It is extraordinary that a Liberal Party leadership manages to be outside the bubble when anything might go wrong. Concepts of right and wrong have no place in what it does, and even what it says it does. Its only concern is the exercise of power, to satisfy its current whimsies and to excuse and cover up mistakes, blunders and policy errors.
The power it exercises is entirely divorced from the way governments generally, and the Australian government specifically, are legally as well as morally required to act. It ignores the concept that elected and appointed government officials are in a trust relationship with the public.
As the High Court made clear a century ago (and has reaffirmed recently) government officials have a public duty and a public trust. The “public trust” requires them to serve not their personal interests but the interests of the public. As several judges put it, the fundamental obligation of a member of parliament is ‘the duty to serve and, in serving, to act with fidelity and with a ‘single-mindedness’ for the welfare of the community.
You don’t have to know what the High Court judges have said. Just think about what our country is called – the Commonwealth of Australia. Commonwealth (apart from having republican connotations which don’t yet apply) means that the political entity exists for the benefit of all its people. The people we elect to Parliament are obliged to act in our general interest – not their own personal interest, not the interests of their party, not the interests of only those who vote for them (or might be persuaded, by misuse of public moneys) to vote for them.
The various rorts in which Ministers have been involved recently were designed and have been executed to advance the government’s political interests by favouring electorates that either elect a coalition MP or are marginal and might be persuaded (with the help of a grant or two) to do so.
Most, like the various sports rorts, appear at first glance to be legitimate. They have stated aims, published criteria for evaluation and a process of ranking the bids that are made in accordance with those aims and criteria. It’s all rubbish, because ultimately the minister makes the decision and does so for reasons that are not stated overtly.
It turns out that it is not the quality of the submissions you make (if you even make one) or the proven needs/utility/community benefits of your project that matter, but your political connections or possible political value to the minister or government.
It is OK for ministers to use the grants to help win or hold marginal seats or reward safe Liberal/National Party seats. The grants, the Prime Minister insisted in one of the latest scandals (involving Home Affairs Minister Peter (‘I pride myself on my integrity’) Dutton, were ‘not outside the rules’. (Actually, they appear to have been outside the legislative guidelines in effect at the time.)
In any event (inside or outside those rules) the Minister or Prime Minister, or their respective ministerial officers, could (and would) have changed the rules, after the event if necessary, to let the government do whatever it pleased. Mostly, however, the rules and the published criteria are simply ignored and/or are irrelevant in the decision-making process.
The ministers’ obligations under the public trust doctrine are never considered.
Once upon a time (actually, back in the 1970s and 1980s) Ministers who blatantly ignored their obligations under the trust doctrine were obliged to resign or were sacked. A prime example was Labor Minister Ros Kelly, who put on a whiteboard the irrelevant considerations she was going to apply in making grants, was caught out and resigned.
But there were plenty of others who resigned or were dismissed for other reasons – such as misleading parliament, or conflicts of interest, or failure to observe regulations – Jim Cairns, Rex Connor for example in the Whitlam Government, Mick Young and John Brown in the Hawke Government and Jim Short and David Jull in the Howard Government.
Actually, there was a host of resignations for various reasons in the first Howard Government, but in his second government, Howard put an end to the practice of ministers resigning if they made mistakes for which they would be otherwise accountable. Regrettably, subsequent Prime Ministers have tended, like the later Howard, to tough it out, rather than have their ministers admit fault through resignation.
Senator Bridget McKenzie was different. Her resignation (for a fairly trivial conflict of interest) was aimed at deflecting attention from the really serious problems including possible breaches of the law and the Constitution, and other problems unveiled by the Auditor-General, and subsequent inquiries, involved in her administration of the sports rorts.
Reverting now to the issue of amorality, it is impossible to avoid mentioning the rape and sexual assault allegations currently dominating parliament and the media.
It is extraordinary that the Prime Minister apparently (judging him by his own words) needed to be told by his wife that rape is wrong – and that that is so even if that rape occurs in a ministerial suite in Parliament House and involved ministerial staff. Wrong. Not just wrong of course, but a serious crime.
For some commentators, this is just another example of the ‘culture’ issue that many people, including women Liberal MPs and former parliamentarians, have long complained about.
There can be no doubt that the Liberals do have a woman problem (as it is described). But there are two distinct issues. The first is the relative lack of representation of women in the ranks of the Liberal party in federal parliament, particularly at a senior level. The second is the bad treatment of women, by Liberal men, mostly involving bullying. It seems that this is replicated in the behaviour of Ministerial and other staff.
(As an aside: Labor is well on the way to overcoming the under-representation of women issue within its ranks. But there are still remnants of the male dominance/ superiority/ offensive behaviour syndrome among its parliamentarians – I say nothing about staff, lacking personal knowledge or reliable reports).
The Prime Minister’s response to the sexual assault allegations has been to set up a number of inquiries (the number changes from day to day) some of which are guaranteed (by the nature of the inquiry being conducted and the persons conducting them) to produce little of any consequence.
What is already evident, however, is that the woman who was allegedly raped was not encouraged to report her experience to the police. The pervading ‘culture’ is well understood: a person who goes to the proper authorities with a complaint has no chance of advancement within the party and little chance of retaining the position they currently hold.
Couple that with a Liberal Party leadership that manages to be outside the bubble when anything might go wrong.