extract from Tony Fitzgerald’s address to the Accountability Round Table, 11th March 2010, Monash University – full text

………….. I propose to say something more – for the last time – of my pessimism about the increasing domination of Australia’s public life by the small self-interested groups who control the major political parties, who increasing seem unconcerned that their political authority is held for the benefit of the Australian public & that their duty is to govern in the public interest, not for political advantage.

A harmonious civil society rests on essential pillars, including individual freedom, non-discriminatory equality, the rule of [just] law, the distribution of power & effective checks & balances. Moreover, as Chief Justice Warren of the United States Supreme Court pointed out many years ago “Law ….. presupposes the existence of a broad area of human conduct controlled only by ethical norms and not subject to Law at all.” That aphorism sits uneasily with the realities of 21st century Australian politics.

However, until official misconduct becomes sufficiently egregious & notorious to overcome community cynicism & generate public outrage, few Australians seem troubled by, or even interested in, structural & systemic flaws in our political process & public administration. Citizens who are not directly affected by a law or official action or decision are generally more concerned with day-to-day financial and other personal considerations than with the misuse of power or the impact of injustice on others.

This general apathy is not really surprising. Life is good for most Australians. Most have family & other priorities which distract them from matters which don’t directly affect them personally. Few crave power or understand those who do. Like the Trojans who disregarded the warnings of Cassandra, the beautiful daughter of King Priam who’d been cursed by Apollo, most of us are also reluctant to confront major problems which we’d prefer to ignore. Our unwillingness to act on scientific warnings about global warming & its potentially disastrous consequences provides a dramatic current example.

Communal inertia is also magnified by Australia’s anachronistic, rudimentary political system, which is based on flawed assumptions that democracy is synonymous with majority rule & that, because parliamentarians are elected, parliamentary decisions express the popular will. The first proposition disregards the fundamental democratic prohibition on the majority oppression of individuals and minorities. The second proposition ignores the realities of modern party-political decision-making, with rigid party discipline ensuring that, with few exceptions, parliamentarians vote as directed. A few years ago, the then prime minister praised “the uniqueness of the Australian system”.  What is unique is our virtually pristine version of theoretical parliamentary sovereignty, although in practice under executive control, unfettered by constitutional constraints, international law or universal human rights. By & large, our laws are valid even if they are contrary to the public interest or unjust. Voters are little more than observers to a substantially rule-free contest who are entitled, indeed compelled, to choose one or other of the established political parties to govern every few years.
The community is ill-served by this escalating transfer of power from the public to the dominant political parties & the parties’ disinterest in ethical constraints & resistance to oversight & accountability, even by independent anti-corruption bodies. Without satisfactory legal & ethical fetters, the political process, like all human constructs, can be, and is, manipulated and exploited to advance personal and group interests. A political class has evolved which is interested in little but the acquisition and exercise of power. Careerists with little or no experience outside politics learn their craft in party administration, politicians’ offices and supporters’ organizations prior to party pre-selection and entry to parliament. Small groups control each of the two major parties and indirectly the national destiny. It is now extremely difficult, if not impossible, for another competitive political force to emerge because of the financial advantages held by the two major parties and the critical role that money plays in political activity.  Whichever party is in government, with effective parliamentary control, can, and routinely does, indulge its adherents, supporters and ideology. Well-connected, often wealthy, individuals & groups are given access to and influence over the political process. Decisions favouring special interests are common. Secrecy and misinformation (euphemistically called ‘spin’) are routinely employed by politicians. “Media management” insults and confuses the electorate, which is denied the comprehensive accurate information which is essential to the proper functioning of democracy. Most, if not all, conventions concerning standards of political conduct which the Westminster system once incorporated are now obsolescent, bi-partisan support for fundamental institutions is periodically abandoned for political advantage and social division, populism and prejudice are occasionally used as political tools. The prevailing political culture is increasingly amoral, with each party lowering its standards, exploiting gaps in the law & disregarding ethical standards in order to compete: ‘whatever it takes’ – ‘winner takes all’.  Because all parties grasp opportunities when in power, opposition criticism of government self-indulgence is generally muted and the risk of an electoral backlash is low.  Changes in government because of the misuse of power occur only in exceptional circumstances.
These short-term political practices & tactics risk serious social problems in the longer-term. Public figures are role models and their standards percolate into the community. Social capital & social cohesion built on integrity & trust are easily dissipated as the population increases, communities become larger and more diverse and economic disparities widen. People who consider themselves powerless outsiders readily become disillusioned, cynical, apathetic & disengaged & lose trust in government, the integrity of its process & decisions & even fundamental institutions. Principled leadership is essential to preserve our confidence in and support for each other……..

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