It’s inexplicable why the Newman government has returned Queensland to ‘its dark past’, former Commissioner Tony Fitzgerald says. Only the people can save the state.
Only the people can reclaim democracy
Corruption fighter Tony Fitzgerald made these comments in association with the 2014 Griffith University Tony Fitzgerald Lecture in September…
The Liberal National Party was elected in Queensland, with a huge majority, in March 2012.
After 50 years as a barrister, 40 years next year as a QC, 35 years the following year since my first judicial appointment and 25 years since the corruption inquiry that led to political and police reforms in Queensland, I’m not too easily surprised, but I remain unable to understand why a newly-elected government would want to return the State to its dark past or why a long-established newspaper, the Courier-Mail, which in the past supported attempts to keep Queensland governments honest, would support that folly.
Whatever the government’s reason for its conduct, populism provided it with camouflage. Donald Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns” concept, “things we don’t know we don’t know”, underpins the populist approach, which treats voters as fools.
People who don’t know that they don’t know are easy to persuade when they’re told what they want to hear, especially about emotive issues such as “law and order”.
Standard populist refrains build on envy and resentment to encourage ignorance and bigotry: educated people are “elites” who live in “ivory towers” and lack knowledge of the “real world”; evidence-based knowledge is inferior to intuitive “common sense” gained in a “school of hard knocks”; experts know less than a “table of wisdom” at the local pub; and judges, despite their oaths of office and obligations of impartiality and independence, should just do “what the people want”.
Behind that populist facade, the government sacked, stacked and otherwise reduced the effectiveness of parliamentary committees, subverted and weakened the State’s anti-corruption Commission, made unprecedented attacks on the courts and the judiciary, appointed a totally unsuitable Chief Justice and reverted to selecting male judges almost exclusively, appointing 18 new male judges and magistrates…
Retired judges and lawyers who were shocked into criticising the government were disparaged for their effrontery. The opinions of people who have spent their professional lives implementing an impartial legal system in accordance with the rule of law and grappling with the complex problems associated with criminal justice were patronisingly dismissed by the Premier and Attorney-General, neither of whom has the slightest knowledge or understanding of those matters. The Courier-Mail acted throughout as the government’s belligerent spear-carrier.
The political landscape today is radically different from that at the time when the doctrine of parliamentary supremacy was imported into Queensland in the 19th century. In practical terms, power has been substantially transferred to a small, cynical, political class, mostly professional politicians who represent, and act as directed by, one of the two major political parties which have entrenched themselves and their standards in the political system and collectively dominate political discussion and control the political process.
In Queensland…”just the way the world works”
Modern politicians, who primarily see issues from a party perspective, regard the public interest as best served by their party holding power or at least by ensuring that the other major party doesn’t hold power. Politics is essentially merely a “no-holds-barred”, “win at all costs”, “whatever it takes” contest for power between the two parties. Every few years, the public is obliged to vote, knowing that one of the major parties will be elected and that it will use its power to benefit itself, the sectional interests which it represents and its financial supporters and ambitious camp-followers. In Queensland politico-speak, that’s “just the way the world works.”
It would not occur to today’s politicians that power should be used only for the State’s “peace welfare and good government” or that legal requirements are conventionally supplemented by ethical norms.
Political reform is therefore a task for the community. If Queenslander’s want a free, fair, tolerant society, good governance and honest public administration, a sufficient number of voters must make it clear that they will decline to vote for any party which does not first satisfy them that it will exercise power only for the public benefit.
It’s difficult to perceive what legitimate reason a party seeking election in a democracy could have for declining to make commitments such as the following:
- the public to be fully and accurately informed promptly and not to be misled;
- all government decisions and actions to be taken for the common benefit without regard to personal, political or other considerations;
- all people to be treated equally with no person given special treatment or superior access or influence; and
- all public appointments to be made on merit.
Effective democracy needs principled politicians, an independent, impartial judiciary plus, as the American author Norman Mailer said, “individuals not only ready to enjoy freedom but to undergo the heavy labor of maintaining it.” That task includes blunt criticism of political misconduct. As President John F. Kennedy said, “without debate, without criticism no administration and no country can succeed and no republic can survive.”
Tony Fitzgerald, a former judge of the Federal Court of Australia between 1981 and 1984, and of both the Queensland and NSW Courts of Appeal, was chair of the Commission of Inquiry into Official Corruption in Queensland –The Fitzgerald Inquiry –between 1987 and 1989. Nobody has done more to try to ensure a corruption-free state than he has.