Opinion

How rorts, mates and marketing took over politics

“The Australian people deserve a Government that will act with integrity and in the best interests of the people they serve.”

 – Scott Morrison, Statement of Ministerial Standards

They certainly do deserve that, but they are not getting it. These are just words, not backed by actions. Although government has set such standards, they are not what motivates our leaders, and so they simply aren’t enforced.

Consider some of the most notable and concerning examples of “bad behaviour”, excess and the abuse of power and privilege of just the past couple of decades, which have seen an alarming erosion of ministerial responsibility, transparency and accountability:

  • • Seemingly innumerable examples of cheating on expenses and electoral allowances, both personally and using public money to fund branch stacking and other nefarious party political activities;
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  • • Bending entitlement rules with the use of charter and VIP aircraft – from Bronwyn Bishop’s use of a helicopter for what would’ve been a 40-minute car ride, or most recently Mathias Cormann using a VIP aircraft, funded by taxpayers, to campaign for his post-politics tilt to head the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development;
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  • • Allocation of many grants and programs for perceived short-term political advantage in key seats – sports rorts, community and regional rorts, local government rorts, just to admit the most obvious;
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  • • The Howard government supporting our wheat board, the AWB, to pay bribes to Saddam Hussein to sell our wheat;
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  • • A subsidiary of the Reserve Bank paying bribes to sell our polymer banknotes to other countries;
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  • • Spying on the government of one of the poorest countries in the world, Timor-Leste, under the cover of an aid budget, to gain advantage for corporate mates such as Woodside in the exploitation of oil and gas reserves;
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  • • The Leppington Western Sydney airport land deal, in which $30 million was paid for land valued at a 10th of that figure;
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  • • Rejecting recommendations of the Thodey review of the public service to bring ministerial advisers into a clearer accountability framework by way of a code of conduct – many examples of ministers ducking responsibility for the activities of their staff, most recently Angus Taylor and the manufactured and fraudulent attack on Clover Moore;
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  • • Both major parties combining recently to quickly and quietly pass the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Bill through federal parliament to make it easier to receive secret donations from property developers;
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  • • A defining feature of the prime ministership of the marketing-driven Scott Morrison making “big headline” announcements of all sorts of programs and support – from drought to flood, bushfire and Covid-19 assistance – wherein it’s difficult to determine actual “new money”, and there is little follow-up to determine whether money actually went to where it was needed, or indeed whether it was actually spent;
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  • • Stacking various Covid-19 recovery advisory groups with serious conflicts and vested interests, for example gas interests;
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  • • The delay in the Morrison government meeting its commitment to release an exposure draft for a national integrity commission, only to find that it would not have been able to deal with much of this bad behaviour – indeed, it would operate pretty much as a “protection racket” for ministers and their staff;
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  • • The consistent politicisation and erosion of the public service, with significant appointments made and terminated with short or no notice or explanation;
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  • • The considerable undue influence wielded by certain mates and lobbying groups corrupting government, preventing policy imperatives in the national interest, the most noticeable being the fossil fuel lobby irresponsibly delaying an urgent and decisive response to the imperative of climate change;
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  • • The blame game that has developed into an art form, as a means of ducking responsibility and accountability, where the federal government has sought to shift responsibility to the states in areas where it clearly carries that responsibility, such as quarantine and aged care;
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  • • Many ministers and senior politicians being able to tie up very lucrative appointments post-politics, indeed almost immediately as they leave politics, without enforcement of a reasonable period of “isolation” to limit exploitation of “what and who they know” et cetera;
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  • • The consistent erosion of the standing and effectiveness of the parliament, especially the mockery of question time and the use of Dorothy Dixers, and the reduced scrutiny by parliamentary committees.

Not only are these examples most disturbing in their own right, but the government responses have been even more corrupted and disappointing from the point of view of effective governance.

John Howard’s initial responses to expense cheating were decisive in holding ministers and others to account, but as the “body count” rose, he increasingly ignored, denied and stonewalled. In the aftermath of the AWB scandal, there was a serious abrogation of ministerial responsibility and accountability by the addition of a front page to cabinet submissions whereby staff could sign “Not Seen By Minister” while still allowing for the possibility that they had been fully briefed.

The Morrison government is still seeking to cover up the Timor-Leste spying case with court proceedings held in secret against Witness K – a former senior ASIS intelligence officer who simply expressed moral concern to his superiors and briefed his lawyer, Bernard Collaery – 16 years after the bugging. Meanwhile, the subsequent financial benefits from the bugging operation to a minister and senior bureaucrat by way of consulting business, or board appointment, have been ignored.

The significance of various “rorts” has simply been denied and downplayed – but perhaps with a “concession” that all governments pork-barrel. The most recent federal budget had cuts to the funding of the auditor-general, the notionally independent office responsible for exposing many of these government rorts and excesses.

In short, excesses and abuses are denied, unpursued, covered up; rules are changed or reinterpreted, or some combination of these.

Indeed, many of our politicians now set themselves apart. They claim to be outside the “Canberra bubble” – to listen to and understand issues and the aspirations of voters – but in reality, they immerse themselves in it. They act as if they are beyond reproach.

But in practice they adhere to a double standard. By regulation, legislation and various other means, they set and enforce standards of behaviour for others, for business, and right across our society, for truth, transparency and accountability. Their behaviour constantly fails the “pub test”.

Punters have become increasingly concerned that our politicians have been slowly losing their moral compass. No wonder, with the exception of the recent months dealing with Covid-19, there has been a consistent erosion of the electorate’s trust in our politicians and in our political processes over decades.

Politics is increasingly attracting the wrong sort of people, those more interested in making a difference for themselves and their mates than for their constituents or our nation. Politics has become mostly about short-term point scoring, a negative game, played by people obsessed with personal benefit and gratification, tribes, mates, personalities and marketing. For the most part, any interest in policy substance and delivering good responsible government has fallen away.

It will take real leadership, and strong bipartisanship, to turn this around, to stop the erosion of trust, and to ensure transparency and accountability. It will require a complete reset and reform of our politics and government policymaking processes.

Reform would need to include an overhaul of campaign funding, either limiting donations from individuals, banning business, unions and various other mechanisms, or a move to redefined full public funding. It must ensure the transparency of lobbying, place a cap on campaign advertising and applying “truth in advertising” laws to political and other parties.

Perhaps penalising “false, misleading and deceptive” conduct by our politicians would have an impact. As would cleaning up parliament – limiting question time to questions to government and enhancing the role of parliamentary committees and other means of scrutiny.

Reform should encourage political parties to improve their preselection processes to ensure better skills and experience, diversity and representation. It should restore the professionalism, independence, standing and effectiveness of the public service, and develop and enforce a code of conduct for ministerial staff, advisers and consultants.

There must be a reasonable “cooling off” period enforced for ministers, politicians, their staff and senior bureaucrats before they can accept post-politics/post-government appointments.

And finally, but vitally, the government must legislate for a genuinely well-funded, independent national integrity and anti-corruption commission with the powers of a royal commission and the capacity to initiate inquiries, as well as to respond to government and anonymous referrals.

Quite a wish list, I agree. But this is merely the bare bones of what needs to be done if we are to get serious as a nation about transparency, accountability and integrity in our politics and government.

It is genuinely in our national interest, and we should expect and accept nothing less of those we elect to represent and govern us.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 5, 2020 as "How rorts, mates and marketing took over politics".

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John Hewson is a professor at the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy and a former Liberal opposition leader.