There might have been a time when Andrew Barr’s warning against “a perversion of Australian democracy” was taken seriously. In truth, the ACT’s Chief Minister increasingly demonstrates open disdain for democratic governance.
Canberrans are increasingly raising concerns about the Barr Government’s refusal to engage in genuine debate, its intolerance of dissenting views and its avoidance of scrutiny. Barr’s discomfort of longstanding democratic principles has not escaped the attention of the local media and prominent Canberrans.
If there’s any perversion of democracy, it’s happening in our own backyard.
An important feature of the Westminster system is having a Government and an Opposition. The key role of an opposition is to make the government accountable to the people. If a government cannot adequately justify decisions involving the use of taxpayers’ hard-earned money, that is a failure of government and, to use the Chief Minister’s words, a perversion of democracy.
Every year, Barr speaks at a Canberra Business Chamber Budget breakfast. This used to be a Budget debate between the Treasurer and the Shadow Treasurer.
One year, Treasurer Barr decided he would not participate if the Shadow Treasurer was also invited. It has been that way ever since. There is no debate, no defence, no explanation, just the Barr Government putting their own spin on the Budget, presenting only the news they want people to hear.
Since the 2016 election, Clubs ACT has been relentlessly targeted by the Barr Government for refusing to back the Labor movement. Barr and his Ministers have repeatedly refused to meet with Clubs ACT and have actively worked to weaken their business operations through government policy.
Labor stalwart and former Chief Minister Jon Stanhope has criticised Barr for his “Trump-like” vendetta against Clubs ACT. “Residents and community organisations are entitled to disagree with and to oppose the actions of government. It’s called democracy,” Stanhope said.
Like his refusal to debate the Budget at the Business Chamber event, Barr’s famously uttered contempt for journalists exposes his dislike of public scrutiny of his policies and spending. How very undemocratic. The free press is another essential check on democracy.
The Chief Minister’s preference to bypass traditional media and his implicit push towards controlled messaging and social media comes at precisely the time such avenues have been found wanting as instruments for democracy.
A government that suppresses debate, so that only its own spin is heard – through channels funded by the taxpayer – is one step closer to Donald Trump’s world of “fake news”. Attempts to shut down scrutiny and independent reporting undermines Australian democracy.
Maybe when he was first elected, Andrew Barr took democracy seriously. Now, it seems “democracy” is only a word you say when you want to get your way. Canberrans increasingly distrust the Barr Government’s commitment to transparency, oversight and accountability.
If Barr really cared about the preservation of Australian democracy he would commit to greater public debate, be more open and accountable on spending, promote the rights of others to engage in the democratic process and embrace scrutiny from traditional journalism. Otherwise, it’s all fake news.
Nicole Lawder is the Deputy Leader of the Canberra Liberals