By Andrew L. Urban
The most alarming sign that the Gillard Government has no qualms about stomping on democratic principle was the mess that was the Australian Network tender process, in which two independent assessments, departmental and legal advice were ignored and overruled. It’s not necessary to rehash the familiar scenario here – it has been amply documented – so I am revisiting it with a degree of hindsight shortly after it blew up.
In hisApril 3, 2012report on the matter, the Auditor General was scathing in his criticism of the process, to such an extent he took the rare step of quoting Cabinet deliberations.
The reason this is such a crucial issue is that it comes on top of the previously documented instances of failures to uphold democratic principles. I maintain that the erosion of these principles has a great deal to do with the profound erosion of trust and support for the Labour Government.
Voters may not string together the various instances in a conscious list of sins of commission, nor articulate their discomfort specifically with these actions, but the subconscious impacts all add to the litany of broken promises and distortions that characterise this Government. It’s easy to say all politicians lie, but that simplification doesn’t really address the especially noxious damaging actions that the Australia Network tender symbolises.
When Julia Gillard announced herself as the new Prime Minister in June 2011, she said her rationale to step in was driven by the fact that “a good Government had lost its way.”
We can see how her own Government has lots its way and is heading off the map of democracy. The responsibility for the Australia Network tender was shifted from Foreign Affairs (Kevin Rudd) to Communications (Stephen Conroy) and oversight was taken out of the hands of senior public servants and given to Conroy, who cancelled the tender altogether and handed the contract, in perpetuity, to the ABC – part of his Ministerial portfolio. He has never explained why he turned his back on two findings in favour of Sky’s tender as better value for money.
The media – apart from the ABC of course – is in uproar over the cynical manipulation of the process, as is the Auditor General. But nothing has been done to correct the error (but for a $2 million compensation payment quickly paid to Sky); there are no consequences for Gillard and Conroy, no requirement to return to the tender and award the contract to the real winner, no public apology from the guilty parties. The Auditor General’s criticism is left to gather dust on the shelf, as if it had never happened.
But of course deep in the electorate, this extraordinary betrayal of democracy – however quietly – has been absorbed and digested.
Labour is wont to blame its poor standing with the electorate on its ‘tough reform agenda’ which is ‘difficult to sell’. Clearly, it is living in the denial of the terminally ill of politics. It is not the tough policies nor their salesmanship that has eroded even the faith of the faithful – it is their repeated wastefulness and consistent battering of democratic principles that makes everyone uneasy.
Given that Conroy trampled on proper process to push through the multi billion dollar NBN without a reality check via the Productivity Council, and then legislated for the NBN Co to operate under the shield of secrecy, not accessible even under Freedom of Information laws, that uneasy feeling is well justified as a permanent feature of this Government.
You can boil a frog in water so slowly it won’t notice it until it’s too late. Likewise you can silently water down democratic safeguards until you are able to issue court orders to stop the media reporting what you have done. And the News Media authority proposed by the Finklestein media enquiry has already set in train the options to do that.
So much for a party with a social conscience.