Opinion: Why voters have to protect freedoms

AT a time when democracy is under threat, it is even more important to have voter engagement. The loss of our freedoms is not likely to end with a bang but a whimper.

Two immediate threats are illustrative of the need for vigilance – the Rudd push for power and current negotiations around an international treaty known as the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement.

Gillard supporter, the former Attorney-General, Nicola Roxon, argued that now-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was “not the Messiah”. Apparently, she did not convince him or the rest of the Labor caucus.

Rudd certainly gives the impression that he believes he was elected by the people. He knows better. The Prime Minister has to have the support not just of his own party, but of the majority of members of the House of Representatives.

In quite a masterful move, Rudd is now using the instability of the caucus to argue for more power to be concentrated in his own hands. It is largely the uncertainty and instability that he actually caused by his constant white-anting. To avoid having others behave as badly as he did, he is going to ask elected Labor Party members to forgo their ability to have a majority challenge him as leader of the parliamentary party.

It will take three quarters of the caucus to be able to ask the broader party to remove the Labor leader. This is not just about the Prime Minister but the Labor leader in government or in opposition who will be difficult to budge.

In making this move, Rudd drags the community further towards believing that the Prime Minister is directly elected. When he challenged Gillard without success the last time, the reaction of many in the Labor caucus made it clear why the majority of caucus moved against him in the original coup.

In part it was about the “Messiah complex”. The propensity for the Prime Minister to ensure control of everything himself rather than delegate to his ministers had not only slowed government, but had frustrated many competent, dedicated Ministers.

If Labor really wants more stability and broader membership involvement, it should retain the 50 per cent caucus vote to refer the issue to the general membership. This first attempt of Rudd’s to consolidate power does not bode well for the future. What will be the next step?

The other threat to our democracy is found in our international treaties. The Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) mechanism is one that was rejected by the Howard Government in the Australia-US Free Trade Agreement of 2003-04, has been rejected by the current government in its negotiations so far over the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. The Productivity Commission Report on Bilateral and Regional Trade Agreements also rejected the inclusion of the ISDS.

Simply put, this dispute system allows big companies to challenge Australian democratic decisions. Despite this, Deputy Opposition Leader, Julie Bishop, said ISDS is back on the table if the Abbott Government comes to power. Specifically, this is the mechanism that is allowing big tobacco to use an obscure 1993 Hong Kong–Australia investment agreement to challenge our plain packaging of tobacco laws.

These laws have been passed by the Federal Parliament and found legal by our High Court. The ISDS mechanism allows foreign corporations to challenge these constitutional rights of Australians through what can at best be described as a “quasi-judicial” mechanism.

Fortunately, there are Australians who are aware of the fragility of our freedoms. They need greater awareness and stronger support if Australians are to remain truly free to make their own decisions about what happens within their own country.

Michael Moore was an independent member of the ACT Legislative Assembly (1989 to 2001) and was minister for health. He appreciates assistance from Dr P Ranald, of Sydney University, in regard to international treaties.

 

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