Citizen Journalism

To perform our democratic function we need and are entitled to the truth: Tony Fitzgerald

In Corruption, Democracy, Margo Kingston on March 6, 2013 at 11:26 PM
Tony Fitzgerald

Tony Fitzgerald  Photo: Tamara Voninski Brisbane Times

By Margo Kingston
March 6, 2013

News of the accidental publication of secret documents from the Fitzgerald Royal Commission got me thinking about my hero in the context of recent examples of our corrupt and dishonest politics. Tony Fitzgerald exposed the corruption at the heart of the Bjelke-Petersen government and laid out a blueprint for ethical government.

Tony Fitzgerald and Mike Ahern

Tony Fitzgerald and Mike Ahern

Southerners were smug, but it’s since been shown that their governments were much more corrupt than ours.

In 2004 Tony launched my book Not Happy, John! Defending out democracy and made some harsh judgments about the state our democracy. It’s got worse, and last year he noted with dismay the cronyism in the Queensland LNP government

After awful news out of the NSW corruption inquiry, this week the Victorian Liberal National government was revealed to have sold access to ministers and the Premier to developers, an unethical practice now commonplace in Australian politics.

So, on the night the Victorian Premier resigned amid evidence of cover-up, ministerial perjury and the payment of hush money, I publish Tony’s 2004 speech and urge both big parties to develop and announce serious policies to return honesty and ethics to public life.

June 29, 2004
Source: Webdiary


Justice Tony Fitzgerald’s speech launching my Not happy John! Defending our democracy at Gleebooks in Sydney on June 22. Michelle Grattan reported on the speech at Fitzgerald berates both sides of politics

In a speech last year, the author Norman Mailer described democracy as ‘a state of grace that is attained only by those countries which have a host of individuals not only ready to enjoy freedom but to undergo the heavy labor of maintaining it’. Not Happy John! is Margo Kingston’s admirable contribution to the ‘heavy labor’ of maintaining democracy in Australia.

As the title hints, Margo has focused her analysis on the behaviour of the current Commonwealth government, especially the Prime Minister. In the words of the publisher: ‘Not Happy, John! is a gutsy, anecdotal book with a deadly serious purpose: to lay bare the insidious ways in which John Howard’s government has profoundly undermined our freedoms and our rights. She doesn’t care whether you vote Liberal or Labor, Greens or One Nation. She isn’t interested in the old, outworn left – right rhetoric. What she’s passionate about is the urgent need for us to reassert the core civic values of a humane, egalitarian, liberal democracy.’

You will observe the force of Margo’s argument when you read her book, as obviously you should. My brief remarks will be directed to the damage that mainstream politicians generally are doing to our democracy.

Australians generally accept that democracy is the best system of government, the market is the most efficient mechanism for economic activity and fair laws are the most powerful instrument for creating and maintaining a society that is free, rational and just. However, we are also collectively conscious that democracy is fragile, the market is amoral and law is an inadequate measure of responsibility.

As former Chief Justice Warren of the United States Supreme Court explained: ‘Law… presupposes the existence of a broad area of human conduct controlled only by ethical norms.’

Similarly, democracy in our tradition assumes that a broad range of political activity is controlled only by conventions of proper conduct. Especially because individual rights are not constitutionally guaranteed in this country, justice, equality and other fundamental community values in Australia are constantly vulnerable to the disregard of those conventions.

Since the sacking of the Whitlam Government in 1975, the major political parties seem to have largely abandoned the ethics of government. A spiteful, divisive contest now dominates the national conversation, and democracy struggles incessantly with populism. Mainstream political parties routinely shirk their duty of maintaining democracy in Australia.

This is nowhere more obvious than in what passes for political debate, in which it is regarded as not only legitimate but clever to mislead. Although effective democracy depends on the participation of informed citizens, modern political discourse is corrupted by pervasive deception. It is a measure of the deep cynicism in our party political system that many of the political class deride those who support the evolution of Australia as a fair, tolerant, compassionate society and a good world citizen as an un-Australian, ‘bleeding-heart’ elite, and that the current government inaccurately describes itself as conservative and liberal.

It is neither. It exhibits a radical disdain for both liberal thought and fundamental institutions and conventions. No institution is beyond stacking and no convention restrains the blatant advancement of ideology.

The tit-for-tat attitude each side adopts means that the position will probably change little when the opposition gains power at some future time. A decline in standards will continue if we permit it.

Without ethical leadership, those of us who are comfortably insulated from the harsh realities of violence, disability, poverty and discrimination seem to have experienced a collective failure of imagination. Relentless change and perceptions of external threat make conformity and order attractive and incremental erosions of freedom tolerable to those who benefit from the status quo and are apprehensive of others who are different and therefore easily misunderstood.

Mainstream Australians remain unreconciled with Indigenous Australians and largely ignore their just claims. Without any coherent justification, we are participating in a war in a distant country in which more than half the population are children, some of whom, inevitably, are being killed.

In our own country, many live in poverty, children are hungry and homeless and other severely traumatised children are in detention in flagrant breach of the Convention on the Rights of the Child simply because they were brought here by their parents seeking a better life.

Politicians mesmerised by power seem to be unconcerned that, when leaders fail to set and follow ethical standards, public trust is damaged, community expectations diminish and social divisions expand. However, these matters are important to the rest of us.

We are a community, not merely a collection of self-interested individuals. Justice, integrity and trust in fundamental institutions are essential social assets and social capital is as important as economic prosperity.

In order to perform our democratic function, we need, and are entitled to, the truth. Nothing is more important to the functioning of democracy than informed discussion and debate.

Yet a universal aim of the power-hungry is to stifle dissent. Most of us are easily silenced, through a sense of futility if not personal concern.

Margo has the knowledge, energy and courage to stand up for her beliefs. Congratulations, Margo, for doing much more than your share of the ‘heavy labor’ of maintaining Australia’s democracy. It is a privilege to launch ‘Not Happy John!’, to urge all to read it and to wish you and ‘Not Happy John!’ every success.

‘Still Not Happy, John!’ is published by Penguin. You can download it as an ebook by clicking here.

  1. Australians need to hear more from Mr Fitzgerald and others like him who have held high positions and have the respect of the community because of their ethical stance and wisdom.

  2. Sad thing is, it looks like Newman Govt is now trying to hobble the CMC, which Mr Fitzgerald laid out in his blueprint to stop exactly what the Newman Govt is doing in all their dodgy dealings, Costello conflict only being the latest 😦

  3. @sloughly writes:

    Crime and Misconduct hit the spotlight in QLD as it is in NSW and Vic and I started wondering if we are in some kind of space warp.

    February a year ago Mr Ross Martin was appointed as head of the QLD Crime and Misconduct Commission by Labor govt Minister Paul Lucas. He was previously Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions.

    This week a controversy erupted over the accidental shredding and release of documents leading the Attorney General to call for Mr Martin to consider resigning.
    The incident occurred in May last year but only came to light recently with The Australian reporting on released documents

    Stranger things have happened:

    Today following a spell in hospital he has stepped aside, seriously ill but apparently not unexpected by those who knew him.

    But this last week or so has been a time for opening cans of worms. The independent member for Nicklin, Peter Wellington threatened to name under parliamentary privilege new names possibly responsible for the Fortitude Valley Whisky-au-Go-Go fire of 1973 which killed 15 people: AND disgraced Police Commissioner Terry Lewis has decided to tell his story about his police career under Joh Bjelke-Peterson from jail.

    Since the Newman govt came to power last March, LNP cronies that have been referred to the CMC include the Premiers hand-picked Director General of Transport and Main Roads, Michael Caltabiano for employing the son of another MP Ros Bates who has since resigned: Caltabiano has now been sacked and the investigation suspended.

    The Federal candidate for Fisher and former Howard Minister, Mal Brough, was referred for interference in Council elections: . He was cleared to stand for election due to not enough evidence.

    To top off the Cronies for CMC event Peter Costello was referred by a Liberal Party member for possible conflict of interest with respect to his audit report recommending sale of govt assets while working as lobbyist for firms who buy assets:

    This list appears to be just the start of the downward slide. LNP MP Scott Driscoll refuses to answer questions about financial dealings prior to entering parliament: & He is also subject of sexual harassment claims but has the continued support of his Premier.

    Councillors are also in the line up. Mayor of the Sunshine Coast (supported by Mal Brough) was referred to the CMC for sus dealings in the Council election: and then had this to say in relation to his handywork which shoved Lifeguards out of Council and into Surf Life Saving :

    The CMC and its predecessor the CJC has taken many referrals for investigation over the years and by its very nature operates in an environment of controversy, claim and counter claim. Confidentiality, even secrecy is absolutely necessary for these types of investigations. However, so is accountability and transparency.

    Revelations of leaks and shredding are worrying but so are machinations to close it down.
    We need an independent CMC to fearlessly, honestly and without delay investigate claims of corruption and we need it to report fully, honestly and without delay, albeit with due regard to the safety of people who may be implicated.

    @sloughly had trouble posting and emailed this contribution.

  4. […] To perform our democratic function we need and are entitled to the truth: Tony Fitzgerald […]

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