Comment: Abbott’s reformation retaliation flies in the face of a liberal democracy


The timing of the Abbott government's spate of reforms is strange and disturbing. They're also at odds with traditional liberal ideals of democracy, writes Lilani Goonesena.

Hot on the heels of the ABC’s coverage of allegations of asylum seeker abuse by the Australian navy came the government’s announcement of an efficiency study into the national broadcaster.

So too, after the Human Rights Commission (HRC) announced a national inquiry into children in detention centres, the government deemed it in need of reformation as well.

The timing of these reformation marching orders is strange and disturbing. They are also at odds with traditional liberal ideals of democracy.

The ABC’s reports last month of asylum seeker abuse by the Australian Navy drew fury from the Prime Minister. He criticised the national broadcaster as being “un-Australian” and that the head of the ABC, Mark Scott, showed “very, very poor judgment”. The very next day, the government announced the efficiency study into the ABC, which the Acting Labor leader Tanya Plibersek labelled a “petty tit-for-tat exchange”.

Earlier this month, the HRC released news of a comprehensive national inquiry into the mental health and wellbeing of children “living behind the wire'' in mandatory detention facilities. A few days later, the Attorney-General George Brandis announced new legislation to reform the HRC’s “narrow and selective view of human rights”. This comes less than two months after the government appointed former Liberal Party member Tim Wilson, who himself had called for the abolishment of the HRC, as its new commissioner.

It is evident that the government intends a culture change in independent statutory bodies. If it cannot achieve this through replacement of key management personnel – such as Tim Wilson’s appointment or the ABC’s board of directors – it will seek other means, such as publicly undermining these agencies through reform processes.

So too, the government has contributed to the current situation through its lack of transparency and clandestineness in certain policies, particularly relating to asylum seekers.

Its secrecy on Operation Sovereign Borders has only inflamed public opinion over rights to information. When the ABC broke the abuse claim story, it arguably received greater attention simply because it had sidestepped the government’s information clampdown. Abbott’s “extraordinary” response against the ABC then only served to make it an even bigger story.

So too, when the HRC launched its national inquiry into children in detention facilities, one of its reasons for doing so was due to the “minimal co-operation” it had received from the Department of Immigration. The inquiry will give the Commission “extra power” to extract this information from the government.

The political agenda on asylum seekers has become quite ridiculous. So too is the Coalition’s reaction to statutory bodies that question the present policy. Moreover, the government’s reprisals fly in the face of liberal philosophy.

A liberal system of government needs to allow for independent coverage of news and impartial evaluation of government policies. Statutory agencies must be allowed to operate without the possibility of reprisal. How else can they act with integrity?

The role of statutory bodies in modern Australia is to keep the public informed. Australia needs these authorities to provide oversight on important issues, such as abuse allegations or what is being done in taxpayer-funded detention facilities.

Core liberal values – the ‘marketplace of ideas’ – is about encouraging ideas, allowing for contending viewpoints and holding the government accountable to the people it serves.

Statutory bodies whose independence is encroached upon, or who are managed by biased government associates, will be unable to effectively perform the role for which they were created. Who then will ensure the government’s actions are transparent and accountable when the threat of reform hangs over their heads?

In 1996, the Howard government decided the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) should be independent and for good reason; both sides believed it wouldn’t be in the national interest of the Australian economy for the government to try to influence interest rates decisions. So, the RBA has maintained its independence and today Australia’s economy is stronger than most.

In a similar vein, in order for the ABC or the HRC to effectively achieve their mandates in freedom of expression or the protection of human rights, they also need independence. The ABC and HRC are not and should not be political. This is how they will remain effective. Otherwise the usefulness of these institutions will be eroded, to the detriment of the country.

Lilani Goonesena is a freelance writer based in Canberra.