Australians all let us rejoice
For we are one and free
In December last year, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a small but important change to Australia's national anthem, 'Advance Australia Fair'. The replacement of the words 'young and free' to 'one and free' represents the type of sensible, incremental change which says so much about who we are as Australians.
In describing the change, the Minister for Indigenous Australians, the Hon Ken Wyatt AM, said that it reflected 'our indigenous, British and multi‑cultural history and is a call to look forward in unity with a determination to build a stronger and more rewarding Australia for all'.
We seek to reflect this same spirt in our report. Whilst we agree with some recommendations, there are others with which we disagree as we explain in the following pages.
As relatively new members of this committee, we acknowledge and respect the bipartisan origins and conduct of this inquiry including the contribution of Senator the Hon Amanda Stoker and Senator Claire Chandler (former members of this committee) to the terms of reference. Regrettably, however, we did not participate in the inquiry's hearings or have the opportunity to question witnesses.
The majority report reflects a very substantial body of work incorporating many submissions and witness testimonies. We thank those who made submissions and acknowledge the hard work of the committee secretariat throughout this inquiry.
In this dissenting report, whilst highlighting some important differences in views, we have focused on responding to the recommendations contained in the majority report.
Nationhood and democracy: international trends
The majority report identifies five indicators of democratic decline globally: declining trust, the rise of populism, authoritarianism, growing inequality and fraying social cohesion.
Trust in government
There is strong evidence that the overwhelming majority of Australians believe in democracy. Submissions from the Scanlon Foundation, Lowy Institute and the University of Melbourne indicated that support for democracy, as opposed to other systems of government, remains very high in Australia and continues to steadily climb.
Support is also high when compared to international standards. For example, Dr Cameron of the Australian Election Study submitted that Australians are 'among the most satisfied democrats in the world'. Nicholas Reece argued that 'Australia still has a gold standard democracy'. It should come as no surprise that Australians are passionate democrats – we always have been:
Our constitution was the first to be written by and voted on by the people. We were the first to give women universal suffrage – the right to vote and stand for parliament. We introduced the secret ballot and have one of the highest voter turnouts in the world.
However, there is cause for great optimism. As highlighted in the majority report and as discussed further throughout our report, trust in government has dramatically increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Combating extreme populism in all its forms
While much of the commentary in the majority report focuses on 'the rising tide of right-wing populism', we reject this emphasis. Populism is not exclusively a creature of the right. Mr Sam Roggeveen of the Lowy Institute submitted that:
The electoral convulsions of recent years in Europe and the US have triggered an outbreak of misplaced moral panic about the decline of liberal-democracy and the rise of right-wing populists who will undermine democratic institutions…Recent European elections have not only helped the populist right. In France there is the movement of liberal-centrist Emmanuel Macron. While foreign commentary on German politics tends to focus on the right-wing populist AfD, the German Greens now regularly match the AfD in national opinion polls and they are a major force in German state politics. Greece's Syriza party, a populist party of the left, stormed into government in 2015 on the back of dismay with the old order. None of this is consistent with the notion of a European shift to the populist right.
Additionally, populist leaders in South America typically hail from the left side of politics; for example, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico and Evo Morales in Bolivia. Even in the West, a number of high-profile left-wing populists have enjoyed significant levels of support in recent years such as Bernie Sanders in the United States and Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom. Violent left-wing movements such as ANTIFA have also become increasingly influential.
None of this is to say that 'right-wing populism' is not an issue – it is. Rather, extreme populism in all its forms should be combated and condemned. Indeed, extreme populism bears little resemblance to the traditional centre-right philosophy of small government, individual responsibility, respect for institutions and sensible, incremental change.
Inequality in Australia low by international standards
While socioeconomic inequality has become a dominant political issue in many countries around the world, inequality in Australia is 'is low by international standards'.
In 2018, the Productivity Commission released the most comprehensive review of inequality in Australia to date, titled Rising Inequality? A stocktake of the evidence. The report found that inequality has barely increased in Australia in the last 15 years. It also noted that '[e]conomic mobility is high in Australia, with almost everyone moving across the income distribution over the course of their lives', while living standards for the average Australian in every income decile has 'significantly improved'.
These promising figures are largely a function of Australia's social safety net and highly targeted transfer systems which 'substantially reduce inequality'. Interestingly, in Sweden – a nation often held out for its egalitarian qualities – equality has sharply deteriorated.
The biggest difference in inequality in Australia is between those who have a job and those without a job. Indeed, whether a person has paid employment is the single biggest determinant of whether they are likely to be stuck at the bottom of the mobility ladder in the long-run. This serves as a poignant reminder of the need for governments to relentlessly pursue job creation.
The HILDA Survey released in 2018 also found that relative poverty in Australia is at its lowest point in the history of the survey, while absolute poverty remains close to record lows. It similarly recorded 'little change in income inequality' between 2001 and 2016.
Furthermore, '[s]ince 2007, more than 70 per cent of those surveyed in Scanlon polls feel satisfied or very satisfied with their financial situation, while 85 and 89 per cent of Australians surveyed feel happy or very happy'. In this context, it is no surprise that Associate Professor Salvatore Babones submitted that: 'There is little evidence that economic inequality has any impact on social cohesion or national identity in open societies like Australia'.
Social cohesion in Australia
Fraying social cohesion is of less relevance in Australia, arguably the most successful multicultural nation in the world. Dr Tony Ward of the University of Melbourne stated: 'Are people happy with the social system in Australia?' It's up to around 95 per cent. He also indicated that 'polls of people saying they are proud to be a part of Australia, those are pretty uniform and at very high levels internationally'.
Increasing trust in Australian governments during COVID-19
We agree with the observations in the majority report that the global pandemic has required citizens to put a great deal of trust in politicians, governments and experts and has tested both authoritarian regimes and democratic states, with some not faring so well.
It is both heartening and significant that the trust and confidence of Australians in our governments has increased dramatically during the COVID-19 crisis. In the context of the very substantial health and economic measures being delivered by the Australian government, we are of the view that Australians are buoyed by the success of the government's measures as reflected by Australia's relatively low death rate, compared with many other countries, and our nation's economic recovery which is tracking well ahead of most other comparable countries.
This trust and confidence is underpinned by the success of Australia's universal, high standard health system, respected regulatory agencies such as the Therapeutic Goods Administration, a nimble and hard-working public service and governments which are prepared to enact policies to keep Australians safe and support them financially during this unprecedented crisis.
Whether it is JobKeeper, the Coronavirus supplement, free telehealth service, mental health support or a safe and effective vaccine, it is our view that most Australians feel reassured that their federal government will stand by them in their hour of need.
In making these observations, we are bound to reflect on some of the controversies which have served to undermine confidence in some governments, particularly in Victoria where there has been substantial opposition to the government's management of its hotel quarantine program and to 'lockdown' decisions such as the detention of residents living in public housing towers in inner Melbourne which the Victorian Ombudsman found to be a violation of human rights.
The Australian nation: our history, our identities, our future
From whatever our beginnings or circumstances, Australians have always demonstrated our ability to overcome. To rise above. To better our history. To create our future. Today, on Australia Day, we reflect on that journey, the price that has been paid for our freedom, the lessons of our history and the privilege of being able to call ourselves Australians. We do it on this day when the course of this land changed forever. There is no escaping or cancelling this fact. For better and worse, it was the moment where the journey to modern Australia began. And it is this continuing Australian journey that we recognise today.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
The Australian Constitution
The Australian Constitution has served Australia extremely well. It was the first constitution to be written and voted on by the people, and has been the foundation for over 100 years of stability and prosperity.
During the course of this inquiry, some have complained about the 'thinness of the Constitution'. For instance, Mr Geoffrey Robin submitted that the Constitution:
…has nothing to say about the Australian people, about citizens or citizenship, Australian values … It does nothing to express our humanitarian values, it has nothing to say about our national identity and nothing to say about our democratic beliefs, rights and liberties.
However, we submit that that is in part what makes our Constitution so enduring: it does not purport to be anything other than what it is – a technical, legal document setting up and dividing power between the institutions which comprise Australia's government. Justice Keane of the High Court has described the Australian Constitution as a 'small brown bird' when compared with the 'eagle' that is the American Constitution:
There is no getting away from the modesty of the document, both in form and in substance. It does not announce itself to an amazed world as the self‑executing resolve of: 'We the People'.
History, civics and citizenship: why it matters
In discussing Australia's rich indigenous origins, we acknowledge the detailed analysis in the majority report which emphasised the importance of truth telling – teaching our indigenous history warts and all - including about important legal doctrines such as terra nullius. We do not intend to replicate any of this work in our comments here.
With respect to the intersection between our indigenous history and modern democratic institutions, Dr Ozdowski submitted that:
…because each group is very diverse as well, it's very difficult to have one member who would be representative of a whole group of people. It gives simply a new focus on particular characteristics. I think we should stick to shared values, which are on a much higher level. We all agree on democracy. We all agree that our parliament should be elected and everyone should be able to vote. We agree that our discussions should be based on respect. We agree on equality of opportunity.
There is much to celebrate and be thankful for in our British origins. As Nicholas Reece stated:
I also want to reflect briefly on Australia's democratic history, because I think it's awesome. In the 1850s when the colonial parliaments were being established, they created a democratic franchise which was the broadest and most radical in the world. You didn't have to prove that you owned property; you didn't have to prove that you were of particular financial means; but you got a vote in those colonial parliaments. They also did things like the establishment of the secret ballot, and little things like holding elections on a Saturday—who would have thought: such a small thing but such an important thing in allowing the citizenry to participate. They also did, again, little but important things like paying representatives of parliament. That happened for the first time in the world in the colony of Victoria in 1856. What did that mean? It meant that you didn't have to be a person of substantial means to participate and be a representative in our democracy because the state would provide you a fund and enable you to represent your community.
The Australian Monarchist League reminds us that:
A sense of national identity can only be enduring and constructive if is based on a realistic understanding of the nation's people, culture, history, values and place in the world. For this reason governments must not attempt to distort the national identity in the hope of conforming the nation to a new ideology.
As a migrant nation, Andrew Markus, in the annual Scanlon Social Cohesion survey, suggests that there is generally goodwill in Australia towards multiculturalism, with around 85 per cent of Australians consistently supporting multiculturalism (this varies by age). The Scanlon Foundation submitted that: 'In 2018, only seven per cent of respondents indicated that high immigration was the most important issue of concern'.
The Scanlon Foundation stated that: 'the history of immigration policy in this country, and Australians' relatively strong support for immigration over many years, provide an example of enduring relevance to this inquiry'.
Nicholas Reece also posed the question: 'how and why did Australia, for much of its history, achieve these reforms that made us the gold standard in global democracy and governing systems? I put it to you that it was first because we had a culture of egalitarianism'.
The inquiry heard how Australia's military traditions have been critically important in defining our national identity. That the Australian War Memorial is Australia's most visited tourist attraction speaks volumes about how the service of Australian men and women resonates in our national psyche. As the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) contended:
Perhaps one of the most evocative articulations of Australian values can be found at the Isurava battle site on the Kokoda Track. There etched on four stone pillars are the words 'courage, endurance, mateship and sacrifice'.
Many young Australians also venture to Canberra each year to visit the Museum of Australian Democracy. According to its Director, Daryl Karp:
We have direct engagement with hundreds of thousands of visitors and 90,000 students who come and do face-to-face civics education with us, along with their teachers. It's a really clearly targeted market, and I can honestly say that there is no doubt that the young people who come there—and we're actually doing some research now on how young people see their democracy—are not nearly as cynical as we have been led to believe. They actually are quite optimistic about democracy as a framework. They place it well above the other, non-democratic options that you might expect them to consider.
Failure to teach young Australians the significance of our history and our democratic institutions leaves students ill-equipped to engage as civic citizens. Professor Garden argued that there are 'failures in our education system' at the moment, which result in young people not being provided with the 'capacity to understand, to analyse and to discriminate' as civic citizens. He suggested there is a lack of knowledge among Australians of Australia's democratic history, and the significance and rarity of our institutions. This leads to many students leaving school ill equipped to engage as civic citizens:
Capacity to understand, to analyse and to discriminate, or the failure of it, points to failures in our education system, at least in part, particularly an ignorance of our history, how our democratic institutions were achieved and how significant and, indeed, how rare they are.
We all have an interest in our children having the skills and values they need to become active and informed citizens of a cohesive Australian society. In fact, it was the then Howard government – under Minister for Schools David Kemp – that launched Discovering Democracy in May 1997. This was the first real national commitment in policy and funding toward civics education.
In recognition of the importance of civics and citizenship education, the Australian government provides approximately $1.3 million per year to promote civics and citizenship education in schools and funds selected targeted initiatives including the National History Challenge, The Simpson Prize, World Schools Debating Championships, International Geography Olympiad and the National Schools Constitutional Convention.
The Australian government also funds the Parliament and Civics Education Rebate (PACER) Program and the Australian Constitution Centre. PACER rebates are available for students in Years 4 to 12 travelling more than 150 kilometres to Canberra to visit key institutions including the Australian Parliament and the Australian Constitution Centre, located within the High Court of Australia, to improve their understanding of Australian democracy and their roles and responsibilities as active citizens.
In 2019, more than 114,000 students from about 2,000 schools throughout Australia visited Canberra with the support of the PACER program. As announced by the Australian government on 12 February 2021, the PACER rebate which students receive when they travel to Canberra is being increased by 50 per cent.
The committee recommends that the teaching of history and active citizenship should be made compulsory in years 9 and 10 and conducted by appropriately trained teachers. The Australian government should:
increase the time dedicated to civics and citizenship education to at least 30 hours per year;
review the current civics and citizenship module of the Australian National Curriculum with a view to redesigning it to make it more engaging for students; and
commit to a review of the new civics and citizenship module five years after its implementation to assess its effectiveness in increasing knowledge and engagement of young people in relation to civics and democracy.
The new civics and citizenship module should:
be based on international best-practice, evidence-based pedagogical approaches;
include content about First Nations history and issues of civics and citizenship for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians;
include resources developed by First Nations people; and
focus on issues of interest to young people.
We agree with this recommendation.
The committee recommends that the Australian government funds annual national excellence in teaching awards, which incorporate grants, scholarships and teaching placements, in the following categories:
Australian History and Civics; and
First Nations History and Civics.
We agree with this recommendation in principle. However, we would seek further information in relation to the scope of teaching awards currently available and what initiatives (if any) are currently in the planning stage.
The committee recommends that the Australian government works through the National Cabinet to increase the number of school children accessing trips to Australia's democratic and cultural institutions through the Parliamentary and Civics Education Rebate program each year.
This recommendation has in essence been implemented. By increasing the PACER rebate by 50 per cent as discussed in paragraphs 1.46-1.47, the Australian government is providing additional financial support to students which are expected to lead to an increased number of school children travelling to Canberra to visit Australia's democratic and cultural institutions.
The committee recommends that the Australian government prioritises engaging fully and respectfully with the calls of the Referendum Council and the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
We support the Australian government's approach which is to finalise details of an Indigenous Voice through the co-design process as the first step, ahead of considering its legal form. We must be pragmatic. Constitutional recognition is too important to get wrong. We have not had a referendum since 1999 which was unsuccessful, noting that only eight out of 44 past referenda have been successful.
In line with the recommendations of the 2018 Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, which considered the recommendations of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, finalising co-design of an Indigenous Voice should precede consideration of options for constitutional recognition.
Co-design members developed proposals for an Indigenous Voice with two complementary parts, a National Voice and Local and Regional Voices. These proposals are detailed in the Indigenous Voice Co-design Process Interim Report to the Australian government. The co-design groups are currently seeking feedback on the proposed features of an Indigenous Voice.
The committee recommends that the Australian government adopts the 'three great streams' model as a powerful and inclusive image of Australian nationhood, and as a way of telling Australia's national story that offers dignity and respect to all Australians.
We agree that the 'three great streams' model is a powerful and inclusive image of Australian nationhood. We reiterate the importance of telling Australia's national story in a manner which offers dignity and respect to all Australians. However, is this the totality of our national story? Does this model encompass of all of who we are as Australians? We are not certain and believe further work is required before these questions can be settled.
The Australian people: citizenship, culture and religion, social cohesion
The rights and responsibilities of citizenship
As the Department of Home Affairs contended, the 'Australian community expects that aspiring citizens demonstrate their allegiance to Australia, their commitment to live in accordance with Australian values, and their willingness and ability to integrate into and become contributing members of the Australian community'. In its submission, the department reiterated:
Our nation is stronger when we have informed citizens who understand their rights and responsibilities. At all levels, from primary schools to universities, students learn about Australia's history, democracy and their obligations as citizens of our society.
Mr Geoffrey Robin submitted that: 'Many born in Australia take citizenship for granted. Too often they trivialise the power they have as citizens'. We agree with the view expressed in the majority report that citizenship is not just an issue for migrants and new and aspiring citizens:
All Australians should have an awareness of the values and importance of their citizenship, of their rights and responsibilities as citizens, and of the critical need to defence and engage with the institutions of their democracy.
That citizenship carries with its responsibilities, as well as rights, lies at the heart of laws enacted in 2015 which expand the grounds on which the citizenship of a dual citizen can cease if a person acts inconsistently with his or her allegiance to Australia.
During the first roundtable, Professor Rubenstein rightly noted that 'the one scenario that I believe would lead to the loss of citizenship is if you sought to get rid of the nation-state itself, because, of course, citizenship is membership, in a formal sense, of that nation-state'. When a terrorist wants to harm Australia, betraying their oath of citizenship, destroy Australia is their ultimate fiendish goal. This logic is one of the fundamental reasons why the rare and limited powers the Australian government has to strip citizenship of terrorists exists.
We are troubled by the notion that a dual citizen could be eligible to run for, or sit in, the Australian Parliament. The act of renouncing citizenship is an act of renouncing allegiance to a foreign power; it is not a rejection of one's heritage or multicultural origins. Yes, we agree that Australia imposes a strict approach to political citizenship. However, this we believe helps to engender the trust and confidence of Australian citizens in their political representatives which is a fundamental tenet of our parliamentary democracy.
A strengthened Australian citizenship test
Our shared values are central to the success of our socially cohesive nation. It is important that Australian citizenship applicants understand and are committed to these values. From 15 November 2020, the Australian government introduced an updated, strengthened Australian citizenship test. The citizenship test includes information that Australians would generally regard as important to know and understand to live in Australia. It assesses prospective Australian citizens' understanding and commitment to the values, traditions, institutions and history of our nation.
The updates put Australian values at the heart of citizenship testing and ensure citizenship applicants understand and appreciate Australian values, based on freedom, respect, fairness and equality of opportunity.
The citizenship test resource booklet, Australian Citizenship: Our Common Bond, has been updated and contains all the information an applicant needs to help them prepare for the test, including a practice test. The booklet has been published on the Department of Home Affairs' website in English, translated into a number of community languages, and has been released as a podcast series for greater accessibility.
We are persuaded by the evidence of the Australian Monarchist League which submitted that: 'Politics is becoming more and more fractious and divisive, and the radical left and right are using identity politics as a screen for appeals to base and degraded selfishness and division'.
We also note the IPA's concerns as set out in its submission:
The main division in identity politics is between those who the state determines belong to groups that require to be patronised, and those who do not. This latter group are seen to be privileged because the institutions of society anticipate their identity and so interact with them fairly, in a way that is not true of others. This formulation assumes that the advantage of one is the disadvantage of another, and that our institutions are necessarily zero-sum. It is self-defeating to think this way, since if institutions are zero sum as alleged, then politics is reduced to a scrabble for status and cooperation becomes unmotivated, if not impossible. That is, there is no reason for the top-dog to yield to the underdog absent some shared identity that motivates their cooperation. The function of equal citizenship is to enable this kind of trust. As such, dignity comes from being treated the same as everyone else, not from the recognition of difference.
A more united, cohesive and resilient Australia during the COVID-19 crisis
We recognise the significant and important work undertaken by the Scanlon Foundation Research Institute. Each year their independent Mapping Social Cohesion report provides an insight into public perceptions on social cohesion, immigration and population issues.
In the face of the unprecedented twin health and economic challenge posed by COVID-19, Scanlon's 2020 report findings demonstrates our strong social cohesion, resilience, and our capacity to unite in response to crisis. The Scanlon-Monash social cohesion index has in fact moved in a positive direction from 83.7 in 2019 to 92.3 in November 2020.
Keeping Australians together is a key priority of the Australian government which is taking action to maintain strong social cohesion, particularly during the COVID-19 recovery period. In the 2021-21 Budget, the government announced $62.8 million funding over five years in the Budget to strengthen Australia's social cohesion and community resilience in the COVID-19 recovery period. This funding includes support to promote Australian values, identity and social cohesion, and counter malign information online and to enhance engagement with multicultural communities. A research program to inform initiatives to strengthen social cohesion has also been established.
We also note the importance of the Centre for Population which was established in 2019 to better understand how Australia's population is changing and the implications of these changes. The Centre's population forecasts and projections, including for Net Overseas Migration, are used in Treasury's macroeconomic and fiscal forecasts and the Federal Budget.
The committee recommends that the Australian government engage in dialogue with Australian citizens–including prospective citizens–about their rights and responsibilities, and our shared values, history and national identity.
To support this dialogue, the committee recommends the government:
develop and support educational and school programs that improve co-operation, communication and participation, as well as increasing critical ability, reducing prejudice and building tolerance, understanding, empathy, and an openness to diversity;
enable people and local communities to get involved in their democratic process across all levels – from small country towns to our suburban cities and nationwide activity; and
provide prospective citizens with an engaging and informative history of Australian democracy and our system of government as part of their citizenship preparation process.
We agree with this recommendation in principle. We commend the submission of the Department of Home Affairs to the inquiry and note the positive programs being implemented by the Government which reflect the sentiments of this recommendation.
We also note the testimony of Mr Richard Johnson, First Assistant Secretary, Social Cohesion Division, Department of Home Affairs to the Committee:
I think the activities that I've just set out showed a real priority in terms of our administrative support for the government's very strong stance against racism. It's obviously an important part of social cohesion considerations. It's not the whole of it. But there's a range of other, broader work that we're doing, particularly around promoting Australian values. Our values clearly state that racism is not on. So there are some very clear articulations, through a number of formal government documents, about Australian values, and also our work to promote citizenship, which is inclusive, and also our work to promote Australia's inclusive national identity I think is very important.
The committee recommends that the Australian government investigates options to allow dual citizens to run for, and sit in, the federal parliament.
We do not agree with this recommendation for the reasons discussed above.
The committee recommends that the Australian government establishes and resources a national research centre on migration, citizenship and social cohesion, to monitor:
flows of migration and migrant settlement;
issues of diversity and cohesion;
affiliation and identity;
civic participation and engagement;
evaluation of service provision and access; and
gaps in existing research.
In principle, we see merit in this proposal. However, prior to agreeing to such a recommendation, we would require further analysis with respect to the need for such an initiative, including the identification of any gaps in current monitoring.
Australia's democracy: trust, satisfaction and belief
I often say that, if democracy were a sport, Australia would be Olympic champions.
Belief in democracy
The good news is that the overwhelming majority of Australians believe in democracy. Evidence from the Scanlon Foundation, Lowy Institute and the University of Melbourne indicated that support for democracy, as opposed to other systems of government, remains very high in Australia, and continues to steadily climb.
Further to the comments in chapter 5 of the majority report, the Institute of Public Affairs noted:
Australia's democratic culture had taken root long before 1901. The Australian Colonies were some of the first to introduce universal male suffrage and the secret ballot. Australia was also one of the first nations to introduce female suffrage alongside New Zealand.
So why has there be so much pessimism on this matter? Dr Cameron reminded us that it is vital to draw a distinction between 'satisfaction with democracy and support for democracy: Australians, on the whole, are supportive of a democratic political system but are dissatisfied with the performance of democracy – it is not meeting their expectations'. That is, Australians believe in democracy, but do not trust, or are satisfied with, their government. However, there is also reason to be optimistic on this front.
Trust and satisfaction with government
As previously stated, trust in government has dramatically increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. Democracy 25 contended that Australia is still the lucky country:
The relative performance of leaders in terms of the impact of the pandemic is therefore reflected in their respective ratings: Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison is well ahead in terms of being viewed as competent and efficient in his handling of the outbreak, followed by Giuseppe Conte, then Boris Johnson, and then, Donald Trump.
Other studies also support this strong turnaround in trust. For example, a survey conducted by PwC in 2020 found a 150 per cent turnaround in the percentage of Australians who have a high level of trust in government over the period 2018-2020. In particular, the survey found a strong surge in confidence in the federal government, with trust rising from 39 per cent at the end of 2019 to 54 per cent during the pandemic. This suggests that stable, competent governments will be rewarded by a trust by their citizenry:
When the pandemic first struck Australia, government workforces mobilised at speed and scale to expand services and provide additional support for citizens. This included relaxing identity set-up requirements in the short term so that citizens could get quicker access to essential JobKeeper payments. Overall, citizens in our survey consistently recognised this, with almost one third saying government institutions are exceeding expectations (30% in June, 28% in October).
The YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project found that out of 25 nations only two countries (Denmark and India) have higher levels of trust in their government than Australia – with 73 per cent of Australians saying that they trust the government to provide them with accurate information about COVID-19. In contrast, social media was trusted by just 23 per cent and distrusted by 70 per cent. Some 79 per cent of respondents said the Australian government had done well in handling COVID-19.
This sharp turnaround in trust can be contrasted with the last time the Australian Labor Party was in government: a 'major decline in trust occurred in 2009 to 2010. Since 2013, there has been a period of relative stability'. Of course, this period marked the beginning of Australia's 'revolving door prime‑ministerships': 'We had six prime ministers in a period of just eight years, with only one change of prime minister coming about following an election, in 2013'. Dr Cameron noted that her work had revealed that:
…the strongest factor influencing this decline in satisfaction with democracy is government performance, including aspects of political performance and economic performance – in particular, the frequent change of prime ministers outside of elections.
An Australian bill of rights?
A number of submissions advocated for the adoption of an Australian bill of rights as a means to bolster trust in government and democracy. This should be rejected; introducing American-style judicial review into Australia would only damage, not enhance, the institutional integrity of our legal system. A cursory glance at the political turmoil which engulfs almost every US Supreme Court nominee demonstrates the dangers of handing over significant political power to the judiciary. Indeed, a bill of rights would ultimately diminish not enhance Australian democracy. Rights are inherently polycentric and value-laden in nature, and are therefore more appropriately left to be dealt with by the legislature, which is representative of, and accountable to, the people.
The committee recommends that the Australian government works with the Australian Media Alliance, through a co-design process, to develop a national strategy to tackle fake news and misinformation. This process should be facilitated through the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
In any proposal which limits or regulates free speech, it is incumbent on the Australian government to consult extensively. For this reason, this recommendation requires further consideration, particularly in the context of relevant government reforms such as the Treasury Laws Amendment (News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code) Bill 2020 and exposure draft Online Safety Bill.
We note that Australia and 131 other countries co-signed a statement warning the coronavirus pandemic had 'created conditions that enable the spread of disinformation, fake news and doctored videos to ferment violence and divide communities'.
We further note the testimony of Mr Richard Johnson, First Assistant Secretary, Social Cohesion Division, Department of Home Affairs as follows:
We have a dedicated team that works in the online environment. As the secretary set out, one of the limitations of their activities is that we identify material and then refer it to a service for removal, but we have to work within the terms of service of the particular platform—for instance, Facebook, Google et cetera. They have their own terms of service which set out criteria for content that they find. Yes, we could remove that. I have team that works in that environment—flags it; refers it. I frequently get a positive result, in that the platform will then remove it. At other times, because of the particular judgement made by the platform, they won't remove it, but there are a number of other activities they can take, including flagging it as a potential piece of misinformation et cetera.
The committee recommends that the Australian government communicates its support for amendments to the United States Communications Decency Act to ensure that hate speech, violent and extremist content, and dangerous and malicious misinformation, are not permitted to flourish on the internet.
We deplore all acts which seek to promote hatred and division in our society or spread dangerous and malicious information. This recommendation relates to amendments to the law in another jurisdiction.
The committee recommends that the Australian government consults with the National Youth Commission and Youth Commissioner to develop options to:
ensure greater youth input into political processes of the federal parliament; and
promote democracy among Australia's youth.
While we agree in principle with this recommendation, we acknowledge the substantial support the Australian government provides to school students in programs such as PACER.
The committee recommends that the Australian government establishes an independent federal anti-corruption commission that earns and maintains public confidence through transparency and accountability while also upholding the fundamental principles of justice and procedural fairness.
The Australian government is already in the process of implementing this recommendation.
The Commonwealth Integrity Commission (CIC) will strengthen and complement our existing multi-agency approach to integrity, anti-corruption and law enforcement at a federal level. The CIC will be a centralised, specialist centre investigating corruption in the public sector. It will be established as an independent statutory agency, led by the Integrity Commissioner and assisted by the Law Enforcement Integrity Commissioner and the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner.
The establishment of a CIC is a complex issue. In establishing the CIC, as stated in the recommendation, it is important to consider issues such as transparency, accountability, fundamental principles of justice and procedural fairness. The right balance needs to be achieved. The Australian government is correct to take the necessary time to work through these important challenges.
Democratic institutions: building strength and resilience
Our response to Recommendations 13 through to 18 provides insight into key issues discussed in Chapter 6 of the majority report.
The committee recommends that the Australian government establishes and funds an ongoing independent Australian Democratic Audit, modelled on democratic audits in the United Kingdom and European Union. The Australian Democratic Audit should use evidence-based, objective comparative measures to monitor the quality, durability and effectiveness of Australia's national and state level political and democratic institutions, and make recommendations for improvements and reforms.
We appreciate this recommendation is well intentioned. However, we require further information and analysis before we could reach a view as to whether this should be supported including the extent to which such an audit duplicates the work of other agencies and organisations.
The committee recommends that the Australian government establishes a Parliamentary Office of Science, modelled on the United Kingdom Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, to provide independent, impartial scientific advice, evidence and data to the parliament, and all Members and Senators.
We agree with the provision of independent, impartial scientific advice, evidence and data to the parliament and all members and senators. However, we query whether the establishment of a Parliamentary Office of Science would be an unnecessary replication of the work currently conducted by the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) led by Australia's Chief Scientist as Executive Officer.
In Australia, there is no shortage of robust, world-class scientific information including from the CSIRO, the Academy of Science, the Royal Institution of Australia, the Defence Chief Scientist, and the various State Chief and Lead Scientists.
In addition, supporting the work of the NSTC, the Rapid Research Information Forum (RRIF) was convened in 2020, at the request of the Prime Minister and Minister for Industry, Science and Technology. It is headed by former Chief Scientist Alan Finkel and its operations are led by the Australian Academy of Science. The RRIF is designed to tap into the capacity of the scientific and broader research community to contribute to a wide variety of issues during the COVID-19 pandemic. As of 20 January 2021, the RRIF has published thirteen responses to questions asked by the government, and three updated responses, on the Australian Academy of Science and the Australia's Chief Scientist websites. These reports are highly valuable in providing an evidence base to inform the government's decisions.
We also note the expert research support provided to members and senators by the Parliamentary Library.
The committee notes that the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters recently tabled its report on the 2019 Federal Election. The committee recommends the Australian government works with the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) to develop and implement strategies to increase and voter enrolment and voter turnout at subsequent federal elections.
This recommendation should properly be considered by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. We note that in its 2018/2019 annual report, the Australian Electoral Commission made the following comment in relation to the 2019 Federal Election:
With the largest ever number of Australians enrolled to vote and a national enrolment rate of 97 per cent, we also saw a large increase in early voting and an increase in turnout for the House of Representatives. At 91.9 per cent, turnout was nearly one per cent higher than at the 2016 federal election.
The committee recommends increasing the rate of public election funding paid to parties and candidates and the introduction of administrative funding for political parties and elected independents.
This recommendation should properly be considered by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters.
The committee recommends that the Australian government amends the National Archives Act 1983 to extend the definition of a public record to include new forms of information storage such as digitised data, and to clarify the rules for public access to the Archives.
We require further analysis of the implications of this recommendation before we would be in a position to agree to it.
The committee recommends that the Australian government works with academics, national institutions and cultural organisations, and the non‑government sector, to develop a long-term national strategy to strengthen Australia's democracy.
We consider Australia's democracy to be vibrant, robust and healthy. While we have no issue with the sentiments expressed in this recommendation, we are not clear as to what this means in practice. In order to strengthen Australia's democracy, practical, evidence-based initiatives are preferred.
Economic factors have a demonstrated impact on trust in democracy, and we see how in prosperous times people are happier with our system of government and politicians. People want to know that the decision makers are making choices which benefit the country and their family.
Notwithstanding, it is a testament to the strength of Australia's democratic system that the Australian government's handling of the global COVID pandemic during a time of such unprecedented crisis has aided in raising public trust in democracy.
In contrast to some other countries, Australians can rightly be proud of our democracy which encompasses core defining values: freedom of election and being elected; freedom of assembly and political participation; freedom of speech, expression and religious belief; the rule of law and other basic human rights.
As a people, we must continue to vigilantly safeguard these values. In contrast to motherhood statements about the need to strengthen democracy, we welcome practical evidence-based initiatives such as a greater focus on the teaching of civics and citizenship to young Australians which helps build our sense of national identity and nationhood, whilst highlighting the perils of other systems of government such as communism.
It is also important that Australians understand their continuing rights and obligations as productive and committed citizens who will maintain an allegiance to Australia, our institutions, systems of government and democracy.
Similarly, it is incumbent on our democratic institutions to rectify past wrongs and tell our full Australian story, with particular reference to our indigenous foundations.
Yes, we are now one and free, but these hard won gains are not etched in stone; they require a continuing commitment of all Australians.
Senator the Hon Sarah Henderson
Senator Paul Scarr
Liberal Senator for Queensland