Comment

Editorial

The public service, not ministers, remains Australia's corruption risk

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 Photo: Canberra-Times

The Labor Party will do its best to ensure that the whiff of Stuart Robert's political carcass clings to Malcolm Turnbull. Yet the stink likely won't stick, and nor necessarily should it. Labor criticised the Prime Minister throughout last week for not sacking Mr Robert immediately upon claims emerging that the then human services minister had travelled to China to stitch up a business deal for a mate, Paul Marks, who is also a generous Liberal donor. Mr Turnbull waited until his departmental secretary had investigated Mr Robert's conduct. This might have seemed like equivocation but, ultimately, the right decision was made: Mr Robert, who had a financial stake in the business he was helping, lost his spot on the frontbench. He may now be investigated by federal police.

This scandal involved a clear breach of the ministerial code of conduct. Despite Mr Robert's protestations that he was unaware of his financial interests, his decision to take personal leave to help a prominent donor rustle up business overseas, including by lining up meetings with Chinese officials, showed he lacked an understanding of the propriety expected of ministers. The opposition wants voters to believe the incident is indicative of the Turnbull government's integrity. It's not; Mr Robert went on his misguided adventure under former prime minister Tony Abbott, and Mr Turnbull acted quickly enough to dump him.

Some voters will regard this affair as a symptom of a corrupt government. Those who already have dim views of politicians in general may feel Mr Robert has vindicated their distrust in the system. Yet this case is an aberration. It's exceedingly rare for a federal minister to so brazenly ignore basic standards of propriety, especially given Mr Robert's obvious conflicts of interest (financial and political). He was caught, as was always likely; he had no obvious way to hide his interests. Parliamentarians are obliged to report regularly on the assets they own, the gifts they receive and the groups with which they're involved. It isn't always easy to scrutinise politicians' pecuniary interests, but at least it's possible. Similarly, Mr Marks and his companies' substantial donations to the Liberal Party were also, eventually, reported publicly.

This isn't to say Australia's political funding disclosure laws are perfect. They could be improved – most obviously by speeding up the process. Some other nations employ "real-time" disclosure, whereby politicians and their parties must report donations immediately upon receipt. In Australia, we must await the electoral commission's annual reports, meaning the public often finds out about substantial donations after an election campaign.

Ultimately, the Robert affair distracts attention from a deeper failing in government transparency. Federal parliamentarians' financial interests are generally well known; and, as a result, politicians mostly steer clear of obvious conflicts of interest. Yet, in practice, the vast majority of public spending is co-ordinated and approved by senior bureaucrats, not ministers. Unlike politicians, these officials have no need to make any public disclosures of their private interests. Yes, they are required by law to "take reasonable steps to avoid any conflict of interest (real or apparent)" – usually to their direct manager. However, the lack of regular or systematic investigation of these hidden disclosures begs the question: just how many scandals go undetected within the government?

While this secrecy remains, Australians will be unable to be entirely confident that their government – the executive and the bureaucracy – is as squeaky clean as it should be.