Who is the autocrat?

May 7, 2022
Prime Minister Scott Morrison
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Autocracy: ‘a system of government by one person with absolute power’.

Public autocracy? There’s no such thing, according to my dictionaries, or indeed, Google. It’s a contradiction in terms.

But what I think Prime Minister Scott Morrison meant when he declared (in an interview reported in Wednesday’s Sydney Morning Herald) that Australia could become a ‘public autocracy’ if a national integrity commission had too much influence over government thinking was that absolute power would be exercised by public servants, rather than by politicians such as himself.

It is a nonsensical suggestion, that deliberately, falsely, misrepresents the power any prospective national integrity commission might have, and the way the public service does, can or even might operate. But it says a lot about the unconstrained powers that the Prime Minister considers are appropriate for him and his ministers. Indeed, about the way he and his government have sometimes acted.

Integrity commissions don’t tell governments or public servants what to do. What they do is forensically examine complaints that individuals involved in government have behaved corruptly. For ministers and MPs that corruption might involve a breach of the criminal law, or a substantial breach of a code of conduct. The commission may make findings, but any penalties would be imposed by a court after a successful prosecution where the evidence obtained by the commission may not always be admissible.

It is utterly false to describe any such integrity commission as a ‘kangaroo court’. It is not a court. It is true, however, that if it holds public hearings (and it may be restricted as to when or if it can hold such hearings) the evidence that emerges, which may have been discovered by the commission itself (perhaps through phone taps) or which is provided by witnesses, may be damning of the person under investigation.

But the commission cannot declare someone guilty of a crime, nor can it impose any penalty. Nor can it require ministers or public servants to do anything – other than give evidence, truthfully. Some current Liberal ministers, who in the recent past have refused to provide evidence to police, might be fearful of that.

In the interview, the Prime Minister said members of parliament were accountable to voters and should be able to allocate funding for community grants and infrastructure without undue fear of being investigated by public servants.

“If we are going to so disempower our elected representatives to do things about what is needed in their communities, then what is the point?” he said.

“We can’t just hand government over to faceless officials to make decisions that impact the lives of Australians from one end of the country to the other. I actually think there’s a great danger in that. It wouldn’t be Australia anymore if that was the case, it would be some kind of public autocracy.”

Morrison stressed that a national integrity commission should focus on identifying criminal behaviour rather than more subjective questions such as whether marginal seat spending amounts to pork-barrelling. ‘No-one is suggesting anyone has broken any law are they?’

Well actually, they have in relation to the sports rorts affair. It is a fundamental principle that government can only spend public monies in accordance with the laws passed by the parliament. The laws set out what grants can be made, what criteria have must be applied, and who makes the decisions. The money isn’t there for ministers to dish out at their whim.

The grants in the sports rorts affair were made under legislation which gave the power to determine which organisation could get grants to particular public service entities. The Minister could only make grants in circumstances which did not arise. Nevertheless, she did intervene and make the grants overriding the legitimate decisions of her officials.

Additionally in that case as in most of the other rorts that have become public knowledge, ministers made decisions based on political considerations – political, meaning that the decisions were influenced or wholly determined by the partisan political advantage the government parties would gain from the decision, i.e. getting more votes.

Decisions were not made ‘in the public interest’ as the Prime Minister’s ministerial code and the common law require.

No wonder the Prime Minister objects to a federal integrity commission with power to look at government decision-making – these rorts would be investigated and exposed for what they were. Prosecutions might follow, but not necessarily.

It is fatuous for the Prime Minister to suggest that because members of parliament are accountable to the electorate they should be able to allocate funds without fear of being investigated. If ministers are accused of breaking the law or a code of conduct that is supposed to govern their behaviour the accusation should be investigated. Ministers shouldn’t have a free pass to escape scrutiny for their actions just because they come up for election every three years.

Elections are just a small, but obviously very important, part of accountability.

The Prime Minister’s defence of his government’s refusal to enact an effective anti-corruption body has been so over the top that it was rejected by the NSW Liberal Premier. Mr Perrottet said he thought the ICAC played ‘an important role in upholding integrity and confidence in politicians and public servants’.

Note the Premier’s reference to politicians coming with ICAC’s ambit. The Prime Minister’s proposed integrity commission would have essentially prevented it from examining the misdeeds of politicians and ministers.

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