Issues and policies

What elitism looks like
Flagrant conflicts of interest abound at the top

In the week of the AFL Grand Final, the premier reminded Melburnians that they remained under lockdown and should defy any temptation to gather socially to watch it. In the same week, Victoria’s racing minister, Martin Pakula, announced that hundreds of horse owners and their mates would be allowed to attend the Cox Plate. 

The public’s outrage forced Pakula’s reversal, and his apology. “I do accept that in my passion for the industry and my enthusiasm for properly marking the 100th Cox Plate, I should’ve stepped back and had a broader view about how it would be perceived by the rest of the community,” he said.

It was curious that the minister’s mea culpa was more damning than the insensitivity he was apologising for. By offering his “enthusiasm” and “passion” as exculpatory, the minister revealed how inappropriately close he is to the industry he’s meant to regulate.

In the same week, Crown’s board admitted to a NSW inquiry to having effectively ignored epic volumes of drug money being laundered through its casinos. I thought back to March, when lockdown restrictions were first applied to all but essential services in Melbourne, and the Victorian government allowed Crown’s gaming floors to remain open while small businesses were shuttered.  (After outcry, this exemption was revoked.)

The NSW inquiry has since found Crown to be unfit to hold casino licences, and we might pause on the fact that, down in Victoria, not only was Crown’s malpractice unrecognised, but, in the early days of the pandemic, it enjoyed special treatment.  

Perhaps, like Martin Pakula, the responsible minister was simply blinded by her “passion for the industry”. Or perhaps, in a country that’s home to 20 per cent of the world’s pokies, Crown’s stature demanded cynical fealty. As it is, the responsible Victorian minister at the time was Marlene Kairouz, who resigned from cabinet just months later after being named – unfairly, she says – in a news report exposing Labor’s long, deep and cancerous practice of branch-stacking.

During NSW’s casino hearings, Crown’s chair offered the following extraordinary explanation, which contains both a qualified admission of negligence, and an exquisitely cowardly use of legalese: “It may have been ineptitude or a lack of attention. I don’t think it was deliberately turning a blind eye; I do think that’s a different adjectival conclusion.”

Crown’s chair is Helen Coonan, a former Howard minister, and, incongruously, also the chair of the Australian Financial Complaints Authority, which was established in the wake of the banking royal commission. It was in this capacity last year that Coonan loftily condemned the banks’ culture of “arrogant indifference” to regulation.

When asked to reflect upon Crown’s own arrogant indifference, Coonan suggested that their sustained usefulness to global drug rings was merely the result of “shortcomings”.

If we generously accept some “shortcomings” as the sum of Crown’s sins, it still constitutes profound incompetence. The casino has facilitated the laundering of blood money. Still, Coonan sees nothing wrong with retaining both of her handsomely paid roles – chair of Crown and chair of AFCA (which was created, if for nothing else, as a response to egregious corporate failure). The shamelessness is astonishing. 

Let’s now consider the Brereton report, which substantively alleges that some of our elite soldiers were serial killers – men who slit the throats of boys, who kicked prisoners off cliffs and encouraged murder as a rite of passage. And consider the role of investigative journalists at Nine and the ABC in helping uncover these alleged crimes, and their perseverance in holding the powerful to account, despite arrests, police raids and political intimidation.   

Now consider that one of the country’s wealthiest men, Kerry Stokes, is a media mogul who is contemptuous of this vital journalism. He has personally loaned Victoria Cross recipient Ben Roberts-Smith – the subject of a war crimes investigation by the Australian Federal Police – millions to fight Fairfax (now Nine) in his defamation suit, and has promised to fund the accused soldiers’ legal costs should they be trialled for war crimes.

This might be less a conflict of interest than it is a weird and depressing dissonance, and a reminder of Stokes’ indifference to the most basic hope for journalism: that it pursues the tail of truth, wherever it goes.

What is inarguably a conflict of interest, however, is Stokes’ chairmanship of the Australian War Memorial – notionally a place of apolitical truth-telling, but inescapably the fulcrum of our culture wars. It is preposterous that the chairman of the memorial might fund the defence of alleged war criminals, but Stokes is arrogantly committed to keeping his positions. All of them.

These examples are all clear and disqualifying conflicts of interest. But weekly we’re reminded of the rare impunity enjoyed by our elites – actual elites, and not those with an obscure Twitter account or a precarious gig in academia. The quality of our governance is too often held hostage by unfit and fevered egos, those ruled by their will to power or their fear of obscurity.

In perpetuity, it seems, these egos are accommodated by a system of peer referral and unapologetic entitlement. And you know what? They’re eerily unchastened by anything. This is what real elitism looks like.

Martin McKenzie-Murray

Martin McKenzie-Murray is the author of The Speechwriter and A Murder Without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle.

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