Ex-politicians who go over to the enemy 

May 9, 2023
Concept of businessman, official, politician, career advancement

It has been only in recent times that we have had former prime ministers taking up positions in foreign countries, even working for foreign governments. It ought to be regarded as deeply shameful, and more than somewhat disloyal. If our public stewards cannot be trusted to do the right thing, it becomes necessary to control them by law.

A quarter of a century ago, the father of Australian asylum seeker detention, Gerry Hand, was most irate when I suggested that his post-parliamentary career of lobbying the Australian government on behalf of Indonesian interests presented an unattractive picture. Of himself, and of former Labor ministers, and perhaps ministers generally. It was more unattractive given that the cause he was lobbying was a casino on Christmas Island, and that he was representing members of the then ruling Suharto family – ever known for mixing their own private business interests with their government’s.

Didn’t a fellow have a right to make a quid after politics? Hand asked aggressively. Why was everyone picking on him? Why did we not criticise some of his former colleagues – he named several including John Button and Bob Hawke – and if I remember correctly, Paul Keating and Ros Kelly – who, he said were in business with foreign partners without much being criticised. Why were people picking on him?

A fellow does have a right to make a quid after being in politics. But why do so many seem to think that the ideal business to go into is the business of influencing former colleagues, using the access their former public service has given them to those who make decisions, and their own close knowledge and experience of the practical ways of pulling the levers of executive government on behalf of paying clients. These clients are usually seeking a favour, a privilege or the exercise of a discretion. The other cases looked unattractive too. But of each of them, it might be said that the former minister, or prime minister, might be trading off their reputation, but was not usually directly lobbying the Australian government for favours, whether on their own behalf or others, including foreign clients. Hand was also lobbying decision makers in the department of Aboriginal affairs, of which he had once been minister, on behalf of an Aboriginal organisation. And for more than a token fee. And he was a registered immigration agent, making representations to his old department on behalf of clients, for a fee.

I do not want to pick on Gerry Hand, because there are many politicians of the current age whose lobbying activities are far more objectionable. I have previously criticised politicians, on both sides of the house, for going into lobbying or into businesses depending on inside knowledge, favours from government and the prostitution of their reputations and access to decision makers. I even knew of folk, such as David Combe, who tended to think that their years of long service to their party, at relatively low rates of pay, entitled them, later, to make a killing from lobbying the party on behalf of rich unworthy clients. But I had not heard before someone who suggested that his going into the field was in some sort of pursuit of the exercise of the human “right” of any citizen to “make a quid” from what he knew or had done, once he was unemployed and beyond political ambition. After all, he was no longer drawing a parliamentary salary. And while some politicians go at about retiring age, many, like him, were still reasonably young – 55 say – when they departed or were thrown out. So, it is hardly a surprise that many would be looking for work and income after being in politics.

Hand served four terms in parliament – six years as a cabinet minister – and was up for a generous parliamentary pension. His annual parliamentary salary, even as a backbencher, was higher than anything he had ever earned before politics, and I suspect his pension would have been too. Any post-political income would have been in addition to that pension and made his life more comfortable. He would hardly have starved without it. And this champion and leader of the Left could have filled a thousand jobs in the private sector with honour without having the need to prostitute his background.

The idea of Morrison advising British defence interests ought to be unthinkable.

This week the Sydney Morning Herald suggested that former Prime Minister Scott Morrison was looking for a job with a British defence company in Britain, perhaps from the middle of the year. If so, he will be, without a doubt, in defence of the AUKUS dollar, like several of his former colleagues already with their snouts deep in this trough. Christopher Pyne, a former Minister for Defence, has been shameless about the way that he has gathered top defence figures, from here and abroad, into a business to lobby the Australian government on behalf of defence equipment makers but also to provide consultancy services offering allegedly disinterested defence advice to all comers. No doubt, as with big consultancy companies used to playing the Harlot of Kew, he will soon have Chinese walls and separate units, not speaking to each other, advising government about what they need, lobbying to have it made a high priority matter, arranging the tender process on behalf of government, resolving who won the tender, and then writing “independent” reports about the efficiency and effectiveness of the new operation. A few retired generals, air marshals and admirals, of various nations since we are all on the same side — will be there to launder the process and hire out their reputations and their former honour certifying that everything has been above board. Also on the gravy train is Joe Hockey, former Treasurer and former Ambassador to the US, equally determined to make a very big quid from his background and contacts in the US defence establishment. Brendan Nelson, another former Defence minister, and the late Andrew Peacock, a former foreign minister and Ambassador profited by representing foreign armament manufacturers seeking to influence Australian policy to their own advantage.

I would be very surprised if we did not soon have a further array of former coalition operators, such as former US Ambassador Arthur Sinodinos, former High Commissioner to Britain George Brandis, former foreign minister Julie Bishop, and, when they get out of politics sooner rather than later, former foreign minister Marise Payne (who was not inside the magic circle briefed about the AUKUS negotiations) and Linda Reynolds (ditto), lined up to offer their “expertise” to would-be submarine makers, US and British defence contractors, and people inside the defence industrial complex in Australia, the US and Britain. They will mostly treat all these the same, even though one side is buying from another, and even those “advising the buyers” (invariably us) will have mixed interests in the profits that the provider companies, and their sovereign states, are making.

These promiscuous politicians will be ably assisted by battalions, squadrons and fleets of retired senior officers from the services of the AUKUS countries – each undiscriminatingly offering to advise any of the partner nations – or all three at once – about what their national interests require. And able to advise, for their personal profit and their paymaster’s how much money can be liberated from the “mug” – almost invariably Australia – in the process. None of them will be there to promote Australia’s interests. They will be there to promote their own, and those of their clients who are seeking money from the Australian taxpayer. Even where, or if, those interests might be said to coincide – for example over the desirability of some sort of equipment – the interests will still be divergent, because the former insiders will be trying to extract the highest possible price from their old mates, and the Australian taxpayer. In some cases, those who have been negotiating on the government’s behalf will retire and be soon after offered places on the other side of the table.

It should be noted that the military part of this system comes from a common military culture and may not see the serious compromises with honour and duty if they, in retirement, seek military and financial advantage from the native land they proclaim to love so much.

The test of conflict of interest does not come – or ought to not come – from the views of continuing offenders, like the military, or the example of public servants and politicians. It comes from how the behaviour and the conduct would be viewed by ordinary well-informed members of the public. This is not the so-called pub test – the populist opinion of drunks at the RSL club or the officers’ mess, though one might get closer to an approximation from a seminar of 25-year-olds. The right approach to the behaviour and duties of public stewardship would be to imagine explaining decisions and actions to a somewhat hostile estimates committee. The focus should be on conflict of duty.

Before the subs saga is over, consultants will have made $40 billion.

AUKUS has been cleverly constructed by successive governments so that the eye-watering sums of money to be paid will not be pouring out of the Treasury until the next decade. But much of the money in question will have been committed by then. The rent seekers, urgers, spivs and touts will generally have extracted their commissions up front. Before the decade is out, this contingent of former ministers, lobbyists and military gamekeepers turned foxes, will have cost Australia more than a billion dollars more than the British and American manufacturers will be set to ultimately receive. After 2030 it should increase annually so that over the next 20 years should see about $40 billion in loot being divvied up among the den of thieves at the temple.

Only a small fraction of this money will find itself in the hands of any person who has ever voted Labor. But in due course a host of former Labor ministers, minders and former Labor insiders will also be clamouring for a place at the trough. In the common cause – gouging Australian taxpayers – those who were first in line will probably make space. There’ll be plenty for all. Experience shows that old Labor people are no more squeamish than their coalition counterparts.

At the many cocktail parties where those in the joke mingle with Labor Party types, will be former and present governors-generals, defence and service chiefs, as well as departmental officials, foreign equipment makers, and an enormous quantity of rent seekers from the defence and security lobbies. They will all greet each other warmly because they are all in the joke. Which is, of course, on us.

The idea that Anthony Albanese, his ministers, and their political advisers, have the calibre, understanding, will or guts to stop the steamroller is almost as big a joke. So is the idea that the minister for defence, Richard Marles, is in charge or really knows what is happening. Indeed, Albanese has so arranged things that he himself sees all developments through the eyes of people chosen for seeing things much the same way as Scott Morrison.

Almost everyone who has gone over to the other side into industry can insist that they have complied with the letter of the law, or the guidelines, about “post-separation” employment. They will say that they have not been involved in matters directly touching their former political or bureaucratic duties for 18 months, or for some, a year. They can say that during the intervening period of association with the other side, they will have been working only on general projects associated with their old field of operations or expertise. They can say that their former intimate knowledge of personalities, priorities and programs is now stale. While they will retain (and have renewed) their top-secret access to the nation’s secrets, they can say that they would never misuse their inside knowledge or put it to the disadvantage of their own country. Public servants can be found to say that not taking them at their word would be unrealistic.

The problem with such formula statements, now to be found in ministerial codes, public service statements of ethical duty and military guidelines is that these are no longer fit for purpose. Particularly when long-term planning and procurement is concerned. Decisions made by people inside the defence magic circle prevail for decades. One might, in time, lose intimate knowledge of some of the personalities and actors. But the systems and processes last for decades, and those who have been insiders to them are in a continuing position to profit. Those who participate in purchasing and tender positions see the relevant equipment in use for decades. If their advice has been affected by an eye to a post-separation job, the gratitude of those involved may well be there for a lifetime. Likewise, the latitude of those inside government for contractors whose products are late and of lesser quality than expected is something that can be measured, and in millions of dollars. The gratitude of those given grace and favour, and extensions, might well turn a head. Experience has shown that one cannot simply rely on the sense of honour and duty, or the basic honesty of the players.

We need a Pyne clause with lifetime bans preventing ex-ministers, officials and military officers from working against our defence interests. It’s amazing that we need to say it.

I personally think that ministers and senior defence officials should be completely banned from accepting jobs after their political, bureaucratic or military careers are over, from businesses foreign and domestic seeking to make a profit from their dealings with government. This would not preclude former officials from continuing public service, for example on boards, providing consultancy advice directly to government, being involved with inquiries or in diplomatic representation. The critical difference is that Australia is then the client, not some business (which in defence industry is almost always a foreign business) or personal profit. It ought to be a small sacrifice to make, given the range of jobs available outside the business of influencing government or being directly engaged in the provision of goods and services to government in the defence area. No doubt such a rule would infuriate those who have imagined a host of comfy jobs alongside old comrades during their retirement years, but it is the hope and expectation of those which poses serious risks to good defence, to good defence policy, and to good defence administration. We already forbid some of our intelligence officials from ever travelling to potentially hostile countries (at least without formal permission) and I have not heard this called a terrible infringement on their rights.

I would enforce the rule with brutality with former ministers. Christopher Pyne has been out of government (if not politics) for more than three years. He had no personal role whatever in the AUKUS process, although he had a brief role (not a particularly successful one) in the promotion of South Australia, his home state, as a defence manufacturing centre. The Australian administration is now a Labor one, not a coalition one. By the inadequate rules of today, he cannot be said to be “conflicted” or to be using insider knowledge.

But anyone who sees how obviously and indecently he is profiting from his political career in his lobbying and consultancy business would understand why I would call the new, higher, standard, the Pyne rule. I am not suggesting that he is doing anything corrupt, or by the present rules, dishonest. But I think it deeply unseemly that former national leaders can put themselves in a position where they can monetise their insider knowledge, their background, and contacts within the system in circumstances which could work to their nation’s disadvantage. Or, through hiring others with similar experience, often in other nations, have ready access to the defence thinking and procurement of our principal allies.

Once, perhaps, one could trust the basic integrity of senior politicians and officials. Most do have such integrity. But we now have politicians and officials, even at the top, who can rationalise and conceal any misconduct or lapse from old standards. Until recently Australian prime ministers had more sense than to get into such situations. It has been only in recent times that we have had former prime ministers taking up positions in foreign countries, even working for foreign governments. It ought to be regarded as deeply shameful, and more than somewhat disloyal. If our public stewards cannot be trusted to do the right thing, it becomes necessary to control them by law.

For more on this topic, we recommend:

Best of 2022: The major parties refuse to tackle the lobbying scourge. Can the Teals and the Greens save the day?

Share and Enjoy !

Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter
Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter


Thank you for subscribing!