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Once you discern a pattern of actions that are intended to establish a specific kind of anti-dissent police state, the next question is who is responsible, and why. Merely asserting it’s the fault of “the government” or of individual politicians, doesn’t help. There will always be ambitious or power-hungry politicians, or politicians who value control and authority over freedom. The question is what has failed to restrain them, or why systemic factors have enabled them to have their way. 

The actions we itemised yesterday derive from three separate sources.

Ambitious officials and politicians

The approaches of some individuals have indeed played an important role. The Immigration portfolio under Peter Dutton and his secretary Mike Pezzullo has been given dramatically greater power and resourcing by Malcolm Turnbull, even at the cost of humiliating his then Attorney-General George Brandis, to placate Dutton and keep him onside. That’s despite Dutton and Pezzullo presiding over the single least competent department or agency, large or small, in the Commonwealth. The result is — as the new “papers please” proposal shows — a major institution dedicated to destroying basic liberties within the Commonwealth government, with a powerful urge to prevent scrutiny of itself because of its ineptitude.

Partisanship and ideology

The Coalition’s loathing of the ABC may seem unrelated to a national security-based move to a police state, but it is a fundamental part of it. The government has little direct power over the commercial media and generally prefers not to get major outlets offside. However, it controls the pursestrings and the board of the ABC and it thus has options for punishing the basic journalistic scrutiny that it perceives as hostility. And as the commercial media shrinks and its capacity to undertake public interest journalism diminishes accordingly, the ABC’s relative importance as an engine of transparency and scrutiny, however flawed, grows proportionately, making it a bigger target for the Coalition.

Hostility to an existing form of scrutiny also means resistance to establishing any other form of scrutiny. Despite an Independent Commission Against Corruption being a proud part of the Liberal tradition and one of the great achievements — however ironic — of Nick Greiner’s NSW government, the government is now isolated as the only major party opposed to establishing an independent federal anti-corruption and misconduct body.

Systems

However the biggest force for the extension of state powers is the bureaucratic system. Unchecked and without intervention, bureaucratic institutions will expand, homogenise, attack transparency and extend their own powers. No conscious decisions are required for these processes — they are generated naturally. Bureaucracies do not plan for their own shutdown — they devise continuing reasons to exist. They clone themselves, recruiting people like themselves — a key reason why the Canberra bureaucracy is so white and European compared to the Australian public it notionally serves. They seek to avoid scrutiny both out of fear of embarrassment for themselves and for their ministers. That’s why senior public servants have been pushing for a rollback of Freedom of Information laws in recent years, and why it is opposed to a federal ICAC. And because bureaucracies have access to the legislative process, they can change the law to make life easier for themselves, by giving themselves greater power or curbing the rights of those who would scrutinise or otherwise make life difficult for them.

There’s little malice in these actions — they reflect how bureaucratic systems “think”. Governments are needed to intervene and block these tendencies — most frequently by reducing the size of the overall bureaucracy — but if a government also benefits from them, it won’t do so. Transparency and scrutiny are clearly an area of shared interest between bureaucrats and politicians. Even independent statutory bodies can be affected when the office holders are decided by government — John Lloyd at the APSC; Gary Johns at the ACNC; trade union royal commission counsel Sarah McNaughton’s appointment as Commonwealth DPP.

If politicians won’t check these tendencies to attack dissent and diminish freedoms on the part of bureaucrats, an institutional structure is needed to curb it. Australia has none because our spinning-jenny-era constitution doesn’t even comprehend the basic idea of individual rights and governments have refused to pursue a genuinely effective bill of rights. Despite the efforts of a number of groups and good people, Australia also lacks any sort of well-funded civil society institutions that could take advantage of such a civil rights framework. Some thinktanks exist that notionally oppose bureaucratic empire-building, but they can prove fair-weather friends of freedom because of partisanship or the interests of corporate sponsors.

The result, to labour the metaphor, is that we’re being taken down the road to a police state in an autonomous vehicle, and those who could intervene refuse to do so because they have an interest in making sure we get there.

Next: why now?

Peter Fray

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