The government, in due course, acted promptly

In the far-off innocent days before the spin doctors decreed that backbenchers should cease thinking for themselves and instead parrot the talking points devised to avoid saying anything meaningful at all,  a few brave souls were prepared to respond to questions more or less spontaneously.

One such was an amiable but undistinguished South Australian Liberal, Geoffrey O’Halloran Giles. who, when chided by a journalist about a  delay over a matter of  some  urgency over s cabinet decision, replied with devastating candour and utter sincerity: ”The government, in due course, acted promptly.”

The line became a standing joke, an all-purpose excuse for procrastination, dithering and general duck-shoving, It became a slogan for leaving difficult matters on the backburner, in the hope that if ignored for long enough they would simply disappear.

And it has now been resurrected in all seriousness by Scott Morrison and his Attorney-General Christian Porter in their determination to make sure that any worthwhile version of a national integrity bill is never allowed to pass the Australian parliament.

Of course they claim they are both fully committed to action – but not yet. There are more important priorities: they have been working for every second of every minute of every hour of every day in the battle against the coronavirus pandemic.

Well, most of the time, anyway: they have to leave a bit of room for electioneering in Queensland and denigrating  Daniel Andrews in Victoria, with a touch of bashing unions, universities. the ABC on the side. But that doesn’t count, it’s just routine like cleaning your teeth and combing your hair, if there’s any left of either

And it stands to reason that if the politicians are a bit preoccupied, the public service must be as well – it had bloody well better be if it knows what’s good for it. This is a whole of government exercise, which means that we’re all in this together, — which side are you on? And it’s not as if nothing has happened in the years since the integrity bill first emerged as a major announcement. Indeed, Porter tells us proudly that a document has actually been drafted – in fact it was drafted almost a year ago, inconveniently before COVID 19 became an issue.

But the time for consultation about it – meaning the extent to which any teeth it may have possessed can be pulled before enactment – will have to wait until the virus is beaten or, more probably, the parliament is prorogued in time for the next election. We don’t want any unnecessary distractions.

But unfortunately reality keeps intruding. Turn on the TV, pick up a newspaper, or just glance at the social media – the news is all about fresh shenanigans, dodgy deals, shonks and spivs inside government or on the fringes of it, corruption hard, soft, or just a little flexible. As Labor’s Tony Burke pointed out last week, in a parliamentary question that was instantly ruled out of order, it was harder to find the absence of scandal in Morrison’s government than to pin it down.

There are royal commissions, police investigations, parliamentary  enquiries and numerous other bodies probing allegations of malfeasance  at all levels. But Morrison and Porter and their colleagues continue  to pretend that it really isn’t their  problem, that all the relevant authorities are dealing with it and that verdicts and sentences will be delivered without fear or favour, don’t you worry about that.

Well they may be delivered but they are unlikely to be enforced if they do not follow the less stringent rules determined by the prime minister and his mates.. When Alan Tudge, acting as Immigration Minister, was ordered to release an asylum seeker by the Administrative Review Tribunal, he refused because he just didn’t like the result. Geoffrey Flick, a federal court judge, said this amounted to criminal conduct on Tudge’s part, but the minister was unabashed, as was Porter.

“It’s not the first time that in the robust environment of the law surrounding visa approvals that there’s been strong words said about what is in effect government undertaking its duties through the minister,” opined the first law officer of the commonwealth.

This may well be true, but it is hardly encouraging. The ideals of the supremacy of the law, equality for all, the separation of powers, are, we like to think, neither controversial nor negotiable. But in ScoMoland, things are seldom what they seem. If a rule can be bent, then it will be. And if it can’t be bent, it will just have to be broken.

The corruption at the heart of the federal government does not usually take the form of brown paper bags full of small unmarked notes  — this is the purview of state governments, or more blatantly still local governments. It is more about securing access, making certain that self interest will not be ignored when the big decisions are being made.

Of course it involves money, but mainly through donations to the parties rather than directly into the wallets of individuals. This is somehow seen as less heinous than the slipping of the occasional backhander, but in fact it is far more insidious, not to mention profitable for the malefactors.

Thus the horror story of last week was the revelation that Christine Holgate, the obscenely overpaid CEO of Australia Post, had given four of her top executives free Cartier watches. And ScoMo was apoplectic – he was appalled and shocked, Holgate was to be stood down forthwith, inquiries would be undertaken heads would roll.

This was from the leader of the government in which honesty is for wimps and losers and obedience to the law is an optional extra, where the numbers are everything and ethics are forgotten. But a bonus of just under $20,000 is regarded as outrageous and unacceptable.

Well, you have to draw the line somewhere. But not too firmly or consistently because there are other priorities. And of course, we will get around to an integrity commission, if we can find someone to  redefine the word to mean “whatever it takes.” And that will be a firm promise of a definite maybe – well, in due course.

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Mungo MacCallum is a veteran political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy.

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