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Three former heads of the prime minister’s department on the corruption of process under Scott Morrison. By Mike Seccombe.

Berejiklian ‘rorts’ nothing on the Morrison government’s

Former NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian outside the Independent Commission Against Corruption hearings on Monday.
Credit: Mark Kolbe / Getty Images

In her final press conference as New South Wales premier, announcing her resignation following the revelation she was under investigation by the Independent Commission Against Corruption, Gladys Berejiklian wanted to make one point categorically.

“I have always,” she said, “acted with the highest level of integrity. History will demonstrate that I have always executed my duties with the highest degree of integrity for the benefit of the people of NSW.”

In her evidence before ICAC she made the same point, over and over, sometimes combatively, sometimes plaintively. She stressed it to the media after she left the commission: she had always acted in the best interests of the people.

To believe such a claim, you have to believe, as Berejiklian apparently does, that the election of a Coalition government is in the best interests of the people, regardless of how much pork-barrelling has to be done to achieve that result.

The extent to which she conflated the interests of the people with the interests of her government was most obvious when she was questioned over her promise to her secret lover Daryl Maguire – after he had resigned in disgrace from his seat of Wagga Wagga – that she would “throw money at Wagga, don’t you worry about that” to ensure it was retained by the Liberal Party.

And throw money she did – to the point where, as counsel assisting ICAC Scott Robertson noted, the contest for the seat was being seen less as a byelection than a “buy-election”.

He asked whether the phrase “throw money at Wagga” meant spending money to win, regardless of the merits of individual projects. Berejiklian said projects could be both beneficial to the community and of political benefit.

Except that in the case of two projects of particular interest to ICAC, championed by Maguire, there was strong evidence they were not of benefit to the community. They had been assessed by public service experts and found not to stack up on a cost–benefit basis. One of the grant applications, from a gun club for $5.5 million, was subsequently massaged into acceptability by private contractors brought in at taxpayers’ expense.

In her evidence, Berejiklian made no bones about pork-barrelling. Rural and regional NSW was, as she put it, “on fire” with hostility to her government around the time the grants were made. They had to be bought off.

How better to respond to the insurgent Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party – which had recently won another byelection, for the seat of Orange – than by throwing money at a gun club. And as for due bureaucratic process designed to ensure the money was well spent, she said that “often in elections” announcements were made outside normal processes, even against departmental advice.

In essence, her response to suggestions she had engaged in corrupt conduct was that her behaviour was not corruption – it was politics.

A.  J. Brown, professor of public policy at Griffith University, points out that the spending of public money “purely or primarily to win office or re-election” is not just pork-barrelling but a form of “indirect political bribery”. A report released last week by the Tasmanian Integrity Commission drew the same conclusion: “... pork-barrelling of groups of people could be just as unethical as bribing an individual for their vote”.

But Berejiklian sees nothing very wrong with it. She said as much in November last year, when she conceded that $140 million in grants to councils approved in the nine months before the March 2019 state election amounted to pork-barrelling.

“It’s not something the community likes … but it’s an accusation I will wear,” she said. “It’s not unique to our government. It’s not an illegal practice. Unfortunately it does happen from time to time…”

Her then deputy, John Barilaro, who quit politics days after Berejiklian resigned, was even more brazen at the last election, happily adopting the moniker “Pork-barrel-aro”.

This week, Berejiklian’s successor, Dominic Perrottet, ordered a review of the government’s processes for awarding taxpayer-funded grants, saying he did not share her views on the practice, and promising that, in future, allocations would be made according to “key principles of transparency, accountability and probity”.

Assuming he is sincere, this would be a welcome reversal of a worrying trend. Despite Berejiklian suggesting this kind of electoral bribery has always happened and that everyone does it, the reality is that it is happening on a far larger scale in recent times, and her side of politics is the worst offender.

Case in point is the Morrison government at the last election.

Brown sees that campaign as a low point in Australian public administration. The Morrison government shovelled hundreds of millions of dollars into various dodgy grant schemes, with no oversight or eligibility criteria.

There was more than $100 million in sports grants, overwhelmingly directed to electorates either held by the government or marginal enough that they hoped to win it for them. Analysis by the Auditor-General found 73 per cent of the funded projects were not recommended by Sport Australia. Worthy projects missed out. Instead of allocating money on the basis of need, Sport Minister Bridget McKenzie, in consultation with Morrison’s office, allocated it with the aid of a colour-coded spreadsheet.

McKenzie ultimately paid a price for the so-called sports rorts affair, briefly losing her place in the ministry. But that was because she was a member of a gun club that received a grant, not because of her role in the wider scandal.

Then there was the $660 million commuter car parks scheme, which saw $389 million allocated just one day before Morrison called the election. Two-thirds of the money went to projects in Melbourne electorates the government deemed vital to its re-election. In at least one case, Morrison authorised the use of $15 million of taxpayer funds to upgrade a car park simply by issuing a press release.

These are just two programs the audit office has examined. Investigations by journalists and political opponents have pointed at other programs, such as the Safer Communities program, Building Better Regions Fund and the Community Grants program, which delivered money disproportionately to government or marginal seats. Billions of dollars were involved, in total.

Brown is appalled at the assertion that a mere media release, absent any due consideration of the merits of a project, “in and of itself gives legal authority, and it has to be done”. He says: “It’s just bizarre.”

Lindy Edwards, a senior lecturer in international and political studies at UNSW Canberra, says it is part and parcel of a “quite different style” of politics that eschews policy substance and traditional sources of policy advice in the bureaucracy, while “thinking more about the announcement and how the announcement makes them look”.

She says when she worked at the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C), “the mantra was ‘good policies are good politics’ ”. That’s changed.

“I think what we’re seeing at the moment is completely divorced from that,” she says. “With Morrison, we’ve got this quite different model of politics, which is about patronage, which is about giving money to people who support me, stripping resources from people who don’t support me.”

Of course, Berejiklian was right when she told ICAC both sides of politics have resorted to pork-barrelling. One example frequently referred to by those who would suggest it has always been this way is the original “sports rorts” scandal that took place during the prime ministership of Paul Keating.

It involved grants handed out through the Community Cultural, Recreational and Sporting Facilities Program, which had been initiated by Labor Right powerbroker Graham Richardson and inherited by his factional colleague Ros Kelly.

In December 1993, an Auditor-General’s examination could find no documentation to support the allocation of $30 million worth of grants. The opposition, then led by John Hewson, claimed the money had been funnelled into Labor seats ahead of that year’s election. At a senate inquiry, Kelly admitted she had allocated funding solely on the basis of verbal advice from her staff, with the aid of a “great big whiteboard” in her office, which was subsequently erased.

In some ways, the circumstances of Kelly’s sports rorts and the recent program run by McKenzie were remarkably similar – although McKenzie had better technology available to her to compose her colour-coded spreadsheets. But there were also significant differences. In the latter case, there was a documented process showing McKenzie overrode departmental advice – and also that the prime minister’s office was deeply involved.

But the biggest difference were the consequences. In the face of public outrage, Kelly lost her ministry and subsequently quit politics. At the resultant byelection, held a year after the scandal began, Labor lost with a 16.1 per cent swing against it.

Public anger endured.

In the more recent case, Morrison commissioned a report from Australia’s top public servant, the head of PM&C, and former chief of his personal staff, Phil Gaetjens. Morrison released only a summary of it, which flatly contradicted the Auditor-General’s conclusion that money was allocated for political purposes. In due course McKenzie returned to the ministry and to cabinet. Morrison made the political calculation that the public had moved on.

Terry Moran, head of the prime minister’s department for three-and-a-half years from 2008 to 2011, is troubled by these developments.

“The internal checks and balances – which are not well understood – have started to break down,” he says.

It’s not just that the government is prepared to subvert traditional process by using unprecedented amounts of taxpayer money to party political ends; it’s that it has become dangerous for public servants to insist proper process be observed.

“What’s happened at the federal level is that if you’re not accommodating of ministers, you’re endangering your job,” Moran says. “If you won’t take the nods and nudges to favour one proposal over another, and provide advice accordingly, you’re endangering your relationship with the minister. That used not to be the case.”

Moran sees two big dangers in this. The first is to the quality of policy-making. “The public service is strong when it’s got people who can get things done, and also people who can think ahead – strategic thinkers. And right at the moment, large parts of the public service in Canberra are short of people who can think ahead or are brave enough to say what they think.”

The second danger is that the public will lose faith in the political process. Indeed, Moran sees this manifesting already. The fact that there has not been a “stunned public reaction” to the revelations of massive pork-barrelling reflects “the prevailing view of politicians that the community has – they don’t trust them”.

He says one only has to look to the United States to see what happens when the electors become convinced that government is beholden to sectional interests, and that they are missing out: they gravitate to “populist insurgents”.

“So,” Moran says, “it’s not just bad practice in running often very expensive programs – although that’s important enough – but it’s ultimately a means of undermining the public’s faith in politicians and how they run the country.”

Michael Keating, who headed a number of federal departments including Finance, and who ran PM&C through the original sports rorts scandal, offers historical perspective on the relationship between the government and its public service, and the balance between bureaucratic independence of, and responsiveness to, government.

Of course, he says, ministers should have discretion in how public money is spent; it is they who are elected, not public servants. In general, the responsibility of public servants is to give their best advice and then keep their counsel if that advice is not heeded.

“But I think if the government breaks the law, your responsibility goes further,” he says. “In relation to things like sports grants, there are legal requirements. You really have to establish the criteria by which the grants are going to be allocated. Then the assessments against those criteria should be in writing. And if the minister decides to overrule, then he’s required to report to the minister of Finance, giving reasons.

“I think, personally, the minister of Finance should be required to report all such instances. That’s not a requirement, I think it should be…

“In the end, I think you’ve got to be prepared to put your job on the line where the law’s being broken. You’ve got to insist that the minister follows the law. And I think in the old days, we would have. I’m a former secretary of the Department of Finance, and we thought we had a special responsibility for insisting the laws be adhered to. We had a lot to do with creating the law.

“And in those days, ministers would have supported us. I’m bloody sure Peter Walsh and Ralph Willis, who were ministers I served under, would have supported me.”

But Scott Morrison has little apparent regard for frank and fearless advice or traditional notions of bureaucratic independence. He made that quite clear early in his prime ministership, both directly to departmental secretaries and publicly. In an address to the Institute of Public Administration Australia (IPAA) in August 2019, he emphasised that the public service was to focus on delivering on the government’s priorities, and be more “responsive” to ministers and the “quiet Australians”. The subtext was clear: shut up and do as you are told.

“This,” Keating says, “is a different sort of government to the Turnbull or even the Abbott governments in that respect. Morrison has a very different approach.”

Morrison’s comments about the role of the public service were made just ahead of the release of a comprehensive review of the public service, headed by businessman David Thodey and commissioned when Malcolm Turnbull was prime minister.

Michael Keating made submissions and had discussions with Thodey.

“I think he was persuaded that there was a degree of fear, which affected policy advice,” he says. “He made a number of recommendations, for want of a better phrase, to strengthen the position of public servants. And the government assiduously dumped a lot of them.”

More power has since been shifted from the bureaucracy to ministers and, worse, to ministerial advisers – commonly inexperienced in the ways of government and highly ideological.

Says Martin Parkinson, who was secretary of PM&C under Turnbull and who followed him out the door after the Morrison coup: “This has been a problem for quite a period of time [but it] has gotten worse. There are way too many staffers with way too much power.”

The intercession of staffers – who are neither elected, nor independent – has fed distrust between ministers and bureaucrats, Parkinson says.

“In a Westminster system, it is quite clear that the most senior adviser to a minister is the secretary of the department,” he says. “And yet you get staffers who think that they have the power to direct bureaucrats. And unfortunately, I think there’s been not enough spine shown by bureaucrats.”

In summing up all that is increasingly wrong with contemporary political practice – the pork-barrelling, the corruption of process, the autocratic behaviour of ministers and their staff – Parkinson searches for the right word.

“I just think there’s a much lesser understanding,” he says finally, “of, of … public probity.”

Probity is of course the quality of having strong moral principles. Perrottet promised it this week. Until she appeared before ICAC, it was widely assumed Gladys Berejiklian had it.

It is not, however, a word many would associate with Morrison. And it certainly could not be attached to the actions of his government, which for corruption of processes and politicised allocation of funding hugely overshadow what is being investigated in NSW.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 6, 2021 as "Berejiklian ‘rorts’ nothing on the Morrison government’s".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.