“Democracy doesn’t happen by accident, we have to renew it with each generation”, announced President Joe Biden, opening his global Summit for Democracy. There is certainly an urgent need to renew the health of Australia’s democracy as we head to the next federal election.

Pork barrelling has somehow become business as usual, whistleblowers are being prosecuted instead of praised, journalists are under attack for doing their jobs, and many of our democratic institutions are being weakened or undermined. It’s a toxic brew that will erode our democracy unless it’s stopped. Let’s start with pork barrelling, otherwise known as the misuse of public money. The Australia Institute’s Democracy & Accountability Program recently released one of the most comprehensive analyses of federal government grants programs ever undertaken.

Our research revealed that federal grants programs with ministerial discretion were clearly skewed towards marginal Coalition seats. Of the $3.9 billion dollars distributed via these programs since 2013, $2.8 billion (71 per cent) of the discretionary grant funding pool was funnelled into Coalition-held seats. Just $903 million (23 per cent) went to Labor seats, and $232 million (6 per cent) to seats held by independents or minor parties.

To put it more simply, of every dollar of public money spent in these programs, 71 cents went to Coalition-held seats.

Finance Minister Simon Birmingham criticised the research as “selective”, but the researchers were restricted by a lack of publicly available information for all grants.

Should the minister care to publicly release the missing data, The Australia Institute would be delighted to update its model and release revised figures.

The reality is, public money should be used for public benefit, not to benefit whichever political party happens to be in power.

Yet politicians cynically rely on persistent rorts and scandals to desensitise the public to the misuse of public money. We are on a slippery slope where rorting and pork barrelling will stop being unacceptable and instead become inevitable – just the way things are done.

Former NSW Liberal premier Gladys Berejiklian encapsulated this cynicism best when she told NSW ICAC, “I don’t think it would be a surprise to anybody that we throw money at seats to keep them.” To Berejiklian, pork barrelling was nothing to be ashamed of.

Anti-corruption bodies are, without doubt, one of the most effective ways to keep these kinds of attitudes and behaviour from politicians in check. Like branch stacking, pork barrelling is not technically illegal, but it is clearly an abuse of power and a corruption of the democratic process.

That’s why it was so disturbing to see the Prime Minister, on the eve of a federal election, publicly attack the NSW ICAC as a “kangaroo court” and to reject any similar model federally. In fact, it was another former NSW Liberal premier, Nick Greiner, who best explained why corruption watchdogs require the powers of a royal commission: “corruption is by its nature secretive and difficult to elicit. It is a crime of the powerful. It is consensual crime, with no obvious victim willing to complain.”

Misusing public money to benefit the party in government weakens our democracy not only because it helps entrench power with incumbents, but it undermines the public’s faith in government, contributing to a crisis of faith in democracy itself.

People around the world are expressing doubts that democracy still serves their interests, contributing to the rise of politicians like Scott Morrison, who reject transparency and accountability or independent checks and balances on their authority.

It is little wonder that there is still no federal anti-corruption commission.

In fact, independent Senator Rex Patrick had to take the federal government to the Administrative Appeal Tribunal to be granted access to documents from national cabinet under FOI laws. Despite a ruling in his favour, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet is still keeping many of these documents secret from the Senate and the public. Senator Patrick could be on the hook for over $150,000 in legal bills because he had to sue the Australian Information Commissioner for alleged unreasonable delays in dealing FOI reviews.

Senators should not have to take the federal government or agencies to court to access what ought to be public information.

Back at the global Summit for Democracy, President Biden cited research that half of all democracies had experienced a decline in at least one aspect of their democracy over the last 10 years.

Biden held the summit in part because Donald Trump has so diminished the US on the world stage by cosying up to dictators while alienating US allies. At home, Trump attacked journalism as fake news while convincing his supporters the election results were fake too, ultimately resulting in his supporters storming the Capitol.

But even before Trump, democracy in the US had been damaged by rampant partisan gerrymandering, voter suppression laws (including voter ID laws used to disenfranchise minority groups) and the prosecution of whistleblowers like Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. Australia too, has seen the homes of journalists raided by police, and politically motivated prosecutions of whistleblowers like Witness K and his lawyer Bernard Collaery, whose liberty is under threat simple for representing his client.

To arrest this decline and begin to strengthen democracy at home and abroad, Biden announced the US will establish a global “defamation defence fund” to provide liability coverage for investigative journalists from nuisance defamation suits.

While President Biden is establishing a global fund to protect investigative journalists from targeted defamation suits, in Australia, minister Peter Dutton suggested using public money to help politicians sue for defamation.

In Australia, it is cabinet ministers who are suing investigative journalists and the public broadcaster.

Biden said democracy “doesn’t happen by accident”. Neither are attacks upon democracy accidental. A denied freedom-of-information request might seem trivial, one comment from the PM about kangaroo courts might be dismissed, but cumulatively, they are toxic to our democracy.

Luckily, Australia is headed towards an election and in a democracy, that’s when voters have the most power to demand better, as well as a chance for renewal.

Originally published in The Canberra Times on December 11, 2021

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