Leading article Australia

Victoria’s illiberal democracy

5 September 2020

9:00 AM

5 September 2020

9:00 AM

With the acquiescence of a handful of well-intentioned but misguided crossbench MPs, Victorian Labor Premier Daniel Andrews has won his extended state of emergency powers.

To be sure, it’s now six months rather than the government’s proposed twelve. But as the last six months in Victoria have shown – let alone in the rest of Australia – much damage can be done in that length of time. The economic life of a state can be shut down and ruined for years or even decades to come. Personal liberties can be torn up with little or no public justification.  Police in paramilitary uniforms can become figures to be feared by law-abiding citizens, not respected. Curfews can be proclaimed and ruthlessly enforced. And children are left to grow up in a climate of fear, with their educations and life prospects tattered.

The crossbenchers who gave Andrews essentially what he wanted have unreasonably compromised the freedoms of all Victorians. What Victoria has lacked from the outset of the Covid-19 crisis is effective scrutiny of an executive that insists it is always right and demands complete and unquestioning compliance with its edicts. That has not changed. Instead of obtaining genuine parliamentary scrutiny in return for continued emergency powers, involving a select committee where the government doesn’t have the numbers that can summon ministers and officials and compel the production of documents, modelling and data, the faux-compromise merely requires the government to ‘brief’ MPs. Will that send a shiver up the backbones of Mr Andrews and his Keystone Kops Kabinet? Absolutely not.

Adding insult to Victoria’s injury is the Andrews government giving nothing back to Victorians in return for extending its illiberal rule. Even though the numbers of new Covid infections have fallen to double digits, the premier still dodges questions about when his soul- and economy-destroying Stage 4 lockdown will end. He’s merely promised a ‘roadmap’ next week, but as it stands it looks highly likely that the severest restrictions will continue beyond their nominal 13 September end-date.

But in succeeding in his latest grab for authoritarian power Mr Andrews should thank the people who have most made his job so easy: Victoria’s Liberal-National opposition. At a time when democracy needs protecting, personal freedoms need safeguarding and ministers and officials need to be properly held to account for their failures, not least the spectacular omnishambles of Melbourne’s pathetic excuse for hotel quarantine, Mr Andrews instead is faced by a state Liberal rabble at war with itself. The Victorian Liberal leader, Michael O’Brien, is a decent, able man who would make a good premier, but apart from the energetic Tim Smith he is saddled with an ineffectual ‘team’ more like Dr Doolittle’s Pushme-Pullyou than a credible alternative government. At a time when their parliamentary democracy is being trampled underfoot by a left-wing government that loathes scrutiny and criticism, Mr Andrews has no political opposition worthy of the name.

With a premier whose governing increasingly reflects Lord Acton’s maxim, that power corrupts but absolute power corrupts absolutely, and an opposition so dysfunctional that it is easily dismissed as an irrelevance even by those who do not knee-jerkingly #standwithDan, Victorians are being denied hope of a brighter future. With a quarter of the nation’s GDP threatened by Victoria’s ongoing Covid-19 agony, other Australians cannot sit idly by in their closed-border bubbles and watch this travesty of southern-state democracy destroy their national prosperity.

Tony’s British gig

Good on Boris Johnson for looking to appoint British-born Tony Abbott to the UK Board of Trade (see Mark Higgie this week). With three bilateral trade agreements and a Trans-Pacific Partnership deal under his belt, Mr Abbott can teach the Poms a thing or two about post-Brexit trade negotiations. And if he helps Boris shape a high-priority Australia-UK free trade agreement that greatly increases two-way trade, investment and freedom of movement, Australians as well as Britons win.

It is disappointing, however, that it’s taken Mr Johnson to take advantage of Mr Abbott’s talents and experience. Scott Morrison should do more than tweet Mr Johnson made ‘a great hire’. He should himself draw on Mr Abbott’s determination to continue in public service.  Like other former PMs John Howard and Julia Gillard (Kevin Rudd remaining in an eternal sulk), Mr Abbott wants to contribute, has much still to contribute, and should be allowed to contribute. Australia still needs him.

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