New York Times columnist and Economics Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman has written an opinion piece entitled Conservatism’s Monstrous Endgame, in which he relates how republican apparatchiks are corroding the foundations of democracy. This is by the infiltration of democratic institutions by partisan republicans whose loyalty is to party, not to principles. Krugman considers this invasion is corroding the Republic and that this corrosion is very far advanced. He maintains that this is because the Democratic Party is a loose coalition of interest groups and the modern Republican Party is dominated by what he terms ‘movement conservatism’ a monolithic structure held together by big money, and the “closed … ecosystem of Fox News and other partisan media”1.
Krugman gives examples of dodgy judges, and government bodies run by people antipathetic to the missions of those bodies. This also happening in congress, such that now the Republican Party in congress is simply a rubber stamp for the Trump administration. It also extends to creating gerrymanders and disenfranchising people who are more likely to vote Democrat. Even when Democrats win elections, Republicans strip offices, won by democrats, of power, and Republican-stuffed courts strike down Democrat legislation on the flimsiest of pretexts. David Frum, in his book ‘Trumpocracy: the corruption of the American Republic’ warned that “If conservatives become convinced that they cannot win democratically, they will not abandon conservatism. They will reject democracy”1,2. This is a watershed for the US. If this corruption of democracy is not stopped and processes put in place to prevent it happening again, the US will perhaps slide into a second civil war.
Most knowledgeable Australians would understand what Krugman is explaining and perhaps shake their head in disbelief. But that would indicate undue complacency, as very similar processes are manifest here. They are just not quite as advanced as in the US.
What are conservatives in Australia doing or attempting to do to pervert our democracy? This is what:
- The Nation’s constitution prevents anyone running for parliament who: is an undischarged bankrupt, either has citizenship of another nation or has the right to that citizenship, has been convicted of a crime that has a potential sentence of one year or more, holds any office of profit under the crown, or has any direct pecuniary interest with the public service other than as part of an incorporated company of more than 25 people3. The Coalition government has consistently protected members of its parties, by not referring them to the High Court unless the cases are too obvious to ignore4,5. At the time when this blew up, there could have been as many as 20 Coalition members who were at risk of being ousted because of concerns about their citizenship, or rights to citizenship. The coalition referred very few of them to the High Court. In addition, it is suspected that Peter Dutton may be ineligible under Section 44, in that his family trust owns two childcare centres in Queensland, which has agreements with the public service to provide childcare services in exchange for subsidies6.
- In the United States voter identification legislation is used mostly by Republicans to suppress the number of voters who are most likely to vote for the opposition7,8. Given that it seems the Liberal Party is taking their guidance on strategy and tactics from Trump, it is not surprising that several Liberal Party members have called for similar voting identification laws to be enacted in Australia, as a way of suppressing the number of poorer voters who are more likely to vote for the Labor Party.
- The Coalition Government has stacked government bodies mostly with what have been termed ‘Liberal mates’. This perhaps has been worst in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. These included former federal Liberal MP, Robert Baldwin, former Nationals MP De-Anne Kelly, former state Liberal MPs Michael Sutherland, Joe Francis and Steven Griffiths as well as former federal Labor MP David Cox. Full-time members of the tribunal receive a remuneration package of between $190,000 and $244,000 per annum and are appointed for up to seven years10. The Fair Work Commission has been stacked with ideological pals, several of whom have worked for large mining companies, their lobbying groups or other employer lobby groups11. Infrastructure Australia has had Rod Hook appointed to the board, and he has already made statements critical of Labor after his appointment12. Scott Morrison’s former chief of staff, Philip Gaetjens, has been appointed to the job of secretary of the Treasury, while another former Liberal staffer, Michael Brennan, has been announced as chair of the Productivity Commission13. Gary Johns, former Labor politician, and former senior fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), the ultraconservative neoliberal ‘think tank’, was appointed as commissioner of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) by then Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar, in what many in the sector considered to be a bizarre appointment, given that the IPA is covered by the ACNC14. In 2014, the Abbott Government appointed John Lloyd to the position of Public Service Commissioner, but he resigned in 2018 amid questions over his conduct and allegations of bias15. He had previously been a director of the IPA and it was his subsequent contact with that ‘think tank’ that was found to breach to code of conduct of the Australian Public Service16.
- The Coalition government also abolished organisations with which it disagreed and has set up organisations to hammer who it perceives to be its enemies. In 2012, the Labor Government set up the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal to set pay and conditions for drivers in the road freight industry. The body was set up in response to a study which showed that a low rate of payment was the likely cause of the slower improvement in safety for freight transport when compared with non-freight transport. This low rate encouraged drivers to cut corners, overwork and speed. This Tribunal was abolished by the Coalition Government in 201617,18. The Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) was set up by the Howard Coalition Government in 2005. It monitored the building sector and enforced laws restricting industrial action. It did this by having ‘coercive powers’ which were not available to any other industrial regulator. These powers gave the commissioner the right to compel people to attend interviews and removed the right to silence. Failing to comply could result in gaol time19. This organisation was designed in part to deal with the alleged criminality and militancy of the then Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (now CFMMEU with the addition of ‘Maritime’), whereas the union says it makes it harder for the union and workplace representatives to act on health and safety concerns. The Registered Organisations Commission (ROC) was set up by the Turnbull Coalition Government as an independent statutory entity that regulates and educates registered organisations, and to increase financial transparency and accountability in registered organisations20. While the ROC is said to regulate all registered organisation, it is mostly concerned with regulating unions21. Indeed, it was the ROC that was implicated in the shemozzle surrounding the raids on the Australian Workers Union (AWU)22. Prosecutors were confident a crime was committed in relation to media leaks and considered it would be in the public interest to pursue charges against the supposed perpetrator, but they lacked sufficient evidence to achieve a conviction. The Australian Federal Police believe relevant evidence may have been destroyed23.
- Back during the tenure of the Fraser Coalition Government, minister Michael MacKellar brought a colour television back into the country, but listed it on the customs form as a black and white, thereby avoiding import duty. He was sacked from his ministerial position as was the Customs Minister John Moore, who handled the debacle poorly. When the Howard Coalition Government came to power, a ministerial ‘code of conduct’ was instituted, and in Howard’s first term five ministers were sacked for not adhering to it. Of course, the code was therefore dumped, such that the latter Howard years are held up as an example of how ministerial responsibility has gone by the wayside24. It is now worse. Michaelia Cash or a staffer were somehow involved in the AWU raids. She was defended by Turnbull and Morrison, despite that likelihood. Mitch Fifield gave a $30 million ‘gift’ to Foxtel with no documentation25. Barnaby Joyce moved the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority as a way of shoring up his support in New England, despite it damaging the organisation25,26,27. Then there is the endemic misuse of travelling allowances to attend private events, and undertake private business25,28,29. Of course, most of these are relatively small beer compared to the $80 million water buyback rort of Barnaby Joyce and Angus Taylor30. Then there is the $444 million ‘grant’ to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, which that organisation had not asked for31.
- The Coalition government has used Royal Commissions as political tools. It instituted the Home Insulation Royal Commission to attempt to damage the opposition and its strategy in countering the Global Financial Crisis25. It instituted the Unions Royal Commission in an attempt to discredit Bill Shorten and former Prime Minister Julia Gillard32. When Julia Gillard was considering the Royal Commission into Sexual Abuse of Children, the government used its religious hacks in the Murdoch media to argue against it33. Conversely, when the Coalition government was forced to hold a Royal Commission into the Banking and Financial Services Industry by the banks writing to the then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, to head off a revolt by backbenchers, it hamstrung the inquiry by only allowing it a little over a year and forced a very restricted terms of reference on Commissioner Hayne. Despite this, Hayne uncovered an enormous number of crimes and misdemeanors34.
- The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) identified numerous breaches of electoral law and simply warned the perpetrators. Most of these breaches were with regard to authorisation of the campaign material. That is the little quick ‘authorised by…’ statement at the end of any electronic media advertisements, or at the bottom of any print advertisements. The Electoral Act prevents “misleading or deceptive” claims only about the process of how to vote, but does not cover misleading or deceptive claims in political advertising35. In this recent federal election, the Coalition lied and misled the populace to an extent I have never seen before. Death tax; car tax; house tax; retiree tax; every one of these was a lie36. This will continue as long as people are able to be duped by such lies. As the neoliberal paradigm falls further into disgrace, and as the Coalition inadvertently shows its regressive social agenda, in the face of Australia becoming more progressive, this lying will only get worse. It is ironic that a large proportion of the Coalition are Christian nutters, and lying is now their modus operandi. So much for ‘thou shalt not bear false witness’.
- Despite GetUp’s failure to wipe out all the ultraconservatives it targeted in the recent election (the only one to go was former Prime Minister Tony Abbott), the government have indicated that they will do something to blunt its impact37, which in the 2016 election, was more significant38. The government have previously tried to link GetUp to the Labor and Green parties without success, despite using Murdoch hacks to give the opposite impression38. GetUp has been referred by the Coalition to the Australian Electoral Commission and it has ruled in GetUp’s favour three times (2005, 2010 and 2018). The government will seek to limit GetUp’s campaigning power by introducing rules to restrict volunteers outside polling booths to those attached to registered political parties and independent candidates. Given that GetUp is probably the largest community group of politically active people in the nation, attacks on it are antidemocratic.
These are just the tip of the iceberg of activities undermining our democracy. Others can be listed under such headings as Murdoch, money, scapegoating, among others. Such methods as these will continue as long as the Coalition are in power, and as long as the voter turnout in elections is allowed, or encouraged, to decline. I can only reiterate “If conservatives become convinced that they cannot win democratically, they will not abandon conservatism. They will reject democracy”. That is what is happening in Australia. The Coalition are trying their damnedest to sabotage our democracy to allow them to remain in power in perpetuity.
- Frum, D., 2018. Trumpocracy: The corruption of the American republic. Harper Collins Publishers, New York, 301 p.