Our system of government is based on the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act and the Statute of Westminster Adoption Act 1942 that define the roles and functions of the executive (the "Government"), the legislature (the Parliament) and the judicature (the law courts). These three branches of government - the executive, legislature and judicature - maintain a balance to protect us, the people, from an excessive abuse of power by any one branch. This is known as the separation of powers - the cornerstone of our democracy.
This article raises questions about the success of the current Australian system of democracy given the gradual erosion of Government openness and accountability, the abuse of the Parliament's power over the courts so as to interfere with State and Territory legislation, the reduction of our civil rights and the powerlessness of the courts to intervene meaningfully. I am not suggesting that our system of government is broken but I am deeply concerned that things are not working the way that they should. It seems to me that our politicians have been acting more in their own self-interest as opposed to acting in a way that it truly in the national interest.
We have an unusual form of government in our head of state—the Governor-General—is not elected by us. The Governor-General has the power to commission a Prime Minister as the head of the Government as well as to sign into law Acts of Parliament.
Unlike many other countries, we do not elect our Government—we elect people to Parliament—and the political party that has a majority of seats in the House of Representatives effectively determines the make-up of the Government. The High Court of Australia can only act to decide questions of whether the actions of the head of state, the Government or the Parliament are unconstititional. It's this set of checks and balances that ensures that the real power of the Commonwealth of Australia remains in the hands of the people; that is what our democracy is all about.
We elect our members of Parliament; the Parliament appoints the judges; the judges rule on questions of law and may override the decisions of Government.
In political terms there are two more-or-less opposing ideologies: the conservative view that stands for allowing the free-market economy to find its own way without overburdening business with regulatory contraints and, on the other hand, the liberal view that proposes a more equitable sharing of the nation's wealth by providing benefits to those least able to afford them. The two economic ideologies are often referred to as right-wing (on the conservative side) and left-wing (on the liberal side). Neither of the two major political forces in Australia are one thing or the other.
The Liberal Pary of Australia is centre-right (although their coalition partners, the Nationals, are more right-wing). The Australian Labor Party, on the other hand, is a party of the centre-left. To the more extreme right lie the the Palmer United Party and the Liberal Democratic Party while the more extreme left is represented by the Australian Greens.
So much for this background which most of you reading this will already be fully familiar with.
Who is really running the show?
This is really the question I have been struggling with over the past few years. Recently I read Downfall: How the Labor Party ripped itself apart by Aaron Patrick (ABC Books, 2013) which analysed the decline and ultimate defeat of the ALP at the last federal elections this year. This book chronicles how the ALP (once upon a time the party of the working class) was turned into a vehicle for elite members within it to abuse power, to dishonour or manipulate the party in order only to personally profit by it.
I cannot accept that the corruption of power, the shady deals, the standover tactics, "faceless men" and the daily parade in the media of injustices and inquities are solely the province of one side of politics. There is just as much murkiness, dark, unseen territory that lies behind those on the other side of politics, too. The lesson for all our elected representatives is that no-one should abuse power in order to profit by it selfishly.
The truth lies out there somewhere but the evidence shows that those with power and influence will do everything they can to make sure that we never hear about it.
Australia is, by and large, a really good place to live. I love this country and I know that our elected representatives are mostly good, honest folk. I believe that corrupt politicians are the exception rather than the general rule but, it is the nature of politics that some people enter politics with the noble intention to serve their community but, having reached the pinnacle of their political careers, become pawns in the political machine or succumb to evil temptation.
Who can hold our politicians to account? The Government shrouds itself in secrecy with "it is the standard practice of this Government not to comment on operational matters". It's entirely these "operational matters" that we demand answers to.
We want to know if we are meeting the targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (but the Government shut down the agency that reports on those things). We want to know if our borders are being kept safe from the potential flood of "irregular maritime arrivals"—people smuggling, by another name—but the Government won't tell us what's happening. We want to know if education funding reform will happen or whether this Government is going to throw us back into the chaos of "let the States decide these things for themselves". We want to know what we're really doing to our neighbours in Indonesia and East Timor and what are our security agencies doing? We want to know why the Government wants to raise the debt ceiling to half-a-billion dollars but won't tell us why they need an extra wide line-of-credit "safety margin". We want to know the answers to a lot of things.
I want to know if we're still going to be able to live in Canberra after the Government cuts 20% of the civil service workforce that's employed here and what it's going to mean to the economy of the 350,000 people who live here.
This is only the first in a series of articles that I intend to write. I hope that along the way we might get some ideas and discussion going and I look forward to your input.