The Rules

There was a story last week about how the new government has issued a directive that major statutory agencies (for example the CSIRO, ANSTO and Questacon) will not issue any “strategic media releases which relate to the Government’s key messages” unless they have been vetted by the government – specifically the office of Kim Carr, Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research. While one former Liberal minister called the government “control freaks”, the secretary of the department, Mark Paterson, said there was nothing unusual about the directive, especially in the early days of a new government.

I found my own reaction interesting. My first thought was that the government must have good reason to take the action, because they were on my side – our team wouldn’t do anything wrong. But then, almost immediately, I thought of what my reaction would have been had the Liberals taken an identical step six months ago – I would have thought that they were over-reaching their power.

One of the (mostly) healthy things about Australian society is that we have a degree of respect for following the rules that society has agreed upon. And one of the things you will observe in politicians of all stripes if they have been in power for too long is that they start to think of the rules as being for other people. They know that the rules are there for good reason, but the start to believe their own publicity so much that they think of themselves as being always in the right – if they want to do something that breaks a rule (for example one of those petty conflict rules) they are confident enough of their own righteousness that they will do it anyway.

You will see this kind of behaviour in all walks of life – by all accounts the Equine Flu virus escaped into the general horse population because far too many of the people involved in and around the quarantine station had a casual attitude to the rules. In banking I have seen people get around segregation of duties rules designed to stop fraud – not because they wanted to commit fraud, but because it would make them more efficient. And I know that as a cyclist, my attitude to road rules (or more accurately, footpath rules) is sometimes overly casual, as I trust myself not to run over pedestrians.

But you also need people who are willing to break the rules. Abortion would not be as legal as it is now without people willing to publicly break the law and have it tested in Court. Gay rights have been slowly, gradually expanded, partly because of people who have been public law breakers. And many environmentalist actions have succeeded because of the willingness of protesters to be arrested multiple times – the Franklin Dam being a notable example.

The test, I think, is whether you are breaking the law because you know you are above it – it’s not really aimed at people like you, only the riff-raff who need to be kept in line. Or whether you are breaking the law because you believe that the law is wrong.

In the example that started this post, I fear that Labor has already started acting as if the rules are for other people. They are nowhere near breaking the law, of course, but now is the part of the life of any government when a bit of holier-than-thou-ness about independence, freedom of information and conflicts wouldn’t go astray.