Opinion

Barry Jones
We need more democracy, not less

Nearly 40 years ago, when I wrote Sleepers, Wake!, I was arguing for a more rational, evidence-based approach to long-term problems of society, economy, environment, work, education, health, information flow, leisure and gender. I feared it would require a great crisis to force this change.

I thought the threat of climate change to humans, animals, agriculture, air, soil and water would have compelled governments everywhere to act quickly on the basis of evidence and scientific method. They did not.

Instead, it took a global health crisis.

The coronavirus pandemic has shown that profound social change is possible. It has caused a dramatic transformation in the way major problems are addressed, not only by government, but also in the ways we live, work, travel, purchase, entertain ourselves and interact with others.

Long-ignored questions have become suddenly vital: Do we need to go to work to be employed, or to school and university to be educated? What is the future of the arts, or mass participation in sports? Is it worth thinking about a guaranteed minimum income, instead of scattering welfare benefits? What is the future of tourism and aviation? Surely the future of cruise ships must be in doubt after the Ruby Princess fiasco in Sydney.

If we stay at home though, will we become less engaged with the community and more device dependent? Will there be more anxiety, drug use, domestic violence? Is “isolationism” – an interesting word – or “patriotism” needed to protect us? What do we know about triage and how clinical decisions are made in overstressed hospitals and ICUs? Have we become a surveillance state?

In this difficult time, we need more democracy, not less. Because this is a revolution.

For the past 40 years, the received wisdom in the political class was a commitment to smaller government, lower taxes, balanced budgets, self-regulation by business, growth as an end in itself, and an emphasis on individualism, rejecting the concept of “the public good”, replacing the nation-state with the “market state”. Ethics and fairness were treated as irrelevant.

In Margaret Thatcher’s words, “There’s no such thing as society”, or, in Ronald Reagan’s, “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.”

But now, in Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, an unorthodox Conservative, has expressly repudiated Thatcher, saying, “There really is such a thing as society.” He acknowledged that only with community support for social distancing and a lockdown would the infection rate be curbed.

Johnson can speak from experience – he and his secretary of state for Health, Matt Hancock, are both infected by Covid-19, as is the Prince of Wales.

In the United States, which has more recorded cases than any other nation, after a fanciful period of denial and magical thinking, President Trump reluctantly sanctioned a $US2.2 trillion government rescue package to prop up a failing hospital system.

In Australia, after an abject, even frivolous, failure to take strong action to mitigate our contribution to climate change and to plan for transition to a post-carbon economy, Scott Morrison has reacted to the coronavirus pandemic with an unparalleled series of interventions. These include a community lockdown and a $214 billion stimulus package – 11 per cent of gross domestic product – injected into the economy to provide, inter alia, wage support to stem massive job losses.

This is the greatest expansion of executive power in my lifetime, and it is based on modelling that, as of midweek, remains undisclosed by the government.

Similarly, what is the evidence that supports the health measures that are being taken? What are the competing views? Of these, we know very little. Most important of all, we do not know what economic decisions are implicit in the health choices being made. If there are none, let us know. If there are some, what are they? Then, and only then, can the community make an informed judgement.

Without transparency, and scrutiny, there is no democracy.

As David Allen Green, lawyer and journalist, commented about the British response, so similar to our own: “Three fundamental freedoms – freedom of movement, freedom of association and freedom of worship – have all been abolished for six months by a statutory instrument which has been neither scrutinised nor voted on by members of parliament.”

He continued: “If it were not for this public health emergency, this situation would be the legal dream of the worst modern tyrant. Everybody under control, every social movement or association prohibited, every electronic communication subject to surveillance. This would be an unthinkable legal situation for any free society. Of course, the public health emergency takes absolute priority. But we also should not be blind to the costs.”

It is essential that our public institutions, including the ABC, the Business Council of Australia, political parties (compromised though they are), universities, the Australian Council of Trade Unions, and professionals such as doctors, nurses and teachers join forces to ensure that draconian restrictions on personal freedom are removed at an early date, and not accepted as “the new normal”.

The need for federal parliament to return to pass the wage subsidy measures, so soon after it was suspended until August, shows precisely why parliament should be sitting – preferably in Canberra, but if that’s not possible during this crisis, then virtually.

Instead, the sharp increase in executive power has been accepted with a shrug in Australia, seen as a regrettable necessity. But we should be alarmed if this unchecked power is matched by a decline in media scrutiny as the power of social media grows, AAP potentially disappears and regional newspapers collapse.

By contrast, in Britain, the house of commons rose a week earlier for the Easter break but is scheduled to resume in mid-April. In the United States, both the senate and the house of representatives remain in session. The parliament of the European Union continues to meet, online.

It is not surprising that extended debate becomes impossible in Australian politics: it is planned that way. Few know that our house of representatives holds the gold medal for the fewest sitting days of any national legislature.

By my count, on average, the parliament of Japan sits for 150 days a year, Britain between 142 and 158 days, Canada 127 days, the US house of representatives between 124 and 145 days, Germany 104 days and New Zealand 93 days. Australia’s house of representatives sits, on average, for just 67 days.

All governments regard parliamentary sittings as a nuisance, taking ministers away from what they regard as their core business. They are particularly irritated by question time, which has become a theatre of the absurd, not a genuine search for information. Personal attacks, gaffes and gotcha moments are scored, like a sporting event.

Parliament is no longer effective in extracting information from governments, and voters must become both engaged and enraged to demand reforms in how the system is run. As former High Court justice Kenneth Hayne pointed out, if we want hard evidence that can be tested, we might need to have a royal commission. Evidence emerges from the courts or occasionally from a senate committee. But from government? Not a chance.

Morrison and Mathias Cormann make a point of never answering direct questions, instead using formulas: “That’s only of interest inside the Canberra bubble” or, when scandals are exposed, “I don’t answer questions based on gossip” and “You are only repeating what the Labor Party is saying”.

It is essential members of parliament acknowledge that public office is a public trust. It has its risks and even physical dangers – from infection, certainly – but politicians must accept that they have a moral obligation to act courageously. Democracy is under threat all over the world. We cannot let it fade away here. Both the government and the opposition are complicit if a robust democracy fails.

But the news is not all bad.

The government is now using expertise, which suggests that Morrison is backtracking on his speech to the Institute of Public Administration Australia in August last year, in which he warned public servants not to tell ministers what they didn’t want to hear and instead to concentrate on the needs of “quiet Australians”.

Professor Brendan Murphy, the chief medical officer, and soon to become secretary of the Health Department, is a constant companion of the prime minister at press conferences, although his messages are not identical and usually less ambiguous. The government is still manipulating the data behind its modelling.

Ideologically, three sacred cows have been put down: that growth is an end in itself, that the budget must always be in surplus and that a more generous JobSeeker Payment would encourage people to rely on welfare.

And federalism is providing a useful pushback, with Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews speaking simply, directly and powerfully about the disease, and not bloviating about the economy.

Best of all, the prime minister appears to be calling for scientific evidence, and statistics, instead of praying for a miracle.

Is it possible that after a recovery, government could use science and technology to cut our CO2 emissions? That would be a real miracle.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 4, 2020 as "More democracy, not less".

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Barry Jones
is a former Labor minister for Science and a professorial fellow at the University of Melbourne. His next book, Sleepers, Wake NOW!, will be published this year by Scribe.

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