Morrison’s government has tried ditch the rules… to no avail

The problem with this government is that it doesn’t seem to learn from its mistakes. Perhaps that is because it fears that any change in approach will be seen as an admission of wrongdoing — even maladministration, as with the sports rorts affair.

It’s a city, it says, whose governance culture has been characterised by self-interest, complacency, lack of accountability, lack of transparency and a lack of effective leadership. These traits have provided fertile ground for greed, incompetence and mismanagement to flourish. Some of the elected leaders, some of the public service staff, and some of the cabal of urgers, minders, lobbyists and shape–changers have been allowed to put their own interests ahead of the interests of the community — the people they should have been serving.

Could the report have been referring to Australia’s executive government, administering the nation from the fortress at Capital Hill? Or is it instead about the ACT government, soon to go to the polls, whose inner workings seem to be a mystery to everyone, including some of the ministers in the government? Or about the Trump Administration, or those who hold the reins in Texas?

Actually it’s about the Council of the City of Perth, from an inquiry conducted for the West Australian parliament by barrister Tony Powell. His 2000-page report was tabled in parliament this week. It’s a report which makes clear that rorting the system has been a bipartisan sport at least since the establishment of WA Inc 30 years ago. Government of the masses for the players, for the cronies, the mates and those prepared to fork out a quid, by a self-interested and not too squeamish elite, has been business as usual.

One cannot exactly say that the watchdogs have been asleep or unable or unwilling to bark, or that the political class of West Australia or even in Canberra have been unaware of how cosy, incompetent and corrupt the whole system has been. It is more a matter of the shamelessness of some of the players, and perhaps the caution about punishing them too harshly, for fear of finding something worse. In WA, one often does.

Some of the reports — starting with the WA Inc Royal Commission have been scathing, as have any number of Corruption and Crime Commission reports, not least into the smarmy and sleazy world of peddling influence, exchanging inside information and gossip, buying credit, doing favours and punishing enemies. It’s a process apparently leavened by the use of prominent sports, media and cultural heroes as front men and women.

The problem will not go away because the culture will not go away. A new administration, like a new government in NSW, will make a few changes to favour its own particular set of cronies, but, promises to the contrary notwithstanding, they will not much change a system which keeps paying such dividends. As party donations. As a way of rewarding friends, not least by contracting out, consultancies and selective tendering. For the power it gives political cliques, and the ultimate control over pre-selections it brings. The business of collecting the rates, or taking the garbage away may be mundane, even somewhat tedious. The business of organising subdivisions, promoting developments, getting concessions and having applications rubber-stamped by the bureaucracy is highly lucrative for most of the insiders concerned. The only real losers are ordinary ratepayers getting second rate services, second rate planning and planning administration, and inferior representation. One can toss the bastards out every few years, once one thinks, usually unavailingly, that the other side has learnt from its last disaster, but, soon, it will be time for a fresh round of evictions.

One could go on about the problems of Perth. It is by no means alone in almost anything that can be said about the quality and the integrity of its administration. Those who generalise about political and institutional corruption in Australia usually regard local governments as the most susceptible — in particular because of its association with property development. Second come state and territory administrations — in particular because these are responsible for most service delivery — hospitals, schools, roads, bridges, police administration and so on — providing thousands of opportunities for politicians or middlemen to exact a toll, to corrupt a tender, to look the other way, or to intervene to favour a crony.

Federal government, it used to be claimed, was generally far cleaner. That was because there was more distance between policy and administration, making interference with process more obvious. A  system with many of the best and brightest –often as gamekeepers as well as poachers. And because a culture of open government and management for results made corruption of the process more difficult.

Perhaps that assessment of comparative risk was once true. If it is now different, as I think it is, it is not because of a mere slide in personal integrity on the part of those who could be tempted. Instead there has been a major slide in styles of government. The Liberals are the current shockers — the worst ever, so far, other than the Nationals — a party unashamedly dedicated to the reappropriation of city money to favoured interests in the bush. But Labor in government has been getting worse, not better on process and accountability — a reason its criticism of the Liberals is never full-blooded. If the Morrison style is not the thing that ultimately brings him down, does not bring him down, Labor will probably not reform I, accepting it instead as a modern adaptation of the old rules.

The past two decades has seen a major change in the way we are governed. Despite the talk of improved codes of conduct, integrity monitoring etc, the calibre of decision making in the public interest has slipped, markedly.  We now need stronger checks and balances against corruption or mismanagement of the system. It is far easier to circumvent the old rules, because the new moral, ethical and legal environment governing the stewardship of power and public money has been deliberately weakened, and because old watchdogs have been defanged or deprived of resources. Neither major party has backbenchers seriously interested in improving their own party’s style of running things.

Just as concerning is the increasingly intimate relationship between fundamental corruption and the vulnerability of politicians at all levels of government.

It is now virtually impossible to be a political player — Labor, Liberal or National Party, without wading in the pool of favours, factions, donations, and dishonest guys (and, sometimes, women) making a dollar by using the system against itself, selling favours, including access to powerful people and inside information, and demanding and expecting their insider status.

Take almost any random Labor politician. In NSW, Victoria and Queensland in particular, the results of party pre-selections for winnable seats at local, state or federal level, is largely controlled by factions, often, as recent events in Victoria have demonstrated, using branch stacking, and manipulated union membership lists to add to the private armies of myrmidons willing to vote as directed. The power of factions is rooted in their capacity to deliver results for those who sponsor them — whether at local, state or federal levels of government.

The dirty work is never so neatly segregated from ordinary political life that a faction member can be entirely innocent of knowledge about what is happening in her bailiwick. She may enter “the game” with scrupulous honesty and reputation, as well as determination to make a difference for the better. In due time, she will come to defend bad process by saying that sometimes one has to go in stages, even to take some detours, and to make some compromises. The good can never be the enemy of the perfect, and all of that. But sooner or later many representatives will become all too painfully aware that they have become compromised by the patronage they have received. In Labor, in particular, politicians, even Treasurers, have been described as being owned. How many of them, an ALP federal secretary, had the calibre to say no.

Liberal Party politicians pretend to be above the dirty factional stuff, but play it as ruthlessly as does Labor, and for much the same sort of stakes. As with Labor, some of the jostling is about rank and position, the trappings of executive office, and the power of patronage — putting hundreds of personal and party friends on boards and commissions, as well as tilting public tender processes towards favoured cronies, lobbies and, sometimes, relations.

 But the “little or limited government” ideology also provides enormous opportunities to change the shape of business conditions by transferring functions and resources from an apolitical public service towards business. Likewise with reducing or removing regulation, and standing by as party donors and others shamelessly loot the savings of ordinary Australians, as we witnessed during the Hayne Royal Commission into banks. [Indeed now that there is the distraction of the pandemic, and a decent interval since the shame and bad publicity of the royal commission report, conservative politicians have resumed efforts to destroy industry superannuation funds for the benefit of the for-profit funds responsible for rorts such as fees for no service, charges to the dead and the vacuuming of nest-eggs by churning investments for brokerage fees.]

Christian Porter is the federal Attorney-General, with open ambitions to be prime minister sooner than later. He is the public face of government opposition to any sort of anti-corruption or integrity organisation that has any power, including the power to initiate inquiries, to hold them in public, or to make public reports.

No doubt he is of the highest personal integrity. But is it possible that his view of the desirability of any sort of standing independent watchdog on corruption and maladministration is shaped by what he has seen happen to some of his unlucky colleagues in western Australian politics? Even John Howard, no stranger to tough politics and deal-making thought they played it harder in Perth. That is, in particular, because of the way money, and the partial exercise of power, lubricates almost all tiers of government there, not least in relation to mining and property.

It is not merely his resistance to external scrutiny that should be of note. One should look also to his pretence that the rules laid down by law are subject to higher undetailed constitutional conventions. During the sports-rorts affair, Porter seemed to declare that the interventions by the sports minister to determine how a grant scheme was operated were within her powers, in spite of the fact that the legislation clearly placed the money in the hands of the Sports Commission, a body that could not be overridden otherwise than by clear direction.

 He implied he had legal opinions to this effect, but he was, I think, also lending to the issue his own authority and reputation,  such as it is, in constitutional law. It turned on a view about the ultimate power over departments of ministers. He has, of course,  flatly refused to issue his advice, but he must surely be aware that any such authority cannot override a clear instruction by parliament that the spending of the money was for the commission to determine. Another section of the constitution says that money can come from the Commonwealth only by appropriation under law.

Scott Morrison is, of course, the beneficiary of this fanciful (indeed nonsensical) advice from the Attorney; he has used it to deflect any suggestion that the rorting of the scheme, under close supervision of his office, was an abuse of process, as well as involving the use of public money, during an election, for partisan purposes. Morrison’s head of prime minister’s, Phil Gaetjins, has chosen the approach of Nelson at Copenhagen, of ignoring any evidence his nose was not rubbed in. He has repeatedly failed to defend due process and integrity in public spending, preferring instead to provide political cover for Morrison.

The problem with this government is that it doesn’t seem to learn from its mistakes. Perhaps that is because it fears that any change in approach will be seen as an admission of wrongdoing — even maladministration, as with the sports rorts affair. Morrison is in a mode of pretending to insist on looking ahead not back, focusing on the “big” issues rather than nit-picking about his get-it-done style.

 One can safely predict that it will be the “little” things, not his grand but strangely desiccated decisions that will bring him down. They always do with politicians like him.

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John Waterford AM, better known as Jack Waterford, is an Australian journalist and commentator.

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