I have been a lifetime opponent of capital punishment but am always open to new ideas, or old ones, which new ideas often are. As government and governance in Australia moves back into the early 19th century, it may be time to dust off the gallows, if this time for the high and mighty, as opposed to members of the underclasses. Might not the quality of Australian government be improved by the odd exemplary public execution for those who have just a few too many liberties?
I remain deeply opposed to the hanging of murderers, terrorists, paedophiles and uninvited asylum seekers, if only because the evidence is strongly against any theory that heavy penalties operate as a deterrent to their types of anti-social behaviour. Our common criminals are almost invariably creatures of impulse, who do not consider the penalties for particular types of crime before they commit them, and who are rarely moved to alter their behaviour by announcements by ex-policemen that penalties for particular offences are to be increased to reflect the ex-policeman's - or government's abhorrence of them. Or they are seized by notions which deprive them of caution, common sense and regard for the syllogisms of those who regard themselves as their betters.
By contrast there is a good deal of evidence that the better educated classes, particularly those in public office, are deeply affected by practical evidence of society's disapproval of crime. For a senior public servant or a minister, conviction for any matter of dishonesty or abuse of office is generally fatal to their continuing careers and public reputation.
It may always be possible to find a council officer, a cop, or some person in charge of a government, who is susceptible to an offer of a bribe or some other flagrant misbehaviour. We have learnt in recent times that some of our most eminent bankers and board members - indeed people of the class who could join the Australian Club in Sydney - are greedy and venal, without any sort of moral compass. But even then their premeditated willingness to succumb to temptation involves a careful calculation of the odds of getting caught, and of the consequences if that happens. The higher one is up the tree, the more likely that the consequence is disgrace, at least for a time. Perhaps the loss of a national honour.
The case for exposing all federal politicians, and all public officials, including judges, earning more than $250,000 a year to the death penalty for serious corruption, abuse of public official or reckless mismanagement of public resources is not based on populism or any whim to have the law reflect Australian society's increasingly deep contempt for and distrust of politicians. Nor should it reflect the increasing brutalisation of such folk, made manifest by the appalling treatment of asylum seekers, and the abuse of and attempted coercion of the poorest Australians in the welfare system. It is society's cry of despair at the open contempt for ethics, morality and common decency in modern politics.
The despair is heightened by the indifference to process and once well-understood principles of equity, fair dealing, and regard for proper principles of public life, including avoidance of conflict of interest. And the retreat from and deliberate evasion of legislated standards of conduct and decision-making, transparency and public accountability. It also involves deep contempt for the rule of law, not least by some who have attempted to hide behind imagined aspects of that rule of law to avoid answering for their behaviour.
Rot starts from the top. Scott Morrison encapsulates the retreat from values, the lack of regard for truth, for decency and the long-term public interest. Those he leads, or those in the public service obliged to do his will can hardly be blamed for using his example as their inspiration.
It might seem odd that Australia's most ostentatiously religious leader of the post-war period is perhaps the greatest moral vacuum, but those who have witnessed the Trump era would know this is not unusual.
The problem is not confined to politicians. Senior public servants are neglecting duties laid on them by law, perhaps either from cynicism about the government's hopes and expectations, or, it sometimes appears because they have subordinated their obligations to their hopes of preference and advancement. The shameful stories of sports rorts, car park rorts, robodebt, sovereign borders and AstraZeneca are primarily ones of ministerial cupidity, duplicity, stupidity and incompetence. But they are stories that cannot be told without discussion of cases of senior public servants knowing but not protesting that the spirit and the letter of the law was being broken. Of their being the enablers, not the awkward obstacle; of failing to give frank and fearless advice, preparing advice designed to cover up ministerial impropriety, and conscious failure to obey the now permanent fabric of laws such as the Freedom of Information Act, both so as to cover up for the government at large, and, sometimes, poor or incompetent behaviour by public servants themselves.
Would not execution be a little extreme? Might it be better to work up to such exemplary punishments, perhaps by creating misdemeanours involving $1000 fines? Or is the status quo enough?
Not a single minister of the Coalition government has suffered any sort of lasting punishment for misbehaviour, incompetence, misuse of public money.
The one minister forced to stand down - for the contrived sin of having a conflict of interest via a gun-club membership rather than her improper stewardship of sporting grants - has now been restored to public office, making it explicitly plain that she has learnt nothing and regrets nothing. She is only one of at least a dozen Morrison ministers - from the Prime Minister down - whose integrity of management of public resources has been called into question. Morrison is at the head of the queue for complicity in the abuse of public funds for partisan political purposes, and for partial invention of processes of government by decree, appropriation by stealth, and a pronounced antipathy to that accountability and responsibility which is or ought to be the foundation of Australian democracy.
Politicians never have legal authority to spend money by whim
This week saw the publication of a report by the Auditor-General, Grant Hehir, into the rorting of commuter car parking projects within the urban congestion fund. Yet again it was a plausible-sounding scheme, in part borrowed from an opposition promise about relieving traffic congestion. But, like sports rorts, and other schemes generally under the supervision of the National Party, it was ruthlessly used to put money into Coalition seats, or marginal Labor seats the Coalition hoped to gain, without the slightest pretence of fair process, honest and impartial administration or, even compliance with the rules the administration pretended would be used to dispense money, or the law itself. Coalition minister Paul Fletcher thinks things were legitimate because ministers were openly engaged in dispensing the money (as opposed to with sports rorts, where, with Department of Health help, the government hid behind the Australian Sports Commission).
But ministers have no more legal ambit to spend money just as they wish than the officials who normally handle the detail of grants programs. The fact that the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister - arguably a cabinet subcommittee - also had their paws in the very dodgy and partisan distribution does not amount to an authority to dodge the rules.
As the auditor said, the minister or ministers were required by law to comply with section 71 of the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act of 2013 which states that "a minister must not approve a proposed expenditure of relevant money unless the minister is satisfied, after making reasonable inquiries, that the expenditure would be a proper use of relevant money". The PGPA Act defines "proper" as efficient, effective, economical and ethical.
It is not enough to insist, as Fletcher has, that the money was actually committed to commuter car parks - albeit ones selected without calls for submissions, effectively without consultation with relevant states, with express disregard for greater needs in other places. The sites chosen were effectively settled among a conclave of local Liberal members and Morrison's and then-Urban Infrastructure Minister Alan Tudge's offices, generally to be announced during the election campaign. It is not a rort. It's a fraud on the taxpayer.
Poor leadership, almost by definition, comes from the top. Whatever skills, or whatever luck, the Prime Minister displays, he is not setting any sort of standard of good management.
The audit makes it clear that the department played dead, doing little to document what was occurring, to prepare or put up more worthy cases, or to argue the toss about fairness or process once it was clear that the fix was in. It went passive. It forgot its duty. Its paperwork, not for the first time, was a disgrace.
Dr Steven Kennedy was the secretary of the Department of Infrastructure at the relevant time, which also embraced a shocking scandal of the department paying up to 10 times the value of land near the second Sydney airport. No one would suggest any personal malfeasance in this case: the questions about responsibility concern when a chief executive must be held accountable for grossly deficient systems, for insufficiencies in the supervision of officers and the scrutiny of spending. Similar questions arise over chronic mismanagement and waste in the Department of Home Affairs, with the loss of billions over concentration camp facilities and staffing, computer purchases, and the development of an almost entirely unaccountable unofficial operational intelligence agency in the almost private charge of the departmental secretary, Mike Pezzullo. And about how blame should be distributed, as between ministers and very senior public servants, over the robo-debt fiasco, in agencies commanded by Kathryn Campbell - a person, like Pezzullo, being talked about for promotion to a more senior agency.
We ought to be asking questions about the mysterious failure of public service systems to hold any senior public official to account for anything, let alone to punish or dismiss. Such failures also raise questions about whether the supposed head of the public service, Phil Gaetjens of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and the Public Service Commission, are actually engaged in general quality control, or development of proper public service leadership. If there is a scandal and a secretary will not accept responsibility, is she holding someone junior to account, or helping sweep everything under the rug - perhaps after claiming that a review, expected to last until everything has been forgotten, is happening.
But secretaries, of course, might well retort that since ministers - from the Prime Minister down - will not accept responsibility even when it is obvious, why should they?
And that is at the centre of the problem. Poor leadership, almost by definition, comes from the top. Whatever skills, or whatever luck, the Prime Minister displays, he is not setting any sort of standard of good management, of a strong sense of stewardship and propriety in managing public funds, or in enunciating broad principles of public service (whether by politicians or public officials) that anyone would write down and admire. Nor does he enforce standards: ministerial responsibility has become a joke during his period in office, and the very phrases and let-outs he uses to deny personal or managerial responsibility for his own failings are the very template for further disasters. If it is hardly any surprise that the government rejects any idea of a corruption body with teeth, it is equally no surprise that the auditor is starved for funds, that watchdogs such as the FOI Commissioner and the Ombudsman have been rendered harmless, and that the AAT has become seriously compromised by being stacked with coalition friends, relations, and cronies.
Over the life of the Morrison government a few public officers have been forced to depart if they have fallen out with their ministers - Barnaby Joyce for example - or had to be the scapegoat for prime ministerial embarrassment - over Cartier watches for example. The Prime Minister's conduct over such matters has been embarrassing.
MORE JACK WATERFORD:
National Party ministers have always made clear that they regard the public purse as spoils of office, entitling them to dole out contracts to favoured party donors, mates and cronies, and the diversion of public resources to pet ideas and projects. Their greed, and their larceny was once restrained by Liberals who regarded public office as a matter of trust, and who entered public life not so much with an eye to diverting public funds to their benefit as to improving the life of fellow Australians. Such public spirit has not entirely disappeared, but it is under heavy pressure from the short-termism of the Morrison government, the appalling example of party leaders, the shamelessness with which they treat the truth or recourse to principle, and the apparent belief that it is good politics to hurl the entire Commonwealth Treasury at the cause of re-election. It is hardly any surprise that parliament has these days few parliamentarians: people interested in improving the systems of politics, legislation and public administration, in a bipartisan way. There was a time - it was not so long ago - when there were backbenchers who put their personal integrity, and desire for good general government in the public interest - ahead of mere point scoring, obeisance to ideology and factions, and branch stacking. The party of business and the middle class has recently had little to offer the parliament in the nature of wisdom, attention to the long term, and the maintenance and development of the institutions of government.
Once, a senior public servant aware of the likely venality of ministers in a particular matter would have insisted that the formal record be especially clear when it was clear that a rort was about to occur, if only to make it clear that the malfeasance was elsewhere. It would now appear that practice is changing and not only towards frank complicity in rorts, and covering-up the role of ministers and minders, but making sure the paperwork is so thin and inadequate that it is almost impossible to point the finger. The passivity of senior public servants involves an implicit rejection of public service codes of conduct, makes clear to potential whistleblowers just how much support and departmental integrity they can expect if they do their duty.
But the number of officials sacked for mismanagement, disobedience, incompetence, malfeasance or appalling stewardship of public money? None that I can think of. Scott Morrison, who when a public servant running tourism was dismissed by his minister for one or other of these sins, isn't a hanging judge on such matters. Apparently.
Ambrose Bierce once described the gallows as "a stage for the performance of miracle plays, in which the leading actor is translated to heaven. In this country the gallows is chiefly remarkable for the number of persons who escape it." The prospect of a few salutary hangings might, as Dr Johnson once said, concentrate the minds of some of our leaders, and perhaps ultimately reduce the volume of lynchings.
This article has been edited to remove a reference to Paul Fletcher's office being involved in the selection of sites for commuter car parks. Mr Fletcher was not the Urban Infrastructure Minister at the time.
- Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times and a regular columnist. firstname.lastname@example.org