Bad examples of government pop up routinely. Policy failures, for decades, have reached across energy and the aged care sector, reconciliation and health. The census didn’t work, The COVID app doesn’t, and NAPLAN never will.
But Queensland’s Palaszczuk government — in announcing, boasting about and then withdrawing a bill targeting the media — has gifted the nation a lesson in fickle government. Reforms that were vital one day were in the bin the next.
The fact that it was all done at breakneck speed — in less than 24 hours –adds to the humiliating backdown, but also shows the lack of consideration, discussion, debate and procedure that lies behind the laws governing our lives.
To the bill first, which aimed at gagging publication of corruption allegations during an election period and carried sanctions, including six months in jail for journalists who flouted it.
Ironically, it only targeted the media; candidates could still brag to their constituents about corruption allegations that were being considered by the state’s Crime and Corruption Commission (CCC).
The rationale for the legislation was to prevent politically-motivated and baseless allegations being front-page news as voters go to the poll. And there is some genuine merit in that, as talkback listeners made clear late last week. Unsupported allegations made to a public sector watchdog should not be grounds to destroy a political candidate.
The Palaszczuk government sold its legal response as rivalling the arrival of sliced bread.
This would enhance the integrity of the state’s electoral process. It would ensure public debate during a campaign was not hijacked by politically-motivated complaints. And it would be all locked in within a month — in good time for Annastacia Palaszczuk to fight for another term at the October 31 election.
Let’s leave the substance of the bill to one side. Some — mainly on talkback and social media — supported it. The Courier-Mail didn’t, and made that very clear within minutes. This was the death warrant on free speech. A monstrous threat to public democracy. A savaging of our right to know.
But it’s what happened next that tells the tale of how vacillatory the government has become. Within a day, the bill was dead. Withdrawn. Not worth the paper it was written on.
The government went on about a lack of sufficient time, and just taking its lead from the CCC, but everyone knew the bout had been declared. The Courier-Mail 1. State Government 0.
All governments, particularly as an election looms, prioritise popularism over procedure. But this sterling example shows how the Queensland government now works. It has, over time, poached many of the state’s senior media, routinely demands questions by email, refuses to front the local ABC morning program, takes its own camera crew to announcements, and becomes startlingly unavailable when a difficult question is posed.
Like, for example: if this law was so important to the functioning of free speech, public decency or elections, why shred it in 24 hours?
It also begs the question: what other vital reforms get flagged, then legislated with great haste, without the scrutiny the media gave this particular bill?
And it raised the spectre of Joh, who stands out as a beacon of Queensland’s bad old days even 35 years after he departed the scene. Last week’s shambles reflected the poor process and lack of accountability that characterised his government.
But while Joh got away with a lack of accountability, he was never guilty of a lack of availability. He would take journalists’ telephone calls out of hours (once he answered me while in the bathroom), would front talkback, and never had his minders try to vet the questions he would be asked.
Annastacia Palaszczuk is being allowed to get away with that. And she can probably keep doing it as long as Queensland’s COVID-19 tally remains the envy of the nation. Queenslanders hope it stays that way — to election day and beyond.
But it’s almost impossible to imagine her turning up like Daniel Andrews, day after day, to deliver bad news. It’s much easier to try and ban the news. Or so it was, until last week.