25 February, 2020
The six principles underlying the Australian Constitution should be well known: democracy, the rule of law, the separation of powers, federalism, nationhood and rights. These principles protect what we, as Australians, hold most dear, and they ensure that the framework within which the Commonwealth government operates is robust, fair and—above all—lawful. I therefore find it galling that we, as the crossbench, are here today to highlight that our government is in fact in constant disregard of two of these principles.
We all know that democracy isn't perfect. Perhaps Winston Churchill said it best, speaking in the British House of Commons after the defeat of the fascist Nazi regime in World War II:
No-one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried …
Our democracy is precious—a form of government where the people have the authority to choose their governing legislators and therefore influence legislation. Our democracy has been hard fought for and it is what ensures our views and values as Australians are properly represented.
Similarly, the rule of law is a cornerstone of our system of governance. It promotes the ideal that every person—every person—is subject to the laws of our land, regardless of their power or position. It also infers that individuals cannot have their rights eroded and cannot be punished unless they have been found to be in breach of the law after a proper judicial process. According to the Australian Constitution Centre, a newly established education centre at the High Court of Australia:
The rule of law gives us a predictable and ordered society. It promotes justice, fairness and individual freedom. The rule of law provides a shield against the arbitrary exercise of power.
As my fellow crossbenchers have already highlighted, examples of how these principles have been disregarded are shamefully frequent. Examples in the recent past include: dubious political advertising, where truth and fairness—foundations of a healthy democracy—are set aside for lies and misinformation; constant restrictions on the freedom of the press, where asking legitimate questions of government results in police raids on homes and newsrooms and threats of arrest and imprisonment; the failure of this government to protect the rights of Australian citizens like Julian Assange; the dubious awarding of contracts to government supporters; the misappropriation of government funds in the recent sports rorts scandal, where much-needed funds for local sporting groups were redirected to projects that provided a political benefit for the government; the offshore processing of refugees, which has been criticised by the United Nations and various international legal entities—we have kept refugees in detention for seven years, in contravention of international laws, so don't speak about rights and all citizens being equal; the political stacking of government bodies and important pseudolegal bodies, such as the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust; and major mining approvals granted just days before the federal election. The list is endless. It is embarrassing and it is dangerous. With every scandal, with every example of blatant disregard for democracy and the rule of law, the public loses more and more trust in all of us. They lose faith in their democracy and they lose trust in their politicians. In a recent report entitled Democracy 2025,the Museum of Australian Democracy details recent findings. The research shows that members of parliament in general are distrusted by nearly half the population. Government ministers are distrusted by 48 per cent of respondents and trusted to some degree by only 23 per cent. The report comes to the following shocking conclusion: by 2025, if nothing is done and the current trend continues, fewer than 10 per cent of Australians will trust their politicians and political institutions, resulting in ineffective and illegitimate government and declining social and economic wellbeing.
This is not just about being liked or trusted; it's an erosion of our social and economic wellbeing. I call on this government to introduce a national integrity commission with a broad jurisdiction, an ability for direct referral, strong investigative powers and the ability to hold public hearings. It is in all of our duties to restore faith in politicians.