Corruption undermines national security far more than spying

[The Director-general of ASIO,] Mike Burgess said this week, correctly, that the biggest risk of Chinese money and influence subverting the Australian system is at the local government level. Then at state and territory level, then at national level.

He means, of course, that much of the money involved  — the bribes, the sweeteners, the party donations pretending to come from elsewhere — are about property development. This corrupts the system but does not In most cases compromise national security. Moreover, this sort of chicanery is practised by all sort of locals and foreigners, by no means only Russians and Chinese.  ASIO should be reporting this venality to ICACs and state police, and stop pretending it’s a subset of the agent-of-influence issue.

The idea of registration is that Australians should always know when foreigners, or people speaking for them, are seeking to influence government decision-making.  I’m for that. Likewise Australians should always be allowed to know, if they can be bothered to find out, who is purveying propaganda on behalf of foreign countries. This is  in the interests of “transparency,” apparently a core value in national security policy.

But Australian governments are not greatly in favour of similar transparency when one asks about the influence of corporations, foreign and domestic, on ministers determining economic or social policy — even defence and foreign affairs policy. It is not usually difficult to see who is parroting a line friendly to another nation’s interests — America’s say, or Taiwan’s or Israel’s. Though China is sometimes drowned out in the clamour of interests.

We don’t know which oil companies, foreign and domestic, and sometimes foreign masquerading as domestic, got a seat at the table when a big decision was made. Nor, usually, about which disgraced banker was treated as a wise statesman when it suited. In principle, of course, all supplicants should get a hearing, but the door is not always open to players without the vested interest. Or the record of political donations. More and more, it’s becoming a scandal.

Australia is by now one of the last of the western democratic countries — and the federal government virtually the last among the governments in the Australian federation —  to flatly refuse to make diaries of ministerial meetings open to public examination.

Indeed, under the Morrison government, and increasingly under state governments, on both sides of politics, the problem is not only one of transparency. It is equally one of regularity, process, respect for the law, for proper procedure and a want of that value Scott Morrison pretends to espouse: a fair go for all. Our own corrupted system is doing far more damage than any foreign agents of influence.

It was a problem enough before the Coronavirus pandemic. And before the bushfire crisis. One has only to look at sports rorts to see lawlessness in government. Conventions were trashed. The law and procedures laid down for the proper and impartial distribution of grants were disrespected. We saw the complete subversion of the minds of supposedly independent senior bureaucrats, and the replacement of a democratic ideal by arbitrary, partial and unaccountable administration. Money was for the politically chosen few with conscious disregard for the public interest.

This is far worse than a common or garden rort of the routine National Party variety, deplorable as those are. This was one directed, inter alia, to manipulate an election. It was controlled through the prime minister’s office. It was given improper political cover by the Minister for Finance, the Attorney-General and the notional head of the public service. A gutless police force, albeit without power to investigate Commonwealth administrative crimes not formally referred to it, sits around doing nothing, pretending the main game is about bringing leakers and whistle-blowers before the courts.

 Even with an active memory of WA Inc, the Fitzgerald inquiry, sundry NSW scandals, and Victorian  and South Australian royal commissions, this is high-class corruption of government. I cannot think of all-of-government corruption, or systemic scandals as great in the past 50 years of state or territory administrations.

A fair dinkum anti-corruption body, run by a fair dinkum commissioner, would be exposing crooks by the score, not least among those preventing just such an inquiry.

But the Sports Rorts affair is but an example of a fundamental rottenness in federal government. Similar scandals are routinely batted away, without political consequences. There are procurement scandals, with mates, cronies and party donors “getting a go for having a go” as a shameless Morrison put in parliament last week. There is probable bureaucratic corruption with the purchase of airport land. There are serious questions, unanswered, about water purchases, river management and the use of forged documents. Police curiosity is, of course, independently minimal. There’s incompetence, mismanagement and clear neglect of duty over aged care, the robo-debt crisis, and the way that Border Force managed crowds at airports. There are seriously deficient processes, under cover of bureaucratic management, by which mates of the government are hired to investigate dodgy practices, including abuse of electoral staff. There is the open contempt of the courts — and possible criminality — by senior ministers.

The heavy elephants are splashing most of the water out of the pool. Stewards of public money are selectively muting their hearing aids, and closing the window so they can’t be seen.  

The crisis of honest government and honest public stewardship is much magnified by the pandemic, with government spending now increased by tens of billions of dollars, a very large amount to big business. This is without the accountability or probity requirements that should normally prevail, and, seemingly, not even any ministerial will for demanding proper accountability.

We will never know if we got value for money, because the urge to get the money out — as well as the pretend-urge to “cut red-tape” — has reduced central scrutiny and control, the accountability of spending, or, damningly, the processes by which the money is doled out.  Surely, if the Hayne royal commission has taught us anything, it is that big business, especially when it has friends in Cabinet will steal anything it can lay hands on.  It’s a process aggravated by the accountability black hole called the National Cabinet, and by significant rorting by the states and territories, themselves major recipients and distributors of cash. Scott Morrison’s approach to conflict of interest and accountability was demonstrated by the way he created a commission of mates and cronies, many in the gas industry, to give him independent advice on getting the economy moving. This privileged cabal is getting insider access to Cabinet papers and able to participate in the distribution of spoils among some of themselves.

One cannot, yet, say, that it a government in a crisis of legitimacy and authority in the same way as the government of Donald Trump, or even a government in the chaos of Boris Johnson. But a government with so little respect for propriety, process and the public interest, and so naked a belief that public money can be spent as it likes, without any obligation to answer questions or come to account is fashioning its own noose.

ASIO, which has done more than any public body other than the semi-public Strategic Policy Institute, to stir up conflict with China, should be much more concerned with terror domestic.

It’s not my point here that the notion of agents of influence is a joke. There are all sort of agents working on the minds of this government, seeking, sometimes buying, favours for themselves, dispensations, public money and public rights. Their influence is too pervasive. No one is watching to prevent plunder of the public purse. That plunder is happening.

The heavy elephants splash most of the water out of the pool in which the stewards of public money can selectively mute their hearing aids, and close the window whenever they like.  These are the big threat to Australia’s future, not the invasion some of the Cassandras seem actually to want. As ASIO and others deliberately poke sticks in Chinese eyes in the hope of causing the reactions now happening, I think, we can assume the danger that reactive Chinese propaganda will be accorded too much weight.

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John Waterford AM, better known as Jack Waterford, is an Australian journalist and commentator.

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