For those concerned about respect for due process and government accountability, 2020 has not been a good year. The litany of failures and scandals is as long as it is numbingly familiar: sports rorts, robodebt, the secret persecution of Witness K and his lawyer, the secrecy surrounding the "national cabinet" and the National COVID-19 Commission, the reluctance to allow Parliament to meet virtually, the refusal of the Australian Federal Police to investigate pro-government leaks, the Prime Minister's refusal to answer questions about so-called "gossip" and other matters of public interest he chooses to gloss over, minister Angus Taylor's refusal to answer for fake documents circulated by his ministerial office, minister Alan Tudge's refusal to accept court judgment of criminal behaviour, the Leppington land purchase, the bleeding of the Australian National Audit Office and other integrity agencies, delay over the establishment of a National Integrity Commission followed by a proposal for a laughably inadequate commission. The list goes on.
All these incidents have attracted vociferous and sustained criticism in Parliament and sections of the media. But in all cases, the Prime Minister and other relevant ministers have simply brushed off objections, refusing to answer questions, engage with critics or accept responsibility. Matters of due process and accountability, they imply, are irrelevant distractions from the serious business of governing and of no concern to the ordinary citizen. Members of the press gallery and other politics obsessives, whom the Prime Minister has skilfully labelled the "Canberra bubble", may get agitated but the rest of the country doesn't care.
The melancholy truth is that the ministers are right. Few people care about matters of political probity enough for them to change their votes or even modify their general opinion of governments. Most voters appear already to have a hard-nosed and cynical view of politics and politicians. The Prime Minister lied - so what, all politicians lie? The minister bent the law - it wouldn't be the first or last time. The grants went to favoured and marginal electorates - but politicians have always been focused on buying votes.
Such cynicism also permeates much media reporting of politicians' breaches of probity. To get a headline, journalists may highlight alleged ministerial improprieties revealed by auditors or Senate committees but they rarely (there are honourable exceptions) express genuine condemnation. Instead, with a knowing smile or a sardonic aside, they like to suggest 'twas ever thus. Only a naive and hopelessly idealistic observer, they imply, would expect anything other than ruthless self-interest and prevarication from a politician.
Similar scepticism about the political process also motivates many of the powerful movers and shakers who meet regularly with ministers. Those who give large donations to political parties or employ lobbyists to gain inside access to government must surely have a low opinion of the integrity of those whose support they are trying so blatantly to purchase. They are unlikely to be shocked by any reports that due process has been disregarded or personal favours granted.
Ministers therefore know that they need fear little adverse reaction for acts of government impropriety and breaches of procedural convention. If such acts help to advance the government's popularity or to give a hand to a powerful supporter, the reputational risk among the noisy minority of integrity-watchers is worth the risk.
If habits of illegality and lack of accountability become acceptable, even in only some limited areas of government, the contagion can easily spread.
The wider public's tolerance and indifference is not without limits. Voters may not be interested much in questions of due process but they do care about other issues of general policy, such as the cost of living, migration, health and education. The difference was famously underlined by John Howard when he based his 2004 election campaign on the issue of trust. His choice of trust astonished the probity-watchers who had been attacking him for his dishonesty over the "children overboard" affair and Iraq's supposed weapon of mass destruction. But he neatly turned the issue around, claiming he could be trusted to manage the economy and keep interests rates low. Trust in government is not a uniform concept but topic-specific. It is a lesson Scott Morrison has learned well. He may choose to ignore the probity complaints of the "Canberra bubble" but he is very careful to keep faith with his supporters on matters that he believes they care about.
On occasion, an issue of government impropriety may break through the bubble and demand political attention. The robodebt scandal, which a series of ministers had ignored or downplayed for years, eventually led not only to a class action but also to the outraged and sympathetic portrayal of innocent victims on channel nine's A Current Affair and elsewhere. The Prime Minister took the hint and apologised in Parliament. The apology was less than fulsome and has not been repeated. The reaction of ministers to the recent settlement of the legal case revealed a continuing, stubborn refusal to take full public responsibility. Nonetheless, the government has quietly ditched the policy and is paying out millions in compensation.
As the robodebt example shows, people do care about impropriety when it affects them directly. For the most part, however, Australians can generally trust their governments to treat them fairly. In their day-to-day dealings with government agencies, such as paying taxes or traffic fines, obtaining a licence or a passport, registering a birth or a marriage, voting in an election, they can assume that officials will apply known rules honestly and impartially. The basic rule of law is taken for granted like the air we breathe. Why bother about all the shenanigans in Canberra if reliable government carries on regardless?
Few people realise that a law-abiding bureaucracy is not a natural phenomenon but the result of hard-fought struggles in European history and a luxury denied to most of the world's population. It requires constant reinforcement by public service leaders and their political masters, supported by robust institutions of public accountability. If habits of illegality and lack of accountability become acceptable, even in only some limited areas of government, the contagion can easily spread.
It is for this reason that the dismissive and contemptuous attitude of the Prime Minister and his colleagues towards issues of process and probity is so irresponsible and dangerous. In our system of public administration, ministers have a unique and vital role to play in all three stages of accountability - informing, discussing and rectifying. To begin with, ministers, along with their advisers, are supposed to be a major source of information about government and their refusal to answer legitimate questions from Parliament or the media helps to protect politicians and public servants from scrutiny. Second, given the traditional anonymity of their apolitical public servants, ministers are in the front line of public discussion about the whole range of government activities. When ministers refuse to discuss controversial matters that may embarrass them politically, they stifle important public debate.
Finally, and most important, when government mistakes and failures are exposed, ministers are often the only people with the capacity to impose remedies. Most of our independent institutions of scrutiny, including Parliament and its committees, the Auditor-General and the Ombudsman, have the power to inquire and report but not to enforce. Once maladministration or impropriety is revealed, ministers or department officials under their direction are expected to respond promptly.
Sunlight, we are often told, is the best disinfectant, as if transparency alone will be sufficient to fix improper behaviour. But without additional mechanisms of rectification, transparency loses its power. If ministers simply shrug off any adverse findings as of little interest to the average voter and if officials take their cue from ministers, the whole system of accountability falters. No wonder the Auditor-General, in his latest report, turned his attention to the neglected issue of how his recommendations can be implemented. He cannot rely on agencies to do the right thing when faults are pointed out.
More broadly, the same sense of powerlessness affects the government's critics, the present writer included. What's the point of exposing government impropriety if the political class doesn't care?
- Richard Mulgan is Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University's Crawford School of Public Policy. email@example.com.