Spare a thought for the personal tragedy of Gladys Berejiklian, a genuinely hard-working and, on the face of it, decent premier of NSW. Brought low because she formed a long-term personal relationship with a spiv, one whose general dishonesty and abuse of power seems to have extended to trading on her credit.
At the time of writing this, on Friday morning, her political as opposed to her personal fate is unclear. But whether it happens today, or next week, her position is untenable. This is not because of her poor personal judgment in choosing a partner - not yet a hanging offence. It is because of her appalling political judgment in letting a partner, let alone a clear wide boy, into the rooms where power is exercised. Even if she were actually unaware of how much he was misusing her name, or his wider contacts in government, she was on ample notice, from previous ICAC hearings, and from her own dismissal of him from her party, of his approach to misuse of office. One may personally overlook such a peccadillo in a friend; one cannot claim the same thought of innocence and affection in stewardship of public office.
But her enemies and rivals, whether in her own party, the Coalition, Labor, or the wider community, should take little pleasure in her humiliation, loss of reputation and clout. It is her bad judgment, and not, as far as can be seen, her exercise of power that has caused her problems.
I am not one for arguing that the calibre of top politicians is improving or deteriorating over time, but I do think that the environment in which they can falter has changed quite a bit. We have always had politicians with high standards of honour and others who would do anything they thought they could get away with, even to petty venalities such as cheating on living allowances. But the disposition to be dishonest depended a good deal on the prevailing moral climate, and on that complicated calculus about the risk of being caught, and the nature of the consequences if one was. As with most white-collar crime, the usual consequence of being caught was public disgrace, so the best way of discouraging bad behaviour was and always will be a substantial investment in catching and exposing bad behaviour.
Some would argue that the good character and reputation of Berejiklian, as well as the humiliation she has had to endure, should mean that she should get the court equivalent of a good behaviour bond - sight unseen on whether she is shown to have had any actual knowledge of, or involvement in, Daryl Maguire's get-rich-quick schemes.
But a significant penalty, political or otherwise, is necessary so as to remind everyone in the game that one must not - should not - turn politics into a source of private profit. It is not, heaven knows, that they only need a nudge and will quickly get the message. Look, for example, at Daryl Maguire himself. The cause of the present inquiry, he clearly learnt nothing from a shaming by ICAC three years ago, then his expulsion from the Liberal Party (at the insistence of his close personal friend, Gladys Berejiklian) and resignation from Parliament.
If Gladys Berejiklian, and her ludicrous consort, have to take one for the team, let it not be for tiny misdemeanours but for being parties to a decaying mindset regarding the spoils of public office.
The latest ICAC hearing is testimony to his still being on the make, unchanged even in guile and concealment. His personal friend might have hoped or expected that he would give up his errant ways, but there was not much sign it was happening, and many indications that, for him, it was business as usual in his quest to find an earner. Berejiklian has been around long enough that she ought to have had a deeply cynical view about whether leopards could change their spots.
It seems to me that the moral environment and generally accepted sense of where the public interest is has changed significantly over the past 40 years. I do not mean to suggest some past golden age, when everyone adhered to the rules, so much as a time when there was more general agreement about what the rules were. The broad rules about politics were but a subset of generally accepted principles, ethics and standards of public life, that also operated in business, in banking, in the military, in educational establishments, and among religious establishments. The change is the more remarkable given that during the same period, laws, judgments and statements of expected standards of conduct have tended to become more explicit, more strict and more focused on respect for public interests. Has it all been window dressing for doing the very opposite?
Some of the decline in political standards has accompanied a fall in the standards and ethics of other public institutions, and in the professions. Which caused, or which followed which, is not clear, but the impact on reputation and public regard has been severe. For example, child sex abuse inquiries, here and abroad, have done so much damage to the authority and reputation of churches that in Ireland, bishops decided not to campaign against a same-sex marriage referendum, for fear that their opposition would increase the vote for the proposition.
Another example has been the deplorable behaviour of bankers, from the top down, and of financial advisers, identified by the Hayne royal commission. That example is the worse because it now seems apparent that those two institutions have resumed their rape and pillage of customers and the public interest. The banks served a short period in the stocks, even if no one was prosecuted or, even now, seems at risk of it. There were fresh problems, for example with reporting money movements, with negotiated settlements. But we seem to be forgetting, or forgiving, because of the distraction of the pandemic, and efforts to revive the economy, or a shift of public outrage to other economic cancers in society. In the process, the Prime Minister and Treasurer ceased to be incarnations of public wrath and instead want to be servants of the villains again.
The very idea of a banking inquiry was stoutly resisted by the then-treasurer, Scott Morrison. He patiently explained that if there were or had been any problems, they were the problems of a few rotten apples in every barrel. In any event, we were told, strong proactive decisions by Morrison had already shut down the rorting, if there had been any. Moreover, there was a risk that exposure of rorts might harm the reputation of banks, perhaps causing a run.
Morrison was dragged reluctantly to the commission, primarily because some Nationals threatened to defect. The subsequent inquiry proved that every proposition advanced by Morrison was wrong. The problems were systemic, entrenched, and involved not only people at the top of the system, but the culture at all levels. Morrison had hoped to cause collateral damage to industry super funds, to the advantage of the financial advice industry, but even that was a colossal own goal. The banks and others in the financial advice industry - big donors to the Liberals - were shown to be ripping off customers and providing inferior returns. As a demonstration that this is a government that is bought rather than rented, hurting industry super funds is back on the agenda again.
If Morrison, and for that matter an increasingly captive and supine Treasury, did not know how crook the banks and their favourite bankers were, or about the chronic problems of "light-touch" regulation, they were far less expert in the game than they pretended. Or perhaps, as some of their critics alleged, they were more the captives of the system than the guardians of the public interest, including Australia's financial stability.
Since when have we had a tradition about the "right" of parliamentarians to conduct businesses, or to earn extra-parliamentary income - especially as middlemen, lobbyists and arrangers of meetings? We might once have had a dispensation of sorts for farmers - and, at one time, barristers - but our politicians should not be beholden to others for money, let alone be able to be tempted by the prospect of money they have not really earned. A Commonwealth or NSW backbencher makes more than the American president. The conflicts of interest are not matters that can be dealt with by rigorous disclosure regimes.
Gladys was in trouble once she knew Darryl was in business - even if, as she has claimed, she was studiously uninterested in the details. She had no right to assume that he was following the rules - especially once she understood that it was about land development, "success fees" and "little earners".
Having to squirm in open hearings acts as a disincentive to venality
One has only to look at the daily papers to see constant reminders of how the system is broken. There is a fresh scandal every other day. Beyond the Maguire (and Berejiklian) inquiry, or Hayne, we have seen in recent weeks a tribunal considering whether Crown Casino, and owners associated with it such as James Packer, are "fit and proper people" to be allowed to operate in Sydney. If the answer to the question is "no", as increasingly appears likely, it will invite attention to the company's other casino licences. And it will almost certainly invite further attention to the bullying, and at times threatening, behaviour of Packer, and the obsequious way in which he and his family have been treated by government over the years. The genuflection to the family, or to the Murdochs, has not been for affection, or an idea that they are great Australians worthy of state funerals.
Beyond the kowtowing, moreover, has been the cover given Packer by his board and chief executives, and the manner in which he was given permission to build a monstrous phallic hotel-casino (supposedly just for international "whales", including Chinese) by one of Berejiklian's predecessors, Barry O'Farrell. The inquiry has looked at appalling breaches of duty by Crown in relation to money laundering and Chinese political corruption, and relations with organised crime - as well as indications of cosy and improper relationships with immigration officials. Some board members - many with distinguished backgrounds in politics, business, sport and the bureaucracy - are being closely and uncomfortably cross-examined about concepts of board duties to shareholders.
The Crown Casino inquiry is yet another case showing the many intersections between business and politics. The Packer dynasty was long given to speaking about the benefits of capitalism, free markets and competition where it suited them - chiefly to argue for less regulation and lower taxes. In fact the Packer empire did not prosper because of competition and open markets, but from government-granted monopolies over television and gambling. These, for years, guaranteed big profits by restricting the right of others to compete.
While I think that the slippage of standards is across the board, politics might well be leading the charge. Standards of ministerial responsibility - and the range of sackable offences - have fallen sharply. This is rather more because prime ministers will simply not enforce the standards than because the language describing the standards has become less strict. Words have replaced deeds.
MORE JACK WATERFORD:
Prime ministers set the standard not only by who they sack and why, but by their own conduct. Morrison's shameful conduct in relation to the sports rorts affair has created a new low in standards of public accountability and proper stewardship of taxpayer money. So too with his habitual secrecy, resistance to being questioned, prevarication and bluster, and his politicisation of the public service. A feature of that, of course, has been the willingness of some of these to provide him with political cover. Just this week, an "independent" review by a private law firm is said to have exonerated two Liberal backbenchers of alleged abuse of electoral staff, but, in line with a number of such recent "independent" inquiries, the review does not appear to have considered much evidence before coming to its verdict. The public is not to be allowed to see the report itself. If this report was commissioned by the Finance Department, rather than the minister, departmental management are unworthy of being considered any sort of stewards of the public interest at all. Small wonder that the department, as much as the minister, is always resisting any sort of increase in the resources available to those, such as the Auditor-General or the Ombudsman, who are supposed to be guardians of the public interest.
Labor's standards, or lack of them, have also been on show with the Aldi bag affair. The $100,000 in cash from an impermissible donor - along with a ludicrous claim that it came from restaurant staff - is still the subject of a NSW ICAC inquiry that is yet to report. Labor has committed itself to some reforms of its campaign finance arrangements, but if history is any guide, party machines (Labor as well as Liberal) will devote as much attention to circumventing rules, especially ones seeking to limit the influence of developers. This has long been a bipartisan sport, as embarrassment to the Liberal National Party in Queensland in the past week will attest.
It goes without saying that resistance to any sort of open and public corruption and integrity commission goes with the new ethical environment. A good many of the state scandals have federal dimensions - over, for example, several types of trafficking in immigration visas - but if the celebrated and well-funded but very secretive and not very effective Law Enforcement Integrity Commission has cracked the federal end of these cases, neither our court system nor public reports have told us. Nor has the Attorney-General Porter created any sort of framework by which the Director of Public Prosecutions could call for or conduct investigations into alleged criminal conduct.
If Gladys Berejiklian, and her ludicrous consort, have to take one for the team, let it not be for tiny misdemeanours but for being parties to a decaying mindset regarding the spoils of public office. The case should also serve as a big wake-up call about the need to get serious about the snakes in the swamp. Experience is beginning to suggest that an auto-da-fé may not much move politicians, from Scott Morrison down. But if it begins to fuel serious public anger - and perhaps leads to salutary defenestrations - the mood for action may become irresistible.
- Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times and a regular columnist. firstname.lastname@example.org