Australian politics out of hibernation

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It is not just the Australian economy that has been in enforced hibernation during the COVID-19 pandemic but also our politics. Some of the hibernation of the latter is explicable, either because of social restrictions caused by the demands of the health concerns or because of deference towards the extreme urgency of dealing with the crisis and the consequent pressure on our state and national political leaders. But much of the political hibernation was unnecessary or exaggerated and ultimately harmful to our democratic way of life.

Main image: Exterior Parliament House Canberra (Alex Proimos/Flickr)

The origins of the hibernation lie in the immediate primacy given to government over parliament during the pandemic. The federal and state parliaments were immediately gutted and replaced in practice, and in the public imagination, by the new National Cabinet, led by the Prime Minister. Other less well-known bodies were also created such as the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission, chaired by former Fortescue Metals CEO, Nev Power.

The whole nation became fixated on the progress of the pandemic in Australia, especially on our progress in flattening the curve. The main public faces were government leaders, their health ministers and health officials. There was little room for critics and and/or opposition. Some debate ensued about the appropriateness of certain health-related measures and about specific controversies, especially in relation to the cruise ship, Ruby Princess, and the aged care facility, Newmarch House, where the worst outbreaks occurred. Belatedly a full independent commission of enquiry was called by the NSW state government into the Ruby Princess fiasco.

When the attention shifted to economic recovery measures the focus initially remained on the roll-out of the federal government’s measures to combat business failure and unemployment through doubling the Job Seeker benefit and then introducing the Job Keeper payment to keep the bulk of employees on the books of their employer and out of the unemployment statistics.

After early bipartisanship, enforced by the circumstances, the Labor Opposition was increasingly emboldened to join in public questioning of aspects of the Job Keeper program, especially the exclusion of many categories of workers, such as casuals and foreigners, from the scheme. The questioning extended to the likely duration of what was an initial six-month government commitment.

Political hibernation extended beyond the parliament and the political parties to the media. The latter depends for much of its political coverage on the operation of parliament. When it shut up shop much of the life blood of political coverage by the media was shut off too.

 

'Fortunately, Australian politics is now rising from its enforced slumber. This awakening has several ingredients.'

 

The Prime Minister’s lengthy reports to the nation after meetings of the National Cabinet so dominated the political agenda that anything else became an afterthought. The ability of journalists to raise other issues was squeezed out. Their queries were too easily dismissed by the PM as inappropriate and old-style media politics.

The parliament did is best to oversee the activities of government during the pandemic through its Senate Select Committee on COVID-19, chaired by Labor Senator Katy Gallagher. But it was hamstrung.

The committee’s public hearings showed that the primacy of government over parliament had led to flagrant inattention to due process and transparency. Reasonable queries about the operations of the National Cabinet and the COVID-19 Coordinating Commission were fobbed off by senior government officials as if they were not in the public interest. Yet clearly they were.

Fortunately, Australian politics is now rising from its enforced slumber. This awakening has several ingredients. Firstly, some contentious pre-pandemic issues, such as the sports rorts affair, are now back on the public agenda. The PM has questions of accountability to answer. Secondly, the debate about the targeting and duration of the government’s economic recovery measures is becoming more robust. This debate now extends to larger issues such as the size and shape of our immigration intake. Thirdly, there is growing awareness of what new legislation, such as the ASIO bill, might be quietly eased through parliament under cover of the pandemic if the community is not alert.

Politics in the best sense is returning to normal. To do so it first needs the federal parliament, which should not have been filleted in the first place, to be fully functioning. More will then follow.

Fortunately, the return of robust politics may be accelerated by the demands of the Eden-Monaro by-election, following the retirement of Labor’s Mike Kelly. This by-election will be a test of our mettle in various ways, including finding an acceptable style of political campaigning. It will bring together local concerns about bushfire recovery and severe economic downturn with larger national themes such as climate change and the proper role of government in our post-pandemic lives.

 

 

John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and Chair of Concerned Catholics Canberra Goulburn. He is a PC 2020 delegate from the Archdiocese of Canberra-Goulburn.

Main image: Exterior Parliament House Canberra (Alex Proimos/Flickr)

Topic tags: John Warhurst, COVID-19, auspol

 

 

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Existing comments

John, a good reflective article. One of the elements to emerge is our undue dependence on China (roughly one third of our exports). China has attempted to exert major influence in domestic politics and sulks when questioned about eg. the independent inquiry into the source of the virus. So currently we are in the deep freeze. Minister Birmingham lamenting the refusal of his counterpart to return calls. The threat to impose a high tariff against "Barley dumping". Comments like why should they buy our beef, iron ore and wine? Previously both Messrs Birmingham and Frydenberg upheld large scale Chinese acqusitions of our means of production, but now the former is encouraging Australian companies to look elsewhere, like India, Japan, Indonesia who dont display "Ill take my bat and ball and go home" attitudes. We must learn lessons from HongKong, from Tibet, from the South China Sea. From Garnaut being threatened publicly in Federation Square. For speaking out and refusing to accept bribes? We should not trade our children's future and liberty for short term economic gain. Our education system should not be for sale or skewed in favour of one country. Nor should our means of production be for sale, just our products.
Francis Armstrong | 20 May 2020


Gosh, this guy writes well! He brings the gift of a Jesuit schooling and his higher education as well as his lay and married status to both his critical examination of our political institutions and culture at a time of unprecedented crisis and also to a Church divided and torn apart by vested interests intent on asserting who is right rather than what is. Thank you, John Warhurst.
Michael Furtado | 20 May 2020


There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: Now is the time to rebuild.
Terrence McKiterick | 20 May 2020


John, I join the other comments, a very thought provoking article. I hope 'Albo' will get out now with the Eden- Monaro by election coming and point out the obvious short comings of the Morrison Government during last summer and in the early stages of the Pandemic . It was the State Premiers rather than the Fed's that did the heavy lifting during the Pandemic. Let the elected Parliament take its rightful place in our democracy and call this Government to account.
Gavin O'Brien | 21 May 2020


This has been long coming. The Clerk to the Senate wrote in a 2013 article in the Sydney Morning Herald that: “………. We would have to concede our government has become more like an early modern autocracy: the monarch rules from his royal court (the prime minister's office) and while he might consult his courtiers, his will is the law. The power and influence of those courtiers depend on how close they are to the throne and to the monarch's ear. In an extreme situation, the palace guard (the government party) may depose the king and replace him with another, who will carry on the same system. We no longer have parliamentary government in any meaningful sense of the term.” Note that it was on social media (i.e. amongst non-political non-journalist people) that anger grew over his absence during the apocalyptic bushfires, whereas in contrast journalists (i.e. the hangers-on of the political class) and politicians attempted to protect and support morrison’s absence.
R. Ambrose Raven | 22 May 2020


'COVID-19 Coordinating Commission' is a con job visited on the nation while unconsciously hibernating. How that could have got through is remarkable; but not impossible if you know how to rort the system from the inside. The matters of its job, its composition, its agenda, funding and its accountability are a culpable vacuum. This gang led by Taylor and co got it through under darkness and if it stays greyed out it is an unconscionable blot. Masquerading as an assistance, the whole thing is a parasitic blot on common sense, national progress and tax payer finances. Who will address it other than yourself, John.
Michael D. Breen | 22 May 2020


We shouldn't forget that the government was charting new and troubled waters that demanded decisive judgment in the ordering of priorities. Health, rightly, was placed at the top of the agenda. No doubt, with the advantage of hindsight which can bestow a retrospective sagacity, we might opine that the PM and his advisors might have done some things better - but, overall, credit, is due for their clear and determined initiative in response to the first swift wave of a pandemic the effects of which, as the deadly impact of the virus in other countries shows, could have been far worse. Nor should we reasonably expect quick fixes to Covid-19 related issues that still confront us.
John RD | 22 May 2020


Not sure how much politics is returning to normal with the barley trade fiasco? One assumes the government thought focusing upon Covid-19, WHO and China with much media support, like the Trump White House, could deflect from other domestic issues. More disturbing, similar to the UK, has been the same tactics e.g. prolonged shut downs of parliament, avoiding democratic scrutiny, for the objective of radical right libertarian policies imported from the US.
Andrew Smith | 23 May 2020


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