Although the activities of politicians from minor parties and independents should fall under integrity legislation, we should mostly be grateful that they contain more enthusiasts for a tough and expansive system than within the government.
Ministers and government backbenchers are all too familiar with systemic corruption within their own ranks, and with the inevitability that some of their colleagues will be caught out. Some will never recognise the impropriety of handing out jobs or contracts to mates. There will be others who, like John Barilaro in NSW, have a strong sense of entitlement about government appointments in their post-political career. Others on both sides of politics have no sense of shame about leaving public office and immediately selling for their personal private gain their contacts in politics, deep understanding of the thinking of particular players, and continuing entree into the system of organising the spending of public money.
Codes of conduct or appeals to honour appear to be almost useless in themselves in the modern day, except as standards an ethics commission might refer to in considering particular conduct. Likewise, prime ministerial standards, however lofty, have proven inadequate because few modern prime ministers have shown themselves willing to enforce them. Nor have recent examples of where the propriety of conduct has been referred to an outside, independent, or departmental official. First, even public servants have shown little instinct for independent investigations: the department of finance, for example, referred one case to a law firm of which the person whose conduct was in question had once been a partner. In some cases, there has not even been the appearance of independence, and sometimes people asked to give judgment have shown a marked preference for the political convenience of the government, rather than a detached and prompt investigation.
Labor wants an integrity commission, and they want the legislation in place by Christmas. But some dreading the prospect of such a commission in operation are keen to be devoting more time to ruling matters out of the purview of the commission, as well as claiming that no (or no convincing) case has been made for extending the legislation to cover a particular class of conduct. The public, and the Greens and Teals, should be wary of such grand pronouncements, whether they come from ministers or from the bureaucracy. Not a few public servants not long ago were arguing passionately (and from personal conviction) against any anti-corruption machinery at all, or insisting that, if there had to be one, there was no need for it to be conducted in public, or with a wide ambit, or with any real powers. It is sometimes forgotten that one of the primary reasons why the law enforcement integrity framework is weak, timid, and little known is because that was what was intended by all concerned, other than the public at large. It is hardly a surprise that this was the model put forward by officials for an integrity commission covering bureaucrats and politicians.
The present leader of the opposition, Peter Dutton, was one, under Morrison who denied that there was anything wrong with ministers interfering with bureaucratic allocation of grants to organisations. Apparently worthy causes were hijacked for partisan purposes, used for doling out money to mates and eccentric causes, including fringe religious organisations, with merit and process thrown out the window. The law was breached, and officials such as the Auditor-General protested. The department of finance failed in one of its primary duties. The prime minister, himself a key player in the rorts, dismissed any objection. It is now plain, if ever it wasn’t, that anti-corruption bodies regard such rorting as improper and corrupt. Soon NSW ICAC will be coming down with a report on money thrown at a by-election by then Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, but we know what the commissioner is thinking. It’s the sensible and correct view.
Those who won’t be good of their own volition should expect they will be caught and exposed. And punished.
We have also had adverse reports on attempts, for private gain, to influence a council rezoning by a NSW MP. Three ministers in a former Labor government are soon to face the criminal courts over allegations of improper behaviour in allocating leases. There have been investigations into lobbying activities, and the close connections between party donations and government outsourcing decisions. In Queensland we have seen lobbyists working with governments during election campaigns, even as they have retained clients seeking to influence the same government in the getting of favours and contracts. There have been cases where senior officials seem to have placed the political interests of the government well ahead of the public interest and the law, particularly in relation to disclosure under the FOI Act.
And on both sides of politics, parties have received big donations in papers bags, often, via a circuitous route, from developers and others not supposed to be allowed to donate. Political parties actively manipulate laws they have themselves drawn up to circumvent rules about maximum donations, public disclosure, and forbidden classes of donor. The alcohol and gaming industries have undue power and access in the halls of government.
The calls for greater accountability, for controls over lobbying activities, for tighter control over donations and election funds, and the activities of political staff are not the consequence of a fad or a scandal overseas. They reflect increasing public discontent over the proclaimed standards, as well as the practical example, of politicians at all levels. The sense that there has been a deterioration of standards, and actual corruption, has been accentuated by the extension of the private into public space by contracting out, privatisation, far more government by discretion rather than rules, and, during the pandemic in particular, massive handouts with virtually no accountability. Rules and conventions have been discarded, old institutional restraints weakened, and some of those who should have stood against abuse have been politicised, defunded, or reduced. The new crop of independents should be foremost in setting the rules. They have cred Labor can never hope to have. Much better than a convocation of the insiders and the sinners determining the least they can get away with.
Many Australians have a healthy suspicion of politicians and bureaucrats and those who exercise public power. They are often cynical about the purity of motives and inclined to think “they are in it mostly for themselves.” Such feelings have often seemed justified as politicians have eschewed moral leadership and good example and are obvious hypocrites in relation to their proclaimed values and beliefs. The murky activities of parties, and some of what were once described as factional Daleks also undermines a sense of government working to achieve the best for the most.
That said, many politicians have earned a grudging respect and admiration when they stand for and seem to do the right thing. When they listen and when they explain. When they appeal to the best in the community and promote unity rather than division. When they appreciate that political service is public service, and that power involves privilege, duty and obligation, not immunity, licence and personal advantage.