Books

Cover of book: Keeping Them Honest

Stephen Charles and Catherine Williams
Keeping Them Honest

After absorbing the first pages of this book, most readers will, one suspects, mentally substitute “the bastards” for “them” in its title. Keeping Them Honest: The case for a genuine national integrity commission and other vital democratic reforms documents the breathtaking insouciance with which Australian politicians ignore ethics, probity and the rule of law.

Even those who follow parliamentary politics closely might find themselves shaken by the catalogue of shonk adduced by Stephen Charles, a former judge, and Catherine Williams, a legal scholar.

The pair, both linked to the Centre for Public Integrity, lead us from the 2019 “sports rorts” affair – which they describe as “blatant political corruption … a breach of the rule of law, and an act of defiance by Coalition ministers of three clear decisions of the High Court of Australia” – to the $700 million of pork-barrelling of commuter car parks – “another cynical and serious breach of the rule of law by a shameless government”. They describe the $444 million allocated to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, a huge sum that the Australian National Audit Office ruled incompatible with existing rules governing transparency and value for money.

They remind us of the two closed tenders for services on Manus Island, deals that, as Senator Stirling Griff said, “average[d] out at $1600 a day to house each and every refugee […] which is more than double what you pay in a five-star hotel”. At the time, Paladin Group – the company benefiting from the government’s largesse – was registered to a beach shack on Kangaroo Island.

Then there’s the so-called robo-debt scandal, in which the government sought to recover alleged overpayments from welfare recipients. “The scheme was unlawful from the outset,” say Charles and Williams, “and the amounts had been fixed by computer, often wrongly, without any court or legal authority. Hundreds of thousands of people were affected, the human cost was substantial, and there were a number of suicides.”

But even robo-debt pales beside the government’s use of an aid program to bug the cabinet offices of its supposed allies in East Timor. The intercepts allowed the Australian representatives to outmanoeuvre their Timorese counterparts in negotiations over the gas and oil deposits upon which the poorest nation in Asia relied for revenue. After Alexander Downer, the Foreign Affairs minister from that period, accepted a job with Woodside Petroleum – the company exploiting Timor’s resources – the ASIS agent in charge of the operation, a man known only as Witness K, turned whistleblower in disgust.

In response, ASIO burgled the office of K’s lawyer, Bernard Collaery, with the government’s prosecution of Witness K and Collaery culminating in secret trials for both men.

Somewhat wearily, Charles and Williams numerate the offences committed in Timor – “mendacity; duplicity; contractual fraud; criminal trespass; contempt of court; denial of fair trial; failure to act as a model litigant; larceny on a grand scale” – as part of their argument for an effective national integrity commission. It’s already mandated, they remind us, by Australia’s commitment to the United Nations Convention against Corruption.

Scott Morrison famously promised a commission in 2019. Yet the draft schema the Coalition offered in late 2020 focused primarily on law-enforcement agencies rather than parliamentarians, potentially allowing politicians to “engage in corruption of any kind, no matter how serious, without fear of investigation by the [commission], unless it amounts to a ‘listed’ criminal offence and it is not an abuse of office, or a perversion of the course of justice”.

Charles and Williams argue that an effective watchdog must be independent and adequately funded. It needs the powers of a royal commission and the ability to make findings of fact and findings of corrupt conduct.

Keeping Them Honest stresses the importance of transparency. As Tony Fitzgerald, the man who lanced the boil of Queensland corruption, puts it: “The public has a right to know what is happening in public life.”

Certainly, in the past, open investigations have mobilised popular opinion against parliamentary crooks. Yet increasingly we’re seeing demagogues – think Donald Trump – brazening out their scandals, confident a disengaged electorate won’t hold them to account, even for overt acts of illegality.

Given that Charles and Williams describe the current government as “using the rule of law as a convenient facade, while breaking the rule whenever it sees fit to do so”, we might wonder how another legal body – even a properly constructed one – might make much difference.

With a foreword by Sir Gerard Brennan AC KBE, a former chief justice of the High Court of Australia, this is not a militant book. But despite their lawyerly prose, the authors’ genuine anguish at the erosion of democratic norms shines through.

The manifold obstacles to good government include, they argue, persistent under-resourcing of regulatory bodies and inadequate disclosure rules for political donations, with, for instance, the huge increase of payments in 2013-14 seemingly due “to lobbying efforts to repeal the Clean Energy Act”. Similarly, a revolving door between government and industry allowed Labor’s Martin Ferguson to move within the space of months from the Energy ministry to the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association, and John Kunkel to serve Scott Morrison as chief of staff after stints with Rio Tinto and the Minerals Council of Australia.

A national integrity commission might not be sufficient to repair Australian democracy, but Keeping Them Honest makes a strong case for its necessity. 

Scribe, 272pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 23, 2022 as "Keeping Them Honest, Stephen Charles and Catherine Williams".

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Jeff Sparrow is a writer, editor and award-winning critic.

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