As I was leaving the court at the close of our most recent Victorian Supreme Court hearing on 4 October over the 2020 Hotel Quarantine debacle, I was asked by a journalist, “why do you do what you do?”
The journalist was observing that, in taking on WorkSafe Victoria, we are taking on the might of the Victorian government. Further, there is no personal gain to be had for anyone at Self-Employed Australia in doing this. In fact, some would argue that in doing so, there may be all sorts of personal risks. And the court action consumes substantial resources with frequently very stressful work. The journalist was curious as to our motivation.
The answer is simple. In an (allegedly) democratic country constrained by the rule of law, no-one is or should be above the law. We are fighting, as best we can, to have that principle of democracy applied in practice. Democracy and the rule of law should not simply apply on election days, but be the living experience, every day, that guides our communities.
It’s like this. Governments make rules that apply to everyone. But far too frequently government excludes itself from those same rules. This happens when legislation specifically removes government from the reach of the law. It also happens when government institutions which regulate and enforce the law fail to, or (worse) refuse to, apply the laws in order to protect themselves or others.
Perhaps one of the greatest historical and enduring battles of human organisational effort is to decide the proper role of government. There are perhaps two broad aspects to the battle.
Some assume that government (by its nature) is always good, always pure and should reign supreme. Further that private enterprise is always evil because of the profit motive. (Yes, this simplistic view was passionately put quite recently in an online consultation I attended with a large government-funded think-tank!)
The counter-argument often put is that government is the source of oppression and must be constrained, reduced and curtailed.
The truth I think, is sandwiched between the two views. There is nothing holy or sacred about either government or private-sector operations. There is just the reality of human behaviour in which both the best and worst of human instincts play out against each other.
The resolution of this problem must be that we have laws that apply equally to everyone. The practices of transparency and accountability must be embedded in law and apply whether individuals work in government or the private sector.
Too frequently, however, government writes itself out of the rules that are written for everyone else, most notably the private sector.
Take this example. This Wednesday past (9 November) beefed-up laws giving protections from unfair contracts came into effect. That’s fabulous. But get this: The laws don’t apply to government departments. So a government department can, for example, engage an IT contractor but impose an unfair contract upon them. A bank cannot do the same thing. The hypocrisy is monumental. It debases the rule of law.
Another example. The ATO recently took submissions reviewing its policy for how it treats taxpayers. But these rules don’t have the force of law. Hypocrisy again. In our submission we challenged the ATO to seek to have parliament pass legislation to enshrine the fair treatment of taxpayers in law.
Our campaign to have the Victorian WorkSafe Authority prosecute individuals and government departments for OHS breaches over the 2020 hotel quarantine debacle, is a campaign for the rule of law. No-one should be above the law. (In case you’ve been following this matter, we’re still waiting for the court ruling.)
Ensuring that these simple principles of transparency and accountability apply equally to everyone is what motivates us. After all, self-employed people are always held accountable for what they do. Perhaps this is why we’re so passionate about equality of accountability.
We’ll have more news soon.