“I think that for free men a sense of shame over the conduct of their affairs is the most compelling necessity of all.” (Demosthenes, Athenian politician, c.350BCE)

A RECENT collection of nineteen essays, sub-titled “Ideas for a Better Australia”, deliberately and optimistically pitched to influence anticipated new directions Australia might take under the new Rudd government (hence the main title “Dear Mr Rudd”) contains a contribution by Harry Evans, the Clerk of the Senate, about the condition of federal parliament, which has particular relevance for the current state of affairs in Tasmania. 

Evans, recognized as one of Australia’s foremost authorities on the nation’s parliamentary system, warns that during the Howard decade the institution of parliament was seriously weakened. 

Evans points out that “lack of adequate analysis of legislation, avoidance of inquiry into controversial matters and the absence of accountability” are subversions of profound functions of parliament, made possible by “the tight control which executives exercise over parliament through their disciplined party machines”.

He emphasizes that that “the weaknesses of parliament are largely ascribable to the political parties”, producing significant distortions of the democratic system and processes, and increased politicization of the public service.

In other words, when personal political and party interests are placed above responsibility and representation, above obligation to democratic processes and above obligation to the public good, the whole fabric of democracy is weakened from within.

The experience of the Senate from 2004 -7 is instructive. The Senate became a rubber stamp for executive government because the government controlled the numbers on party lines. The Senate’s key role as a house of review was seriously diminished, as was seen for example in the weakening of the effective operation of the committee system. This demonstrated how quickly the fabric of robust democratic practice could be undermined by a political party which placed its own interests above important checks and balances in parliamentary functions and conventions.

As I have argued before, ( Peter Henning ) the political practices of the current Tasmanian government closely mirror those of the former federal Howard administration in many ways, and it is abundantly clear that the weaknesses which Harry Evans has identified in the federal system are replicated in Tasmania without exception.

There’s nothing radical about any of it.  “Good government requires… that proposals for laws are soundly analyzed before their passage, that public-policy issues and matters of public concern are adequately explored and that executive governments are held accountable”. Only exceptional ( read emergency) circumstances require urgent bills.  “Every bill should be referred to a committee… and committees should be given adequate time to receive public submissions and evidence and to properly scrutinize and analyze legislative proposals.”

In relation to government secrecy, Evans says that “governments should not be the judge in its own cause in determining what the public should know about its activities”.

In relation to public funds being used for “development projects”, he states that they “should be administered by impartial authorities on the basis of guidelines and criteria approved by both houses of parliament.  All funds granted should be fully accounted for”.

On the matter of major appointments by executive government, “including judicial appointments, (they) should be based on publicly disclosed consultation and merit-based selection processes, and should be explained in parliamentary forums as they require”.

For Evans these requirements fit a model of “minimum standards” for good government.  In Tasmania, a cursory examination of the basic legislative standards, the standards of inquiry and accountability all fall far short of such minimum standards.

Ironically, failure to meet these standards “eventually rebounds on the government itself and can bring about its destruction”.  It is precisely the lack of observance of these standards which has produced the current crisis of governance in Tasmania. 

The sequence of events in Tasmanian political life over the last couple of years in particular suggests that Tasmanian politicians, with some rare exceptions, are oblivious to the damage they are wreaking on the body politic, and ultimately to themselves, their reputations and their legacy.

How many Tasmanian politicians - all of whom are privileged to serve in a political system based on hard-won democratic traditions developed over generations of gradual reform, often at great human cost – give any serious consideration to the ethical requirements of political responsibility and representation that they have, and to the reasons for those requirements?

Can these people comprehend their actions within a framework of responsibility entrusted them, as custodians of an inheritance of democratic traditions, first and foremost to preserve, and then if possible improve?

Unfortunately not.  They have shown that they have no sense of the legacy they have inherited, no awareness of their place in an historical continuum, and therefore no sense of their responsibility and privileged position within that democratic tradition, and also therefore no sense of their proper role, as elected representatives of the people.

The unfolding “shreddergate” scandal in Tasmania has exposed cynical dishonesty and attempted deception of parliament by at least one senior government minister.  It has exposed an absence of proper and transparent processes for senior appointments in the public sphere.  It has exposed a disregard for well-established principles and conventions of governance – including careful attention to ensuring that fundamentals of the constitution are strictly observed, and seen to be observed, such as the separation of powers. It has exposed allegations of an inappropriate relationship (at best) between the highest level in the bureaucracy and the executive.

Each one of these matters is serious enough in isolation.  Taken together they add up to a more alarming internal challenge to institutional integrity across all arms of government – including the legislature, the executive, the bureaucracy and the judiciary.

“Shreddergate” itself is in part the culmination of another sequence of events, that involving the assessment and approval of Gunns’ pulp mill in the Tamar Valley, an approval process only made possible, again, as is now well documented, by the subversion of well-established democratic processes and important parliamentary functions.

The subversions are right out of the Evans’ critique:  rigid government control over parliament, inadequate analysis of legislation ( remember the truncated time-frame politicians agreed to meet, and their frantic conviction of urgency), no inquiry into controversial matters (remember the dismissal of all information and evidence not in Gunns’ IIS), and no accountability (remember the notoriously appalling Section 11 of the Pulp Mill Assessment Act).

The whole sorry saga, to put an arbitrary starting point with the dismantling of the legislatively defined planning processes for the pulp mill more than twelve months ago – and it can only be arbitrary, due to the Tasmanian government’s lack of transparency – has only been possible because a majority of Tasmanian politicians have allowed it to happen. 

In the week of Kons’ downfall politicians of both major parties had an opportunity for some kind of redemption from their betrayals of 2007, and an opportunity to begin, belatedly, some restoration work to the democratic parliamentary functions they have weakened, and the representative roles they have abdicated.

As usual, their self-interested values were paramount. The most obvious opportunity for ALP parliamentarians came at the time of the party meeting which chose David Bartlett to replace Kons.  In their ignorance, their fear and their misplaced determination to put “caucus solidarity” above all else, including the public interest and standards of governance, they turned a blind eye to everything except their own interests, and their focus was entirely on the scrabble for the crumbs of office.  Their behaviour only serves to highlight the courage of Terry Martin in 2007.

The insidious, warped and unprincipled nature of ALP “caucus solidarity” was again revealed in the vitriolic attack on whistle-blower Nigel Burch, a re-run of the attack last year on Martin. The ALP leader in the Legislative Council, Doug Parkinson, was the proud spokesman for caucus, but he spoke for them all. 

What of the Liberals?  Their role as an opposition has been taken from them by the Greens.  It is now too difficult for them to ask the hard questions. To do so would immediately expose their serious derelictions as a responsible opposition party during 2007, particularly in their whole-hearted support for all aspects of the pulp mill assessment and approval process.  They are forced into a reluctant show of outrage by “shreddergate” to support the lead taken by the Greens.  Their notions of party before process, responsible parliamentary behaviour and representation are similar to the ALP.  Their treatment of Ben Quin in 2007 tells the story, and only serves to highlight the courage of Quin.

Harry Evans’ concerns about the dangers of “caucus solidarity” to parliamentary democracy deserve to be treated seriously. They raise important and disturbing questions about political standards. Should generally accepted community standards of civil, ethical and moral behaviour be expected of politicians?  After all, a party caucus is a voluntary organization.  It is not enshrined in a strictly legal or constitutional framework.  There is no legal compulsion for politicians to subordinate their personal values and moral standards to a caucus. They do so of their own free will.

It is political parties that need reform, perhaps more so in Tasmania than elsewhere in Australia.  But the notion of caucus solidarity is much more rigid, restraining and destructive of democratic practice in the overall Australian context than in comparable parliamentary systems.  The bonds of party are much more loosely applied in British and American politics.  It is not uncommon for Democrats and Republicans to break ranks in Congress without reprisal.  Whatever other criticisms can be made of democratic practice in the United States or Britain, theirs is a much healthier culture in relation to the way political parties operate.

In fact, one reason why the Tasmanian Legislative Council may still have an opportunity to stop the rot is that neither of the main parties has majority control of the house.  The problem is that legislative councilors are captive to the prevailing culture, even when not members of a caucus.  If the nature of their response to the government’s plans for water-sewage reform is to be taken as a guide, it appears that they are all too ready, without good reason, to put the notion of “urgency” before their responsibility to analyze, to inquire into controversy and to be truly accountable.  The easy way out is to accept government “assurances” and “intentions” in relation to how a new regional water authority may borrow funds to pay for corporate infrastructure, such as Gunns’ pipelines. That is an evasion of legislative responsibility.

There is nothing new or controversial in the twin suggestions of Harry Evans that “while the government must be accountable to parliament, the parliament must be accountable to the public”.  If a majority of legislative councilors fail to ensure that the new regional water authorities cannot build infrastructure for Gunns’ pipelines using public money, however difficult and time consuming that might be in framing necessary amendments, or even rejecting the legislation, they will have failed the test of Evans’ “minimum standards” for good government, in the same way that most of them dismally failed in all aspects of due process relating to the passage of the Pulp Mill Assessment Act 2007. 

Evans is optimistic that the Australian parliamentary system can function democratically into the future, but essentially on the basis that parties recognize when in government that a fully functioning parliament “not only benefits the public but benefits the government itself… as a safeguard of its own long-term survival”.

There is little or no sign of this occurring in Tasmania.  To the contrary.  Allegiance to party is sacrosanct.  This is not conducive to increasing membership except among those who see submergence within a rigid caucus structure and factional grouping as comfortable and comforting, while offering a permanent career path as a reward for compliance.  There is little attraction here for most people, and this immediately imposes substantial limitations on the pool of talent seeking party endorsement as candidates.  Nor is there much attraction in being part of organizations, which as recent Tasmanian experience shows, act quickly and savagely against those who do break the shackles of caucus control on matters of principle.

Kevin Rudd has written about the need “to forge a new coalition of political forces across the community”.  He is right, but in Tasmania it is not possible to include the current Labor Party within that coalition.  It is becoming increasingly clear that Rudd is not interested in “uniting those who are disturbed by market fundamentalism in all its dimensions”, but is more interested in ignoring them, certainly in Tasmania, because they threaten to disrupt the primary importance of party unity, of party above all else in the political system.

In the context of the Tasmanian polity where there is no likelihood of party reform to relax rigid caucus structures, and where most politicians are profoundly ignorant of both the historical legacy they are entrusted to preserve and the responsibilities they have as representatives of their community, there is little hope that the demise of the Lennon government will slow the gradual weakening of the democratic fabric and the weakening of the important and necessary functions of parliamentary democracy.

The perpetuation of more of the same will also deepen the rupture between community interests and expectations and government action.  This is likely to further strengthen the growing proliferation of alternative avenues for democratic action, particularly in local areas.  More and more people will become aware that they are politically unrepresented, as has already happened in the Tamar valley, Bruny Island and other places where corporate interests have been placed unequivocally above human and community welfare. 

Whether this will result in a further weakening of the current institutional framework of democracy is difficult to know. 

It is instructive to note that during the 200 year life of the first European democracy, that of the ancient Greek city-state of Athens between about 510 BCE and 322 BCE, the institutions which gradually gained authority in the state at the height of the democracy, the assembly, the council, the democratic law courts and the annually elected politico-military executive, did so in an evolutionary process, without the destruction of other less democratic institutions which essentially withered in importance, as relics of a past age, in much the same way as some monarchies have survived in modern European parliamentary systems.

The Athenian democratic institutions in their turn gradually ossified.  By 350 BCE there were serious signs of decay from within, as well as external threats.  This was the time of the greatest of all Athenian orators, and some of his speeches to the assembly have survived.  This is an extract from one of his speeches, in about 350BCE:

“Men of Athens, when will you do your duty?  What must happen before you will do it?  How ought we to regard what is happening now?  For my part I think that for free men a sense of shame over the conduct of their affairs is the most compelling necessity of all”.

The Athenian democracy was dismantled in 322BCE. 

Peter Henning

(Harry Evans’ essay “Parliament”, is in Dear Mr Rudd, ed. Robert Manne, Melbourne, 2008)



Peter Henning

The sequence of events in Tasmanian political life over the last couple of years in particular suggests that Tasmanian politicians, with some rare exceptions, are oblivious to the damage they are wreaking on the body politic, and ultimately to themselves, their reputations and their legacy.