Is Aussie democracy in a crisis?

While a number of institutions exist to scrutinise federal government and MPs, calls for establishment of a federal corruption watchdog like the Independent Commission Against Corruption in New South Wales or the Criminal Justice Commission in Queensland have never been louder or more justified.

Or ignored.

By Tony Smith

This situation is a serious indictment of a government that fails to provide ethical leadership. The Morrison Government has become expert at thwarting the efforts of bodies such as Senate committees, audit offices, semi-judicial agencies and investigative media.

Surely the energy put into defending the ATs (Ministers Tudge and Taylor) and the Macs (McKenzie and McCormack) and the like would be better spent maintaining ethical standards. Such a process would, however, require first, locating an ethical conscience in leadership sufficient to establish durable standards and second, having the courage and skill to implement those standards.

There is nothing new about the perversion of public values to look after ‘mates’. It is a perennial blokey pursuit. Bridget McKenzie took the fall for the sports rorts affair only after continuous Opposition and media probing into who knew what when. The Prime Minister could have stood down Senator McKenzie pending inquiries. That would have indicated that he took such issues seriously. Perhaps she went in the end because women are still not mates of the wink-wink-nudge-nudge sort. Indeed, colleagues made disparaging comments about her organisational abilities while she was still a minister.

Morrison quickly condemned the woman at Australia Post who dared to implement the kind of incentives usually dear to Liberal hearts. Perhaps the head of a public company does not receive the same kind of support as does a Minister – bluff, denial, outrage, secrecy and justification.

A shocker for the Premier State

For the brazen attitude to criticism, consider the cases of government ministers Taylor and Tudge. The use of fake documents to attack opponents should offend against any code of ministerial conduct. So too should a Minister shrink in shame when a member of the judiciary accuses him of actions bordering on the criminal. When the Prime Minister says that such Ministers have done nothing wrong, he means nothing illegal. This is doubtful in both cases but surely the behaviour of the two ATs is questionable ethically. The PM should be running the interrogation process, not trying to frustrate it.

Going through clippings recently, I found a cartoon that always produces a grim smile. A voter slips a ballot into a box while nearby a wealthy looking individual stuffs a brown paper bag into the adjoining box. The bag man asks the voter: ‘How naive are you?’ Sadly, as the public loses confidence in political processes, our leaders think that people will shrug their shoulders helplessly about this tawdry situation. When issues become overwhelmingly large they tend not to be factors in electoral choice.

Whether public funds are alienated through small sports grants, massive largesse towards companies guarding asylum seekers or tending the Great Barrier Reef or through obscenely inappropriate tenders or purchases of land as at Leppington, the appearance is that the Coalition expects something in return for its generosity. Lucrative positions and consultancies for retiring MPs? No worries. Donations during elections to enable your mates to get back in and further rort the public purse? Too easy. Adequate funding of services for the disabled and the elderly or university education. You are joking.

The Morrison Government is not the first to assume that what Australian people value most is money. But they are certainly expert at reducing everything to a monetary value. They want to import cheap labour to harvest fruit because they assume that we would not pay more for cherries even should that enable orchardists to pay wages generous enough to attract local workers. This is also their attitude to renewable energy sources. Ditto the payment of taxes to support the unemployed and students.

It is no coincidence that writings about political ethics emphasise trust. John Uhr in Terms of Trust and Raimond Gaita in Breach of Trust report on the damage that results when politicians fail to behave with integrity. MPs should be our watchdogs on executive government and failure to take this role seriously shows disdain and disrespect for constituents and creates public cynicism.

Aristotle is often acknowledged as the founder of political science. For him, engagement in politics represented the highest ethical life. People reach their full potential only in community service. What a perversion we see today when politicians are so careless of perceptions of cronyism.

The Australian public can have confidence in government only when corruption is minimised. There is a crisis in Australian democracy and it stems directly from denial of accountability. When the role of parliamentarians has become so perverted that they no longer keep governments responsible, it is time to hand that function to an institution that will perform its public role fearlessly.

Perhaps the interrogation of NSW Premier Berejiklian about her relationship with an apparently corrupt former MP suggests that the existence of an Independent Commission Against Corruption is not on its own a sufficient deterrent to dubious practices. It is however, one useful tool for ensuring scrutiny and public exposure. In the current milieu, establishment of a federal ICAC is long overdue.



First published at Pearls and Irritations, Friday 30 October 2020. See;

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