It will require a Herculean effort to clean out the greed, corruption, sense of entitlement, selfishness and ideological blindness at the “commanding heights” of Australia’s government, economy and society. The banking royal commission has exposed merely the tip of this ugly reality. In business, in the professions, in the media and in politics, many of those at the top are the custodians and reproducers of a culture that is morally fetid. They remain obsessed with themselves, their cronies, their salaries and bonuses, their perks of office.
Dr Anne Aly MP recently noted that a mere 2.7 per cent of Australia’s leaders across business, the media, the professions and politics come from a non-European, non-Anglo-Celtic background. She has highlighted that the main levers of power in the country have fallen into the hands of a small, self-regarding clique. It is a clique mainly composed of condescending white males, with a few like-minded white females in their ranks. Their activities were shockingly exemplified during the AMP’s appearance before the royal commission. What was once an honourably run prudential society, in recent times was taken over by a few in this clique who then transformed it into one of the nastiest players in this country’s finance industry.
It is important to understand the moral environment in which the commanders of Australia’s economy, the professions and the polity operate. It is an environment based on a crude understanding of individualism which is self-regarding and venal. It embraces the flashy parvenu, the shonky business type, those ambitious only for themselves, those who treat others (associates, colleagues, even family) as means to their own selfish ends. Their relationships are primarily utilitarian.
Many of them have backgrounds that lack ethical content, literary breadth and philosophical depth. Most are graduates in business administration, finance and accounting, and AI, all characterised by a pedagogy of training, rather than educating, in the richest meaning of the word. The notion of social justice is foreign to them. They live by the tawdry belief that it is right for the winner to take all. They are inordinately pleased with themselves.
How can we rid ourselves of these troublesome people and their narcissistic culture?
There has to be a greater activism among shareholders in business corporations. Executive salaries and bonuses have to be rigorously interrogated. CEOs have to be held to account and sacked the moment they are shown to be duplicitous or crooked. At the same time middle ranking managers and their colleagues need to be rewarded for being whistle blowers, calling attention to the sly deals and underhand practices their bosses are engaging in. (This of course requires much stronger legal protections for whistle blowers.)
In the professions, younger colleagues need to challenge the iron law of seniority that too often determines who wields power in the law firms, the specialist medical colleges, the accountancy firms, consulting conglomerates, the banks and financial services industries, the universities. Competence and expertise are not automatically associated with age, gender or years in “the firm.” Neither are a sense of justice and ethical and emotional intelligence. Not infrequently the reverse is the case. For example, as recent exposure of examples of gender inequity in the college of surgeons suggest, aging, over-paid white males at the top could be a real threat to the wellbeing of their patients and their junior colleagues. And it’s not just the surgeons who are at fault; consider, for instance, recent official reports criticising the psychiatric profession.
In politics we need far fewer of the “political class” being elected to our parliaments. Those are people who began their professional political careers as activists in student politics at university and who then became apparatchiks at various levels in their preferred political parties, or as staff in politicians’ offices. They have little or no experience outside the professional political bubbles within which they operate.
In the media we need less ideology and more balanced reporting and analysis. One of the most egregious and vandalising actions of the Coalition government has been its savaging of the ABC, the most trusted news source in the country. It is precisely because it is so widely trusted that certain politicians and their mates in the private media (read: News Ltd) are seeking to destroy it. It is that that ambition which is the true measure of an absence of ethical conduct that characterises politics and the media in Australia today.
If we are going to be freed from the moral cynicism that stalks the highest levels of professional, political and business power in this country, we will need far more effective regulatory bodies with the legal power and proper resources to investigate corruption and related criminal behaviour among those who shape and manipulate the lives of ordinary law-abiding citizens. There have to be serious punishments attached to crimes related to bad behaviour at the top. Lengthy jail terms must be part of the legal penalties available to the courts to deal with this illness threatening the health and longevity of Australian democracy.
The Commonwealth Integrity Commission proposed by the Morrison government is noteworthy for its lack of political and legal integrity. It is a pathetic sop to those demanding a far more astute regulatory body to return trust in, and respect for, our systems of governance. It is to be hoped that the cross-benchers in the parliament will help to reject this attempt by the Coalition to foist on the Australian public a Clayton’s Corruption Commission and in the process cause thoughtful citizens, who are already deeply disillusioned with Australia’s democratic institutions and processes, to be even more so.
Any return to trust-worthy governance systems across the country will require a Herculean leadership that will direct a raging river through the Augean stables of the Australian parliament, big business, the media and the professions. It’s time for them all to be cleaned out. Only then can faith in democracy and ethical governance – in a basically decent society, economy and polity – begin to be rebuilt.
Allan Patience is a Melbourne-based political scientist.