Labor lets its moral mandate wither away

Dec 20, 2022
Parliament House in Canberra, visitors in distance, clear blue sky

A bare six months after being elected, the Albanese government has surrendered almost all of the moral advantage it held over the public administration, and most of the moral advantage it held over the coalition.

It is too early to say that this sets a certain course for losing the next election, or the one after that. But the government now owns the systemic problems it has, and its capacity to blame things on the past government is much diminished, if only for inaction, narrow agendas, tick-a-box reforms and a failure to mobilise a public indignation that was there seven months ago, but which has been allowed to dissipate.

If this were simply a result of events, or bad luck, Labor’s position might seem the more pitiable because the previous government was a seriously bad government, in desperate need of being hurled out by the electorate. It had corrupted basic processes of good and honest government and made all too many senior public servants complicit in, or silent about, illegal and unconstitutional processes. There was the secretive and unaccountable transfer of billions in public money to friends, cronies of and donors to the coalition. It had openly spent public funds for pure partisan advantage without a peep of protest from officials in the most senior economic agencies of government, other than from the Auditor-General, a servant of the parliament rather than the government of the day. The Auditor’s extremely critical comments could not have been ignored without the silence of senior public servants, including some not popularly regarded as being political appointments chosen other than on merit. Apart from the Auditor-General, most of the watchdogs set up as checks and balances against tyrannical, overpowerful and secretive government appear to have been muzzled, or in some cases to have muzzled themselves. Everything bad that occurred was facilitated by senior public servants, almost all of whom are still in the same positions now. As things stand under the new, and mostly old, public service senior leaders, none have anything to fear for their manifest failures.

So bad was the Morrison government and its facilitation squad that we needed to do more than throw the bastards out. We needed a thorough clean-out, including of many of the public servants, mostly senior ones, who had badly let the public interest down. We needed new leadership. A restoration of established rules that had guided administrations under both parties for decades, including standard ones about proper financial and legal stewardship of public resources, and open, transparent and accountable decision-making.

Or, if it were to be argued (wrongly in my opinion) that circumstances had changed and required new systems of control and management of public resources, a process of deciding such rules that learnt from the catastrophic failures of the Morrison system of administration. In important ways, the success of the teal independents, from within ranks that had once strongly supported a right-of-centre government, reflected dismay at the lack of integrity and system in the coalition government. So did open attacks on the Morrison style by former Liberal ministers.

That the public appreciated it was clear from popular enthusiasm for a national independent commission against corruption, a tougher and more publicly accountable one than the Albanese government has adopted. Some Labor myth-making to the contrary, the proposal for such a commission did not begin with Labor, which was half-hearted on the subject until polls demonstrated that Green, independent, academic and media calls for such a system were popular. But popular discontent went beyond mere suggestions of corruption or failures of integrity.

An array of open and politically partisan rorts, particularly as managed through National Party ministers, kept close attention on the Morrison style of government, as did Morrison’s own shiftiness, secretive manner and failure to be straightforward. So did the outrageous placement of some government contracts without tender or competition, a partisan favouritism for NSW and open bias against Victoria in pandemic administration and the distribution of vaccines, the handing out of tens of billions to Australian businesses without making any arrangements for recovery of the money if it proved that the businesses had not been eligible. Or a government department’s purchase of land near the proposed new Sydney airport at about ten times the proper price. These, and many other examples made it clear that something was seriously awry. What was needed was a zeal for reform.

Morrison’s abandonment of honest government made it imperative that he lose office. But Labor has yet to show any great reforming enthusiasm, or higher ideals of public stewardship.

A cynic might remark that very few of these rorts and forms of misgovernment had been brought to light, or shown in their full horror, by Labor politicians. The public official who rendered the greatest service was the Auditor-General, Grant Hehir. Labor took his lead but seemed unable to take his findings much further, or even to anticipate where Hehir was going to strike next. Morrison resisted attacks by bluster, distraction, lying and the making of fine, often specious points about, in effect, the right of elected officials to spend money however they wanted. On such scandals Labor simply did not cut through, and it seemed sometimes, did not particularly want to because it did not fit easily into Albanese’s narrow, unobstructive, view of how he planned to win an election. Albanese won by letting Morrison display his own awfulness. Yet some Labor spokesmen were ever ready to give the impression that Labor appreciated that the Morrison style had gone way past making bad and political judgments and decisions that the electorate would not approve. Rather, they implied, the coalition had been abusing the rules in an impermissible way. Worse, it had no shame for its obvious transgressions, or intention to do better in future.

Australians are not unused to finding governments that have served their time, run out of ideas, or which have policies and programs no longer closely aligned with what the public wants or expects. The Hawke-Keating government ran its course and was tired and complacent by the time it was dismissed by the electorate. John Howard survived for a long period, but by the time he lost office in 2007, he seemed out of touch with public opinion on a host of matters, but particularly climate change – then (if briefly) described by Labor as the most important moral challenge of our time. He might be thought to have demonstrated his understanding that his time was up by embarking on an enormous spendathon – contrary to all his proclaimed virtues and instincts about financial prudence — in his last election campaign. It would always have been a brave man who would stand between John Howard and a re-election campaign, but however irresponsible Howard could be, one could always say that he was well schooled in the proprieties, constitutional practice and adherence with the law. By contrast, Morrison and many of his ministers, including legally trained ones, repeatedly treated the law, convention and custom as an obstacle to be skirted around, usually deceptively.

All the Australian states have endured corruption and public administration scandals that have seen incumbent governments trounced, sometimes to the point where only a small number of the former government scrape into opposition. It is assumed, including by the vanquished, that they will be out of office for many terms, at least until they have comprehensively reformed themselves, and thrown out all their bad apples. Labor in NSW has endured this on a number of occasions since the Wran years, but later scrabbled back into office. Sometimes it is by retrieval of virtue; in other cases, the replacement party has itself acquired the bad habits of the old, become complacent in and corrupted by power, and inclined to treat government as though they held it by freehold, rather than leasehold. It rather looks as if NSW Labor may be ready to take power again at the elections early this year, although some of its critics would argue that it is still so fundamentally corrupted by its relationship with clubs, pubs and the gaming industry that it is still not fit to take power, whatever the imperfections and tiredness of the Perrottet government.

Victoria, South Australia, Queensland and Western Australian governments have been thrown out in the past because of corruption or obvious incompetence, even if some states, Victoria and West Australia for example, provide demonstration that the electorate looks as closely at oppositions as governments for fitness to hold office. Long incumbency does not necessarily mean abuse of office, even in tough times, such as the pandemic, when mistakes abound.

A few inquiries are not enough to claim a momentum for change. The public forgets, and governments become focused on new problems.

The big problem for the Albanese government is that it has left it far too long to develop any sort of momentum about change, and about the urgent need for it. To be sure it has conducted several inquiries – into Morrison’s and the viceroy’s virtual coup on the state – and into the Robodebt fiasco, and, of course, it has by now enacted NACC legislation. Morrison has been censured by Parliament, though, significantly, the leader of the opposition dismissed the charges as being stunts and denied that they involve any fundamental principle of government. Morrison has also seemed the main target of the Robodebt inquiry, and has hardly covered himself in glory, if only because, for once, he was not able to bluster and avoid the question.

Morrison and other ministers richly deserve the criticism they will get for their political stewardship of Robodebt, and for the cruelty, insensitivity and illegality with which it was administered. Some seem to have suffered serious memory losses, or to have been too far above the action to have been witting of clear evidence that the scheme was fundamentally illegal. In some cases, this goes against evidence of brave whistle-blowers, often dismissed at senior levels as being somehow improperly sympathetic to beneficiaries. In other cases what has emerged seems to run contrary to repeated tales of a leadership structure ever micromanaging down, failing to listen or to consult, or keep the story straight. The many outsiders, or public servants from unrelated departments, who have professed shock and horror at the public service leadership involved, would do well to acknowledge that all the facts were always well known. Just as with maltreatment of refugees at Manus and Nauru and epic mismanagement of Home Affairs budgets, people, including Labor leaders were mostly looking the other way. That’s because it has not and still does not suit Labor to show any compassion to refugees, or, for that matter, doubts about the character and predilections of Mike Pezzullo. Likewise, Labor has tried hard to exploit politically the waste, the costs and the heartlessness of Robodebt. At the same time, however, it does not want to entirely repudiate the coercive, punitive and guilty-until-proven-innocent style of senior management lest it be called soft on welfare fraud.

Administrative reform is in the doldrums and focused on rhetorical fluff. Time to look at accountability.

Labor’s efforts to rebuild and reform the style of public service have hardly been inspiring, even as they have commanded the attention of the new head of Prime Minister’s, Dr Glyn Davis, and an associate secretary focused on public service change, Gordon Brouwer. There’s been a lot of meaningless talk about leadership, at a time when no one could better exemplify the problem than the departmental heads. There is no talk about accountability, individual and collective responsibility, or about moral cowardice. Most of the Morrison-era public servants remain, even without significant achievements in any form of public administration other than responsiveness without responsibility. If any of the many survivors, other than those involved with Robodebt, have been called to account for their own personal failures of good stewardship, moral blindness, and failures to insist on the letter and the spirit of the law on public expenditure, the public is unaware. No one in PM&C appears to have suffered for their complicity in the multi-ministries scandal. Others in the same department seem to have made sport of giving parliamentary committees a minimum of cooperation or information.

Likewise, no one has been called to account for the many open and deliberate abuses of exemption claiming under the FOI Act, and some public servants claim to be encouraged in continuing resistance to the spirit of open government by the prime minister’s apparent conversion to obstructionism, and the Attorney-General’s thrall to national security. The government had dedicated itself to some piecemeal, and very overdue reforms to human relations issues, including safer workplaces, but is conspicuously failing to address the long-term issues involving work-life balance, work from home, the growing power of a new type of unelected executive government coming from minders, and, especially the prime minister’s personal office. In a normal government the collection of essentially harmless “reforms” on the stove might seem adequate, if unlikely to frighten the horses. In a situation where political pressure from ministers with a corrupted idea of government almost caused orderly government to collapse, the lack of attention to rebuilding the defences is astonishing, and criminally negligent.

There are some who think that the slack will be picked up as the NACC starts operations, focusing on a few choice scandals. Perhaps it is reasoned that the time for punishment, finger-pointing and reminding the electorate of the horrors of the past government will then be apt for an election coming up. In the meantime, anyone in public administration capable of being accused of sharing the blame for any corruption or unethical behaviour will have been confirmed in office under Labor for more than a year, able to suggest, in effect, that the past is past. Some, indeed, will have been promoted. Others will have become as useful, responsive, and willing to look in the other direction for Labor ministers as they were previously for coalition ministers and will have become indispensable to this government.

Meanwhile, people such as Peter Dutton will be suggesting that trenchant criticism of Morrison ministers is but the normal talk of new governments, like attacks on predecessors for debts and deficit. And if he says it often enough, without sustained voices insisting that there was much more than inappropriate policies, bad judgment and ineffective programs, the argument will go by default. If it does, any push to strengthen good government will disappear, and new government, even the Albanese one, will be subject to the same sorts of temptations. Heaven help us then, because closed hearings of the NACC will be too late and too off the point.

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