If there’s one thing we know about the current crop of Australian politicians, it’s that they really don’t like being held accountable for their actions.
This should not be surprising to even a casual observer. Anecdotally, people feel that asking the Parliament to legislate its own anti-corruption body is a bit like asking a horse to build a fence. You’re not likely to get a fence, but you are likely to get a load of horse shit.
Things have not always been this way, though. According to Senior Researcher at the Australia Institute’s Democracy and Accountability program, Bill Browne, the expectation for a high standard of ethics has declined significantly over the last 40 years.
“The high watermark of government accountability is often identified as the 1980s where you had two ministers resigning. One minister declared the colour TV he was importing was black and white and so dodged a bit of duty on that. Then a couple of years later, another minister's wife failed to declare a teddy bear, she'd have to pay duty on as well, bringing it into the country... it's hard to imagine that happening today.”
This level of accountability demonstrates a radical shift in our expectations of politicians over the last four decades. I think wistfully about Sam Dastyari resigning over receiving $1670.20 from a known Labor benefactor. Where has the time gone?
A view has developed within the Australian political class that certain politicians, particularly those with a knack for retail politics, are above reproach. Former New South Wales Transport Minister Andrew Constance may have let too much slip when he said then Premier Gladys Berejiklian was “too good to lose” over her initial participation in ICAC hearings last year, stating outright what many in the New South Wales Coalition were thinking at the time.
While nobody else has been quite as direct, in national scandals involving Christian Porter and Angus Taylor, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and National Party leader Barnaby Joyce have expressed similar perspectives, with Joyce backing Porter as an “extremely capable politician”. Scott Morrison added characteristic support with plausible deniability, reframing Porter’s resignation as a win for government ethics. The position is clear: they believe Porter is too good to lose.
It’s hard not to contrast Dastyari’s resignation with Christian Porter’s recent admission he had received nearly $1 million from a blind legal trust to fund his legal battle against journalist Louise Milligan and the ABC. Australia has never seen such a marked slip in ethical standards in so little time. While Dastyari’s benefactor was a known Labor Party donor, Porter’s remains anonymous. Given how much things have changed, it’s hard to imagine Dastyari going so quietly today.
Since 2013, we have seen a gradual erosion of the media’s capacity to hold politicians to account for policy decisions and potential corruption through a mixture of legal and rhetorical practices that leave the public incapable of determining whether politicians are worthy of trust at either the federal or state level.
To be clear, there is little evidence to suggest this is a systematic attempt to silence the media rather than state and federal governments simply trying to deal with the problems in front of them. Unwillingness to be held accountable outside of the ballot box is likely indicative of a lack of systematic, long term thinking. Trust in democracy is slipping in Australia and the fundamental reason is people no longer trust political leaders to behave in their best interests. If trust in democracy disappears completely, what do our democratically elected leaders think will happen to them?
Systematic or not, the assault on accountability is visible in almost every traditional rail of government accountability. Public sector whistleblowers have little assurance they will be protected under law. Raids on the houses of journalists and even YouTube comedians show a general unwillingness to tolerate criticism or allow potentially embarrassing information to enter the public sphere.
We hear echoes of Trumpian evasion in Scott Morrison’s “Canberra bubble”, or “I don’t comment on gossip”. The Fourth Estate dramatises and trivialises, but never follows up. It is clear to even the casual observer that members of the Australian political class do not like being held accountable for their actions.
However, the most visible and insidious action is the use of one scandal to make people forget about another. In a 24-hour news cycle, the public and the press have a limited capacity to absorb scandal, a fact the Government exploits to its full advantage.
Browne refers to this as the “dead cat strategy”:
“Essentially, you can avoid media coverage of one issue by introducing a new, alarming, attention-seeking sort of proposal. If you dump a dead cat on the table, whatever people were talking about before, now they’re talking about the dead cat.”
There’s a bit of a sense that corruption is most common at the local government level, less common at the state and territory level and then less common again at the Federal Government level. The problem is that we hear more about corruption in places that have specialised bodies that exist to identify it and so it would be a mistake to assume that just because you hear more about corruption at certain levels of government, that’s the only place it’s occurring.
Internationally, anti-corruption bodies are common. Indeed, even countries like Indonesia and Ukraine that have been scarred by repeated political and judicial scandals over several decades have national-level anti-corruption bodies.
In fairness to both the Government and private members, a number of federal anti-corruption bodies have been put before the Parliament.
The idea’s really had its moment in the last few years. Cathy McGowan and her successor Helen Haines put forward integrity commission bills for consideration. The Greens actually had a bill pass the Senate a couple of years ago, but the House of Representatives hasn’t chosen to debate it so far. Labor has put together its own model as well.
Alongside that, the Federal Government has its own model. I mention it separately because although the other four aren’t identical, they follow a broadly similar approach in the powers and designs of the integrity commission they propose. The Morrison Government’s Commonwealth Integrity Commission, on the other hand, is much more limited in scope.
The Government’s tactics on this have been twofold: oversell their own model and trash any counter-suggetion. Standard 21st Century political warfare.
The Government’s prime selling point for its proposed Commonwealth Integrity Commission is that it will ‘have greater investigatory powers than a royal commission’. Fundamentally, the power of a royal commission is its capacity to change minds and bring important evidence to the public. Without the ability to hold public hearings or investigate anonymous complaints, the suggestion the Government’s Commonwealth Integrity Commission would in any way resemble a royal commission is, at best, misleading.
Additionally, the government model proposes to treat politicians in a different class to other public servants for the purpose of accepting evidence from the public. Whereas organisations like the police would be subject to anonymous or public complaints, evidence on the political class can only come from the political class; a parody of true accountability.
Browne believes this model would cause more problems than it solves:
“It gives false confidence and prevents a better body from being set up. And because it undermines public confidence in the process, I think that’s particularly true. With the Government’s model where you can see law enforcement being held to a different standard, a higher level of scrutiny than the politicians that will make these laws, that’s not going to fill people with confidence in the integrity of the system.”
The question remains whether any of our politicians really are too good to lose.
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