A short time ago, Australians were exposed to another election campaign. They are something we have come to accept even though they are painful, confusing and leave us with even more questions, much like an annual physical. Not surprisingly, a bombardment of words designed to grip the public were employed. We had two major political parties tossing into the crowd words like national emergency, crisis and disaster in the hope that they would stick, and unfortunately, some did. It was understandable to grow numb to the barrage, especially since evidence to the contrary has been all too obvious since.
One set of words that has had me pondering lately, is the declaration of a national emergency while the Labor government was in power by the then Opposition Leader Tony Abbott. The words were specifically in relation to border protection and the budget.
Well, I take statements with such fierce language seriously. In Australia, individual states and territories have their own legislation for 'states of emergency.' In most cases of legislation, a state of emergency is normally declared in writing, has a time limit, is declared when an emergency has occurred or is imminent, that extraordinary measures are required and when a prejudice to the safety of citizens exists.
The four common themes when a government declares a state of emergency are:
- Suspension of certain normal functions of government.
- Alerting the community to the situation and requesting they alter their normal behaviours.
- Ordering government agencies to implement emergency plans.
- Suspending certain civil liberties during periods of civil disorder.
It was the then opposition leader's declarations of national emergency that recently had me thinking; is it he or I who is unclear what a national emergency is? Ordinarily it is a drastic call to action, however since the election victory, I have not seen the sweeping change that one would expect during an emergency crisis. In fact, I am seeing what many political commentators are observing; dragging of the feet and lack of transparency.
Many have been surprised at the sluggishness of the Coalition. Under part 13 of the Commonwealth Electoral Act of 1918, the fixed date for the return of election writs shall not be more than 100 days after issue and Mr Abbott has declared the 44th parliament will be open on 12th November. It's within limits, but it doesn't demonstrate the haste that citizens would consider obligatory if there really was a national crisis. Tony Burke, former Minister for Immigration, Multicultural Affairs and Citizenship sums it up thus; ''It's a very long wait for a government that said there was a national emergency.'' But of course we don't need parliament open to draft policies of such importance and delicacy. It is understandable that the Coalition is taking time to meticulously work on legislation it wants to pass. But during times of crisis, coordinators don't spend months haggling over the dotting of the i's and crossing of the t's to spring to action.
But it's not so much feet dragging, it's transparency that is also becoming an issue, as is made clear by many political commentators of late. In 2010, in preparation for a Coalition victory that did not come (we'll ignore the issue of the minority government fiasco), the Treasury released in large part, its briefs prepared for the incoming government under freedom of information laws. This is a far cry from 2013 where access to the Treasury 'Blue Books' (briefs for the incoming government to allow smooth transition) has been wholly refused.
Of course there are matters of national security that need to be considered, but to prohibit the entirety of the briefs is very dubious. An article in the Sydney Morning Herald reports the Treasury official responsible for the decision wrote, "release of the incoming government briefs would interfere with the establishment of an effective working relationship between the Treasury and Treasurer".
What about the working relationship between a government and its people? Is this not a clear breach of the public interest? Especially for a Coalition that released the publication Real Solutions, a policy outline that promised the people a new era of transparent government.
It has been difficult to find a dozen instances where Mr. Abbott has formally addressed the media since winning office and reports are rife that calls to his and ministers' offices are going unanswered and unreturned. That is not demonstrative of a government in emergency crisis or transparency mode.
Looking at other examples, the immigration office headed by Scott Morrison has new directives that include Customs no longer issuing advice about boats in distress while en route to Australia. Also, information on boats arriving in Australian waters is no longer released to the public as soon as they are discovered. Additionally, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection are no longer authorised to provide what was formerly harmless information on asylum seekers.
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