The Morrison government: increasingly an ethical vacuum

09/02/2021

Almost weekly, the person behind Anthony Albanese’s Twitter feed puts out a short statement, hanging off a recent event, calling for powerful corruption commission. A Labor Party seriously interested in winning government ought to be doing much more.

About once every week, someone organising Anthony Albanese’s Twitter feed puts out a short statement, hanging off some recent event, saying that Labor favours a powerful corruption commission to bring errant government to account. They are right to do so, but a Labor Party seriously interested in winning government ought to be doing more to ramp up its campaign, and to call out what is going on in modern government in Australia.

This is necessary for two reasons. First, while actual corruption is a serious problem, the more so when the risk of being caught seems to be declining, equally serious is a corrupted idea of public stewardship and good government. With the Coalition insisting that a corruption commission will look only at matters suggesting criminal activity, much corrupted management of public resources may escape scrutiny.

It is apparent that prime ministers and state premiers believe that political pork barrelling is perfectly OK, has long been done on both sides of politics, and is not a breach of public morality. It’s not; it hasn’t, and it is. It ought to be exposed and those who engage in it should be subject to serious penalties. And a political scorching.

Labor is selling itself a myth — that the public (and a partisan media) does not care about blatant abuse of power — and thus that denunciation need only be ritual. That’s much the same as persuading itself that the party has tried firm climate change policies, only to find that the public does not care.

Second, corruption, and corrupted ideas of public stewardship and the public interest are but a subset of a developing crisis in good government and in the proper administration of public resources. We have a crisis of legal and political accountability, of principles of transparency, proper process, and fair and equal treatment of all citizens — of honest and impartial administration in short. It has become worse because legislatures are failing in their duties of scrutinising official action and public expenditure, in part because the current ministerial government is being more secretive and sly about what it is doing.

And many of the old checks and balances are no longer up to the task, whether because they have been starved of resources, are no longer adapted to the times, or because ministers have made it clear they do not care about good administration, as long as they achieve their political objectives. Put bluntly, the Morrison government seems increasingly an ethical vacuum. The want of regard for basic principles of honest administration, as contracts are fixed without tender, as rules are ignored,  seems to be infecting parts of the public service as well.

The problem is the greater because of the Budget crisis caused by the pandemic, and the probably reasonable determination of ministers to act swiftly in devising schemes to prop up unemployment, feed liquidity into business and the community and to brake a decelerating economy. Also probably reasonable from the government’s perspective, though more arguable, was the decision to use the private sector, rather than the public sector, as the primary engine room of keeping the economy going and as a dispenser of the liquidity put into the economy.

Such a decision was, of course, ideological, based on suppositions that the private sector is more efficient than the public sector. There was also a fear that a public service put in control of pandemic economic measures would expand unnecessarily, do everything it could to entrench itself, and be difficult to dismantle. By contrast, champions of the government’s approach would say, flexibility was the keyword, and the design meant that a general movement towards a smaller public sector could continue.

The stench of bad government will not go away

That someone else might disagree with the policy or the ideology is not the issue. The government’s broad disposition about such matters is generally well known, and it is, within reason, entitled to decide how its schemes will work.

But no matter how a scheme is organised, and by whomever it is performed, it must still be subject to general principles of honest administration and stewardship of the public interest. It is subject to rules about conflict of interest and natural justice; to rules about transparency and accountability. Morrison cannot remove such requirements by handing over matters to the private sector, nor can he conceal outcomes by pretending he, or his ministers, are no longer responsible for process or outcomes once a transfer has occurred.

We watched Trump destroy institutions and trample on constitutional conventions, relying, in part, on the suspicions of insiders among his followers. We must ask ourselves whether the Morrison smirk and the Coalition complacency has Australia heading in the same direction.

This month’s issue of The Monthly has an important article written by its editor, Nick Feik, about the Morrison government as a government of endless scandal, in which a lack of accountability, from Morrison down, has become endemic. It is one of the best indictments of modern Australian government in recent years.

Its chronicle of scandals, such as the sports rorts affair, open rorting of grant schemes, dubious purchases of water allocations, Home Affairs contracts for asylum seeker security and site services, land purchases at absurd prices relative to valuation, substantial grants without a tender (and, sometimes, apparently without application) to News.com, and arranging lucrative contracts to party donors and cronies are not new. What is compelling is the way the sum of these consequences of political dereliction is shown not to be isolated incidents but as part of a conscious pattern of government. “These aren’t bugs in the system; they are the system”, Feik says.

The fish has rotted from the head. The micro-managing Morrison has a finger in almost every scandal. But most of his Cabinet, and a good many other ministers, have also been implicated in partisan administration, sometimes concealed with an insouciance suggesting that neither they nor the public care. The stench of bad government will not go away merely by creating an integrity commission. It also involves a rearming of traditional watchdogs of poor administration, such as the Ombudsman, FOI, the Financial Management Act, and the Audit Office, and whistle-blower protections as well as an upgrade of parliamentary scrutiny.

But it also involves a revolution in public service leadership. All too many secretaries and officials have become complicit in poor practices, in partisan behaviour, and in appalling outcomes, as with, for example, the illegal and mismanaged Robo-debt scheme.

The criticism of Labor is not that it has stayed silent. It is that they are not making enough noise about it. The protests are all too ritual, able to be dismissed as though it were a game. They, the cross-bench and sections of the media should be treating systemic maladministration as a fundamental breach of the governing compact. They should be shouting it from the rooftops, and mobilising the public indignation that would occur were it doing its job of bringing the government to account.

Labor could even talk of draining the swamp. But they need to talk about it. Non-stop, and with genuine indignation. And Labor needs a spokesman with cred, able to use genuine indignation to effect. The issue cannot be entrusted to someone who spent most of the last Labor administration “wanting to be convinced” there was even a problem.

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