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Rewarding rorting and bad behaviour: Why many LNP politicians were re-elected

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George Christensen has abusing his privilege, yet received a swing of over 11% in Dawson (screenshot via YouTube).

It's baffling that politicians like George Christensen and Peter Dutton achieved swings towards them at the Federal Election and further evidence that a National Integrity Commission is needed, writes Dr Kim Sawyer.

WE CAN NEVER understand why voters vote the way they do, just as we will never understand why the opinion polls got it so wrong in this election.

We will not know what exercised the minds of voters when they actually had to vote. There were big issues like taxes and climate change but there were also issues such as whether they liked Bill Shorten.

Post-mortems will focus on where Labor went wrong but they should also consider the behavioural biases of voters. Voters are not perfect. They can be as irrational as traders in financial markets.

What do voters want in a politician? Logically they should want someone who represents their interests and not the interest of the politician. Yet the evidence of this Election calls that into question.

Consider the politicians who have exhibited more self-interest than most. Over a four-year period the Member for Dawson, George Christensen, spent more time in the Philippines than in the Parliament and as a consequence missed eight public hearings of the twenty-seven held by the Northern Australia committee.

The swing towards him in Dawson was more than 11%.

The member for Fadden, Stuart Robert, charged taxpayers $2,000 a month for his home internet, 20 times higher than that of other federal parliamentarians.

The swing towards him in Fadden was nearly 3%.

It is the same for other politicians who have shown more self-interest than the average. Barnaby Joyce in New England had a swing towards him.

Ken Wyatt in Hasluck a swing of more than 2% and Peter Dutton in Dickson a swing of more than 2%. Sussan Ley had a swing against her in Farrer but still garnered more than 60% of the vote despite her resignation from the Ministry in 2017 following the disclosure of 27 taxpayer-funded trips to the Gold Coast.

Voters vote for all sorts of reasons. Accountability may not be one of them.

This is consistent with the findings of a survey by "Starts at 60" showing 80% of respondents would not change their vote in response to inappropriate behaviour by a politician. Perhaps politicians are exempt from accountability. Perhaps we have become so used to them.

An issue buried in the noise of the Election was the establishment of a National Integrity Commission.

The Morrison government has been a late convert to the idea of a federal anti-corruption body just as they were a late convert to the Banking Royal Commission.

Their proposed integrity commission has two divisions, one dealing with investigating law enforcement and the other the broader public service. But for investigations of the public service (including politicians), there will be no public hearings. Geoffrey Watson SC, a counsel assisting the New South Wales ICAC described the Government’s proposal as worse than no commission.

David Ipp, a former Commissioner of ICAC, labelled the proposal as a faux commission.

The problem is one of transparency.

If there are no public hearings the secrets of the corrupt remain secret. The Banking Royal Commission would have failed if held in private. It would be the same for every Royal Commission. There needs to be a threshold for public hearings but the threshold shouldn't be none at all.

Otherwise, politicians who spend the public’s money and time as if it were their own will be protected. The distinguished jurist Louis Brandeis put it this way: The best disinfectant to the disease of corruption is sunlight.

Corruption is not cyclical. Corruption is perennial and requires governments to represent the public interest and not private interests. Corruption is estimated to cost a firm 5% of its revenues and an economy 5% of its GDP, implying Australia has lost $100 billion to corruption over the last decade.

Yet governments have been indifferent. During the eleven years of the Howard government, there was no major anti-corruption initiative. No federal whistleblowing legislation, no federal integrity commission, no false claims Act, no foreign corrupt practices act.

Australia could not have a Mueller-type inquiry because we don’t have the mechanism.

Not surprisingly Australia has been sliding down Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index for some time. Over the last six years, we have dropped six more places.

Last November, 34 former judges including former justices of the High Court, wrote a letter to Scott Morrison calling for the immediate establishment of a national integrity commission to restore trust in our democracy.

They referred to corruption as when those in public office put their private interest before the public interest. The Government was lukewarm to a federal anti-corruption body before the Election. They may be even more lukewarm now.

The voters of Dawson have shown that the self-interest of politicians does not interest all the public. Window dressing may be enough to satisfy them.

The result of the 2019 Election may sadly kick a National Integrity Commission down the road.

Dr Kim Sawyer is a senior fellow in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne.

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