Australian democracy – a user’s guide

In the lead-up to the election, the then Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd spoke of the lack of transparency in government as a cancer “eating away at democracy”. But what do we have to do to make this cancer go into remission? And how do we ensure that it doesn’t return?

In the table below the CPD team lists some of the key problems facing our democracy – and outlines the current position of the incoming federal Labor government.


Labor response

Power concentrated in the
executive, role of Parliament diminished

Acknowledges problem, but no
specific policies.

Terrorism laws breach human
rights unnecessarily

Supportive of status quo.

Government advertising
budgets used for political advantage

to adopt the guidelines
proposed by the Auditor-General in 1998
for campaigns over $250,000.

Power increasingly
redistributed from the states and territories to the Commonwealth

Has pledged ‘cooperative federalism’ – still unclear what priciples will guide decision making should cooperation fail.

Those who speak out in the
public interest against wrongdoing in their workplace (particularly public
servants) are punished

Has promised whistleblower
protection legislation.

ABC board stacked with
Government-friendly appointees

New process for board
appointment (Nolan rules), but could go further and allow election of community, staff, or consumer representatives.

Ambiguous sedition laws
potentially criminalise legitimate speech

ALRC proposals to be

service politicised

Problem noted. Has promised
to make ministerial staff accountable
to parliamentary committees if they
have exercised executive power. Have refrained from sacking departmental heads associated with the previous government.

Concentration of media
ownership reduces diversity of voices and puts too much political power in
the hands of a few proprietors

No specific response.

discipline over-emphasised, hampering representative’s power to put national interest or
their electorate’s interest above party loyalty.

If anything Labor is less
flexible than the Coalition on this point.

funding and restrictions on charitable status used to silence
in civil society

Any formal requirement for recipients of government funding not to criticise the government will be removed.

Lack of ministerial

Ministerial Code of Conduct released in December 2007 reaffirmed commitment to the principle of Ministerial Responsibility. However, made an election commitment that staffers would be accountable before parliamentary inquiries, which reduces the potential for Ministers to claim ignorance as a defence in cases like the AWB and ‘children overboard’ affairs.

Freedom of Information Act
and processes expensive and obstructive

Has promised
to implement
the Recommendations of the 1996 ALRC Open

Lack of legislated protection
for basic human rights

Has pledged to ‘consult’ on
the possibility of a Human Rights Act.

Lack of disclosure of and
limits to political donations

Pledged to bring the
disclosure threshold back down to $1500, and ban foreign donations, but has not discussed limits. The proposal to only provide public funding for election expenses against verified receipts makes sense on the surface, but may have unintended consequences.

laws changed to make it harder to enroll

Has pledged to reverse
the changes.

Common practice of retired
politicians taking up lucrative consultancies and positions in their previous

Has said that former
ministers will be required to adhere to a twelve-month
waiting period
before they can take up employment in their most recent
area of responsibility.

Government spending skewed
to favour marginal seats

No response. In the lead up
to the election, the Coalition outspent Labor in NSW and QLD, while Labor
outspent the Coalition in WA. Many of Labor’s new GP Super Clinics were announced in marginal seats.

Democracy reduced to voting
once every three years – other avenues for participation in public
decision making are superficial and favour vested interests, squeaky
wheels, and the status quo

Has promised to ‘pursue
new and innovative measures designed to foster greater participation
’. Has announced a ‘petitions committee‘ to receive and report on petitions – sponsorship by a member of parliament will no longer be required. Electronic petitions similar to those adopted by the UK government are being considered.

Abolition of ATSIC and replacement with a hand-picked advisory group

NIC has been abolished and Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin has pledged to consult on the structure of its replacement.


Democratic Audit of Australia

Democracy Watch, Australian Collaboration

If you have any suggestions for additions to this list, please post them in the comments below and we will try to keep the table updated over time.

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