Governments, labor or liberal should get the boot after two or three terms

Mar 23, 2022
Australian election booths
Voters at the polling booths. Image: Wikimedia Commons
The AFP has never once in its history launched a prosecution that was inconvenient to the government of the day.

Voters at state elections tend to deal with the problem of increased corruption and complacency in administration by throwing the bastards out every two or three elections. By then, anyway, most government have run out of ideas.

Those thrown out – some scarred by seriously adverse ICAC reports – are chastened by the kicking they have received. They devote some time to internal reform and winning back the public’s trust. Meanwhile, a new government is often squeaky clean. But then it becomes faced with the classic dilemmas of choosing between unpalatable alternatives, rationing of limited resources, and management of bad news and bad luck. And the vagaries of some of the players, including party officials, ministers, backbenchers and cops.

State and territory administrations are service-oriented, and voters are quick to notice shortcomings in hospital and health care delivery, public education, community services and public safety, quite apart from the difficulties caused by the management of unexpected events, such as Covid pandemics, floods, fires and earthquakes. The mood about the new broom changes, the attitude to the old rascals mellows.

The Commonwealth was once regarded as being somewhat different. It thought it had purer and more visible administration of services, and (according to its own judgment, without actual evidence) better, better educated and more honest and diligent senior officials. These people judged that corruption among their kind would be rare and easy to detect. Not like the corruptions of property development, grog, gambling and tender allocation at state and local government level.

If that was ever true, and it may have been, given strict controls of old, it no longer is. The Commonwealth government is exposed to high risk from its cavalier attitude to accountability in public spending by ministers, from the prime minister down. The risk is accentuated by his, and his government’s compulsive secrecy. The resources, and the power of public accountability mechanisms such as the Auditor-General role, the Ombudsman, and FOI have been deliberately diminished, and so dishonesty, maladministration or incompetence is less evident. Some senior public service leaders fail in their responsibilities to the public interest by fairly obvious partisanship, by active involvement in cover-up and by failing to act on abuse of power.

Anti-corruption legislation, including the creation of a competent integrity commission and more powerful public watchdogs, may arrest some of the rot. But it will have its work cut out.

A reforming government will get little real assistance from the AFP, or the many agencies with fingers and powers in the law enforcement, security and intelligence pie. The problem will not be one of failing to recognise the change of government: indeed, the AFP will serve a Labor government with all the servility, insider favours, advance information and compromised decision-making as when it served the last three coalition administrations and before that, the last two Labor ones. They know all about managing ministers, and the likely uber-minister over the law enforcement, Mark Dreyfus, was once one of the most house-trained of all.

But the AFP has no tradition of acting independently, or of own-motion investigations into systemic corruption at the Commonwealth level. Its work is in no way analogous to that of the American Federal Bureau of Investigation or British police inspectorates, which are proactive.

An ALP Government will lack the guts to work on reform of the AFP

In many of its fields of operation, AFP “outputs” cannot be readily compared with the work of other agencies, such as state police forces. But there are good reasons for suspecting that its work is by no means as good, or as professional, as its very well-funded public–relations machinery would suggest. The AFP has operated for 44 years without a serious independent external review. Its leadership and management ethos has in recent years become inbred and resistant to change. It operates more as a department of government than as an independent agency.

It has never once in its history launched a prosecution that was inconvenient to the government of the day. Many of its debacles, such as massive police raids on the AWU, and its work for the Heydon royal commission — both hugely unsuccessful — are now being quietly swept under the carpet in anticipation of a change of government.

Most likely Labor, if elected, will fall eagerly and uncritically into its arms, figuring, in the words of Lyndon Johnson, that it would rather have them in the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in. Down the track, indeed, the likely style of management of some of the new Labor barons will be money for jam for the new Integrity Commission, just as a genuinely independent and more competent AFP would be a constant thorn in its side. Tame and safe is better for the party, if not the state.

I expect that Labor will create a serviceable Integrity Commission. I hope it is well separated, including in personnel, from the very flawed and not-noticeably-successful or credible law enforcement integrity commission. But I do not expect an immediate improvement in the quality or integrity of government from the day it begins operations.

Before that happens there needs to be major change in the public service, and, probably in controls over the very large, and very powerful law enforcement and security establishment, including Border Force.

But I am quite certain in my mind that an Albanese government, perhaps particularly one constrained by a hostile senate, will provide better and more honest administration than the nation is currently getting. At least while it is young and keen. A return of the Morrison government would be interpreted by the coalition as an endorsement of what we have had, and an invitation for even less in the way of public morality, and proper stewardship of public resources. It would probably result in even more of a giveaway of public money to private hands, without any controls.

I’m not expecting all that much from a Labor leader who has shown himself very timid in putting forward policy which differentiates himself, or his ministers, from the coalition, and little in the way of vision or reform. It is hard to ignore signs that in many respects Labor, like the coalition, thinks it is business as usual in relation to rorting grant schemes to provide incentives to voters in marginal seats to stay with, or switch to Labor.

That the coalition, with its record, has little to complain about – though of course it does complain, loudly – is neither here nor there. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Labor promising programs to deal with problems in an electorate, so long as it is understood that the money, when available by ministerial direction as to the scheme involved, will be distributed on the basis of need, by process, and with accountability requirements, rather than pure and unaccountable discretion.

Most likely, if the record of new incoming governments is any guide, there will be a fetish about fulfilling election promises that will give the ticking off of such matters a priority out of all proportion to their real importance or the duties and functions of ordinary government. It is that double-barrelled effect – of devoting too much time to minor programs, often as an exercise in patronage or payback for favours, while neglecting the main job that ends up creating the running sores of poor management, the cover-ups, and the resistance of accountability.


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