The momentum is building to make integrity and accountability in government a major, defining issue at the next federal election. It is an important issue that goes to the very heart of the sustainability of our democracy.
Scott Morrison is shameless in denying any wrongdoing in the allocation of billions of dollars for blatant political purposes, to keep or win favour in key seats – sports, car park, regional and a host of other rorts – in his terms “nothing to be seen here”.
Yet, clearly, none of this would pass the “pub test”, being called out as pork barrelling – even as theft, fraud or corruption – in the use of public monies.
Moreover, with so many households and businesses struggling in recent years to make ends meet, concern has mounted as to how this money could have been allocated better to support them.
Or to reform/solve some of the big social issues that have been simply left to drift, in some cases for decades – issues such as child, aged and disability care, domestic violence and many others.
Not surprisingly, Morrison’s denials, failure to accept responsibility, or the need to be accountable have generally worn thin with a public that has become increasingly disgusted with each revelation of such largesse by the Auditor-General, or as admitted in questioning at Senate estimates hearings.
While initially Morrison attempted to stone wall the issue, acting as if beyond reproach, he has more recently tried to play it down, even to the point of having his Finance Minister Simon Birmingham – who is otherwise empowered to police government spending and finances – out in the media attempting to “normalise” this spending by claiming it is essential to democracy.
That they were election commitments, that pork barrelling has been a feature of all governments since time immemorial and other diversionary, distorting statements.
As a marketing type, Morrison cynically relies on people having short memories and takes the view, very Trumpian, that if you keep repeating something, over, and over, and over – no matter how inaccurate – people will be dulled into finally accepting it.
Morrison has also played politics with the idea of a national integrity and anti-corruption commission.
Sure, he committed to it about 1000 days ago and, sure, he has released an exposure draft of the enabling legislation, but all the latter did was expose just how disingenuous he is about genuine responsibility and accountability.
As drafted it was little better than a protection racket for ministers and their staff, and would not have been applicable to the rorts and related corruption mentioned above.
Morrison has also refused to bring on a parliamentary debate on the Integrity Bill proposed by independent Helen Haines.
However, this week Morrison was clearly pushed on the back foot by Labor announcing a commitment to establish a “powerful, transparent, and independent national anti-corruption commission” if successful at the next election.
This commission would “operate as a standing Royal Commission into serious and systemic corruption – by ministers and politicians and their personal staff, public servants, statutory office holders, government agencies, and other public officials.
It would also have the power to “follow the money”, to investigate private individuals and companies involved in such corruption.
Of course, the proof of the pudding depends on Labor winning government.
And how well such a proposal weathers caucus and other internal ALP processes, as well as how much substance survives in the new parliament.
However, it is an issue that could define Labor in a political system that has an enormous trust deficit with the public.
It would certainly be worth making it a major election issue, and fighting for it.
Of course, successive governments have been much more adept at cover-ups than accepting responsibility and being held to account.
Recall the Howard government’s wheat board scandal paying bribes to Saddam Hussein for wheat sales.
Just as conspicuously, the Howard government’s spying on the government of our then poor neighbour, Timor Leste, under cover of aid assistance, to gain advantage for key corporate mates in oil and gas negotiations in the Timor Sea, has never seen the PM or his foreign minister held to account for what was probably criminal activity in both countries.
Not to mention subsequent benefits that flowed to some from those corporate mates.
Indeed, the cover-up continues with the legal proceedings against the potential whistleblower and his lawyer being sustained, often in secret, for years after the 2004 bugging, while the guilty ones continue to enjoy their freedom.
To our Pentecostal PM, I refer Numbers 32:23: “Be sure your sin will find you out”- and this may just happen at the next election.
John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.