The late Dr Hal Colebatch and I had at least one close friend in common, as well as many friendly mutual acquaintances. We also had one close ex-friend in common, who chose unilaterally to fall out with each of us separately (myself in 1998, Hal in 2012). I am fortunate that I had the opportunity, several times during the past few years, to spend a few weeks working in Perth and reacquainting myself with Hal over a long lunch at his favourite Italian restaurant in the Nedlands shopping strip.
On the weekend, I finally got around to reading Steadfast Knight, Hal’s biography of his father, Sir Hal Colebatch, a two times WA Legislative Councillor, long serving state minister, one time Senator, two times WA Agent-General in London, and briefly, in 1919, Premier of Western Australia (Hal himself was the son of Sir Hal’s late life second marriage).
Having gotten to know Hal fairly well over the years and our long lunches, there were some passages of the biography towards the end where I had to wryly smile and see Hal’s unique personality shining through.
A few observations in the biography prove particularly salient to life today in Melbourne, on the other side of the continent from Perth, and the other side of the world from Sir Hal’s two postings as Agent-General for his state. In 1927, relatively early on in his regime, Italian Dictator Mussolini granted Sir Hal a private audience whilst he was visiting Italy. At that time, many people, both inside Italy and elsewhere, saw that regime as full of energy, determination and effectiveness. The trains ran on time after all (actually, this is, I believe, a myth stemming from the wife of the British Ambassador observing Mussolini on the platform when he was summoned to Rome to first form government).
During his second term as Agent-General, Sir Hal visited Italy again in 1939, and found Mussolini’s achievements of the 1920s seem to have collapsed and popular enthusiasm for the regime had been lost. The general aspect of the people ‘had changed from confidence and hope to poverty misery and despair’.
My mother, who was born in 1937, remembers the night curfews of the fascist regime, and finds the recent introduction of the 8pm to 5am curfew in Victoria to be rather reminiscent of that time and place.
I am not going to trivialise things and make robust comparisons between Premier Daniel Andrews and Benito Mussolini. Mussolini was a thug and a committed opponent of democracy. Chairman Dan, as we now call him, might be a member of the socialist left, but I would be extremely surprised if he did not have the rudimentary commitment to democracy which all sane and decent Australians hold.
Sadly, Chairman Dan does have a serious autocratic streak, which is becoming more and more self-evident with each passing day, and which does not bode well for the health of civil society or the functional workings of parliamentary democracy in this state, and this is something which I feel needs to be unpacked and discussed.
He has, prior to this crisis, achieved a lot as premier, which resulted in his resounding re-election victory two years ago. His work to remove level crossings and to spend on infrastructure has won him considerable popular approval. This has made his position as state premier almost unassailable.
And this is the rub. He seems to have a strong preference for governing by decree, without answering to anyone or being accountable, except at the ballot box once every four years.
Several months ago, he took steps, when the branch stacking scandal inside his party (which, no doubt, I am confident he would have been aware of, if not complicit in, for many years) finally saw the light of day, to have the state party’s democratically elected officebearers at all levels suspended for the next three years, to be replaced by administrators appointed by the federal executive of his party.
This means that all the members of the Victorian Branch of the Australian Labor Party have been disenfranchised from selecting the people who are to represent them in elections, and from running their own party. This leaves Chairman Dan without the internal party mechanisms to hold him to account.
He has also, since the pandemic crisis began, been ruling through a crisis cabinet, a smaller group of ministers than those who comprise the regular state cabinet. Decision making is confined to this group, rather than to the broader cabinet or to his parliamentary party room.
The technocratic decrees which have emerged, via either his police minister or Chief Health Officer, are based on various emergency powers contained in certain pieces of state legislation and vested in these officials. Those are powers which could, in most circumstances, be considered draconian and should be used sparingly, if at all.
Such powers have led to the night curfew, compulsory wearing of masks, closure of most businesses, the suspension of the right to protest, and the general limitations on the freedom of movement of most people in most circumstances.
Despite the early adoption of harsher measures than other states, it appears, due to the sad and tragic mismanagement of hotel quarantine in this state compared to elsewhere in the country, that Premier Andrews has presided over a disaster greater than elsewhere in the country.
Two months ago, we had 7000 cases in Australia and about 100 dead. We now have 25000 cases and over 500 dead. This is no laughing matter. The people we love are hostages to this plague.
These are extraordinary times, and I concede, reluctantly, that such coercive powers might need to be used in the public health crisis caused by the pandemic.
However, Premier Andrews is seeking to extend the sunset clause on the legislation which enables these emergency powers from the six months which is about due to expire for another 12 months.
That’s right. Not for another 6 months, or for another 3 months perhaps. For 12 months.
In that time, the rule of law will continue – all the draconian powers which could be used (and potentially misused) by the police minister and the Chief Health Officer will be legitimised through an Act of Parliament.
However, where would the role of parliament be during that 12 month period of technocratic rule by decree? There would be little need for it to meet, except to pass supply bills for the government, and it could otherwise be prevented, legally, from meeting.
I do not trivialise things. The Weimar constitution was eradicated by an Enabling Act at a time of supposed national emergency. Premier Andrews does not embody the evil of the perpetrators of that. He is merely a technocrat who does not like to be held to account, either by internal critics in his own party nor by opposition politicians. It is far easier for him to rule if parliament does not need to meet.
But that he is merely a technocrat and not a would be despot is beside the point. When we give up our liberties uncritically to someone, regardless of whether they are trustworthy or not, we have no guarantee that those liberties will be returned. It is important to scrutinise and be critical of Premier Andrews’ power grab, simply because whilst he is not a totalitarian opponent of democracy, no one is to be trusted with such power. He is not something wicked which this way comes right now, but there might be someone else so wicked in future. We have the lessons of the past in other countries to guide us as to what we should avoid for our future.
Thankfully, the state opposition seems to have grown a backbone on this issue, and is attempting to limit the term of any extension of such powers. Whether the cross bench in the Legislative Council is willing to oppose a 12 month extension is another matter. I hope, for the continued health of the parliamentary democracy in this state, that it does so, and that the parliament is recalled frequently to review such emergency powers, before they are renewed.