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The erosion of checks and balances

By Tony Kevin - posted Friday, 17 March 2006

In the welter of words ranging from blatant hagiography to tempered criticism on John Howard’s ten years as Australian Prime Minister, the mean default position could be summarised thus:

Howard has been highly successful in reading and responding to the electorate’s mood, and in using prime ministerial power and leverage to implement programs that meet majority concerns. He is respected, not loved. Australia has become a meaner and more conformist society under his tenure, and these are hard times for liberal dissenters. But he has provided high levels of economic stability and national security. Legitimately, he has a democratic mandate within a still-healthy democratic system.

I have a bleaker view of the Howard years. Only time will tell if my case is overstated. I see Howard as a disruptive and dangerous national leader. I believe his rule is steadily degrading the values of our society and corrupting its political institutions. The longer he stays in power, the more the checks and balances of our society will crumble. We will continue our slow slide towards an Australian model of fascism. This essay discusses the basis for such a view.


“Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, wrote historian Lord Acton. That is why checks and balances are crucial to the health of democratic systems. They are the grit in the gears of government machinery, impeding excessive concentrations of power.

Australian society used to be rich in such checks and balances.

  • First: the political balance between executive, legislature and judiciary.
  • Second: within the executive arm, a healthy Westminster system divided power between elected parliamentarians, and permanent professional civil, military and police services that used to see themselves as (and indeed were) apolitical guardians of national interests. (Read Peter Edwards' just-published biography of Sir Arthur Tange to get a sense of how far we have travelled from those days.)
  • Third: there was a true division of power between the Commonwealth and the States, with each enjoying real, autonomous taxing and spending rights.
  • Fourth: complex balances between the political sphere and civil society - the latter being a diverse range of academic, cultural, sporting, ethnic or religious-based associations, cause-based and hobby-based groups.
  • Finally: local government councils occupied intermediate spaces between political and civil society, introducing yet more grit into the gears of governance.

Looking at all these balances over the past ten years, one sees processes of concentration towards federal executive power, increasingly centred around the Prime Minister’s Office, and the weakening of other countervailing institutions.

Significantly, the Federal Government now routinely dubs itself “The Australian Government, Canberra”. State and territory governments are being reduced more and more, to mere executing agencies. Federal Government, through ever-expanding GST and other tax revenues, now has huge financial leverage over policy areas that used to belong primarily to states, local councils, or local communities.

It can tell schools how to test students, what flags to fly, and what “values” curriculum to teach. It can control which local roads are maintained, and even how well bushfire brigades are funded. It can determine priorities and values in national sport, and reshape solemn community observances like Anzac Day to convey whatever national cohesion messages it wishes. It may presume to enter, even set the terms of, national debate on every issue.


With the loss of a healthy Westminster system, officers of the public service, defence and police forces have all become more silently malleable to political will. There are still individuals of integrity in these systems, but the times now suit the “yes” men and women.

The Federal Government routinely gets away with an unending series of abuses of proper process and accountability, in areas of government fiscal probity; federal police conduct; use of the defence power and conduct of the ADF; border protection and counter-terrorism operations. Because, now, it has all these bureaucracies firmly under political control. There is no permanency and no systemic protection for whistleblowers And career advancement depends on uncritical responsiveness to government wishes.

A similar analysis can be applied to the coalition parties themselves - parliamentarians who dissent do so at risk to their careers.

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About the Author

Tony Kevin holds degrees in civil engineering, and in economics and political science. He retired from the Australian foreign service in 1998, after a 30-year career during which he served in the Foreign Affairs and Prime Minister’s departments, and was Australia’s ambassador to Poland and Cambodia. He is currently an honorary visiting fellow at the Australian National University’s Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies in Canberra. He has written extensively on Australian foreign, national security, and refugee policies in Australia’s national print media, and is the author of the award-winning books A Certain Maritime Incident – the Sinking of SIEV X, and Walking the Camino: a modern pilgrimage to Santiago. His third book on the global climate crisis, Crunch Time: Using and abusing Keynes to fight the twin crises of our era was published by Scribe in September 2009.

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