The vanishing line between government and business

Shrinking government should bother us all. [24 June 2014 | Peter Boyer]

The connection between government and the corporate world has become uncomfortably close.

The connection between government and the corporate world has become uncomfortably close.

In 1996 John Howard’s government, acting on an inquiry set up by its Labor predecessor, agreed it would be a good thing to help fund a network of legal centres to help people or groups affected by environmental issues.

For 17 years successive governments allocated funding for nine Environmental Defenders Offices (EDOs), which by 2013 amounted to $97,000 a year for each office. Then in December the Abbott government announced it would stop all such support from the end of June.

If you’re bothered by street stormwater runoff flooding your home or odours from the business next door, chances are an EDO can help you. The Tasmanian EDO has dealt with matters as diverse as fishing, farming, nature conservation, industrial stench and noise.

As a result of the government’s “cost-saving” measure, within a week the Tasmanian EDO will lose 90 per cent of its operating revenue, which for any organisation would be crippling. For this small office, it’s likely to be terminal.

Another victim of the May budget was legal aid, which was stripped of $15 million. The legal counterpart of Medicare, legal aid supports people appearing in court as defendants or witnesses who can’t afford their own legal counsel.

Legal aid funding is a long-standing issue. Since 1997 Canberra’s share of legal aid funding has slipped from more than half to 35 per cent. Now, even some pensioners are being denied help, and tens of thousands more people across Australia will be forced to confront the legal system alone.

When the federal budget was delivered last month the EDOs and legal aid offices knew their fate. But another advocacy organisation, the Refugee Council of Australia, had reason to think its annual allocation of $140,000 would survive when it was included in the budget papers.

Two weeks later, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison announced that the funding had been left there by an oversight, and would be withdrawn because it was not the government’s role to support, as he put it, “what is effectively an advocacy group”. I disagree.

I had time last week to reflect on what this sort of attitude might tell us about the way government approaches its responsibilities: not just the Abbott government, but all Australian governments of recent times, including Tasmanian governments right up to the present.

My “time out” happened because I sat through a supreme court trial involving friends of mine, past and present: an especially troubling case in which a young man suffering from schizophrenia killed his mother and stepfather who’d been trying to help him. No doubt you heard about it.

The recounting of what happened, with all its grief and loss, was profoundly moving for all who sat in the courtroom. There was anger, too, at another state government’s failure to meet the accused man’s mental health needs, a failure that may in part be the result of inadequate resources.

But the trial revealed something else: a reassuring sense of our system of government (which includes the judiciary) functioning as all of us believe it should.

Evidence from police officers and medical specialists about what they did to address the tough emotional and psychological demands of this case showed all of them doing their job professionally, humanely, wisely and without prejudice.

The prosecutor and the defence counsel, provided through legal aid, together established the man’s serious illness during the killings and for many years beforehand. The judge directed the jury to consider this, and the jury returned a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity.

The young man is to be given formal psychiatric assessment before long-term care arrangements are put in place. Nothing is ever conclusive in cases involving chronic mental illness, but it’s as good an outcome as anyone could have wished for. This is what good government looks like.

Some people think that the only good government is a small one. They want governments to manage no more than the basics, letting the market determine how money is spread around. In their scenario things like equality, fairness and duty of care don’t rate.

Governments have obligingly unloaded long-standing assets and commitments, allowing rich people to get richer while making life tougher for others. It’s had the effect of reducing their own power for the benefit of private interests. That seems strange until you make the connections.

The line that once existed between a government, answerable to everyone, and a corporate entity, responsible only to its shareholders, is vanishing. Once it was unheard of for retiring ministers and senior bureaucrats to switch quickly into a private interest they once administered; now it’s the rule.

If advisory bodies, public advocacy groups and the broader legal-judicial system do their job, it’s inevitable that sometimes they’ll irritate governments or business interests. When the latter two merge into a single front, the entire non-profit sector is really up against it, and everyone loses.

With governments all over Australia now regarding conservation and climate advocacy as anti-business, any group in these categories is a special target. Witness Landcare, which lost nearly $500 million in the federal budget, and Tasmania’s soon-to-be abolished Climate Action Council.

Politicians in power today are increasingly taking the blinkered view that government doesn’t extend beyond MPs and their minders, a shrinking public service, military, police and other enforcers and, increasingly, captains of commerce.

But community, advocacy and other public-interest groups are vital to government. When a government removes the means for them to function it’s cutting off one of its own arms.

In the face of growing political, economic and physical challenges, dysfunctional government is the last thing we need. Never mind the future of the Abbott or Hodgman governments. If today’s trend continues it’s going to come down to the future of government itself.

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