It’s time to safeguard our democracy

As speculation increases about when the federal election will be called, it’s a timely to remember that democracy doesn’t start and end at the ballot box.

Australians can be rightly proud of the robust democracy we’ve established in a relatively short time, but we shouldn’t forget that the democratic freedoms and institutions we enjoy were won through people standing together to speak up about issues that they care about. And we cannot be complacent. As governments can bestow rights, equally they can take them away.

Last month the Human Rights Law Centre launched a report, Safeguarding Democracy, that documents the unmistakable trend of governments at national and state level steadily chipping away at free speech, a free press, peaceful assembly, open government and the rule of law - some of the foundations of our democracy.

Since September 2001, the Australian Parliament has passed over 200 new laws that infringe many of our basic fundamental freedoms. As a result, more and more government decisions are now made about peoples’ lives by bureaucrats or Ministers behind closed doors, without oversight by parliament or the courts.

The executive can now strip people of their citizenship, suspend their passports, lock them up for 48 hours on suspicion of future conduct and secretly turn back boats of people on the high seas with little or no oversight of whether that action was done lawfully.

These matters are worrying enough in isolation, but viewed as a whole it’s clear there is a disturbing trend of governments stifling criticism, entrenching secrecy and undermining the democratic institutions that hold our government to account.

The need for secrecy is too often invoked to withhold important government information concerning peoples’ lives, especially when it comes to refugees and asylum seekers. No journalists have been permitted to visit the Government immigration detention centres on the mainland since the Coalition Government was elected. The situation offshore is even worse, with journalists denied entry and Save the Children whistleblowers being investigated for revealing the abuse of children. Doctors working in immigration detention have spoken out against the silencing effect the Border Force Act, concerned that they risk jail terms for following their ethical duty to advocate for their patients’ health needs.

Press freedom is facing what the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance calls the greatest assault in peacetime. New metadata laws make it easier for governments to identify journalists’ confidential sources without a warrant. New ASIO laws threaten journalists with jail for reporting on special intelligence operations, even if the reporting exposes gross misconduct.

In the suffocating culture of silence around politically sensitive government matters, whistleblowers are even more important to ensure the public’s right to know. Australians can thank courageous whistleblowers for bringing to light deadly police abuse, corruption, dangerously inadequate clean-up of nuclear waste, the medical malpractice of surgeons, and cruel treatment of asylum seekers in immigration detention. Yet our laws fail to adequately protect public interest whistleblowers and the government is aggressively pursuing them, referring them to police for investigation.

The problem extends to attempts to stifle the voices of community organisations that are critical of government.

A thriving democracy needs an informed public debate with a range of voices. However, charities that work with families and communities that are doing it tough are being given a clear message: if you speak out against government policy, your ongoing funding is in jeopardy. Perhaps you think that organisations shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds them, but when they are charities providing services for vulnerable people in the community, they are both a wealth of information for government and a voice for otherwise marginalised groups. 

Environmental organisations have saved some of Australia’s most loved places, from the Franklin River to the Barrier Reef. But plans are afoot to change tax regulations in order to strip environmental groups of their tax concessions and jeopardise their funding base. Their mistake was to defend the environment against damage from the fossil fuel industry.

State laws are also going too far restricting protest activity, prioritising powerful business and political interests over people’s democratic rights to join together and speak out. Just last week three United Nations experts made a statement calling on Western Australia to abandon its proposed new anti-protest laws. The laws are so preposterously vague and broad that they would make even innocent acts, like possessing a bike lock, a matter worthy of an arrest.

These issues should not be the domain of party politics. Both sides are committed to free speech, freedom of association and the rule of law, in word if not always in deed.

Safeguarding Democracy contains recommendations to reverse this worrying trend. In this election year, our elected representatives need to recommit to the vital preconditions to the health of our democracy – transparent government, free press, a strong civil society and the rule of law. It’s time to safeguard our democracy.

Emily Howie is the Human Rights Law Centre’s Director of Advocacy and Research. You can follow her on Twitter @EmilyHowie