Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Today by Paddy Manning


Corrupting Canberra
There is a rising stench around the Turnbull government

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Anti-corruption drives are the better face of populism, as a hopeful view of recent elections in Pakistan and Malaysia might suggest. Normally, we think of an anti-corruption drive as the kind of thing that other countries need, especially in our region. And yet a string of scandals suggest that it is high time for an anti-corruption drive in Australia. Not just a national anti-corruption agency, as first the Greens and now Labor have proposed, but an all-out, zero-tolerance campaign to restore integrity to our federal public administration.

State, territory and local governments were always seen as more corruption prone, given they control development approvals and at-the-coalface regulations that make or break businesses and, as a result, tend to lure bribes and kickbacks. We are used to shock revelations from state and territory anti-corruption agencies, particularly in New South Wales, which was first cab off the rank.

Malcolm Turnbull’s pro-business, “whatever it takes” approach to government has lowered the bar at the national level. Take three headlines this morning: “Fossil fuel backers ‘deeply aligned’ with reef rescue efforts”; “Michaelia Cash office tip-offs about AWU raids set to be referred to the DPP”; and “Jose Ramos-Horta calls on Australia to drop prosecution against Witness K and lawyer Bernard Collaery”.

The first headline comes from a report on yesterday’s hearings of the Senate inquiry into the surprise grant of $443 million to the private Great Barrier Reef Foundation. The grant was proposed at an astonishing private meeting between Turnbull, Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg, Frydenberg’s departmental secretary, and foundation chair John Schubert, and was made without a competitive tender process.

The second relates to a tip-off from the employment minister’s office to media that a federal police raid on the AWU was imminent. The raid concerned a decade-old donation from the union to GetUp! As BuzzFeed reports this afternoon, the charges are not against Cash herself, who has repeatedly insisted she had nothing to do with any tip-off. However, ACTU secretary Sally McManus told RN Breakfast this morning that Cash should have resigned long ago: “You can’t trust someone as a minister to be fair and balanced where their own office is up to their neck in a police raid which is televised because it was tipped off by someone in her office.”

The third headline concerns the outrageous, oddly timed prosecution of Canberra lawyer Bernard Collaery and former intelligence agent Witness K. Collaery and Witness K are facing charges of conspiracy to breach the Intelligence Services Act for revealing that Australia spied on East Timor to aid oil and gas negotiations in 2004. Ramos-Horta’s call follows a similar call last week by former Victorian premier Steve Bracks.

The three cases cast a very poor light on the Turnbull government, and there’s more where those came from. What about former public service commissioner John Lloyd, who resigned in June ahead of expected tough questioning about his independence from the Institute of Public Affairs? Why is the ABC slated for a review by Peter Tonagh, who faces a potential perceived conflict of interest [$] due to his being part of a consortium [$] (which also includes friend of the prime minister Scott Biggs) that is bidding for a billion-dollar Commonwealth government visa processing contract? Why did it take years for the Coalition to rein in the scandalous VET FEE-HELP scheme, all the while handing billions of taxpayer dollars to shonky private colleges, literally for no public benefit? Is it really appropriate for the Minerals Council of Australia to be paying [$] for government backbencher George Christensen to fly to Japan to beg for a new coal-fired power station to be built here, at the request of Resources Minister Matt Canavan? Let’s not even start on the Coalition’s push to throw public money at Adani, or the political convenience of the Nine–Fairfax “merger”.

Australia’s international standing is in decline. In March, the Turnbull government’s anti-democratic slide was criticised at the United Nations Human Rights Council, with the UN Special Rapporteur, Michel Forst, delivering a major report following a visit in October 2016. Forst told the council he was “astonished” to observe “mounting evidence of regressive measures” being pursued by the government. He also said that he was “astounded to observe frequent public vilification by senior public officials” of charities, community groups and democratic institutions who hold the government to account.

In February, Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index found that Australia was continuing a steady slide down the scale. Our country ranking had not changed – 13th for three years running – but our score had notably decreased over the last six years. In 2012, Australia scored 85 out of 100, but it had since slipped eight points to a score of 77, down from 79 in 2016. Transparency International’s local chairman, Anthony Whealy QC, told the ABC that Australia’s ranking suggested a failure to deal with serious public sector issues: “These include money laundering, whistleblowing, political donations and the effectiveness of our systems … the Government has simply not faced up to the need to have an independent corruption agency at a national level.” New Zealand topped the rankings, perceived as the least corrupt country in the Asia Pacific, with a score of 89. That’s where Australia should be, not third behind the Kiwis and Singapore. It’s time to arrest the slide before it gets any worse.

Hate to say it, but Australia is at risk of being corrupted by the Turnbull government. Draining the swamp might be overstating it, but Canberra needs a thorough spring-clean, top-to-bottom.


since this morning


Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg has urged [$] states and territories not to “raise the white flag” and side with the extreme left in opposing the National Energy Guarantee. This follows a report in The Age revealing that Victorian energy minister Lily D’Ambrosio would not sign up to the policy until Malcolm Turnbull can give assurances that his party room supports the scheme.

The Guardian reports that it made an operating profit of $700,000 in 2017–18 and is on a sustainable business footing, five years after its launch in Australia.

In Crikey’s ”Media Files”, Emily Watkins reports [$] that the ACCC will consider the impact on news quality, as well as diversity, before approving the Nine–Fairfax deal.


IN CASE YOU MISSED IT


The Melbourne Institute’s latest Household Income and Labour Dynamics data shows that Australian incomes have stalled since 2009, although income inequality has stabilised.

The Australian reports [$] that Malcolm Turnbull has seized control of the government’s feud with the politically powerful Catholic schools sector, inching closer to a $1.7 billion funding deal that would prevent the potential closure of up to 350 schools.

According to the AFR, the Turnbull government is splintering [$] over its all-or-nothing approach to company tax cuts and may compromise by excluding the nation’s largest businesses, including banks.

The PM has welcomed the resignation of Adelaide Archbishop Philip Wilson – the most senior Catholic in the world to be convicted of concealing child sex abuse.

Cricket Australia was yesterday suspended by an international women’s employment agency as outrage grows [$] over its dismissal of a female employee who criticised the Tasmanian government’s abortion policies.


by Russell Marks
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Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is a contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly. He is a writer and journalist who has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is also the author of three books, including Boganaire: The rise and fall of Nathan Tinkler.

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