When does it become reasonable to say that a particular government favours corruption?
2 May 2022 at 4:14 pm
The Morrison government’s apparent abandonment of its promised federal ICAC reflects a deeper “wrecking crew” approach, comparable to the infamous Bjelke-Pietersen era, argues David Ritter.
Even the most corrupt of regime leaders is unlikely to ever come out and expressly state that they favour rorts, or ripping off their own country. But there must come a point where, through a pattern of acts and omissions, a particular government can be said to be substantively approving of deepening corruption.
Earlier this year, Transparency International called for society “to be on particularly high alert in nine countries”. Number one on the “country to watch” list was Australia. According to the Transparency International methodology:
“Australia is one of the world’s most significant decliners, having dropped 12 points since 2012 to hit a record low this year. Its deteriorating score indicates systemic failings in tackling public sector corruption. Despite public calls and previous promises, last year Australia missed a landmark opportunity to establish a national anti-corruption agency with broad powers to investigate corruption.”
It is significant that Transparency International directly linked Australia’s declining transparency standards to the failure of the Morrison government to deliver on a new national integrity commission. Since the publication of the Transparency International ‘countries to watch’ list, Scott Morrison now appears to have effectively abandoned any commitment to introducing a federal ICAC if his government is re-elected on 21 May.
The context, of course, is crucial because our federal politics has been plagued by a litany of troubling conduct. In October last year, Crikey’s legal correspondent Michael Bradley named 10 ministers in relation to which he believed there were “serious questions of possible impropriety which have not been subjected to the kind of fully independent inquiry which an anti-corruption body would conduct”.
In analysis elsewhere, I have argued that when scrutinised collectively and as a pattern, the Morrison government rorts constitute a tacit ideological agenda: part of a “wrecking crew” approach to government and society that is deeply corrosive of the public good.
Crucially, as a range of commentators have pointed out, the government response to these scandals has been characterised by evasion. In an excoriating analysis in the Griffith Review, Professor Anne Tiernan has described what she sees as the “chilling” similarities between the Morrison government and the Queensland government of disgraced former premier Joh Bjelke-Pietersen, which she lived through as a child. (For younger readers, Chris Masters’ history-making investigation, The Moonlight State, is available on the Four Corners website). According to Tiernan:
“It didn’t begin with Scott Morrison, but under his tenure, it has become appreciably and, I fear, irredeemably worse. The prime minister has presided over flagrant abuses of and disregard for traditions and conventions that have guided political practice in Australia’s Commonwealth and were accepted by both sides of politics as appropriate and necessary restraints on executive power…. This list includes rorting and misuse of public funds, particularly through discretionary grants programs; a penchant for secrecy and brazen refusal to answer questions or conform to reasonable expectations of accountability to parliament or in the media; and a failure to enforce the Ministerial or other Codes of Conduct or to concede accumulating evidence of widespread abuses of power with respect to public appointments, the independence of public sector agencies, statutory bodies and the like.”
The Bjelke-Pietersen years were also characterised by significant environmental damage, reflecting the more general tendency that rorting and corruption create a conducive environment for the wholesale destruction of nature. Good governance in the public interest is a precondition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and creating the conditions for nature and wildlife to flourish and regenerate.
Media exposure, institutional pressure and popular outrage eventually led to the establishment of the Fitzgerald Inquiry (the Commission of Inquiry into Possible Illegal Activities and Associated Police Misconduct conducted by Tony Fitzgerald QC) which finally brought Bjelke-Petersen’s corrupt regime to account.
In more recent years, Tony Fitzgerald has expressed his deep concern about the decay of standards of propriety in politics, and was among the former judges who helped establish the Australian Centre for Public Integrity, which is “dedicated to preventing corruption, protecting the integrity of our accountability institutions, and eliminating undue influence of money in politics”. The centre has been particularly vocal in calling out the failures of the Morrison government in relation to preventing corruption. According to former judge Anthony Whealy, now a director of the Centre for Public Integrity, “with a litany of scandalous rorts identified in audit reports” it is clear that the Morrison government “wishes to avoid proper scrutiny and being held publicly accountable”.
As Transparency International rightly observes, progress against corruption is only possible through the persistent efforts of “dedicated individuals and communities from across all parts of society”. Australian democracy – and our capacity to achieve environmental, social and economic progress across a whole swathe of issues, including climate change – are now imperilled by our declining standards of public accountability.
Regardless of the result of the May 2022 election, it is imperative that as citizens we demand that the highest standards of accountability and integrity, and a commitment to the public good, be enshrined at the centre of Australian democracy.