by Tony Burke
The news media is an essential pillar of our democracy.
Every time a newspaper is closed or a newsroom is culled that pillar trembles and our democracy is weakened.
Last year was the darkest yet for Australia’s media. More than 150 newsrooms were shut down – many of them permanently – when COVID-19 ran a wrecking ball through already diminished revenues.
Journalists quite rightly used their public platforms to warn of the dangers of this decline: it means less scrutiny, less accountability and more corruption. It means Australian voters are more vulnerable to social media fantasies – and less equipped to make informed decisions at the ballot box.
Sadly, it has already led to less coverage of the Federal Parliament, another essential pillar of our democracy.
When I started in federal politics seventeen years ago news organisations covered both chambers of parliament around the clock: independent eyes watching every minute of proceedings.
Not anymore. Nowadays much of what happens in parliament goes unwatched and unreported by the press gallery.
This has led to the emergence of a frustrating attitude in the media that what happens in parliament isn’t important. Some of the same media figures who champion their industry as a cornerstone of democracy now dismiss what happens in parliament as some kind of insignificant parlour game.
In doing so they’re giving Scott Morrison permission to trash the norms and conventions of “the people’s house” – and that has already led to a tangible decline in accountability, civility and competence under this government.
Never before have we had a government so determined to shut down an opposition.
Since the start of the 46th Parliament there have been 538 divisions in the lower house. Just 18 of those divisions have occurred to pass legislation. A staggering 233 have occurred to prevent opposition MPs giving speeches.
That means government MPs have voted more times to silence their political opponents than they have to make laws – by a factor of 13.
On 30 occasions, the government has prevented Anthony Albanese from speaking. As Manager of Opposition Business I am now the most “closed down” member in the history of the parliament. I’ve been gagged 90 times.
But this isn’t about me and Albo.
It’s actually about the millions of Australians who didn’t vote for Scott Morrison. They deserve a voice in our parliament – but this is a government that doesn’t want to hear any voices but its own.
This is not normal. Governments of both persuasions have used their numbers to silence the other side from time to time – but not like this, not systematically, not as a matter of course. There’s no law against what the government’s doing but there are conventions that both sides respected until Scott Morrison took over.
The government regularly uses its numbers to ram through legislation without proper debate – even when there’s no reason to do so.
They do it even when their legislation isn’t urgent. They do it even when they’ve got no other substantial legislation on the books. They do it even when the Senate isn’t sitting so the legislation can’t proceed anyway.
This denies members – and by extension the people who voted for them – their say on important issues. It shows contempt for the parliament and the public.
They once rammed through a highly contentious industrial relations bill without even allowing a single second of debate from our side.
That was the first time I’d seen anything like that in my six terms in parliament – but it barely rated a mention in the media.
Scott Morrison has repeatedly been caught out misleading the parliament, most notably over the sports rorts scandal. Not so long ago this would have been considered a career-ending offence. Now he just gets away with it.
The whole concept of parliamentary responsibility for ministers has collapsed. Ministers refuse to front up in parliament to give explanations on important issues. They ignore official orders to produce documents or cooperate with committees. They fail to answer questions on notice. They shrug off censure motions.
But the response from some in the media amounts to: “Oh well they’re the government – they can do whatever they want.”
Since when does winning government in this country mean seizing power untrammelled by parliamentary scrutiny?
On other occasions the government has shown shocking incompetence. Last August parliament was shut down because the government couldn’t provide a quorum – meaning their MPs didn’t even bother to show up for work. In October they pushed through a series of bills only to realise they’d stuffed up on procedure and had to rescind the votes – nullifying hours of the house’s work – and try again. In December a minister gave a speech on the wrong bill because he wasn’t paying attention.
Taxpayers paid for this incompetence but the government faced no penalty because no one was watching.
When the media dismisses parliament as an irrelevance the public gets a wildly distorted view of federal politics.
And let’s never forget this government tried to use COVID-19 as an excuse to cancel parliament altogether for five months – a completely unprecedented and unnecessary move – and much of the media didn’t seem to care.
When Leader of the House Christian Porter was asked about it he was dismissive: “We’ve got better things to do.”
The media has a right to expect that politicians will do what they can to preserve their pillar. But equally, the public has a right to expect the media will show similar commitment to protecting the vital institution of Parliament.
This opinion piece was first published in The New Daily on Thursday, 28 January 2021.