COVID-19 is to public health.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s handpicked secretive National COVID-19 Coordination Commission (NCCC) is a case in point. Numerous freedom-of-information requests about the NCCC and its deliberations, governance and conflicts of interest have been denied or heavily redacted. The NCCC is stacked with unaccountable, unelected fossil fuel executives who have recommended – shock horror – massive taxpayer subsidies for the gas industry. The only reason we know is because a draft report was leaked to the media. Handouts to the gas industry will not only accelerate global heating, it won’t create many jobs either – the number one thing the Australian economy needs right now. A million dollars spent on oil and gas creates 0.36 jobs, compared to 11.65 jobs created by a million dollars spent on healthcare and social assistance. It’s difficult to pick a worse industry to subsidise than gas.
That’s why who is running government matters. Just as Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels, 10 years ago Julia Gillard’s minority government passed the carbon price and clean energy package through Parliament. The carbon price reduced emissions while the economy and jobs continued to grow.
Gillard challenged the “received helplessness” we seem to have accepted on climate policy, that it’s impossible to get done. As she pointed out: “No, it [climate policy] can get done. It was done. And if we did it once, then we can do it again in the future.”
2020 has proven time and again that government matters, who is running government matters, and expertise matters. But each must be accompanied by parliamentary scrutiny, transparency and accountability – or we risk our democracy itself.
Ebony Bennett is deputy director of independent think tank the Australia Institute. Twitter: @ebony_bennett