Accountability, authoritarianism and a new separation of powers?

Ideology is over. We are all economic conservatives now.

I haven’t entirely conceded it but I will freely admit that no government will be elected at any point soon by promising to scare the economic horses. While I personally err towards greater public investment in our economic, social, cultural, environmental and community infrastructure than has been the norm, I am willing to accept that no country is an island economically.

However, it does raise a fairly obvious question: if we aren’t arguing about economics what exactly do we have to argue about? I have thought long and hard about this and no – outside a small and largely self referential circle – the answer is not the so-called “culture wars.”

What we did learn last weekend was that governments can be turfed out in good economic circumstances after all. Was it all just about unpopular WorkChoices versus an “education revolution”, broadband and new leadership after all?

This election was at least in part about an underlying debate about accountability versus

You can take almost any issue that was at the forefront of community discontent with the Howard Government and see it through this framework. Mohamed Haneef, David Hicks, Iraq, children overboard, the Northern Territory intervention, the nation’s abysmal treatment of asylum seekers and refugees are all examples of where the authoritarian instincts of unaccountable government overrode due process and good policy.

For many the election was about WorkChoices, but “Howard’s battlers” revolted against not just the policy but the fact they had never given their consent for it in the first place. Phrases like “arrogant”, “hubris” and “out of touch” are symptomatic not merely of a government that has been around too long but of one that has isolated itself from internal critics and external scrutiny.

In some cases this proved to be good short term politics and damage was avoided, but tellingly where any of these policies went wrong, no one from the government ever put their hand up to take responsibility. For those of us that welcome the change of government, it is easy to take it as a sign that our ideals are triumphant or that a uniquely evil government has been dispensed with. Perhaps it has, but given the track record of Labor state governments, I have no great reason to believe that a Labor Federal  government will be peculiarly virtuous without external vigilance. Perhaps Prime Minister
Rudd, as a Queenslander, will at least have learnt the Beattie technique of airing your government’s failings to your own political advantage.

A new government will force many of us to take a real stand in the growing battle of authoritarianism and accountability. It will probably recast some alliances. Lax standards can not merely be excused because they are now used to further the causes we support or because “at least they’re not as bad as the last lot.”

But what standards should we expect? On the most basic level, the promises to ensure
the impartiality of the ABC board, to depoliticise government advertising and to improve accountability must be fulfilled. Such promises are regularly made in opposition.

We must revisit the evolution of executive government in a parliamentary system and ask why certain responsibilities are exercised by ministers at all? From selecting academic research, to the right to revoke visas, to regional grants that become marginal seat rorts, the power of an individual politician to make such decisions will inevitably be abused for political purposes. Such powers should not be seen as the spoils of office.

The lesson to learn from cases where these powers are abused is not that the wrong people were wielding them but that such powers should be removed from expedient political agendas entirely. Wherever government power is exercised it must be accountable – to parliament, to the media through real FOI provisions, to judicial oversight and to standing
corruption commissions. Government accountability cannot be allowed to hide behind a fuzzy chain of responsibility, or through the cloak of “commercial in confidence” or behind the absence of any mechanism to bring it to light.

The inevitable result of embedding accountability is better government – regardless of who is in power.

The larger project, I believe, is to revisit the ideals and structures that underlie the  Separation of Powers doctrine itself in the context of contemporary power. The  relationships between the media and the government, between the role of regulator and recipient of corporate donations, between the authority of governments and their accountability to the people and the society at large is something seriously worth arguing about.

There is nothing like a change of government to bring that into focus.

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