The Gladys and Daryl Show. Having to squirm in open hearings acts as a disincentive to venality

Oct 20, 2020

If Gladys Berejiklian, and her ludicrous consort, have to take one for the team, let it not be for tiny misdemeanours but for being parties to a corrupted mindset of the spoils of public office.

One has only to look at the daily papers to see constant reminders of how the system is broke. There is a fresh scandal every other day. Beyond the Maguire (and Berejiklian) inquiry, or Hayne, we have seen in recent weeks a tribunal considering whether Crown Casino, and owners associated with it, such as James Packer, “are fit and proper people” to be allowed to operate in Sydney.

If the answer to the question is “no”, as increasingly appears likely, it will invite attention to its other casino licences. And It will almost certainly invite further attention to the bullying and, at times physically threatening behaviour of Packer, and the obsequious way in which he and his family have been treated by government over the years. The genuflection to the family, or to the Murdochs, has not been for affection, or an idea that they are great Australians worthy of state funerals. Beyond the kowtowing, moreover, has been the cover given Packer by his board and chief executives, and to the manner in which he was given permission to build a monstrous phallic hotel-casino (supposedly just for international “whales”, including Chinese) by one of Berejiklian’s predecessors, Barry O’Farrell.

The inquiry has looked at appalling breaches of duty by Crown in relation to money laundering and Chinese political corruption, and relations with organised crime — as well as indications of cosy and improper relationships with immigration officials. Some board members — many with distinguished backgrounds in politics, business, sport and the bureaucracy are being closely and uncomfortably cross-examined about concepts of board duties to shareholders.

The Crown casino inquiry is yet another case showing the many intersections between business and politics. The Packer dynasty was long given to speaking about the benefits of capitalism, free markets and competition where it suited them — chiefly to argue for less regulation and lower taxes. In fact the Packer empire did not prosper because of competition and open markets, but from government-granted monopolies over television and gambling. These, for years, guaranteed big profits by restricting the right of others to compete. So as to maintain these monopolies, Packer has long sustained a vast conga-line of former politicians from both sides for the purpose of lobbying and strong-arming the political parties. This has created a career path for a host of former secretaries of the Labor Party, such as Carl Bitar and Mark Arbib. After short service to the cause of the working man, they have  prostituted the influence and contacts they built up to the cause of  exploiting problem gamblers and making James Packer even richer. That they readily get the access and influence they ask for, in spite of the open distaste of many party members, is itself a testament to Labor’s own moral standards.

While I think that the slippage of standards is across the board, politics might well be leading the charge. Standards of ministerial responsibility — and the range of sackable offences — have fallen sharply. This is rather more because prime ministers will simply not enforce the standards than because the language describing the standards has become less strict. Words have replaced deeds.

Prime ministers set the standard not only by who they sack and why, but by their own conduct. Morrison’s shameful conduct in relation to the sports rorts affair has created a new low in standards of public accountability and proper stewardship of taxpayer money. So too with his habitual secrecy, resistance to being questioned, prevarication and bluster, and his politicisation of the public service.  A feature of that, of course, has been the willingness of some of these to provide him with political cover. Just this week, an “independent” review by a private law firm is said to have exonerated two Liberal backbenchers of alleged abuse of electoral staff, but, in line with a number of such recent “independent” inquiries, the review does not appear to have considered much evidence before coming to its verdict. The public is not to be allowed to see the report itself. If this report was commissioned by the Finance department, rather than the minister, departmental management are unworthy of being considered any sort of stewards of the public interest at all. Small wonder that the department, as much as the minister, are always resisting any sort of increase in the resources available to those, such as the Auditor-General, or the Ombudsman, who are supposed to be guardians of the public interest.

Labor’s standards, or lack of them, have also been on show with the Aldi bag affair — the $100,000 in cash from an impermissible donor, along with a fraudulent claim that it came from restaurant staff — is still the subject of an NSW ICAC inquiry that has yet to report. Labor has committed itself to some reforms of its campaign finance arrangements, but if history is any guide, party machines (Labor as well as Liberal) will devote as much attention to circumventing rules, especially ones seeking to limit the influence of developers. This has long been a bipartisan sport, as embarrassment to the National Country Party in Queensland in the past week, will attest.

It goes without saying that resistance to any sort of open and public corruption and integrity commission goes with the new ethical environment. A good many of the state scandals have federal dimensions — over, for example, several types of trafficking in immigration visas, whether by Daryl Maguire or Crown Casino, but if the celebrated and well-funded but very secretive and not very effective Law Enforcement Integrity Commission has cracked the federal end of these cases, neither our court system nor public reports have told us.  Nor has the Attorney-General Porter created any sort of framework by which the Director of Public Prosecutions could call for, or conduct investigations into alleged criminal conduct, particularly when, as will often be the case if an integrity commission is fair dinkum, the federal police are too compromised to be doing the work.

The case should also serve as a big wake-up call about the need to get serious about the snakes in the swamp. Experience is beginning to suggest that an auto de fe may not much move politicians, from Scott Morrison down. But if it begins to fuel serious public anger — and perhaps leads to salutary  defenestrations — the mood for action may become irresistible.

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