Blunting democracy

It amounts to a sacking – the introduction by stealth of legislation that essentially dissolves Megan Latham’s role as commissioner of the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption.

In spirit, it is not unlike George Brandis’s failed corruption of the role of solicitor-general. In finality, it is akin to Malcolm Turnbull’s unnecessary commentary on Gillian Triggs’s term as president of the Human Rights Commission.

“It’s not an appointment that I have made but there clearly will be a new president when her term expires next year,” the prime minister said this week of Triggs.

“… There will be a new president. There will be a new president when her term expires in the middle of next year.”

Turnbull’s confirmation that Triggs’s term will not be extended is the end of the government’s sustained assault on her independence. It follows his specious characterisation of her role in the recent 18C cases, the ignoring of her reports and station, Brandis’s involvement in attempting to pressure her out of office, Peter Dutton’s calls for her resignation, and the show trials that have defined her appearances at estimates.

Disingenuous to the end, Turnbull said: “Her term runs out in the middle of next year but it is not productive for me to get in a slanging match with her. She’s got to defend and justify her own conduct.”

There was no consultation on the legislation Mike Baird is using to sack Latham. It arrived like a bolt: a major reform that will see more ICAC hearings held in private and see unparalleled government intervention in the body that scrutinises parliament. “By significantly altering the structure and governance of the commission,” Latham said in the wake of the announcement, “the bill represents an unprecedented attack on the independence and effectiveness of the commission as a leading anti-corruption agency.”

Latham’s crime and Triggs’s crime are the same: they have too effectively upheld the duties of their office. Both have been fearless in pursuit of the governments to which they answer. Both have been the subject of persistent harassment from politicians and the conservative media

This week The Australian described Latham as “the unchallenged, all-powerful ayatollah of the state’s anti-corruption agency”.

Elsewhere, the paper wrote: “Like Napoleon, she seems to believe that anything that would weaken her personal power would also weaken her organisation. She has failed to understand that the reverse is true: only by subjecting this little empress to internal checks will the agency regain its lost stature.”

Of Triggs, The Australian writes: “She has claimed and been given the prized and impenetrable cloak of victimhood … The Triggs saga must be brought to an end. The government must dismiss her.”

The ICAC under Latham has exposed appalling corruption in NSW. The Baird government’s agenda of land sales only makes this corruption more likely but this legislation makes its prosecution less probable.

Similarly, Triggs has documented unbelievable abuses of human rights. It can only be hoped the person who replaces her is as diligent and unyielding.

A terrible campaign is afoot to blunt the instruments of oversight. It is a campaign against democracy, being fought in our parliaments and the pages of our right-wing press. Latham looks certain to be a casualty of it; Triggs will struggle on until she is discharged on the battlefield.

Abroad, democracy is foundering as never before. Here, faith in the institution is collapsing. The assaults on Latham and Triggs are part of a trend that will only further undermine this.

Neither of these issues is trivial. Nor are they about personality, as urgers would have you believe. For the health of our polity, the Latham legislation should be loudly rejected. The independence of Triggs’s office should be boldly defended.

These incursions are cynicisms our democracy can little afford to endure.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 19, 2016 as "Blunting democracy".

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