A noose fashioned from one’s own words

Mar 22, 2022
Australian currency
Politicians can decide, as legislators, the broad process for distributing public money. Image: Flickr

One of the habits I have always urged on young political journalists is of jotting down, and remembering statements made by politicians on general principles of accountability, responsibility and personal and public morality.

This is not for the edification of the public so much as for assistance whenever the politician in question is in trouble or is loyally trying to extricate some colleague who ought to resign. There is nothing like hanging a politician with rope fashioned from their own exact words.

Thus, opposition politicians, seeking the resignation of some minister they believe they have bang to rights, will assert some principle they will say was established in Malcolm Fraser’s day. The prime minister will declare that the principle has changed, and that the circumstances are different.

One can be reasonably certain that 10 years down the track, the same former minister, now in opposition, will be piously proclaiming the principle she repudiated a decade before, while the former proclaimers of the old rules will be insisting on the indulgent view they previously denied. It was pretty much always thus.

Bar the odd anomaly – such as Andrew Peacock offering to resign as minister for the army because his wife, Susan had appeared in an advertisement for sheets – the general view in the late 1960s was notions of ministerial responsibility, and standards of good government, had already gone to hell. Twenty years on, commentators, and people in the opposition of either party, would speak of 1960s conventions and practices in reverent tones. They would deplore slippage. And 20 years after that, even after more modern prime ministers had attempted to codify and publish the standards they set, it nearly always seemed that the latitude and licence given ministers was now impossibly wide. Any number of the current ministry would not be there if some previous prime minister, even of the same party, were in charge, we would say, mostly rightly.

The ever-disappearing bottom could exist because the true rule was that a minister survived if he or she retained the prime minister’s confidence, not whether they had breached a rule. In theory a minister could survive a murder charge, or a rape allegation, without being asked to resign. Prime ministers would weigh a continuing scandal and liability against the cost of giving the opposition a win, or of creating some precedent that could be used against the government in future.

Thus, for example, it very much suited Scott Morrison to ask for the resignation of his hapless minister for sport, Bridget McKenzie, on the grounds of a technical conflict of interest. He preferred this to sacking her for rorting a sports grant program, as the Auditor-General alleged. Morrison may have felt the distinction keenly, because he and his office appeared to have been up to their necks in helping McKenzie to put the rort into practice. Just as he, his office and other ministers, had been involved in other illegal, unethical and improper – in my view consciously corrupt – diversions of money into parking station programs, chosen not by merit but on party partisan grounds. And many other grants programs.

Members of the government, some of whom may well survive the election to be on the opposition frontbench, have used any number of claims to deny illegality in how way they put public money to their party’s interests.

They have claimed, for example, that it was OK because electors, in returning the government had effectively ratified any irregularities. That’s an improbable, and false, rationalisation from Simon Birmingham, who as minister for finance, ought to be a guardian, not a fellow bandit when the hand is in the till. If he won’t lead, and stands for nothing, who will?

A former Attorney-General (going into private practice) opined that regardless of what was said in general legislation or regulations about grant programs, a minister could always intervene to distribute public money as she or he saw fit, because it was the minister, who at the end of the day, was vested by the Constitution with the power. I hope he never gets a Commonwealth brief.

Others have claimed, of grants which were supposed to have been distributed equitably, by need and by merit, that a department or agency had vetted all applications for eligibility and knocked out the ineligible. The minister had merely chosen which of these would get the tick. Accordingly, it did not matter that a selective distribution, focused on mates, cronies and party donors, then took place and that more eligible groups missed out.

The sophistry of some of the arguments and the history of some of the interferences by ministers and their offices might be a good reason for arguing that ministers should never be allowed anywhere near a tender process, or anywhere near a grant process.

I myself would add for good measure that no private sector consultants should be allowed to be hired to certify the probity of a grants process, or, horrors, to play any part in the distribution of money. Even on the Australian evidence, let alone the international experience, the major consultancy companies are prostitutes: there is absolutely nothing they will not say or do for money, especially if the client wants it.

Politicians should not be allowed to touch public money – they can set the rules, but should leave distribution to the professionals, who do not include consultants.

That might be a hard thing to say of politicians, most of whom are honest and many of whom mean well. They want to be personally involved in making decisions, and, of course, in taking the credit for them. But a nation with a GDP about the size of Russia’s should be mature enough to expect that the distribution and allocation of grants should be managed by professionals, rather than amateurs with vested interests, some undisclosed.

Politicians can decide, as legislators, the broad process for distributing public money. The process should be fair and should follow the general legal trend of making the system ever more purposive, transparent and accountable.

Legislators also ratify how much money goes to individual programs. They could certainly improve how they do that.

Governments and ministers have the right and the duty to decide, and proclaim, the policy of grant allocation. It should be for the public service to put the policy into operation.

The argument for restricting management of grants to public servants is that the risk of maladministration or mismanagement by the minister or her office has become unacceptably high. Even ministers who are competent (about half) and who try to be honest find their work interfered with by others in the political sphere. That’s made easier by the overlapping responsibilities of portfolio ministers, and the fact that ministerial staff are more beholden to the prime minister’s office – which supervises appointments, pay and tenure– than the actual minister. Modern prime ministers are very centralising, very controlling, and very sharply politically focused.

The current government has been there long enough that there is hardly a minister untainted by criticism of the way money has been spent – at political direction — on his or her watch. And the longer any party stays in power, the more ways of governing become eccentric, the more the senior bureaucracy has been chosen for seeing things in the same way as ministers, and the more the incumbents regard their incumbency as being on freehold, rather than leasehold. The more too that they have come to regard public money, or public jobs, as able to be spent as though they were the owners, rather than the stewards, of the public estate.

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