February 2021


The scandals he walks past

By Nick Feik
Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison during Question Time, 2020.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison during Question Time, 2020. © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

In Morrison’s government, a lack of accountability has become systemic

When it was revealed in December that Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg had billed taxpayers almost $5000 to take the prime minister’s private jet from Canberra to Sydney for Lachlan Murdoch’s 2018 Christmas party, there was little outcry. Most media organisations didn’t even follow up Guardian Australia’s original story. Morrison and Frydenberg, far from expressing penitence or promising an explanation, brazened it out, even though, according to Commonwealth rules, special-purpose aircraft must only be used when the primary reason is parliamentary business. How did we get to the point where the misuse of public money by our two most senior politicians provoked neither contrition nor embarrassment, and it scarcely even registered as a scandal?

Scandals are nothing new in Australian politics, but the way they have piled up in the recent years of Coalition government points to a critical shift in our governance. Acts of malfeasance and impropriety have become more than isolated episodes, more than egregious slips or embarrassing failures. Unexplained and unresolved, they are open wounds on the body politic, overlapping and now chronic.

The late US congressman John Lewis once wrote: “Democracy is not a state. It is an act.” It involves much more than regular elections and the formal separation of powers; it requires political leaders to act on principles of transparency, accountability and responsibility. Australian democracy, for all of its historical elisions and failures, has traditionally relied on conventions of ministerial behaviour, and the belief that codes of conduct are real and binding, that politicians who are caught doing the wrong thing should resign, and that public faith depends on these things. With some notable exceptions, these codes and conventions have held. But we are now learning what happens when our leaders choose to ignore them.

The Coalition has long prided itself on a broad ideological commitment to deregulation, to privatising and minimising government functions, and – unless it involves unions, welfare recipients or national security – to reducing government’s reach and bureaucrats’ capacity. In the first major speech after his 2019 election, Morrison, by way of setting out his government’s agenda, aspired to provoke the nation’s “animal spirits” by removing regulatory and bureaucratic barriers to business investment. At every opportunity, Liberal leaders boast about cutting the government’s revenue (through tax cuts) and handing money and power to “the market”, whether through corporate subsidies, or exemptions from environmental and competition regulation or from labour-market rules.

Private-sector leadership is sought and the public service is mocked. Economic stimulus is funnelled through business while government agencies survive in a state of austerity, under constant threat of “efficiency” cuts. Under a Coalition with few plans for government beyond diminishment, but a fierce sense of entitlement to power, the eventual devolution of standards was inevitable.

It doesn’t matter that the major catastrophes of recent years – COVID-19, bushfires and other climate-related disasters – demonstrate the need for more environmental protection, and more spending on government and emergency services, social welfare, public health, and scientific and medical research. Derision for the state’s administrative role is now baked in. Coalition leaders evince contempt for the notion of accountability, including the personal accountability of ministers, and for the very institutions meant to ensure transparency and propriety.

When was the last time we heard a Coalition minister cite principles of responsibility, or reveal salient facts and documents voluntarily, or pledge to support an organisation or individual that had revealed something that embarrassed the government? When was the last time we heard a Coalition minister admit fault, let alone resign? Meanwhile, offices and institutions designed to bring accountability have turned out to be impotent in the face of the government’s concerted efforts to degrade them.

In such circumstances it’s a mistake to characterise incidents of political dereliction simply as scandals. They’re consequences. These aren’t bugs in the system; they are the system.

The Coalition’s preference for giving public money to private organisations, instead of funding government bodies, comes with a price. The most obvious is the diminishment of the government’s own capacity, but more important is the lack of transparency. Spending becomes “commercial-in-confidence” and operational decisions are outsourced to private boards, making them no longer subject to proper government oversight. The annual spend by Commonwealth departments on contractors and consultants to do work formerly carried out by public servants more than doubled over the past five years, and now totals more than $5 billion per year. But this is the tip of the iceberg, and the privatisation in areas of transport, infrastructure, social services, utilities, property management, telecommunications and the like is now so ubiquitous as to seem impossible to reverse.

No amount of funding is too great to evade Coalition government oversight or planning. Allegations of corruption are bandied around often – perhaps too often – to characterise the endless instances of special dealing by the Abbott–Turnbull–Morrison governments. The word corruption is too blunt a descriptor. The actions appear to be perfectly legal, or too little information is disclosed or known to establish otherwise.

In 2017, for example, Home Affairs awarded $423 million in contracts to a little-known company named Paladin for asylum-seeker security and site services on Manus Island, after a non-competitive tender process. At the time, the Australian arm of Paladin was registered to a beach shack on Kangaroo Island, and the company had just $50,000 in capital. The company’s bid, prepared in less than a week, was far more lucrative than anything it had undertaken before. Paladin’s founder, Craig Thrupp, was soon being denied entry into Papua New Guinea over disputes about the company’s local subcontracting practices. And no wonder: while Paladin received government funding of around $1400 per asylum seeker per day, security guards were being paid just $450 per month. The company was making $1.3 million profit per week, according to documents later filed in bitter legal disputes between Paladin and its former executives.

In what has become standard practice for the Coalition, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton refused to release details of the contracts, but documents released to the Senate in September 2019 reveal that Paladin breached its key performance indicators thousands of times during the first year of its operations. Yet the government renewed its contract several times.

Another example: In April 2018, the Turnbull-led Coalition government announced it was giving $444 million to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation. At the time, this was an organisation with just six full-time staff, annual revenue of about $10 million, and no track record of managing sums of this magnitude. There had been no tender process and the foundation had no plans or specific objectives for such funds. In fact its managing director, Anna Marsden, said the charity had never asked for the money, and the first time it became aware of the government’s plan was when the offer was made that same month. The foundation is supported by companies including BHP, Lendlease and Qantas, and was connected to mining and energy companies such as Rio Tinto, Shell and Peabody Energy through membership of its “Chairman’s Panel” – and this seems as good an explanation as any for why it received the funding, rather than the CSIRO, the Australian Institute of Marine Science, or the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (with 206 full-time staff), all of which have more expertise and experience.

When the Australian National Audit Office examined the awarding of the grant and found both planning and oversight to be inadequate, the then Department of Environment and Energy responded that the auditor-general misunderstood the purpose of the grant, which was “to leverage additional funding to further boost outcomes”. The foundation aimed to attract a further $357 million in funding from other sources. By July 2020, it had raised only $21.7 million of in-kind donations, and no cash funds at all. It was also spending millions, around a third of its outlays, on administration and fundraising.

But these are far from the most egregious examples of unjustifiable government spending.

The most infamous was the government’s $80 million purchase of water entitlements in 2017 from Eastern Australia Agriculture (EAA), a company co-founded by government MP Angus Taylor. This matter is worth revisiting because new documents recently came to light courtesy of a freedom of information request, details of which were published by Michael West Media.

The purchase involved overland flows, water that was available only in floods estimated to occur perhaps twice every 10 years. These entitlements are notoriously difficult to price, and for good reason. There is no true market for floodwater and it can’t be properly forecast. But in June 2016, the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources commissioned independent company Opteon to provide valuations. Opteon valued the Condamine Balonne overland flow water – the region that includes the entitlements held by EAA – at $50 per megalitre, a valuation that was swiftly set aside by the department. This figure would have valued EAA’s overland flow water entitlements at $1.4 million.

The Commonwealth had recently purchased overland flow licences from a nearby property for $800 per megalitre, while other valuations commissioned by the department priced such rights at between $1100 and $2300 per megalitre. EAA had self-valued its entire water holdings at $79.5 million in 2016. Yet the following year the Coalition government paid $80 million for less than half of that holding, and it was for the least reliable part – the overland flow water.

The eventual price paid to EAA by the Commonwealth – $2745 per megalitre – was nearly double the mid-range price recommended by the department’s valuations, and almost 20 per cent higher than the highest valuation. EAA took the money and immediately booked at least a $52 million profit on the transaction. There is no way of knowing the ultimate beneficiaries, because EAA’s parent company is headquartered in the Cayman Islands, a tax haven. How could the government give $80 million of public money to a company whose structure was expressly designed to avoid scrutiny and tax liabilities?

In June 2017 the government also paid agribusiness giant Webster Ltd $78 million for water entitlements associated with Tandou station in the Lower Darling – more than twice the sum recommended in the valuation it commissioned. Furthermore, as Guardian Australia put it, “there appears to have been no assessment of the actual availability of water under the licences”. A former director of environmental water planning at the Murray–Darling Basin Authority, Bill Johnson, used the term “ghost water” to describe his concerns over the purchase: “It is highly questionable whether the Commonwealth got any water for this money.”It’s still unclear why these deals were made, and the government has shown no urge to investigate. By contrast, the Australian Federal Police has been called in to investigate the case of the recent Leppington Triangle land purchase, where the federal Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications approved the purchase of 12 hectares of land near the proposed Western Sydney Airport. It was a $30 million acquisition of land that was valued at just $3 million a year earlier. Perhaps, in this case, members of the government are confident of being found innocent of serious incompetence or wrongdoing, especially in light of the AFP’s recent record on political investigations.

The most concerning aspect is not that these things have happened, but that they are likely to keep happening, because government planning and budgeting measures ensure it.

In recent years, the Coalition has ramped up spending by means of “delegated legislation”. This is where the government allocates grants using a mechanism that bypasses parliament and obscures decisions from public view. As Karen Middleton explained in The Saturday Paper, “in the federal election period between March 1 and May 23 last year [2019], almost $2 billion in grants across 20 programs were effectively rubberstamped through regulations.” The government granted $5 billion using such measures last year, and, in the October budget for this year, a further $5 billion was set aside to various grants programs, much of it to be allocated at the whim of a minister.

The “sports rorts” affair, in which public funds for sporting facilities were directed to electorates via colour-coded spreadsheets, was the most prominent example of how such funding is skewed to suit Coalition preferences, but it was by no means the largest or the worst.

The number of grants programs exploited by the government in the lead-up to the last election would be comical if it wasn’t so depressing. And so little of it was ventilated in the mainstream media.

Of the $3 billion spent in the Urban Congestion Fund (set up three years ago), for example, 83 per cent went into Coalition or marginal Labor seats.

Of the $3 billion spent via the Community Development Grants program, Coalition seats received more than 75 per cent.

Eighty per cent of the $150 million Female Facilities and Water Safety Stream program – meant for the provision of female changing rooms – was instead earmarked for the building of swimming pools in just 11 Liberal and National Party–held seats, of which half was pledged for pools in two marginal Liberal seats. According to the ABC, the Coalition made 41 spending promises from the fund before the election, nearly exhausting the four-year program’s funding, despite there being no guidelines, no tenders and no application process.

Then there was the $22 million Communities Environment Program, from which one marginal Liberal seat holder announced $40,000 of funding before the program was even open. There was also the $55 million Safer Communities Fund, administered by the home affairs department at the discretion of minister Peter Dutton.

Minister Paul Fletcher announced multiple election campaign grants within his social services portfolio, including a top-up for the $60 million Mutual Understanding, Support, Tolerance, Engagement and Respect initiative, which also distributed grants on a closed, non-competitive basis, requiring invitations to apply.

In addition, there were the Building Better Regions Fund, the Regional Growth Fund, the Drought Communities Programme and the Regional Jobs and Investment Packages, each heavily mined during the election campaign – and no prizes for guessing which parties’ candidates announced the bulk of the discretionary funds.

The Australia Institute called the 2020–21 budget the least transparent on record, finding that it has set a new record for items deemed “nfp – not for publication”. Budgets always have some items marked in this way, because the information is classified, still under negotiation or commercial in confidence. In the Rudd–Gillard years, there were in the order of 100 such items in each year’s budget. This year there were 384 items marked as secret.

It’s conditions such as these – budget items withheld from public scrutiny, and discretionary funds awarded via delegated legislation – that open the way for unscrupulous ministers to allocate public monies to organisations that support the government in other ways, too. This is how, for example, the Commonwealth can allocate $30 million, and then a further $10 million, to friendly broadcaster Foxtel (majority owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp) reportedly for the broadcast of under-represented sports, but without tender, without offering similar handouts to other broadcasters, and without a detailed plan from Foxtel for how it will be spent. (It’s little wonder the minister for youth and sport, Richard Colbeck, personally intervened to try to block the release of the records relating to the second decision; it took an FOI request by the ABC to reveal them.)

This is also how a $5 million grant was awarded to Liberal Party–aligned consultancy firm CT Group (formerly known as Crosby Textor) to conduct research relating to a small business campaign, but for which there is no requirement to produce anything public. There is nothing to stop this money, data or research being used for Liberal Party purposes.

A former Liberal Party pollster and researcher with Crosby Textor, Jim Reed, was the architect of Scott Morrison’s “quiet Australians” strategy. In 2020 his company, Resolve Strategic, received contracts worth more than $1 million. One was awarded by Treasury for market research informing the government’s “comeback” campaign. Another came via a limited-tender process from Nev Power’s National COVID-19 Commission, to conduct research “to inform whole-of-government communications” related to COVID-19. The resulting reports were sent to the prime minister’s office, which has refused to make them public, or even provide them to the Senate select committee that is monitoring the government’s response to the pandemic.

The former chief executive of the commission, Peter Harris, quit its board on October 6, and the next day his company Harrisolutions was awarded a limited tender contract for $58,360 for “strategic advice and review services”, an arrangement established by the commission board. Harris’s company had also been awarded a contract in May for $137,550 for “labour hire services” – an arrangement also established by the commission board, while Harris was its chief executive.

The twist with the taxpayer-funded National COVID-19 Commission is that the Morrison government appears to be paying lobbyists to lobby the Morrison government. The hand-picked board, stacked with mining and resources executives, whose deliberations have largely been kept secret, has so far produced little more than public statements of support for an uneconomic, environmentally destructive and essentially nonsensical “gas-led recovery”. It has also flagged revisions to quarantine arrangements to attract students and migrant workers to “re-start” the economy, but there’s been no explanation from the government as to why such deliberations would be handed to businesspeople instead of accountable and experienced public servants.

The lines dividing government from big business have virtually collapsed under successive Coalition governments. The political strategy behind such cosy relationships writes itself in slogans – it’s all about jobs and growth, lifters and leaners, and the rest. It’s also profitable for a political party. Public interest barely gets a look in.

As George Rennie, a lecturer in lobbying strategies at the University of Melbourne, wrote recently, “The data routinely show that among the biggest corporate political donors are mining, infrastructure and defence companies and groups.” These are all industries that rest on government decisions. This is where the big money resides, and it’s disbursed in commercial-in-confidence contracts and regulatory approvals. Rent-seeking has led to private monopolies in areas such as major roads, electricity and water infrastructure, and industries such as property development, financial services and gambling – all heavily reliant on an amenable regulatory environment – are unsurprisingly also keen lobbyists and donors. This is how we come to have water policy being shaped by big agriculture firms closely connected to Nationals leaders, environmental regulation weakened at the bidding of resources giants, financial regulation and superannuation policy being warped by the big banks and retail super funds, and so on.

The net result is not in the public interest, and not even good for the economy. Australia is sliding down the global lists for transparency and innovation, inequality is rising, and we have become a nation of oligopolies. In 2017, Andrew Leigh and Andrew Trigg wrote in The Monthly that Australia’s major industries are becoming increasingly concentrated, which is obviously bad for competition:

In department stores, newspapers, banking, health insurance, supermarkets, domestic airlines, internet service providers, baby food and beer, the biggest four firms comprise more than 80 per cent of the market. In fact, it’s hard to come up with examples of Australian industries that are not dominated by a few behemoths.

The Grattan Institute’s 2018 report on access and influence in Australian politics found that half the Australian economy is heavily dependent on government policy. And the doors between politicians, business lobbyists and regulatory authorities are, increasingly, revolving ones. Combined with weak laws around donations, and absent strong signals from the nation’s leaders about propriety or integrity, public accountability, transparency and independence, the inevitable results are systemic distortions of political decision-making and conflicts of interest.

The Helloworld episode is the perfect example. The travel company’s chief executive, Andrew Burnes, was a major Liberal donor and fundraiser, and when a lucrative Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade travel contract came up in 2017, he called on his friend (and Helloworld shareholder), the Australian ambassador to the United States, Joe Hockey, to help set up a private meeting with department officials. Burnes’s former employee Russell Carstensen later told a parliamentary committee that Burnes had organised the meeting with the ambassador and former treasurer because “Hockey owes me”. Burnes denied he said this, and Helloworld issued a statement to the Australian Stock Exchange, stating: “At no time has Ambassador Hockey or Helloworld CEO Andrew Burnes discussed the DFAT tender and neither Mr Hockey nor Mr Burnes have had any involvement in the tender process.” But the facts remain that at the time of the April 2017 meeting in Washington, Hockey was a shareholder in the Helloworld group, which won the Whole of Australian Government accommodation and travel contracts. Hockey increased his stake in the company in 2017 and 2018, to become one of its top 20 shareholders. In the meantime, Finance Minister Mathias Cormann blamed an administrative error for the fact that he and his family had not been charged by Helloworld for flights to Singapore, which he had “booked” directly through Burnes.

Another Liberal donor, the shipbuilding company Austal, recently came under investigation by a notoriously unproductive government agency, the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity (don’t be surprised that you haven’t heard of it). The ACLEI had been investigating payments totalling $39 million from Australian Border Force to Austal in 2015–17 in connection with the company’s $573 million Cape-class patrol boat contract. ACLEI was told that on Border Force’s own advice the funds shouldn’t have been remitted, because the obligations stipulated in the contract hadn’t been met.

ACLEI launched a secret investigation into the affair in early 2019, following a damning report by the auditor-general, and was planning to hold coercive hearings. But in February 2020, the head of ACLEI was replaced at the behest of Attorney-General Christian Porter, and the new appointee scrapped the idea of coercive hearings altogether. These facts may or may not be related, and the new ACLEI commissioner, Jaala Hinchcliffe, has strenuously defended her own integrity, telling a recent Senate estimates hearing, “I am an independent statutory officer … and I completely reject any allegation that I am without integrity.” As with so many affairs involving potential government malfeasance, we await further developments.

In a recent statement to the Australian Stock Exchange, Austal said it had been advised “that the investigations are ongoing, but in a different form. Austal has had no contact with ACLEI, so has no first-hand knowledge of any investigation, its status, or the substance or detail of any allegations that have been made.”

It would be fair to question whether it’s in the public interest for such an investigation to happen in secret. Other governmental regulators, such as the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) and the Australian Communications and Media Authority, are equally toothless, so it is too often that the public relies on journalists to sort through the uncomfortable facts of affairs such as this. It was the work of journalists, for instance, that led to the banking royal commission, and exposed the malfeasance in aged care, franchising, the tax office and the defence force, in branch-stacking in both major parties, robodebt, and the terrible governance standards at Crown Resorts. (Former Liberal minister Helen Coonan is chair of both Crown and the Australian Financial Complaints Authority, for goodness sake.) Just a handful of journalists – Adele Ferguson, Nick McKenzie, Richard Baker, Michael Bachelard and Kate McClymont, to name a few – have done more to expose corruption in Australia over the past 15 years than all federal government bodies combined. But the public can’t properly rely on the media to bring accountability when three-quarters of Australia’s print media is owned by News Corp, which unashamedly supports the Morrison government and routinely ignores the scandals that afflict it.

Too often, under no pressure to do otherwise, members of the government or their staff dictate the shape of investigations into their own affairs. When the sports-rorts story broke, it was the secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Phil Gaetjens, who was tasked with investigating. His findings, not released to the public, disagreed with the auditor-general’s conclusions about bias in how the funds were distributed. But he didn’t speak to staff in either the prime minister’s office or that of then sports minister Senator Bridget McKenzie, even though emails between their offices had already been released by the Australian National Audit Office. “I haven’t seen any of that,” Gaetjens said. Nothing to see here.

When Assistant Treasurer and Minister for Housing Michael Sukkar was embroiled in a Liberal branch-stacking controversy last year, which allegedly involved members of his own taxpayer-funded staff recruiting new party members, the investigation was outsourced to the law firm Ashurst (then known as Blake Dawson Waldron), which had been Sukkar’s employer for seven years. Readers will be shocked to learn that this investigation found there was an insufficient basis to reach a finding of serious misuse of money or resources.

While many of these problems are both ideological and systemic, it would be remiss to ignore the role of personal responsibility – by their own words, a belief in free will and individual agency are crucial elements of what it is to be Liberal, after all.

In Australia there are few constitutional checks on MPs’ behaviour or on ministerial discretion. The separation of powers dictates that elected representatives have guaranteed freedoms under the law, and, in the absence of any kind of national independent corruption body, standards of governance have rested on a kind of honour system.

Yet the message from the top of the Coalition parties, whenever the integrity of a senior MP is called into question over their behaviour, is that there will be no repercussions.

Whether the allegations involve the all-too-common misuse of parliamentary allowances such as travel expenses, or the misuse of public office or staff, the response by party leaders is the same: to bat the problem away, deny it, delay it or otherwise ignore it until it goes away. When Minister Angus Taylor’s office was caught circulating falsified documents to the media to make the City of Sydney Council look bad, there were no recriminations from the party leadership. When Minister Michaelia Cash’s office illegally leaked information of a federal police raid on a union office to the media, she was shielded from the media (sometimes literally) for more than a year. And it didn’t matter that Coalition MPs (ministers Alan Tudge, Barnaby Joyce and allegedly Christian Porter), who had publicly argued for the sanctity of heterosexual marriage during the marriage equality debate, had themselves been having extramarital relations with government staff, or that prominent LNP member George Christensen had been spending up to 100 days a year overseas on full pay, often visiting Angeles City in the Philippines.

We still don’t know the full story behind Peter Dutton’s interventions to get approvals for two au pairs to stay in the country, despite officials warning they were likely to breach their tourist visa conditions. But the general picture is unmistakeable. As the ABC reported, the Department of Home Affairs released 169 pages of documents relating to the matter:

The redacted documents paint a picture of a bureaucracy and staffers trying to get approvals for the au pairs to stay in the country as a flurry of emails is exchanged between key players right up until the last minute. They reveal that in the case of the Italian au pair employed by Mr Dutton’s former Queensland police colleague, senior officials were called upon late into the evening to make sure the young woman did not spend the night in immigration detention.

Minister for Government Services Stuart Robert deserves his own section in this essay, as a prime example of a politician immune to controversy, constantly forgiven for things that would have ended the careers of ministers past. Robert was sacked from Turnbull’s front bench in 2016, after it was revealed he owned shares in a trust linked to the mining company of a generous Liberal donor. He had travelled to China for part of a signing ceremony for a mining deal between the company, Nimrod Resources, and a Chinese business.

Fairfax Media started investigating his other business dealings and found that an IT service company, GMT Group, that he co-founded and owned shares in until 2010, and a number of other GMT companies, had been awarded government contracts worth around $16.5 million between 2007 and 2010 – while Robert was in parliament.

Any person who “has any direct or indirect pecuniary interest in any agreement with the Public Service of the Commonwealth” is ineligible to sit in parliament, but when this was put to Robert, he argued that his business affairs had been structured in a way that “did not breach the requirements of section 44 of the constitution”. He declined to explain how, though, and then claimed to have “ceased involvement” in GMT before the 2010 election. But, as Fairfax’s Latika Bourke reported, he later transferred key aspects of another private company, Robert International, to the home address of his parents, Alan and Dorothy Robert, who were aged 74 and 71. At this time, documents show Robert International held shares in GMT.

ASIC documents show the Roberts’ home address became the company’s “principal place of business” on September 10, 2010, and Dorothy and Alan became directors of the company on the same date. Their home became the registered office for Robert International on October 8, 2010.

But Stuart Robert apparently neglected to tell his parents of their new role and responsibilities, while the government contracts continued.

Alan Robert said he was unaware he had been appointed company secretary of Robert International Pty Ltd and he and his wife directors, between 2010 and 2016, until informed by Fairfax Media.

“Blessed if I know – you’d have to talk to Stuart about that,” he added. “No, we haven’t run it, no … Robert International was run by our son, so I’m not too sure how we figured into the directorship thing, but there hasn’t been any direct involvement in it, no.”

In February 2018 it was also revealed Stuart Robert had been charging taxpayers $2000 per month for his home internet. But none of this seemed to matter to Scott Morrison, who became prime minister in August that year: Robert went back into cabinet as assistant treasurer. At the time, ASIC was investigating whether he had failed to give timely notification to the regulator that he had resigned as a director of an entirely different company, Cryo Australia. Which is to say, Robert was issuing press releases concerning ASIC powers and regulatory legislation in his capacity as assistant treasurer even while ASIC was investigating whether he had breached the Corporations Act. He denied any wrongdoing, saying he had provided proper notice to the company, which in turn bore the responsibility for advising ASIC of changes to its directorship.

You would think such a catalogue of controversies would provoke a response from the leader. But who is Scott Morrison to cast the first stone? And who will make him? His office was knee-deep in the sports rorts affair, coordinating the colour-coded spreadsheets that would determine which electorates would end up receiving taxpayer funds for their facilities. (It’s probably no coincidence that the only minister to resign over a scandal in recent years is the Nationals – not Liberal – Senator Bridget McKenzie, who was minister for sport at the time. McKenzie officially resigned not because of the handling of the grants program, but because she did not disclose she was a member of a gun club that received money from the grants scheme.)

As treasurer and then prime minister, Morrison, along with ministers Tudge, Porter and Robert, oversaw the introduction of the robodebt scheme, the worst and most damaging piece of social policy in Australia in living memory. The Coalition was warned dozens of times that it was likely to be unlawful to levy people with automated and hence potentially incorrect debts, yet it persisted for four years. Tudge went so far as to threaten victims with prison time. It cost the government billions in wasted resources and pay-outs, and the trauma cost lives – the actual number of victims is yet to be determined, but is likely to be in the hundreds. Compare and contrast: in the Netherlands, a similar scandal (involving fewer welfare recipients) recently led to the resignation of the entire Dutch government, including the prime minister. In Australia, there hasn’t been any proper reckoning in the Morrison cabinet about robodebt, or any inclination to investigate how it happened. Because they know how it happened. For a government with a House of Representatives majority of one, they’d be casting stones in a glass house. Better to stonewall.

The Morrison government’s response to the general tirade of ugly revelations, apart from denial and diversion, has been defensive. With a shamelessness that reflects a sense of impunity, it cut funding to the Australian National Audit Office (by $14 million in the recent budget), and to the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner. The message seemed clear: this is the price of trying to make the government accountable.

The latter agency, Australia’s regulator for privacy and freedom of information, already under-resourced, failed to achieve seven of its eight performance goals for the 2019–20 financial year, yet faces a funding drop from around $22 million in 2020–21 to around $13 million in following years. In the meantime, data provided to Guardian Australia showed that Morrison’s own office complied with legally imposed deadlines in just 7.5 per cent of the freedom of information requests it received in 2019–20. The information commission’s latest annual report showed that practical refusals in the FOI system were up by 71 per cent in a single year, and delays also increased. Complaints were up by 79 per cent.

Observers of Senate estimates hearings – one of the few opportunities we have for digging into the details of government performance – would also note the growing instances of questions being taken “on notice” in recent years, and of ministers ignoring invitations to appear.

The man once famous for hiding uncomfortable “border-protection” truths behind the justification of “on-water matters” has made secrecy a principle of executive government. When replacing the old Council of Australian Governments forum with a “national cabinet” comprising essentially the same people, Morrison ensured their deliberations would no longer be accessible to the public by invoking cabinet confidentiality. In 2019 he set up the new Cabinet Office Policy Committee, which comprises only one permanent member – himself – enabling him to hold meetings protected by cabinet confidentiality, even if no other cabinet members are present. A better description for a committee with just one member would surely be “abuse of process”.

Unsurprisingly, then, calls for a new, independent national anti-corruption watchdog – a federal version of the NSW ICAC – have grown louder and louder. The Labor Party, the Greens, most of the crossbenchers, and 82 per cent of the population (according to Australia Institute research) believe such a body is essential in restoring trust in our democracy. And the Morrison government has heard the calls. In December 2018 it even announced the establishment of an independent “integrity commission”. In a classic Morrison move, once it was successfully announced he and Attorney-General Porter did nothing. A draft bill sat in a drawer for almost two years until public alarm and concern again grew to such a volume that the government re-announced it in October 2020, this time releasing the draft exposure for consultation, which would take until March. They didn’t need all that time: the reaction to the proposal was swift and damning.

The problems are obvious from the name: the Commonwealth Integrity Commission (CIC) has left out the word “independent”. Because it isn’t independent.

Under Porter’s proposal, the commission could only investigate corruption if parliamentarians, federal police, national security or government agency heads refer it. It explicitly excludes investigation of public complaints, and also appears to exclude investigation of tips and information from lower-level public officials, journalists and whistleblowers.

The government has used the line that the CIC would have the same powers as a full royal commission; in truth, these powers would only extend to around a fifth of the federal public sector. The CIC would create a two-tier system, subjecting law enforcement officials, for example, to public anti-corruption hearings, but not politicians. The police union condemned the proposal as a “protection racket” for government MPs, because it held politicians to a lower standard than police officers.

Leading barrister Geoffrey Watson, director of the genuinely independent Centre for Public Integrity, told Guardian Australia the proposed model is a “sham”. What’s more, he said, “The absence of retrospectivity means Australians will never find out what really happened with the Great Barrier Reef fund, with the so-called sports-rorts program, or with the Murray–Darling water buybacks.”

The Australian also reported that “Porter’s scheme would impose a penalty of two years in prison for anyone who makes a false or misleading allegation of wrongdoing to a commonwealth investigative agency and then publicly discloses this with the intention of damaging someone’s reputation”. In other words, the simple act of reporting an allegation of corruption could itself be a crime. And “a breach of this provision could kill a political career [because] the Constitution says those who have been convicted of an offence punishable by a year or more in prison cannot be chosen for federal parliament or retain their seats”.

“This bill is designed to conceal, not reveal corruption,” argued the Centre for Public Integrity. And according to the government’s own discussion paper, the CIC “will not be able to make findings of corruption, criminal conduct or misconduct at large”, because only the courts can make findings of criminal conduct. If the CIC can only take on investigations put to it by a very select group of mostly government appointees, and in most cases would operate behind closed doors, and can’t make its own findings of corruption, what on earth is the point of it?

“It isn’t a watchdog,” said Senator Jacqui Lambie. What the government had come up with was “a lapdog with dentures”.

These are the standards Morrison now walks past, and even if they were the only examples of poor government, the failure to address them would be an indictment of the Coalition. But these are only some of the examples we know about, courtesy of an under-resourced national audit office, a financially strapped media and a weak FOI system.

On top of the waste and lack of trust, the ultimate harm is to the public interest. A systemic weakness in our politics is being exploited in major policymaking. There is no public interest served by climate denial, for example, and no international support for it. The Coalition’s climate inaction – or worse – can only be explained by its ties to the resources sector. There is no public interest in cutting workers’ wages and conditions, yet this is exactly what the government is proposing on behalf of big business. There is no public interest in the degradation of government generally. Yet wherever you look, the public interest is ignored, then outsourced, then abused. It is no match for the Coalition’s unbridled political interests.

The next time a scandal breaks – and one will break soon – the public might be outraged, but will be neither shocked nor surprised. This is simply what happens with a government that pursues those who keep it accountable, ignores ministerial codes of conduct, is unconcerned by conflicts of interest, is intent on shielding its workings from the public, and distrusts its own agencies and institutions. To the Coalition government, citizens are, as the saying goes, like mushrooms: to be kept in the dark and fed bullshit.

Nick Feik

Nick Feik is a former editor of The Monthly.


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