THE latest opinion polls aren’t rosy for Malcolm Turnbull, but dire as they might be, they still don’t reveal the full extent of his predicament. His government is in chaos.
Yesterday, the country’s second most senior law officer resigned. Solicitor-General Justin Gleeson cited an irretrievable breakdown of trust between him and the Attorney-General George Brandis. His decision to quit was self-sacrificing and made in the national interest.
He should not have been the one to go.
Hours later, a damning letter from former head of the Department of Agriculture, Paul Grimes to the now Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, was released.
Its contents — which the government has tried to keep hidden for months — reveals that Mr Grimes questioned Mr Joyce’s ethics and integrity.
Ten days after that letter was sent, Mr Grimes was unceremoniously sacked.
The revelations of the past 24 hours come in the wake of renewed attacks on Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs. Accused of politicising her office after publishing a report that criticised Australia’s offshore detention regime, Prof Triggs has experienced unprecedented government-led pressure to resign from her position. She has steadfastly refused to go.
Mr Gleeson. Mr Grimes. Prof Triggs.
Each of these individuals is or was a public servant. They were charged with providing frank, fearless and independent advice to government. While the content and nature of their various roles is diverse, their purpose is a common one: To ensure good governance of our nation, through the safe keeping of our democracy.
It is a purpose that is being challenged by this government.
Malcolm Turnbull’s Coalition Government is in chaos and as Chuck Palahniuk (the man who wrote Fight Club and knows about these things) once said: “If you watch close, history does nothing but repeat itself. What we call chaos is just patterns we haven’t recognised.”
So let’s watch a little more closely because if you do, you’ll see there is most definitely a pattern emerging from all this chaos …
The government tried to abolish the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner. While they failed to get the change through the parliament, the main office in Canberra was still shut down. Following the resignation of the FOI Commissioner in 2014 and the Information Commissioner in 2015, the government hasn’t bothered to find permanent replacements for these roles.
The functions of the Australian Government Solicitor were quietly folded into the Attorney-General’s own department under the guise of a cost-saving measure.
This means the Australian Government Solicitor no longer enjoys the organisational, operational or budgetary independence from government that it once did.
Tens of millions of dollars have been gutted from community legal services, which play an important advocacy — as well as representational — role. This decision was taken in direct contradiction of Productivity Commission advice that recommended a $120 million boost in funding. These services now face the challenge of rising demand and reduced budgets.
And it’s not just independent legal institutions that are under threat. The decisions of scientists, artists, researchers and academics have also been compromised.
The government thought it knew better than the experts and sought to “reprioritise” how the independent Australian Research Council awards its $900 million in annual funding.
They asserted their influence in arts and cultural policy too, reducing the independent Australia Council’s budget, diverting it instead to cultural endeavours the government deemed more worthy. Very public and political attacks on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation are fuelled by the same ideology.
Then there has been the gobsmackingly stupid and ideological attack on climate science. The government’s own climate change department has been dudded and the nation’s peak body, the CSIRO, is facing continued job cuts.
Instead of expert scientists making their own decisions about what courses of study are best pursued in the public interest, the government wants to make it for them.
Politicians, we can all agree, don’t always know everything about the job they’ve been tasked with. It’s absolutely critical, therefore, that governments have access to expert advice. Advice that is untainted by political ideology and isn’t always what governments ‘want’ to hear.
But the experiences of Mr Gleeson, Mr Grimes and Prof Triggs suggest that this government is rarely a fan of expert advice. In fact, Mr Turnbull’s government — and Tony Abbott’s before him — seems to only like experts who agree with them.
The result is a country where public servants increasingly fear speaking truth to power. The risk is a country run by “yes” men.
Since coming to power in 2013, the Coalition has consistently and deliberately undermined the role of our democratic institutions. They have sought to remove or curtail the power of decision-making bodies that operate at arms length from government.
And do not be fooled for a second that things are better now under Mr Turnbull’s government than they were under Mr Abbott. Little has been done by Mr Turnbull to ameliorate, let alone reverse, the damage done by his predecessor.
Indeed, the events of the past 24 hours confirm that this damaging pattern continues. At pace.
Mr Gleeson. Mr Grimes. Prof Triggs. Who knows how many more are to come?
Jamila Rizvi is a writer, presenter and news.com.au columnist. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.