We are currently witnessing widespread loss of trust in government. Not just in the rapid slide in the popularity of the federal government and the personal standing of the Prime Minister, but the growing mistrust of initiatives and policies designed to manage the crises confronting us and those that are imminent.
This loss of trust was and remains inevitable, driven by the realisation that we are increasingly being sold spin and obfuscation and our sense that our government is focused more on their prospects at the next election than getting us through these challenging times. It is intensified by the slow but steady revelation of bad behaviour by those who govern, where no one takes responsibility and no one is held to account.
We pride ourselves on living within a strong democracy – but so did the American people ahead of the Capitol Hill riots in January. It was unimaginable to political and legal commentators in the US that they would see the day a frenzied mob mobilised to seize power through violence without constitutional mandate, to witness senior public officials being urged to alter voting outcomes in favour of the incumbent, to see encouragement for false testimony in media conferences and at parliamentary hearings.
In my new book, Easy Lies and Influence, I consider the origins of this breakdown of democracy in the US and the corrosion of our own precious democracy. I reflect on the ways in which our governments have embraced corruption and favoured their own interests ahead of the public interest – with lies, bribes, the purchase of influence and reward for favourable treatment that we see today as standard operating procedure. I reflect on the fact that the ways in which corruption has become normalised in our country is alarming. The sheer number of revelations and massive scale of rorting of public funds, the complete disconnect between each revelation and any consequence for those involved means we are travelling very badly on any corruption measure:
‘In Australia, corruption spends public funds in pursuit of power, rewards favour, and strips support from worthy programs. It silences journalists and those charged with upholding standards of integrity by depriving them of funding. Grift and stacking are commonplace as those chasing influence infiltrate the structures of power. Corruption rewards loyalty through appointments to office and by preferencing those within the favoured network ahead of others of equal or greater talent. It conceals itself through unfit-for-purpose access to information laws and processes, vague budget commitments, the assertion of unchecked executive discretion, a quick media cycle and overburdened parliamentary committees.
It undermines trust in government at a time when trust is vital to keeping us safe. Corruption allows mistrust to fester, offers nourishment to conspiracy theories, and engenders civil unrest.
Increasingly, they get away with it. Billions of dollars of public funds are squandered. Markets are distorted by unfair commercial advantage, and trust in government, and all political processes, fails. These are the conditions that allows mistrust to fester, nourishment for conspiracy and the boiling anger that leads to civil unrest.
We have become desensitised and dishonesty is normalised. We are paralysed by the inability of institutions and governments to self-regulate, and overwhelmed by the sheer weight of reports of corruption and the inadequate response of under-resourced independent journalists, anti-corruption organisations and parliamentary oversight bodies.
No government is comfortable with close scrutiny, and no one seeking or serving in public office is immune to the risk of corruption. But without a strong accountability framework to identify and manage the risks, to support the integrity of individuals and parties and act as a disincentive, the pressures of the relentless campaign drive are too great.
The cost of corruption here has been estimated by The Australia Institute at around 4 per cent of GDP, or $72.3 billion each year. It robs our children of the promise of a bright future as funds meant for their protection and their advancement are spent on entrenching the grip of incumbents on power.
In resisting any form of national anti-corruption commission before the end of 2018, the federal government boldly asserted that there was no need for such a commission because there was no corruption in the federal sphere. This was evidently false. It conveniently ignored the reports of law enforcement and integrity agencies and the regular survey of the public service reporting the observation of high levels of corruption including cronyism, the subversion of procurement protocols, concealment of mismanagement and the destruction of public records. It is inconceivable that the current government would not be braying for blood if they were in opposition.
Having been compelled to commit to an anti-corruption commission by cross-benchers who held the balance of power at the time, the government has stalled for nearly three years on this promise. Despite once describing himself as a staunch supporter of the WA Crime and Corruption Commission, the former Attorney General Christian Porter designed and supported the government’s weak commonwealth integrity model with deliberate and significant constraints on jurisdiction and powers, incapable of holding members of parliament and their staff to account. It has eked out this parliamentary term with half-hearted consultations designed to delay and tinker at the edges of its anaemic model. In this context it is pertinent to ask – what, or who, influenced him to change his mind.
Beyond the overdue integrity commission, accountability and the restoration of trust is also maintained by robust parliamentary procedures and powers of investigation, scrutiny and reporting; ethical standards and codes that cover the conduct of all involved, elected and unelected; by knowledge, including the right to open operations and access to information concerning government decisions, dealings and contractual arrangements; by fair and transparent procurement processes; the protection of whistle blowers; the integrity of markets; and constraints upon sovereign risk.
Accountability depends utterly upon trust, when sources of funding and conflicts of interest are disclosed, when the conflicted take all steps necessary to exclude themselves from influencing outcomes. When we see a strong independent press committed to accurate reporting. When there is reliable recording and archiving of that record, and open access to it. And when there are strong risk-management practices that involve the continuous review of existing and emerging threats of corruption and their consequences, including favouritism and nepotism, serious conflicts of interest, and misuse of entitlements.
Fundamentally, accountability hinges upon truth—be it a truthful telling of facts governments would prefer to whitewash and ignore, or a reckoning that tackles political deceit and voter manipulation.
Above all accountability is dependent upon the preparedness of the governed to insist that public office is undertaken as an exercise of public trust and the solemn promise of those appointed to conduct themselves with honesty and always in the public interest.
Fiona McLeod AO SC is a senior counsel and the chair of the Accountability Round Table. She is a former President of the Law Council of Australia and was a Labor candidate in 2019. Her book Easy Lies and Influence is available from Monash University Publishing.