GUEST POST: Labor’s attack on freedom of speech

A guest post from Dorothy entitled “Why all Australians should be concerned about Labor’s attack on freedom of speech”:

This week Australia’s democratic system became a little bit more tarnished as it was revealed in Senate Estimates that Kevin Rudd is seeking to silence his critics through amendments to the regulations encompassing parliamentary printing and communications allowances.

After the Auditor General’s Report was released on 8 September 2009, the desire to reform parliamentarians’ electoral allowances gained momentum; after all it’s always popular with the electorate to decrease MP allowances and stop them “rorting” the system. The Government proposed changes in line with the recommendations of the Auditor General’s Report which were supported by the Opposition.

For the uninitiated, the Special Minister of State announced (amongst other measures) cuts to the communications allowance for MPs from $100,000 to $75,000 and from $16,667 to $12,500 for Senators (following on from an earlier cut in line with a pre-election commitment). Additionally, the communications allowance and the printing allowance will now be combined into one Printing and Communications Allowance (PCA).

For me the numbers really aren’t the controversial part of the reforms. Whilst you can argue about precisely what figure should be put on how much an MP or Senator can spend communicating with their electorate in a financial year, it does apply equally to all parliamentarians. Obviously, it gives an advantage to the government of the day as they can call on significant ministerial resources to assist and they have more Members of Parliament as opposed to candidates campaigning at the taxpayers’ expense (particularly the Labor Party who can also draw on a secured flow of funds from the union movement), but the advantage of incumbency is an argument for another day.

The real story is the implementation of the “electioneering” rule.

The Parliamentary Entitlements Regulations 1997 which came into effect on 1 October 2009 provide that the printing and communications allowance (PCA) cannot be used for “electioneering” purposes. Electioneering is defined as:

electioneering means a communication that explicitly:

(a) Seeks support for, denigrates or disparages:

(i) The election of  a particular person or persons; or

(ii) A particular political party or political parties; or

(b) Encourages a person to become a member of a particular political party, or political parties; or

(c) Solicits subscriptions or other financial support.”

Now the definition of itself might not sound too bad, however what constitutes “electioneering” is clearly going to be a matter of interpretation.

The scope of this definition will be determined by a Committee of bureaucrats from Ministerial and Parliamentary Services and the Legal Services Branch within the Department of Finance and Deregulation. So far the Department has interpreted the term far stricter than expected and arguably far stricter than the appropriate Regulations require. “Disgraceful” is out as is “irresponsible” and “mismanagement” together with many other common terms used in political writing.

To add insult to injury, these guidelines don’t apply to ministerial allowances so a government minister can say whatever they want about the Opposition at the taxpayers’ expense without being subject to the same “electioneering” requirements.

Importantly, MPs have been unable to put out material disagreeing with policy decisions made by the Government. They can’t use taxpayer funds to respond to a taxpaying constituent who has asked them what their opinion is if it does not conform with the Government’s and is found inappropriate by a Committee of Department officials.

So who are these bureaucrats? They’re not the ones elected by the people to make decisions and advocate on their behalf. They certainly don’t have a mandate to do anything, yet they have the final say over what an MP or Senator can tell a constituent. There isn’t even a right of appeal if you disagree with their ruling. I’m certainly not arguing that the Special Minister of State or the Government itself should become the ultimate arbiter but simply that it is the Members in their local electorates that should be able to write what they believe without being vetted by some bureaucrat in an office in Canberra who admits that “public servants may have a different view on what is a robust political debate” (Senate Estimates, 20 October 2009, page 85) than MPs do.

Upon closer examination of the regulations the situation gets even more ludicrous. An MP or Senator can use their office equipment to print whatever they like. However, if they want to send it to a constituent using their PCA they will have to have it vetted if they think there’s a chance it is too critical of the Government. Applying this rule to the letter would mean that all Opposition MPs and Senators (as overwhelmingly all Government parliamentarians will toe the party line) would virtually have to have every letter approved by the Committee or risk having to pay back the postage.

Without even going into the delays in the approval process and the administrative nightmare that this system will create, there is a more important principle at stake here.

If you want to send a newsletter to your constituents criticising the Government for not funding upgrades to a road in your community or failing to address the lack of broadband access, sorry you’ll have to toe the Labor Government line or pay for it yourself. If a constituent sends their MP a letter asking for their personal opinion on a Labor Government decision, the MP can’t even answer them honestly within their entitlement.

This includes sending constituents Hansard and media releases if they are critical of the Government even if they have been published elsewhere.

I should point out that some Labor MPs have raised their concerns with the Prime Minister, only to be told that he doesn’t give a f*** what they think, he’s going to do it anyway.

The community has a right to know what the Government is doing, both good AND bad, and deserves better than some Orwellian mantra worthy of the Ministry of Truth. They also have the right to know what their local MP or Senator thinks about decisions being made by the Government.

So where does this leave our politicians? Well, it certainly doesn’t let them talk about politics unless it complies with Rudd’s rhetoric and the spin machine from Labor pollsters Hawker Britton who drive the daily agenda.

Our democracy is only as strong as the protection it gives minority voices and opinions and with the implementation of these reforms we are certainly not living up to our reputation as one of the shining lights of democracy around the world. A system whereby an MP or Senator is free to congratulate the Government but not hold them to account for their failures is not something that should be acceptable. The Auditor General’s Report advocated reform but it certainly didn’t anticipate the effective censorship of our MPs and Senators by preventing them from saying what they truly think about the Government.

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2 Responses to “GUEST POST: Labor’s attack on freedom of speech”

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