Over the last one hundred years Australia has had stable government and we have all prospered as a result. One of the key elements in that stability has been the doctrine of separation of powers . This guiding principle seeks the separation of the legislature (ie parliament), the executive (ie head of government, Ministers and Cabinet) and the judiciary (courts of law).
What is not so well known is that at the beginning of our federal government, other stakeholders were taken into account. These included the Australian Public Service, Military forces and Commonwealth Bank (Reserve Bank).
The separation of powers in our system is designed to distribute authority away from the executive branch – an attempt to preserve individual liberty in response to tyrannical leadership throughout history. It seems even the founders of our democracy did not trust politicians.
Most were established with a degree of independence and this was thought to be a safeguard against any particular group grasping too much power.
The system is not set in concrete and much tinkering has taken place (deregulation of the Public Service being one), but the guiding principle has always been respected and thought worthwhile. Alarm bells sound when politicians start to have a go at other groups, for example Senator Brandis trying to influence the judicial process.
In March 1977 the first Commonwealth Ombudsman was established. The Ombudsman is an official, usually (but not always) appointed by the government or parliament, who is charged with representing the interests of the public by investigating and addressing complaints reported by individual citizens. This individual is part of the checks and balances which are thought to preserve our democracy and should operate free of political bias or influence.
So when Allan Asher the current Ombudsman began private political briefings and scripting questions for one political party, he “crossed the line” and bought the Office of Ombudsman into disrepute. The Ombudsman is not a political “player” and should never engage in this type of conduct.
Appearing before a recent Senate hearing Asher apologised :
“This was an error of judgment and it was a mistake and I wish to firstly apologise to the committee for that.
“I really am deeply, deeply sorry in so many ways… It was clearly a mistake.”
Labor Senator John Faulkner did not accept the explanation and questioned whether the Ombudsman’s actions were at odds with his position.
“Are others – citizenry, members of parliament, the government or government agencies actually [to] think that you might not bring the same sort of tactics to the consideration of complaints that are formally made to you,” he said.
“Isn’t that a pretty fundamental problem for you now?
“[It is] absolutely at odds to the fundamental responsibilities to your office.”
But Mr Asher insisted his office had not been compromised.
“I am and my office is politically colour blind,” he said.
“I don’t believe it affects the independence in any way.”
Time to go Mr Asher, pack up your ego and resign.