“As Australia slips toward fascism, where does the public health community stand?”

By Peter Tait, Clinical Senior Lecturer in Population Health at ANU, co-convener of the PHAA Ecology and Environment Special Interest Group

The fires, floods and COVID-19 pandemic have shown the fragility of industrial civilisation and the strength and resilience of people and community.

Amid calls for using this opportunity in change to create a more people and nature focused political economy, the world’s corporations and the governments under their strong influence have used the opportunity to extend their power and reach.

We have seen this in Australia. While setting up a National Cabinet and integration of evidence-based policy show that government can do good government if it chooses, we have also seen many concerning developments.

These include:

  • the Federal Opposition excluded from that cabinet
  • federal and state / territory parliaments go into recess except for brief, limited sittings
  • rule through delegated legislation (regulations) by the federal government Executive with some regulations not able to be amended by parliament
  • a National COVID-19 Coordination Commission handpicked from the corporate sector by the Prime Minister to lead Australia’s response
  • bids by Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton to increase surveillance powers; and
  • a failure of many within the media to adequately critique these developments.

The National COVID-19 Coordination Commission is pushing through a fossil fuel focused recovery.

Governments are talking of fast-tracking mining, industrial and housing developments without green tape constraints to ‘get the economy going’ again.

These are examples of government and the corporate sector seeking to use the pandemic to hide activity that worsens Australia’s response to global warming and the other massive existential threats to human civilisation that we are facing.

Underlying these moves is the suspension of many of the checks and balances that a however imperfect democratic parliamentary system of government gives us that ensures good government.

Some history

This acute situation follows on from three decades of undermining of government capacity and public trust in government that has occurred under a corporatocratic, neoliberal political economy.

Fascism is a totalitarian government that emphasises ideologically based collective identity (“Western” values as Australian values), dictatorial leadership (government run by decree by its executive branch), and the mass mobilisation of society for the nation’s benefit (for the good of the economy), that involves suppression of dissent (underfunding the public broadcaster, arresting journalists to chill criticism and having a one media outlet monopoly as the spokesperson for the government), and an economy run for corporations’ benefit.

The slippery slope to a fascist state is gentle and paved with beguiling reassurances. This is only for the duration of the pandemic (like some loss of our democratic freedoms were only for the duration of the ‘war of terror’).

When do we wake up one morning to find they have come for us?

When do we decide that, actually, we better do something while they are still coming for others?

Good government makes sure that the ecological, social and commercial determinants of health work to create conditions for healthy people to thrive. It prioritises the wellbeing of people rather an ‘economy’.

While dictatorships may occasionally do health promoting things, on balance they are more seriously detrimental to ecological and human health and wellbeing.

Core public health

Thus it is important that the public health community puts the protection and promotion of good government as a core public health activity.

The pathway to reducing rates of obesity, diabetes, addictive substance use, is through good government. Good government requires the full apparatus of democratic institutions functioning well.

In a representative democracy, a functioning parliament is a great start.

Why, as we set about redesigning our social and economic future is our parliament not discussing and debating the broad range of policy options?

Why are our MPs not engaging citizens in these big and important discussions?

Why are we acquiescing in letting a small group of non-representative corporate executives design our future?

Where are the mini-publics to engage citizens in the discussion and reaping the skills and experience they would bring?

Why hasn’t the government harnessed the technology of the digital age to open up parliament to its full capacity? Committees are meeting. Constituent work is happening.

Where is parliament in the especially critical time?

So as Australia slips toward fascism, where does the public health community stand?

What is it using its influence and collective voice to do to protect and promote good government? How do we get parliament doing its job?

How do we get the conversations about our future happening? How can we be supporting the other calls for these actions?

I call for leadership and action to make sure that public health is part of rebuilding a strong ecologically respectful, health promoting society and brake the slippage to a fascist state.

Peter Tait has been a General Practitioner for 38 years, 30 in Aboriginal health in Central Australia. He was the 2007 Royal Australian College of General Practitioners General Practitioner of the Year, and 2017 Public Health Association Australia Sidney Sax medallist. He attained a Masters of Climate Change at the Australian National University (ANU) in 2010. He is a Clinical Senior Lecturer in Population Health at ANU Medical School. Peter believes a person’s health is grounded in a healthy society, and a healthy society in a well-functioning ecosystem. He is a co-convener of the PHAA Ecology and Environment Special Interest Group, active in the Canberra Alliance for Participatory Democracy, an Expert Advisory Committee member of the Climate and Health Alliance.

First published in Croakey.

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