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Sniff the rot in Australia's wobbly democracy

  • 20 April 2016


Last week, a member of Parliament, Jenny Leong, allegedly faced racist and sexist abuse by police from at least four separate commands. This abuse was linked to her opposition (in accordance with her party's stated policy) to the use of drug sniffer dogs without a search warrant.

Whether or not one agrees with Green party policy in this regard, public vilification (let alone by sworn police officers) ought to rankle.

Leong's ill-treatment at the hands of the executive is, unfortunately, not an isolated phenomenon. Employees of Wilson Security, the manager of the Nauru detention centre, spied on Senator Sarah Hanson Young while she was visiting the facilities — conduct allegedly condoned by the prime minister of the day.

In 2014, the head of the Department of Parliamentary Services refused to say why they appeared to be using CCTV images to target whistleblowers attempting to give information to Labor Senator John Faulkner. More broadly, the possibility that Australian parliamentarians can be targeted as part of the 'Five Eyes' Anglophone spying agreements has been left open by the head of Parliament's IT security.

One of the most basic principles of a democratic society, dating back to the Enlightenment thinker Rousseau, is the idea that governmental power should be separated.

In order to avoid concentrating too much power in too few hands, the lawmakers (legislature) should be different from those enforcing penalties for lawbreaking (executive) or from the people deciding whether or not there is any lawbreaking in the first place (judiciary).

This idea, with later modifications, is known as the doctrine of separation of powers and informs most legal systems to some degree.

It is a bit wobbly in systems, such as those in Australia or New Zealand which are derived from the English (Westminster) system. This is because, in these systems, the prime minister leads the largest party in the legislature and simultaneously heads the executive and, as such, also has a hand in appointing judges.


"One might reply that politicians, as some of the most entitled members of society, deserve little sympathy. But the treatment of MPs is a matter of grave concern."


Nevertheless, even in these systems, the judges are supposed to be independent, and executive officers are not supposed to interfere in the day to day business of the other arms of government.

It may be objected that such breaches as have occurred are no threat to the separation of powers doctrine as they are the work