Financial services royal commission leader Kenneth Hayne has suggested governments are referring too many matters that could be dealt with through legislation to independent inquiries, as they have lost the trust of the people to govern.
Addressing Victoria University’s Sir Zelman Cowen Centre for legal training on Wednesday, Mr Hayne said the degradation of political debate and resulting lack of trust across Australian and other developed economies’ governments had meant that the public no longer trusted parliamentarians to address significant problems in society.
“Slogans supplanting reasoned debate about policy may go some way to explaining why, in recent years, difficult issues of public policy have often been referred to royal commissions and other external inquiries,” Mr Hayne said.
“Those bodies generate reports that are, or should be, independent and reasoned. Frequent use of independent commissions of inquiry may suggest that governmental structures can now deal effectively only with the immediate emergency and cannot deal with the larger issues that face us.
“One reason that may be so is that the space left by the absence of reasoned debate is filled with slogans coined by partisan participants. And this happens even where the basic information on which reasoned debate would be based is freely available to the whole community.”
Mr Hayne mentioned Indigenous constitutional recognition and climate change as two key issues which had become subject to “sloganeering and peddling of… misleading ideas” in Australian political debate, as well as Brexit in the UK and Russian interference in the US election.
“Nativist populist leaders have come to the prominence they now occupy by endless repetition of slogans accompanied, too often, by repeatedly denying the undeniable and shouting down those who would speak truth to power,” he said.
As a result, trust in government as well as other “systemically important institutions” had been degraded, he said.
In order to force these institutions to become more accountable, the public must “insist upon absolute honesty and integrity,” Mr Hayne added.
“We must do what we can to impress upon those who seek office that power is not the objective, that ‘having the numbers’ in the branch, the faction, the party, the legislature, is not the end,” he said.
“What matters is what our democratic institutions do, and how they do it. And all our democratic institutions are based upon reasoned and informed debate.”
Mr Hayne also cited steps taken by the government during the COVID-19 health crisis as a good example of institutions communicating the need for significant change in a factual manner.
“Governments have very quickly made radical changes in the ways we live and work. They have done that by telling society the facts as simply and clearly as they can,” he said.
“Society has responded to being trusted with the facts that are known and has recognised that difficult judgments have had to be made. And government has brought about great changes so that, together, we can pursue shared purposes.”