About once every week, someone organising Anthony Albanese's Twitter feed puts out a short statement, hanging off some recent event, saying that Labor favours a powerful corruption commission to bring errant government to account. He or she is right to do so, but a Labor Party seriously interested in winning government at the next election ought to be doing more both to ramp up its campaign, and to call out a fundamental change of modern government in Australia.
A re-angling is necessary for two reasons. First, while actual corruption is a very serious problem, the more so when the risk of being caught seems to be declining, an equally serious problem is a corrupted idea of public stewardship and good government. With the scramble to insist that a neutered and impotent corruption commission will look only at matters suggesting criminal activity, a good deal of corrupted management of public resources may escape the scrutiny it desperately needs. It is apparent for example that prime ministers and state premiers believe that political pork barrelling - the skewing of grant schemes to favour the political interests of the government in power - is perfectly OK, has long been done on both sides of politics, and is not in any way a breach of public morality. It's not; it hasn't, and it is. It ought to be exposed and those who engage in it should be subject to serious penalties. And a political scorching. Labor is selling itself a myth - that the public (and a partisan media) does not care about blatant abuse of power - and thus that denunciation need only be ritual. That's much the same as convincing itself that the party has tried firm climate change policies, only to find that the public does not care.
Second, corruption, and corrupted ideas of public stewardship and the public interest are but a subset of a developing crisis in good government and in the proper administration of public resources. We have a crisis of legal and political accountability, of principles of transparency, proper process, and fair and equal treatment of all citizens - of honest and impartial administration in short. It has become worse because legislatures are failing in their duties of scrutinising official action and public expenditure, in part because current ministerial government is being more secretive and sly about what it is doing. And, progressively, many of the old checks and balances designed to bring maladministration to attention are no longer up to the task, whether because they have been consciously starved of resources, are no longer adapted to the times, or because ministers make it clear that they do not care about good administration, as long as they achieve their political objectives. Put bluntly, the Morrison government seems increasingly an ethical vacuum. The want of regard for basis principles of honest administration, as contracts are fixed without tender, as rules are ignored, seems to be infecting parts of the public service as well.
The problem is the greater because of the budget crisis caused by the pandemic, and the probably reasonable determination of ministers, from the prime minister down, to act very swiftly in devising schemes to prop up unemployment, feed liquidity into business and the community and to brake a decelerating economy. Also probably reasonable from the government's perspective, though more arguable, was the decision to use the private sector, rather than the public sector, as both the primary engine room of keeping the economy going and as a dispenser of the liquidity put into the economy.
Such a decision was, of course, an ideological one, based on the unproven suppositions that the private sector is more efficient in doing things than the public sector, and that process of the sort that the public sector would enforce were prescriptions for delay, inefficiency and unnecessary red tape. There was also a fear that a public service put in control of pandemic economic measures would expand unnecessarily to do the job, do everything it could to entrench itself past the time of crisis, and be difficult to dismantle. By contrast, champions of the government's approach would say, flexibility was the keyword, and the design meant that a general movement towards a smaller public sector could continue.
The fish has rotted from the head. The stench of bad government will not go away
That I, or someone else might disagree with the policy, or the ideology, is not of itself the issue. The government's broad disposition about such matters is generally well known, and it is, within reason, entitled to decide how its schemes will work.
But no matter how a scheme is organised, and by whomever it is performed, it must still be subject to general principles of honest administration and stewardship of the public interest. It is subject to rules about conflict of interest and natural justice. It is subject to rules about transparency and about accountability. Morrison cannot remove such requirements by handing over matters to the private sector, nor can he conceal outcomes by pretending he, or his ministers, are no longer responsible for process or outcomes once a transfer has occurred. We watched Trump destroy institutions and trample on constitutional conventions, relying, in part, on the suspicions of insiders among his followers. We must ask ourselves whether the Morrison smirk and the coalition complacency has Australia heading in the same direction.
The biggest fraud of this corrupted government is the idea that Morrison is some lovable bungler, just doing the best he can.
This month's issue of The Monthly has an important article written by its editor, Nick Feik, about the Morrison government as a government of endless scandal, in which a lack of accountability, from Morrison down, has become endemic. It is well worth the read, as one of the best indictments of modern Australian government in recent years.
Strictly, its chronicle of scandals, such as the sports rorts affair, open and unembarrassed rorting of any number of other grant schemes, dubious purchases of water allocations, Home Affairs contracts for asylum seeker security and site services, land purchases at absurd prices relative to valuation, substantial grants without tender (and, sometimes, apparently without application) to News.com, and the arranging of lucrative contracts to party donors and cronies are not new. What is compelling, however is the way in which the sum of these consequences of political dereliction are shown not to be isolated incidents but as part of a conscious pattern of government. "These aren't bugs in the system; they are the system, Feik says.
The fish has rotted from the head. The micro-managing Morrison has a finger in almost every scandal. But a majority of his Cabinet, and a good many other ministers, have also been implicated in partisan administration, sometimes concealed by secretiveness, and sometimes concealed with an insouciance suggesting that neither they, nor the public, care. The stench of bad government will not go away merely by the creation of an integrity or corruption commission, whether it has a wide brief, or, as this government envisages, a very narrow one. It also involves a rearming of traditional watchdogs of poor administration, such as the Ombudsman, FOI, the Financial Management Act, and the Audit Office, and whistle-blower protections as well as an upgrade of parliamentary scrutiny.
But it also involves a revolution in public service leadership. All too many secretaries and officials have become complicit in poor practices, in partisan behaviour, and in appalling outcomes, as with, for example, the illegal and mismanaged Robodebt scheme.
The criticism of Labor is not that it has stayed silent. It is that they are not making enough noise about it. The protests, so far, are all too ritual, able to be dismissed as though it were a game. They, the cross-bench and interested sections of the media should be treating systemic maladministration as a fundamental breach of the governing compact. They should be shouting it from the rooftops, and mobilising the public indignation that would occur were it doing its job of bringing government to account.
Labor could even talk of draining the swamp. But they need to talk about it. Non-stop, and with genuine indignation. And Labor needs a spokesman with cred, able to use genuine indignation to effect. One of the significant issues open to the opposition cannot be entrusted to someone who spent most of the last Labor administration "wanting to be convinced" there was even a problem.
Poor leaders and bad examples
The decline of good government has not been an accident. The men and women in public service - whether directly in politics or in public administration - are probably of much the same calibre, idealism and intellectual capacity as ever. What they are not getting is leadership. Not leadership by words - which is to say expressions of standards. Even less are they getting leadership from example.
When prime ministers and Cabinet ministers deride standards or ignore obvious breaches of them, why should we expect that more junior ministers, or more junior officials will always strive for the highest standards? When those who proffer advice that is unwanted seem to be punished, why should we worry about whether frank and independent advice is at a premium? When secretaries of some agencies provide political cover for ministers engaged in very dubious behaviour, and will not defend good administration, who can be surprised when more junior officials will not stick their necks out?
Though leadership of a moral sort has been one of the most preached attributes supposedly being thought by the system, it has to be said that the public service is, at the moment, seriously short of senior officials who talk the talk, let alone those seen as walking the walk. The model departmental secretary is generally, these days, fairly colourless, without much in the way of a public profile. A few obvious counter cases exist -- Mike Pezzullo in Home Affairs for example. No doubt some are of the highest rectitude. But not many people, even in their own agencies, could point to examples of where they have said or done anything likely to upset anyone above them.
I have always argued that crime or misconduct among the middle classes, including in public administration, is entirely different in nature from crime among the underclasses. Underclass crime is usually opportunistic and without much consideration of consequences. Despite the fond fantasies of Daily Telegraph leader writers and policemen, high penalties prescribed in the statute books do not deter, nor, generally do higher penalties handed out by judges. They merely increase the number of people in institutions.
A member of the middle class contemplating either a fraud or theft, or some other misconduct, not necessarily criminal but likely to cause public criticism, does think about consequences. She thinks of the chance of being caught. That is a very good reason why there should be systems in place to catch people who do the wrong thing, because the more likely these systems work, the more likely they will think it not worth the risk. That's also why the systems should be independent. We know from experience that police will act against corrupt, dishonest or brutal colleagues only in the most egregious circumstances. Otherwise they will blandly cover up.
White collar workers also think of the consequences of being caught - often, indeed the consequences of being suspected. For white-collar people, including public servants and politicians - the consequence most feared is not jail or a heavy fine. It is of public exposure and public disgrace, almost invariably meaning a loss of a job, and humiliation among ones colleagues, friends and family. Only rarely will the disgrace go away. Only rarely can such a person be rehabilitated.
There will always be some who are so venal, so easily tempted or so desperate that they will do something very corrupt, or dishonest or wrong, usually for personal aggrandisement. In that sense, we want the integrity systems to catch the baddies - those who take bribes, those who award contracts to their friends, or act for improper purposes. But the set-up, if any good, will also be performing well if it is effective at deterring others. The absence of a large case list does not prove there was no need for an integrity system.
Strictly speaking, the public service has codes of conduct and an operating ethos. But the style of government by ministerial discretion has strangled the system. It's time the general principles were applied to ministers and politicians, and to ministerial staff as well. The best such code - for being short and straightforward - are the seven principles of public life described by Britain's Nolan committee. These apply to anyone elected or appointed to public office, including public servants, police, teachers, doctors and nurses and people in the private sector or the "voluntary" sector who are delivering public services.
All public office holders are both servants of the public and stewards of public resources, the principles say.
- Selflessness: holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest.
- Integrity: Holders of public office must avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence them in their work. They should not act or take decisions in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends. They must declare and resolve any interests and relationships.
- Objectivity: Holders of public office must act and take decisions impartially, fairly and on merit, using the best evidence and without discrimination or bias.
- Accountability: Holders of public office are accountable to the public for their decisions and actions and must submit themselves to the scrutiny necessary to ensure this.
- Openness: Holders of public office should act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner. Information should not be withheld from the public unless there are clear and lawful reasons for so doing.
- Honesty: Holders of public office should be truthful.
- Leadership: Holders of public office should exhibit these principles in their own behaviour. They should actively promote and robustly support the principles and be willing to challenge poor behaviour wherever it occurs.
It's a good measure of the crisis in Australian government that one can readily think of a breach of each and every one of these principles, whether by ministers or by public servants, over recent years.
What I cannot think of are cases where such conduct - or plain misconduct - has been reproved by the prime minister, or led to adverse consequences for ministers, minders, officials or cronies of government. Indeed it is almost impossible to remember an occasion where the blowtorch was seriously applied to Scott Morrison, scoffer-in-chief on matters of duty, integrity or the need for accountability and transparency. He is continually allowed to dismiss complaints with waffle, dissembling, spin or the pretence that his mind is on higher things, and the future rather than the past. The biggest fraud of this corrupted government is the idea that Morrison is some lovable bungler, just doing the best he can.
- Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times. email@example.com