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How long can our leaders keep governing by the seat of their pants?

Opinion

Crisis control may see us through coming months, but checks and balances are desperately needed to ensure Australia makes it through the difficult years that will follow, writes Sean Parnell

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Among the dozens of routine government appointments last Friday were two new clerks of Executive Council.

Queensland already had three of these clerks. Such positions have existed since separation from NSW in 1859, helping to organise Executive Council to prepare Cabinet decisions for consideration by the Governor. Serious, formal work behind the scenes to ensure things get done.

But in this age of crises, contingencies needed to be put in place should the novel coronavirus knock out a cog in the machinery of government. So now there are five clerks – just in case anyone gets sick.

This is how government is operating now. Every key decision-maker and staff member has a shadow – or several, it turns out – so that government can continue if anyone comes down with COVID-19.

Government must go on. Yet governing in a time of crisis appears to come with less transparency and accountability: fewer opportunities for MPs to play a role, let alone the voters, taxpayers and constituents who might like to at least feel part of the decision-making. Crisis control may see us through coming months, but checks and balances are desperately needed to ensure Australia makes it through the difficult years that will follow.

State Cabinet is still meeting – members put more distance between each other than normal – however state parliament sittings have been cancelled, as have others interstate and federally. Alternative arrangements differ by jurisdiction.

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and Prime Minister Scott Morrison now sit together in a new national Cabinet, which relays its decisions not by formal communique, regulation or legislation, but by press release and media conference. Its legal standing is unclear, and in Canberra even the processing of Freedom of Information requests has ground to a halt.

Government-employed health advisers consult privately with a range of experts and advice, or act on advice, from the government. New laws have been introduced to allow them to impose extraordinary controls on the community (or sections of the community) in an effort to protect the community (or sections of the community). Yet those who know still struggle to communicate these things to those who don’t.

The normal tension between government and opposition, between Labor and conservative, between state and federal government, is almost gone. Political it may be, this tension has long served a role in pressuring government to make the best decisions, and account for them, not unlike in court where the defence would require the prosecution to have a watertight case or else.

At the moment, journalists, and sometimes doctors, are having to interrogate and communicate these decisions, without having access to something as fundamental as the government modelling for the spread of the virus. At the same time, legacy media companies are cutting back, especially in regional areas, where newspapers are now closing.

Polling booths that opened for the weekend’s council elections and state by-elections may not be seen again for some time. As expected, these uncertain times generally favoured the incumbents, and councils will soon get on with the job of disaster management. But while there were justifiable concerns at voters having to turn out, and not stay home, removing their right to do so would have set another dangerous precedent.

Already, in Queensland, routine opportunities for questions to be asked, and answers to be given, are being put on hold in the interests of public safety. Ahead of the elections, there were few mayoral debates, less interaction on the hustings. At a state level, parliament is on hold, the budget brought forward to April has now been put off indefinitely, and it is unclear what will happen to the election scheduled for October 31. A crucial euthanasia report was handed down this week, and was expected to lead parliament to debate new laws giving people in certain circumstances the right to die, but perhaps it’s not the right time for that either.

Maybe it is acceptable that everyday politics should be paused, given we are having to pause our normal lives amid a risk that they will stop. But surely a crisis like this warrants more scrutiny of government, not less. People should know everything about the pandemic preparation and response, or lack thereof, and every decision in-between.

Issues such as Centrelink failures, a cruise ship disembarking sick passengers, and the lack of protective equipment for doctors would normally warrant questions in parliament or an examination by committee. Some arguably deserve a Royal Commission, and yet people are being asked to wait (now is not the time).

In the courts, which are increasingly doing business by teleconference, there has long been a principle that justice needs to be seen to be done. The same surely applies to the business of government, the decisions of elected and appointed officials, using taxpayer funds and extraordinary powers to protect the lives and livelihoods of citizens.

Queenslanders, and Australians for that matter, are showing blind faith in government leaders and their appointed health officials to see the nation through its greater ever threat. But that faith need not be blind. Steps must be taken to improve transparency and accountability – now, not later.

When this is all over, there will have been deaths and disability, the loss of jobs and businesses, social upheaval, and countless debts to be paid off (you can expect years of austerity measures from government). People are dealing with the present challenges well, under the circumstances, but as time goes on, and stresses mount, some might feel as if they were conned. And there will always be a politician, or wannabe revolutionary, ready to destroy governments and other public institutions.

If our current leaders cannot take the people with them, and show the transparency and accountability needed for the public to have confidence in their decisions, there is no easy way out of this. Things could get much, much worse.

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