For those concerned about government integrity, the 2019 commuter car park scheme has marked a new low. Most of its features were familiar from previous community programs implemented with an eye to electoral advantage - the clear preference for marginal and government-held seats over safe opposition seats, the disregard for objective evidence in the determination of community need, and the neglect of due process. But the scale of the car-park rorting reached new dimensions as ministers and their advisers casually overrode the government's own rules while compliant public servants stood idly by. Moreover, the complacent defiance displayed by the Prime Minister and his colleagues has revealed a deep-seated corruption of ethical standards.
What is to be done? If corruption is the problem, then an anti-corruption commission seems an obvious solution. Much recent commentary has advocated an independent commission along the lines of the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption. The Labor opposition chimed in, as its leader, Anthony Albanese, linked the car park rorts ("a total disgrace") with the party's recent commitment to a federal ICAC as official party policy.
Labor is taking advantage of Coalition vulnerability as the government drags its feet over introducing its own "Commonwealth Integrity Commission". The proposed CIC is fundamentally flawed, being based on an arbitrary distinction between two divisions - law enforcement institutions and the remaining public sector. The only rationale for the distinction is to ring-fence and protect the jurisdiction of the current Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity, which is to remain essentially intact. This would allow the balance (and great bulk) of the public sector to be treated more gently, for example by avoiding public hearings. The CIC has many other well-documented weaknesses, including a restricted definition of corruption and very limited avenues for initiating inquiries. The overriding design-objective appears to be to safeguard the reputations of ministers and senior public servants regardless of any public interest in combating corruption. When the potentially corrupt behaviour of ministers and senior public servants is itself the main problem, such obvious self-serving will only deepen public cynicism.
Labor's specific questions about the car parks were extremely perfunctory, indicating the party's unwillingness to probe too far into a scheme which it itself had advocated.
The Coalition will want to avoid a major debate with Labor over the relative merits of its CIC versus a fully-fledged ICAC. As the ancient Greeks abandoned their unwanted babies on lonely hillsides, the government will probably let the CIC quietly die, either in the depths of the Attorney-General's Department or at the hands of the Senate crossbench. Labor, in turn, will hope to keep the issue alive, linking an ICAC to public unease over government ethical standards.
However, whether an effective federal ICAC would actually be sufficient to stem the flood of wanton pork-barrelling, as Labor and others argue, is open to question. NSW, it should be remembered, is home not only to a highly effective ICAC, in many respects the gold standard for such commissions, but also to widespread misuse of taxpayer-funds for electoral purposes. Indeed, its leaders seem even more shameless about pork-barrelling than their federal counterparts. Both the Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, and the Deputy Premier, John Barilaro, when recently challenged about blatant partisanship in the award of community grants, conceded that it could be described as pork-barrelling but argued that it was an accepted and popular aspect of electoral politics. While a case could be made that pork-barrelling is corrupt behaviour and therefore illegal under the NSW ICAC Act, ministers continue to insist, with impunity, that they have acted within the law. Without further legislative prohibition, the practice seems set to continue. A similar outcome would be likely under a federal ICAC.
The worst excesses of pork-barrelling could be constrained under the proper application of existing administrative procedures. However, so long as ministers retain the final right to determine the needs of communities, some level of partisan bias is inevitable. Politicians defend their right to decide community need on the ground that they are accountable to parliament and the public. But, apart from elections, which are a very blunt instrument for dealing with specific local issues, ministers are rarely called on to answer for their decisions.
With the car parks, as with other similar programs, the focus of accountability ought to be on why ministers favoured their own supporters at the expense of opposition communities. But in Parliament, the Labor opposition, followed by the media, concentrated instead on secondary issues, such as whether the minister had seen a particular list or the role of the Prime Minister's office. Ministers were allowed to escape with simply emphasising the benefits enjoyed by recipients, avoiding altogether the key question of fairness to non-recipients. Overall, Labor's specific questions about the car parks were extremely perfunctory, indicating the party's unwillingness to probe too far into a scheme which it itself had advocated.
Given the ineffectiveness of ministerial accountability, any significant reduction in pork-barrelling would require substantial restrictions on ministerial discretion rather than just the introduction of a federal ICAC. However, though an ICAC may not solve that particular problem, there are many other areas of actual and potential government corruption where a powerful anti-corruption commission is urgently needed, for example lobbying, post-employment, party finances, contracting, procurement and so on. If disgust at pork-barrelling can be channelled to the ICAC cause, some weakness in the supporting argument can perhaps be forgiven!
- Richard Mulgan is an emeritus professor at the Australian National University's Crawford School of Public Policy. email@example.com