Rot starts from the top

Jul 7, 2021

Scott Morrison encapsulates the retreat from values, the lack of regard for truth, for decency and the long-term public interest. Those he leads or those in the public service obliged to do his will can hardly be blamed for using his example as their inspiration.

I have been a lifetime opponent of capital punishment but am always open to new ideas, or old ones, which new ideas often are. As government and governance in Australia moves back into the early 19th century, it may be time to dust off the gallows, if this time for the high and mighty, as opposed to members of the underclasses. Might not the quality of the Australian government be improved by the odd exemplary public execution for those who have just a few too many liberties?

I remain deeply opposed to the hanging of murderers, terrorists, paedophiles and uninvited asylum seekers, if only because the evidence is strongly against any theory that heavy penalties operate as a deterrent to their types of anti-social behaviour. Our common criminals are almost invariably creatures of impulse, who do not consider the penalties for particular types of crime before they commit them, and who are rarely moved to alter their behaviour by announcements by ex-policemen that penalties for particular offences are to be increased to reflect the ex-policeman’s – or government’s abhorrence of them. Or they are seized by notions which deprive them of caution, common sense and regard for the syllogisms of those who regard themselves as their betters.

By contrast, there is a good deal of evidence that the better-educated classes, particularly those in public office, are deeply affected by practical evidence of society’s disapproval of crime. For a senior public servant or a minister, conviction for any matter of dishonesty or abuse of office is generally fatal to their continuing careers and public reputation.

It may always be possible to find a council officer, a cop, or some person in charge of a government, who is susceptible to an offer of a bribe or some other flagrant misbehaviour. We have learnt in recent times that some of our most eminent bankers and board members – indeed people of the class who could join the Australian Club in Sydney – are greedy and venal, without any sort of moral compass. But even then their premeditated willingness to succumb to temptation involves a careful calculation of the odds of getting caught, and of the consequences if that happens. The higher one is up the tree, the more likely that the consequence is disgrace, at least for a time. Perhaps the loss of a National honour.

The case for exposing all federal politicians, and all public officials, including judges, earning more than $250,000 a year to the death penalty for serious corruption, abuse of public officials or reckless mismanagement of public resources is not based on populism or any whim to have the law reflect Australian society’s increasingly deep contempt for and distrust of politicians. Nor should it reflect the increasing brutalisation of such folk, made manifest by the appalling treatment of asylum seekers, and the abuse of and attempted coercion of the poorest Australians in the welfare system.

It is society’s cry of despair at the open contempt for ethics, morality and common decency in modern politics.

The despair is heightened by the indifference to process and once well-understood principles of equity, fair dealing, and regard for proper principles of public life, including avoidance of conflict of interest. And the retreat from and deliberate evasion of legislated standards of conduct and decision-making, transparency and public accountability. It also involves deep contempt for the rule of law, not least by some who have attempted to hide behind imagined aspects of that rule of law to avoid answering for their behaviour.

The rot starts from the top. Scott Morrison encapsulates the retreat from values, the lack of regard for truth, for decency and the long-term public interest. Those he leads or those in the public service obliged to do his will can hardly be blamed for using his example as their inspiration.

It might seem odd that Australia’s most ostentatiously religious leader of the post-war period is perhaps the greatest moral vacuum, but those who have witnessed the Trump era would know this is not unusual.

The problem is not confined to politicians. Senior public servants are neglecting duties laid on them by law, perhaps either from cynicism about the government’s hopes and expectations, or, it sometimes appears because they have subordinated their obligations to their hopes of preference and advancement. The shameful stories of Sports Rorts, Car Park Rorts, Robo-debt, Sovereign Borders and  Astro-Zeneca are primarily ones of ministerial cupidity, duplicity, stupidity and incompetence. But they are stories that cannot be told without discussion of cases of senior public servants knowing but not protesting that the spirit and the letter of the law was being broken. Of their being the enablers, not the awkward obstacle; of failing to give frank and fearless advice, preparing advice designed to cover up ministerial impropriety, and conscious failure to obey the now permanent fabric of laws such as the Freedom of Information Act, both so as to cover up for the government at large, and, sometimes, poor or incompetent behaviour by public servants themselves.

Would not execution be a little extreme? Might it be better to work up to such exemplary punishments, perhaps by creating misdemeanours involving $1000 fines? Or is the status quo enough?

Not a single minister of the coalition government has suffered any sort of lasting punishment for misbehaviour, incompetence, misuse of public money.

The one minister forced to stand down — for the contrived sin of having a conflict of interest via a gun-club membership rather than her improper stewardship of sporting grants – has now been restored to public office, making it explicitly plain that she has learnt nothing and regrets nothing. She is only one of at least a dozen Morrison ministers – from the prime minister down – whose integrity of the management of public resources has been called into question. Morrison is at the head of the queue for complicity in the abuse of public funds for partisan political purposes, and for partial invention of processes of government by decree, appropriation by stealth, and a pronounced antipathy to that accountability and responsibility which is or ought to be the foundation of Australian democracy.

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