JACK WATERFORD. Are our leaders morally fit for purpose?

Jan 28, 2020

Sports rorts, scandals, climate inaction and contempt for public interest show a robber mentality.  

Australia Day 2020 is not a day for Australians to celebrate. It is not a time for recognising the better elements of Australian character or the quiet satisfaction of Scott Morrison’s quiet or silent citizens. It is a time, rather,  for asking ourselves how it is that we have created a political class which is apparently morally, intellectually  or practically unfit to govern, yet which continues to do so confident that it is beyond any check or accountability from a system they have thoroughly corrupted.

One could see it in the past week as minister after minister, from the prime minister down, declared that the deputy Nationals leader, Bridget McKenzie had done nothing wrong, or nothing illegal, or nothing that previous Labor ministers had not done in using $100 million of taxpayers money in a deeply corrupt distribution of money around marginal coalition electorates the government was anxious to shore up, or marginal Labor or Independent electorates that the coalition hoped to win. Along the way, various ministers, from the prime minister down, seemed to be given slush funds for their pet projects, and one former prime minister in trouble, Tony Abbott, was able to claim credit for a $500,000 grant to the very well-heeled Mosman rowing club. Indeed, Senator McKenzie saw fit to give money to a shooting organisation of which she was a member.

But it is not merely a matter of moral indifference to the systemic abuse of taxpayers by turning a grant scheme into an electoral war chest. This is a government seemingly indifferent to regular evidences of systemic abuses of power – whether with allegations of forging documents so as to make a (false) partisan point, the tactical leaking of documents claimed to be secret when it suits, at just the same time journalists and others disclosing inconvenient facts face criminal charges, and evidence of favouritism, cronyism and inside runs for friends and relations of the government.  And just as significant – put in sharp relief by the extraordinary damage and loss of life from bushfires is the government’s appalling negligence in its climate change policies. Scott Morrison, apparently, knows much more than Australian and international climate scientists, almost all of whom assert that his policies are inadequate. And, from a well-deserved reputation for actively sabotaging international efforts to get collective action, the ferocity of the bushfires has drawn international attention to Australia, its leadership and its minimal and coal-friendly approach to emissions control.

A good many Australians have long heard the noise about the need for climate change action, even if they have not necessarily closely understood the policy alternatives, or their pluses and deficits. But the significance of the Christmas and New Year bushfires may prove to be not so much the prime minister’s seriously inept response to the mood of the victims. It was in the fact that for many people this was the moment when the penny dropped. No number of daily announcements, deployments, distractions, embarrassing encounters with victims or bluster seems to be getting around the fact that Morrison is resisting any additional efforts against emissions.

This has been a government which has long had problems in explaining just what it is doing, and where it wants to take us. It has been a government addicted to dissembling, ignoring the question, and deflecting accountability, sometimes with menaces.  Yet it narrowly held office in the middle of last year. Now what the public knows about it is that it is running its climate and environmental policies on conviction and minimal action, rather than evidence or any sense of urgency. It is showing itself deeply resistant to accountability, particularly with growing suggestions of a serious corruption problem, most recently voiced by an array of former senior judges. And it is showing itself indifferent to evidence of abuse of power by some ministers, blatant illegality by others, and fairly open stealing from the taxpayer.  That the rorting mentality, and the reliance on an age of entitlement, is now deeply ingrained can be seen from the way that former ministers, such as Christopher Pyne and Julia Bishop, are exploiting their former proximity to power and that two former politicians turned public officials, Brendan Nelson and Joe Hockey are in the process of doing so. Honestly, if we were to have a royal commission into integrity in government, one of the terms of reference would have to be establishing whether any ministers, or former ministers, have not been in it primarily for their own self-interest.

The question is whether Morrison, and his team, are taking the public too much for granted. It is by no means primarily a partisan question – inviting a conclusion that a Labor prime minister and government would be better. Labor too is showing signs of a growing distance from voters, a corrupted and undemocratic organisation and philosophy of incumbency, and a gun-shy unwillingness to do only so much of the “right thing” as the polling traffic will allow. It seems particularly timid about taking the argument to the public – a reason that most of the coalition’s problems have emerged from the media or the system rather than effective or questioning opposition.

Sports rorts is still the most interesting, if only because it is clearly wrong, and plainly an abuse of power.

One does not need to dwell on elaborate details of the scheme – or rort. It started off as a good idea, to give local community sports organisations, and local government grants for developing or improving facilities that would help their communities. Eligible groups often spent hundreds of hours drawing up proposals to meet the requirements and criteria by which the Australian Sports Commission said the money would be distributed in a merit process. The commission did assess the proposals, and established a merit list. But the minister’s office wanted its personal touch – indeed wanted entirely to control the process. People in that office, and, it appears, Liberal apparatchiks and people in various ministers’ offices, established their own “merit lists” – not according to the published criteria but by which the minister thought the biggest political bang for the buck could be achieved in the coming elections.   The government, in short, appropriated the money to the Liberal and National Party war chest.

There has been absolutely no manifestation of shame by anyone involved, even if some anxious coalition observers have wondered whether the lightweight Senator McKenzie is actually up to the task of defending what occurred, or otherwise of advancing the interests of the government. Indeed some ministers, in attempting to defend the indefensible have pointed out that sporting clubs in marginal Labor electorates did somewhat better than might have been expected on a pro rata distribution, with the weak implication that this somehow made up for any impropriety.  Where, in fact, the money was being spent in a Labor electorate, Liberal candidates were claiming that this was because of their attention to the needs of voters.

As the political (if not the moral) problem posed by the barefaced rorting continued during the week, two inquiries were announced, even if, as it developed, there was less to either than met the eye. Attorney-General Christian Porter created the impression that he was going to run his eye over the legalities: it turned out that he was going to seek legal advice from the solicitor-general about whether the minister had the right to make the decision, when the relevant legislation, as the  Auditor General had inconveniently pointed out, suggested that assessment and decision making were in the hands of the sports commission. There have been other arguable suggestions that a grant for sporting facilities is beyond Commonwealth constitutional legislative or executive power. I am not so sure of this, but it is certainly an arguable proposition, given the High Court’s opinions in the school chaplains cases, the Australian Assistance Plan of 1975, and the general mess past courts have made of the language of appropriation legislation.

Perhaps however, nothing much will end up turning on it. It is almost unimaginable that the government would seek to retrieve money from council or community groups even if it proved that either the minister, or the government generally, did not have the power to hand out the money, whether under a merit system, as was pretended, or a completely discretionary payout, as in fact happened. About 75% of decisions had not been recommended. These clubs are not unemployed people to be monstered by Centrelink, or the higher powers and machine-based heartlessness of government social security policy.  Indeed, it seems that a number of the beneficiary clubs have special links with ministers.

There was a time when Law Officers of the Crown, including the Attorney-General as much as the Solicitor-General, stood somewhat at a distance from ministers and the Cabinet when responding to requests for legal advice. They gave detached opinions, based on their best analysis of the state of the law. They did not bend their views to favour the political interests of particular ministers.  In more recent years, some solicitors-general, or attorneys-general have seen themselves rather more as the government’s general legal adviser, focused on promoting views that suit the political interests of the government, or in developing strategies by which dicey propositions can be steered through.

No one could doubt the ability or the independence of the Solicitor-General, but in offering his advice he will have to take on board the fact that Christian Porter has already volunteered his view that there was nothing wrong or illegal about using government funds for such partisan purposes. He must also steer his way around the fact that Porter himself appears to see nothing wrong with using his own powers – say of appointing members of the Administrative Appeals Tribunals – to promote Liberal party mates and cronies, including a number manifestly lacking the skills for doing the job. Porter, moreover, has been devoting a good deal of his recent ministerial time to advancing the proposition that there need not be an integrity commission of any powers, because there is not much corruption around, but, if we must have one, it should be secretive, focused only on obvious criminality, and report only to the office of the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions, a body simply incapable of advancing anything but a completely rolled-up brief, and even then, quite capable of shucking the task.

In a second inquiry, Phil Gaetjens, the secretary of prime ministers and the de facto head of the public service, will examine whether McKenzie, or anyone else breached ministerial guidelines in dealing with the money. As with most cases in which active public servants are invited to publicly opine on the wisdom or legality of the acts of politicians, his report, when forwarded, will tell the world more about himself, and how he sees his role, than it will about proper or desirable practice in the public service. Gaetjens, though of public service background, is a former chief of staff to Scott Morrison, and his past role has extended well beyond back-up and into the clear world of political strategy and practice.

It would be far better for his, and Morrison’s credibility, if the government had a committee of the great and good – former senior public servants, diplomats, captains of industry, archbishops etc – to give reports on propriety and adherence to process. It’s how Menzies did it. And Malcolm Fraser. And Bob Hawke. And John Howard. The reports may or may not be contested, but, usually, the report maker is not attacked on “well, he would say that” grounds.

The guidelines for ministerial conduct, which I quoted last week, place a big emphasis on integrity, fairness and public interest, as well as the lawful and “disinterested” exercise of power. It requires taking proper account of the merit of the matter and due consideration to the rights and interests of the people involved. It will be interesting to see if Gaetjens can fashion a rationalisation exonerating the minister, and others involved, including the prime minister, of actual misconduct in their approach to sports rorts. Any casual remarks making reference to the involvement in the decision making, or in representations to the decision-makers, of ministers, including the prime minister, will be carefully studied. And any rationalisation which suggests that the apportionment of public money by ministers or departments can be almost at whim, regardless of any merits, will be disastrous to the government’s long-term reputation.  It may also have a significant impact on government’s relationship with the business sector, and that general confidence in steady economic and political management which is essential to the credibility and clout of an administration.

The alternative to process and principles are lurches from one direction to another, ad hoc policies responding to one crisis after another, serious political misjudgments that shatter confidence in leaders, and a lot of talk about the quality of leadership the government is, or is not getting.  Rather like we have at the moment. The curious thing is that such slapstick inevitably raises questions about alternatives, even when everyone understands how damaging such speculation is. Morrison can at least contemplate that none of his conservative opponents – such as Peter Dutton – have much in the way of moral or policy cred either.

Being down on our politicians is by no means being down on one’s country. In the past month we have seen some of the best from our community as it has rallied around victims of the bushfires, and against the bushfires themselves.  We have even seen state premiers and state public officials earn respect and admiration for the way they have carried out their tasks, as well as mobilising thousands of volunteers.  We can, if we like, take some pride in that – it is to be hoped without mass displays of super-patriotism and words of division from the usual suspects. There could even be extra words of inclusion for indigenous Australians – assuming heroically that anything much good happened for them in the past year, or is in prospect. But that might take leadership, and from someone whose very position, dignity and record deserved it. It is not presently on display.

Jack Waterford is a former Editor of The Canberra Times

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