Opinion

Stephen Mutch
At this point, the Coalition government is unfit for office

It is fitting that this federal election should be about character. For the Liberals it is not just the character of the prime minister, Scott Morrison, that needs to be examined. The character question is also about the integrity of the government he leads, the party he now dominates, and the people who surround him.

For Labor, this election should focus on the integrity of the party’s leader, Anthony Albanese. Is he a man with the strength of character to remove the patronage network that pervades the present government? Does he have the will to restore integrity in government? Or is he just another frontman for the same kind of parasitic politics? Time will tell, but his résumé as a long-term party operative, with limited real-world experience, is not encouraging.

In my view, more scrutiny also needs to be focused on the supporting players behind the campaigns. In particular, the spotlight needs to shine on the characters who manipulate the machinery of party and government when in office.

This requires delving into the murky underworld of the New South Wales division of the Liberal Party, linking behind-the-scenes power with the corruption of preselection processes by factions and lobbyists. There is a direct connection between that story and disturbing questions of integrity directed at the heart of the present federal government.

As a long-term participant in the NSW Liberal Party, and a member of two parliaments at both state and federal level, I have felt concerns for some time about an integrity deficit in the NSW party. I have been a regular participant in preselections over many years, both as a candidate and as a delegate. It is through the debasement of preselections in the party that a story emerges of the political skulduggery that infects state and federal politics. NSW is the tail that wags the dog.

Unfortunately most media coverage is limited to the scandal of the day. It generally fails to connect the dots between sporadic episodes. From lived political experience, I have gained a rueful education into deeply flawed party processes and have some insight into the character of the present government. To borrow the immortal words of recently re-elected French president Emmanuel Macron: “I don’t think – I know.”

So what is to be done? It is instructive that the much-touted campaigns by independent candidates usually feature two issues: climate change and the need for a federal integrity commission. With the latter I suspect they are reflecting a widespread suspicion that there is something not quite right about the integrity of the federal government.

Establishment of any integrity agency needs to come to grips with some mechanical and ethical problems that have beset commissions of integrity at the state level. What hope for integrity commissions when they are established by some of the very people whose closest cronies are sometimes the ones most in need of investigation? If the answer lies in bipartisan appointments, as proposed by the opposition, what is to prevent mendacious commissions from targeting political outliers, the critics of the two-party monopoly or the proponents of minority political views within the parties? Would the appointment of cleanskin commissioners, endorsed by multiparty consensus, actually prevent them from being used as political tools by sophisticated operators to pursue intra-party factional rivals? In essence, who watches the watchers?

Many years ago I sat on the parliamentary oversight committee for the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), where a citizens’ oversight committee had also been established to watch the watchers. The citizens’ committee received copies of all complaints referred to ICAC, so progress could be tracked and corruption couldn’t be hidden. To my astonishment, I found that this process could be subverted at the very outset: complaints received could simply be reclassified as “intelligence” and, as such, not declared. The oversight committee could not oversee what they did not know about.

Still, the blatant ditching of a promise to implement an integrity commission at the federal level should be seen for what it is. The exposure draft of the Commonwealth Integrity Commission Bill 2020 is 363 dense pages of Orwellian language, available for “all to see”, as government ministers like to boast, yet with its agenda obscured from the average reader and even from the legal cognoscenti. On my reading, the key objective seems to be to make it difficult to pursue allegations of misconduct by politicians past and present.

Running interference on past matters is one thing. The potential for an integrity commission to be permanently sidelined presages the avoidance of proper scrutiny into the future, should the Morrison government be returned. With the advent of the much vaunted AUKUS agreement, with the United States and Britain both spruiking their military hardware, there is now more need than ever for a genuine federal integrity commission to oversee the military bazaar that may eventuate.

Indeed, AUKUS promises to cement in place our own antipodean version of the US military–industrial complex, with the prospect of enriching, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars, a gaggle of lawyers, financial advisers and politically connected lobbyists, all touting for the purchase of billion-dollar defence assets, some of which are not needed and others that will never materialise.

So now we come to another billion-dollar question: Is Anthony Albanese to be the unlikely saviour of democracy and decency in Australian political life, or will it be another case of Tweedledum replacing Tweedledee? This is the man who once said, “I have not seen any evidence of direct corruption … that has been proven in my time when I’ve been in parliament.”  Well, he needs to open his eyes!

In a rigid two-party system, the choice between Morrison and Albanese is difficult to swallow. Independents and minor parties might make a difference on the margins if the election is close run – but in the end the Coalition or Labor will form a government, in majority or minority.

Following the recent preselection debacle in NSW, where democratic preselections were denied to party members, the position of many in the Liberal Party is one of frustration, even anger. Some party members are accused of wanting the party to lose the federal election, refusing to staff polling booths. They hope that if the Morrison government is sent into opposition, party members can regroup, refresh and reinstate internal democracy. Party elders, hoping to circumvent this revolt from within, are calling for loyalty and promising root-and-branch reform, yet again, after the election. From history, these are siren songs to string along the gullible.

My own view is that the Liberal Party in NSW is irredeemable and the federal Morrison government is unfit to hold office. The latter assessment is based specifically on the question of government integrity. The few instances of potentially dodgy behaviour over contracts and tendering highlighted in the media are very much the tip of the iceberg and the gaming of democratic preselections in NSW speaks for itself. The government has offered a “take it or leave it” integrity agency that is both hiding in plain sight and missing in action.

By way of contrast, the opposition has offered a two-page document outlining a thumbnail sketch of its commitment for a national anti-corruption commission, which is clear and concise when compared with the government’s obfuscatory proposal. It is to be hoped that commissioners appointed under the Labor proposal, should it win government, will be legal Rottweilers, independent and beyond reproach. The ALP is committed on paper to a commission with broad power to initiate investigations into allegations of “serious and systemic corruption” by government officials, including politicians and their staff, claiming that the government’s exposure bill bans the proposed commission “from investigating any of the multiple past scandals of the Morrison government”.

While I would want to know why the ALP apparently wants to limit investigations of “serious corruption” with the insertion of the word “systemic”, and I would want to know just how this phrase is defined, my other query is with Labor’s oversight mechanism. The ALP proposes a bipartisan joint standing committee of the parliament to oversee the work of the commission and to be “responsible for confirming the commissioners nominated by the government”. In order to help dispel any sense of collusion between the major political parties on the appointment of commissioners, I would hope that the oversight committee would also be representative of minor parties, such that the committee broadly reflects a multipartisan approach.

While the choice between leaders at this election is a diabolical one for disaffected Liberals, the choice between competing models for a federal integrity commission is no contest. Anthony Albanese is hardly a light-on-the-hill saviour for the ALP but he is an unlikely hero for the cause of integrity in government. Armed with a commitment for a genuine federal integrity commission, this as-yet-unknown quantity offers a glimmer of hope for those who see character and integrity in government as the mainstays of a democratic society.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 30, 2022 as "A matter of integrity".

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Stephen Mutch is a retired lawyer and academic. He is a former Liberal member of the New South Wales Legislative Council and a former member for the federal seat of Cook.

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