Liberal democracy

Ministerial confusion a symptom of big government


Ministers Marise Payne, Christopher Pyne and Dan Tehan

Today’s revelation by the ABC that 100 days after the federal election, Australia’s three defence ministers still don’t actually know what their responsibilities are, is a classic example of what happens when government is too big.

A fortnight after the July election, FreedomWatch highlighted the Turnbull Government’s 42 executive officeholders and 53 portfolios, and how this compared unfavourably with the first Barton ministry and the first post-war Menzies ministry.

According to the ABC, a ministerial turf war over who controls what, is responsible for this extraordinary delay. Taxpayers may well ask if they still don’t actually have a job description after three months can we please have a refund of their ministerial salaries!

In the real world the job comes before the person – i.e. something needs to be done so you find someone to do it, and if you can’t afford it, you either prioritise, work longer hours or just forget about it. But in the world of government they give as many people as many jobs and titles as they can, paid for by the long-suffering taxpayer, and worry about what they actually have to do later.

Labor is no better, and now has a whopping 48 shadow ministers. There are so many people on the gravy train that one of Labor’s few non-ex-union-official MPs, former economist Andrew Leigh, had to take a pay cut to stay on board.

With federal government spending forecast to pass $500 billion per year in 2019-20 and gross federal debt to pass $500 billion in the next twelve months, it is clear that the size of government and the red tape it creates and administers is out of control.


No end in sight to big government

The new Turnbull Ministry, announced this afternoon, includes 42 executive officeholders with a total of 53 portfolios.

With the possible exception of the onward march of Federal Government spending which has gone from $140 billion in 1997-98 to $445 billion in 2016-17, or gross debt which will pass $500 billion sometime in the next twelve months, there is little else that better demonstrates how the size of government and the red tape it creates and administers is out of control.

These numbers, while broadly in line with the first Turnbull Ministry of 2015, compare particularly unfavourably with the first Barton ministry and the first post-war Menzies ministry.

The Prime Minister’s own department now has nine different Ministers, “Assistant Ministers” and “Ministers Assisting” across ten portfolios, including Indigenous Affairs, Women, Cyber Security and Counter-Terrorism.

The Whitlam-era federal involvement in the design of cities, which was resurrected last year, now appears to have two Ministers, with Angus Taylor the Assistant Minister for Cities and Digital Transformation (reporting to the PM) and Paul Fletcher the Minister for Urban Infrastructure (reporting to the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport).

Social Security has four ministers, there is a still a Minister for Sport and for the Arts and there is a Minister for Rural Communications separate to the Minister for Communications.

Even in Defence, where there was once a single Minister, there are now three defence officeholders with five portfolios – Defence, Defence Industry, Veterans’ Affairs, Defence Personnel and the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Centenary of ANZAC.

While Josh Frydenberg’s appointment as Minister for the Environment and Energy is a welcome portfolio consolidation, it looks like that is it.

The more people that are appointed to office, the more legislation and regulations they try to pass, so they look like they are doing something. Small government is not coming to Australia any time soon.


Who gifts human rights to the UK?

When British Home Secretary Theresa May called for the United Kingdom to exit the European Convention on Human Rights, the cries of indignation were entirely predictable. Her comments were dismissed as ‘an irresponsible and dangerous strategy’ that ‘will provide comfort to human rights abusers‘. A video sketch starring actor Patrick Stewart swiftly followed. The sketch shows Stewart as the British Prime Minister asking his Cabinet ‘What has the European Convention on Human Rights ever done for us?’

The answer may surprise you. Apparently the European Convention gave human rights to the British people. According to this sketch it was responsible for – amongst other things – the right to a fair trial, freedom of religion, freedom of expression and freedom from slavery. Before the European Convention it seems that the British people entirely lacked these basic rights and freedoms.

This demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of the historical foundations of these fundamental human rights. Human rights did not materialise only in modern times with the emergence of supra-national bodies and treaties. In fact, the origins of human rights can be traced well back in history, with key English contributions including the Magna Carta in 1215 and Bill of Rights in 1689.

Why does this matter? It matters because we all too frequently treat these regional and international human rights treaties and bodies with excessive reverence and fail to acknowledge the historical traditions they are building on. The European Convention didn’t gift human rights to the United Kingdom. Nor should it be the final word on human rights.

It is entirely fitting for the United Kingdom to think about their broader European involvement at the same time as they are approaching a referendum to decide whether or not to remain within the European Union. A treaty should never be beyond scrutiny or criticism, and should never be held up as either the first or last word on human rights.


So much for the “Freedom Commissioner”


Less than three years after the Coalition government appointed Tim Wilson as the “Freedom Commissioner“, Attorney-General George Brandis has now appointed someone from an organisation which has repeatedly been on the wrong side of debates on freedoms, and public policy more generally.

This is just some of what the Public Interest Advocacy Centre – led by the new Human Rights Commissioner Edward Santow – has said in recent years:

Freedom of speech:

PIAC has welcomed the Federal Government’s decision not to proceed with proposed changes to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act…

‘Freedom of speech is a crucial human right but so too is the right not to be vilified on the basis of your race or ethnicity. Serious race-based insult, offence and humiliation can be deeply wounding and threatens important aspects of Australia’s liberal democracy,’ said Edward Santow, PIAC’s CEO.

Constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders:

PIAC generally supports the proposal for a statement of values or recognition, which appropriately recognises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Constitution… PIAC submits that constitutional protection is imperative to protect the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians against racial discrimination.

Freedom of religion:

We oppose, in particular, the granting of blanket exemptions to churches and religious organisations from anti-discrimination laws.

Suing Coles for its “discriminatory” website:

“Ms Mesnage relies on a screen-reader to use the internet. Like many people who are blind or have a vision impairment, she has had ongoing problems using the Coles website to do her shopping since 2008,” PIAC CEO, Edward Santow said.

Pro Bono Australia News reported in October 2014 that after negotiations with Coles failed to bring about a solution, Mesnage brought legal proceedings against the supermarket chain under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992.


Submission: National Integrity Commission


Last week, Simon Breheny and myself sent this submission to the Senate’s select committee relating to the establishment of a ‘National Integrity Commission’.

Drawing on the historical experience with state level anti-corruption agencies, we argue that a “federal ICAC” would lack accountability, invite abuses of power and wield coercive powers which violate the legal rights of individuals.

Such a body would have characteristics that are inconsistent with democratic principles and the rule of law.

Read our submission here.


Annual reports now silent on senior public servants’ pay packets


Details of salaries paid to senior federal public servants are no longer included in government departmental annual report, according to a news report in today’s Herald Sun:

In a blow to transparency, a requirement for the reports to reveal specific data on senior public servants’ remuneration has been quietly removed.

A Finance Department spokesman said this represented financial reporting “best practice”, and aligned the public sector with private firms.

But Institute of Public Affairs executive director John Roskam said the public deserved to know the pay details.

“After all, it’s our money and we’re paying for them. There’s no excuse for not being open and transparent about public service salaries in annual reports,” he said.

“It’s things like this that have the public lose faith in politics and politicians.”

Until recently, departmental annual reports included a list of salary bands for senior executives and the number of people in each band getting those salaries.

For example, the Department of Finance annual report for 2013-14 showed that the top earner enjoyed a total remuneration of $1.3 million while the second-highest-paid official got $408,223.

But such detailed information is missing from the department’s latest annual report – it provides only one figure of $20.9 million, showing the total remuneration for all senior executives.

The Herald Sun checked the 2014-15 annual reports of 16 other federal agencies, including the Australian Human Rights Commission and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and found the same situation.


January 25: Australia Day? Almost

“The First Fleet in Sydney Cove, January 27, 1788”, by John Allcott

On this day, 251 years ago, Great Britain established its first settlement in the Falkland Islands, at Port Egmont. If not for the weather, the 25th of January would also be known as Australia Day.

Precisely 23 years after the Port Egmont settlement, a British fleet was in the process of establishing another settlement, this time in New South Wales. Captain Arthur Phillip arrived in Botany Bay on the 18th January, but having found the conditions unsuitable, looked elsewhere.

Sydney Cove was selected by Phillip as the place of settlement, and on the 25th January immediately prepared to make the journey.

While Phillip arrived that evening on the HMS Supply, Captain John Hunter, who was following in the transports, was irrevocably delayed. The wind was blowing too strong for them leave the bay, leaving the transports to arrive on the following evening instead.

There, the British flag was unfurled, toasts were drunk and volleys of musketry fired. Meanwhile, Australia’s destiny was forever changed.

The First Fleet brought with them British institutions of justice, the rule of law, and constitutional government. With these foundations, later generations would federate the Australian colonies into one of the most successful, stable continuous democracies in the world. This is why we rightly celebrate Australia Day on the 26th January.

And it appears Australians overwhelmingly agree. A new poll conducted by Research Now found that 91 per cent of respondents are “proud to be Australian”, while 85 per cent believe that “Australia Day is a day for celebrating”. (My colleague James Paterson has more here).

While Australia is by no means perfect, we get a lot right – and the world is a much better place for Australia being a part of it.

There will much distress from predictable quarters on what Australia Day means: Ignore this elitist agitation. Be unashamed in celebrating our heritage, and for that matter, don’t let bad winds from 228 years ago stop you from doing it a day “early”.


State of the Union: Why it’s not an Australian thing


This time yesterday, President Barack Obama made the annual journey down Pennsylvania Avenue to deliver his eighth State of the Union address.

American political aficionados will be familiar with this constitutionally required tradition, but as the President gave what will be his final SOTU address, I found myself wondering why it still exists.

The speech was fairly standard. It had the usual calls for civility, a less divisive politics, and for politicians of both parties to work together on areas of common ground. It had a list of accomplishments—some of which are commendable. The president even spoke about his commitment to close the detention centre at Guantanamo Bay, a campaign promise he has been trying and failing to fulfill since his second day in office.

But in no way did this deserve the pomp and ceremony it received, nor the dozen-odd standing ovations.

This highlights a significant difference between Australia and the United States. Despite our cultural similarity, and the fact that parts of our political system bear an unmistakable resemblance to that of our Anglosphere friends, Australians just don’t treat our political leaders with the same level of reverence that the US President receives.

By and large, Australians don’t think much of their politicians. They are viewed as functionaries, whose reputations rely on their performance. This is perhaps why we accept them being swiftly overthrown by their own parties (Rudd was an exception, because the opinion of his colleagues wasn’t representative of the public mood).

We certainly don’t consider them the moral leaders of the nation.

Yes, there are the rare Whitlam’s and Menzies’, who are remembered fondly enough. But even relatively divisive US presidents—like President Obama—are treated with a level of respect approaching that of the British monarch.

Thankfully, Australians are less sycophantic to our politicians than that.


Trump and Corbyn: Two of a kind

trump_corbynDonald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn, who respectively hope to become US President and British Prime Minister, this week demonstrated even more explicitly than usual that they are profound and worrying enemies of freedom.

Trump’s comments about keeping Muslims out of the United States reflected a collectivist view of humanity that has no place in a liberal, democratic society. The fact that a small element of Islam is committed to radical extremism in no way justifies collectively punishing the law-abiding majority of followers of the faith.

Corbyn has a similar collectivist view of humanity, but in his case regularly taking the side of militant Islam against the West. Then this week, Corbyn reverted to more traditional hard-Left form by quoting approvingly the former Communist leader of Albania, Enver Hoxha.

Describing Hoxha as a “tough ruler”, Corbyn quoted his phrase that “this year will be tougher than last year”. Hoxha is believed to have killed, tortured or imprisoned at least 100,000 Albanians during his reign from 1944 to 1985. Corbyn’s remarks were too much even for the left-wing New Statesman.

While recent Australian political history may have been uninspiring, we can at least take some solace from the fact that we have not had such extreme enemies of liberty as Trump or Corbyn reach such prominence.


Why Sir John Kerr got it right 40 years ago


While 11 November should be the day that we all remember the end of World War I and those who made the ultimate sacrifice to protect our freedom, today also marks 40 years since the Whitlam government was dismissed by Governor-General Sir John Kerr. An event, like Woodstock and Watergate, which is cited ad infinitum by baby boomers determined to re-live their childhood to the fatigue of the rest of us.

The Whitlam government was Australia’s most erratic and incompetent. The 1975 budget was blocked by the opposition in the Senate – a tactic Labor used 169 times in opposition between 1949 and 1972 (the only difference was that they weren’t successful). After months of political wrangling, with the prime minister refusing to call an election, the opposition refusing to compromise and the people stuck in the middle, the Governor-General commissioned Malcolm Fraser to form a government on the condition that:

(a) his MPs pass the 1975 budget;

(b) he not introduce any major policies while he was only the caretaker prime minister;

(c) the dissolution proclamation include 21 blocked Whitlam government bills so that if Whitlam won the election he could pass them in a joint sitting of parliament; and that

(d) he immediately call a general election so that the people could decide the government.

There was no coup – there was an election. Gough Whitlam lost the 1975 election by the biggest landslide in Australian history, and lost heavily again in 1977.

For this, Sir John has been treated abysmally by history, with his memory and actions subject to bizarre allegations questioning his sobriety, the alleged impropriety of seeking legal advice (are people suggesting he should have spoken with nobody?), and even the involvement of America’s CIA.

Sir John Kerr did the best he could to navigate the massive egos of Malcolm Fraser and Gough Whitlam, while also respecting the Constitution, finding a way for the budget to the passed and ensuring that the final decision was made by the Australian people.

His memory deserves a lot more respect.