National Party greed was once restrained by Liberals

Jul 6, 2021

We ought to be asking questions about the mysterious failure of public service systems to hold any senior public official to account for anything, let alone to punish or dismiss.

This week saw the publication of a report by the Auditor-General, Grant Hehir, into the rorting of commuter car parking projects within the urban congestion fund. Yet again it was a plausible-sounding scheme, in part borrowed from an opposition promise about relieving traffic congestion. But, like sports rorts, and other schemes generally under the supervision of the National Party, it was ruthlessly used to put money into coalition seats, or marginal Labor seats the coalition hoped to gain, without the slightest pretence of fair process, honest and impartial administration or, even compliance with the rules the administration pretended would be used to dispense money, or the law itself.

Paul Fletcher was a minister both before and after this serious maladministration, if not at the time most of the funding decisions were made (when the minister was Alan Tudge). Fletcher has said the spending was, in effect, approved by voters at the election, but also thinks the process legitimate because ministers were openly engaged in dispensing the money (as opposed to with sports rorts, where, with Department of Health help, the government hid behind the Australian Sports Commission.)

But ministers have no more legal ambit to spend money just as they wish than the officials who normally handle the detail of grants programs.  The fact that the prime minister and deputy prime minister – arguably a cabinet subcommittee – also had their paws in the very dodgy and partisan distribution does not amount to an authority to dodge the rules.

As the Auditor said, the minister or ministers were required by law to comply with section 71 of the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act of 2013 which states that “a minister must not approve a proposed expenditure of relevant money unless the minister is satisfied, after making reasonable inquiries, that the expenditure would be a proper use of relevant money”.  The PGPA Act defines “proper” as efficient, effective, economical and ethical.

It is not enough to insist, as Fletcher has, that the money was actually committed to commuter car parks – albeit ones selected without calls for submissions, effectively without consultation with relevant states, with express disregard for greater needs in other places. The sites chosen were effectively settled among a conclave of local Liberal members and Morrison and Fletcher’s offices, generally to be announced during the election campaign. It is not a rort. It’s a fraud on the taxpayer.

The audit makes it clear that the department played dead, doing little to document what was occurring, to prepare or put up more worthy cases, or to argue the toss about fairness or process once it was clear that the fix was in. It went passive. It forgot its duty. Its paperwork, not for the first time, was a disgrace.

Dr Steven Kennedy was the secretary of the Department of Infrastructure at the relevant time, which also embraced a shocking scandal of the department paying up to ten times the value of land near the second Sydney airport. No one would suggest any personal malfeasance in this case: the questions about responsibility concern when a chief executive must be held accountable for grossly deficient systems, for insufficiencies in the supervision of officers and the scrutiny of spending.

Similar questions arise over chronic mismanagement and waste in the Department of Home Affairs, with the loss of billions over concentration camp facilities and staffing, computer purchases, and the development of an almost entirely unaccountable unofficial operational intelligence agency in the almost private charge of the departmental secretary, Mike Pezzullo. And about how blame should be distributed, as between ministers and very senior public servants, over the Robo-debt fiasco, in agencies commanded by Kathryn Campbell – a person, like Pezzullo, being talked about for promotion to a more senior agency.

We ought to be asking questions about the mysterious failure of public service systems to hold any senior public official to account for anything, let alone to punish or dismiss. Such failures also raise questions about whether the supposed head of the public service, Phil Gaetjens of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and the Public Service Commission, are actually engaged in general quality control, or development of proper public service leadership. If there is a scandal and a secretary will not accept responsibility, is she holding someone junior to account, or helping sweep everything under the rug — perhaps after claiming that a review, expected to last until everything has been forgotten, is happening.

But secretaries, of course, might well retort that since ministers – from the prime minister down – will not accept responsibility even when it is obvious, why should they?

And that is at the centre of the problem. Poor leadership, almost by definition, comes from the top. Whatever skills, or whatever luck, the prime minister displays, he is not setting any sort of standard of good management, of a strong sense of stewardship and propriety in managing public funds, or in enunciating broad principles of public service (whether by politicians or public officials) that anyone would write down and admire. Nor does he enforce standards: ministerial responsibility has become a joke during his period in office, and the very phrases and let-outs he uses to deny personal or managerial responsibility for his own failings are the very templates for further disasters.

If it is hardly any surprise that the government rejects any idea of a corruption body with teeth, it is equally no surprise that the auditor is starved for funds, that watchdogs such as the FOI Commissioner and the Ombudsman have been rendered harmless, and that the AAT has become seriously compromised by being stacked with coalition friends, relations, and cronies.

Over the life of the Morrison government a few public officers have been forced to depart if they have fallen out with their ministers – Barnaby Joyce for example – or had to be the scapegoat for prime ministerial embarrassment – over Cartier watches for example. The prime minister’s conduct over such matters has been embarrassing.

National Party ministers have always made clear that they regard the public purse as spoils of office, entitling them to dole out contracts to favoured party donors, mates and cronies, and the diversion of public resources to pet ideas and projects. Their greed and larceny were once restrained by Liberals who regarded public office as a matter of trust, and who entered public life not so much with an eye to diverting public funds to their benefit as to improving the lives of fellow Australians.

Such public spirit has not entirely disappeared, but it is under heavy pressure from the short-termism of the Morrison government, the appalling example of party leaders, the shamelessness with which they treat the truth or recourse to principle, and the apparent belief that it is good politics to hurl the entire Commonwealth Treasury at the cause of re-election.

It is hardly any surprise that parliament has these days few parliamentarians: people interested in improving the systems of politics, legislation and public administration, in a bipartisan way.

There was a time – it was not so long ago –  when there were backbenchers who put their personal integrity, and desire for good general government in the public interest – ahead of mere point-scoring, obeisance to ideology and factions, and branch stacking. The party of business and the middle class has recently had little to offer the parliament in the nature of wisdom, attention to the long term, and the maintenance and development of the institutions of government.

Once, a senior public servant aware of the likely venality of ministers in a particular matter would have insisted that the formal record be especially clear when it was clear that a rort was about to occur if only to make it clear that the malfeasance was elsewhere.

It would now appear that practice is changing and not only towards frank complicity in rorts,  and covering-up the role of ministers and minders, but making sure the paperwork is so thin and inadequate that it is almost impossible to point the finger. The passivity of senior public servants involves an implicit rejection of public service codes of conduct, makes clear to potential whistleblowers just how much support and departmental integrity they can expect if they do their duty.

But the number of officials sacked for mismanagement, disobedience, incompetence, malfeasance or appalling stewardship of public money? None that I can think of. Scott Morrison, who when a public servant running tourism was dismissed by his minister for one or other of these sins, isn’t a hanging judge on such matters. Apparently.

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