Opinion

Australia needs Royal Commission into misuse of government power

Anthony Albanese rolled out his strategy to win a second term this week. Sadly, it won’t include a credible response to inflation, rising mortgage rates, soaring power prices or anything else that’s being anxiously felt around kitchen tables across the country.

Instead, Albanese appears ready to emulate Joe Biden by dedicating his first term to trashing the reputation of his predecessor. He hopes to frame the 2025 election not as a verdict on his government’s performance but as an opportunity for voters to punish the Coalition for a second time.

When the full story is written, as it must be, the failure of judgment for which Mr Morrison has now apologised may appear as a mere footnote. It will be overshadowed by the gross abuse of power and sheer incompetence of the premiers, health officials and police chiefs and commanders that revelled in authority granted to them in sloppily worded emergency ordinances that were hastily invoked and only reluctantly withdrawn.

If it seems as if we’ve been living in a foreign country for the past few years, it is because Australia wasn’t supposed to work this way. The frailties of our politicians were supposed to be filtered by the checks and balances of parliament, the courts and the court of public opinion. Decisions were not supposed to be made in secret and ordinances were not supposed to be made by the stroke of a pen. Public servants were supposed to be servants, not licensed agents of state enforcement.

Members of the Fourth Estate are supposed to stand as the last line of defence. Journalists should be raucous, obstreperous and contrarian seekers of truth. Instead they became timid and incurious patsies, frightened of asking hard questions and hostage to officialdom.

Our leaders got to operate this way by invoking emergency powers granted in sundry state and federal acts that slipped through parliaments blind to their unintended consequences. Unsurprisingly they came to like governing without the obstructions that normally come their way. An emergency that should have been declared over in weeks turned into a two-year experiment in autocracy that would surely have been declared unethical if it had been conducted with chimps.

Robert Menzies was alerted to the reluctance of politicians and officials to surrender emergency powers in the aftermath of World War I. As a student of law at the University of Melbourne in 1919, he wrote:

“Some infringements of the ‘Liberty of the subject’ are inevitable in any war. Such infringements have been considerable during the past two years; the power of the Executive, has been much increased, and the full authority of the common law Courts greatly hindered…

“Should the almost arbitrary power of the Executive prove to be anything else but temporary, a very great disaster would have befallen the English Constitution.”

In July 2020, the Menzies Research Centre published a report lead authored by Henry Ergas that called for a swift return to normality. Autocratic governments aren’t just anti-democratic, they also tend to be incompetent.

Small cabals operating behind closed doors have incomplete knowledge and most of what they know is filtered by so-called experts. Complacency, over-confidence and hubris quickly set in.  It is a breeding ground for omni-shambolic policy, the failure of which they seldom have the courage to admit even to themselves.

That’s why Ergas called for state and federal emergency powers to be revoked by the end of September 2020 at the latest and for normal processes to resume.

The report said, “The greatest public policy failure would be to retain the world-view of January-April 2020 when there was still very little information about how the global pandemic would play out.”

Our report fell on deaf ears. It was out of sync with the rising fear and panic felt by both politicians and the media. Absurd as it seems, the emergency powers have yet to be revoked in Queensland and Victoria. The result was precisely as Ergas and co-author Joe Branigan predicted – a pan-governmental, pan-national public policy failure on an industrial scale which made lives hell and forced us to borrow hundreds of billions of dollars from the future.

We need an inquiry, but not the three year-long partisan witch hunt Labor is cooking up. If Albanese’s intentions are honourable and the aim is not to trash his predecessors but to learn from mistakes, he would find the fortitude to call a Royal Commission with the powers to examine the conduct of every government in Australia at every level.

I for one won’t be holding my breath.

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