OPINION

Democracy dies in darkness ... bad news after chilling of public service

The late winter cold snap over Canberra this week isn't the only chilling effect the city is feeling. Public servants, who still make up a sizable proportion of our population, will have good reason to be anxious about their position - both their job security and their role in ensuring and implementing good government. And the rest of us should be equally troubled about the impact of this on our weakened democracy, with power increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few at the expense of the many.

Whistleblower David McBride addresses protesters outside the ACT Supreme Court last month. Picture: Elliot Williams

Whistleblower David McBride addresses protesters outside the ACT Supreme Court last month. Picture: Elliot Williams

The day after whistleblower Witness K chose to plead guilty to the extraordinary charges he faces, the High Court's decision to uphold the sacking of Michaela Banerji, who tweeted anonymous critiques of government policy as @LaLegale, is a clear message to public servants to shut up and do what they're told.

In the context of the ongoing prosecutions of Afghan Files whistleblower David McBride and ATO whistleblower Richard Boyle, the chilling effect is even colder. McBride, Boyle and K all made extensive efforts to raise their concerns internally before going public. In each case, it is clear that the government was acting in poor, problematic or downright dangerous ways, and the public servants were acting in the public interest in seeking to challenge and change those actions. That is one of the critical roles for the public service in our democracy. And that role is under attack.

Michaela Banerji lost her High Court appeal over public servant free speech on Wednesday. Picture: Karleen Minney

Michaela Banerji lost her High Court appeal over public servant free speech on Wednesday. Picture: Karleen Minney

At the same time, governments are increasingly outsourcing the public interest work of the public service - from advice to implementation to evaluation - to private corporations, often the big four management consultancies which are also major donors to both the Coalition and Labor. Beyond the pure conflict of interest this cosy relationship presents, these profit-driven corporations do not have the same public interest considerations as public servants do. Rather than giving frank and fearless advice and seeking to ensure that government does the right thing by the people, their aim is to fulfil their contract as simply as possible and ensure 'customer' satisfaction so as to attract the next contract. How very convenient for governments which aren't after advice or critique or even different opinions, but simply want to implement their agenda at all costs.

Importantly, this isn't just a matter of high principle. It is a matter of ensuring the best quality decisions are made and actions are taken. If we want good government, we need government to be willing to think deeply, to be challenged, to listen to critique and evaluate it honestly. Anyone unwilling to hear criticism is bound to make worse and worse mistakes, and government is no exception. It's the grand scale equivalent of sticking our fingers in our ears and chanting "I can't hear you". At a more basic level still, healthy government relies on a wide range of voices and opinions being heard, just as a healthy ecosystem relies on diversity.

Lawyer Bernard Collaery will stand trial over the exposure of an Australian bugging opeation in East Timor. Witness K will plead guilty. Picture: AAP

Lawyer Bernard Collaery will stand trial over the exposure of an Australian bugging opeation in East Timor. Witness K will plead guilty. Picture: AAP

Alongside the chilling of the public service, the ongoing suppression of advocacy is similarly problematic for good government. Our local Liberal Senator, Zed Seselja, in his role as Assistant Minister for Charities, has just this week launched the latest salvo in this government's ongoing attacks on charities for advocating for change in the public interest. Like an independent public service, advocacy groups play a vital role in a healthy democratic ecosystem, in challenging those in power to think about alternatives.

It's no surprise that public confidence in our democracy is crashing, plummeting from over 80 per cent a decade ago to 40 per cent now. The chilling of the public service thanks to the High Court's Banerji decision will only make that worse. Scarily, a future government which wants to cross the line into genuine authoritarianism will have a far easier time of it, now that this one has done so much to damage the independent public service and to silence public interest advocacy.

We must not let that happen. It's up to all of us to push back in every way we can, whether as public servants exercising the vital role as check on executive power, or as citizens exercising our democratic muscles, joining and supporting advocacy groups, attending protests, writing to ministers, or talking to friends and family. Democracy dies in darkness, so let's shine the light.

  • Tim Hollo is executive director of The Green Institute.
This story Bad news for democracy with chilling of public service first appeared on The Canberra Times.