Dr Martin Hirst reports on an alarming trend of secrecy, obfuscation and duplicity in federal politics.
Falling backwards in the global ranking
According to a global corruption index released on 21 February by Transparency International (TI), Australia is ranked at 13 out of 180 countries in the '2018 Corruption Perceptions Index'.
Not bad, you might say - Australia scored a reasonable 77 out of 100. But TI Australia's CEO Serena Lillywhite says anti-corruption action here is stagnating. Around 85 per cent of us think that at least a few federal politicians are corrupt. Australia gets a low credit pass mark but we dropped eight places in seven years according to the trend data.
Given this trend, is it really that surprising that the Morrison Government is resistant to a real federal anti-corruption body? In the past two weeks, we've learned that there is so much potentially corrupt action going on that should a federal ICAC actually investigate it, several current ministers might find themselves subject to adverse findings, or even criminal charges.
Perhaps we're seeing the alarming implications of Australia's downward slide in the transparency rankings.
The heart of darkness?
There is a blackness at the heart of this Coalition Government that shows a complete lack of empathy, a disregard for the norms of good governance and a willingness to spread resentment and fear to grasp any remote prospect of retaining power at the next election.
Since the start of this year, we've seen many examples of this unfolding of Government ministers and backbenchers willing to lie openly to our faces and then to erupt with snarling hubris when questioned about their porkies. The cover-ups, obfuscations, denials and secondary lies have piled up to such a precarious height that removing even one rotten plank is likely to bring the whole edifice of government tumbling down.
At least it should, and a generation ago it would have. We've been reminded that in a more innocent time in Australian politics, bringing a television or child's stuffed bear through Customs without paying applicable duties was enough of a transgression of the probity guidelines to warrant a ministerial sacking or resignation. Today, our border control regime is so porous it apparently lets hardened criminals slip out of detention and avoid deportation for due consideration and a ministerial caveat. Nothing seems to blunt the arrogance of the current crop of senior Liberal and National Party figures.
Things spiralled so quickly in the past week that the scandal of a fortnight ago - Tim Wilson hijacking a bipartisan committee to campaign about the so-called "retirement tax" that is not and never was a tax - seems like a schoolboy prank next to last week's explosive revelations.
Travel at "mate's rates" or it's free!
Former treasurer now "Embarrassador" to the United States of Trump Joe Hockey holds shares in a company that won an exclusive contract to supply travel services to the entire Australian Government and public service.
Just after the contract was awarded, the Embarrassador's mate and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann took several flights booked via the same monopoly supplier, Helloworld, and forgot to pay for them with his own credit card. As an aside, it is entirely accidental that the CEO of Helloworld is a senior officer in the Liberal Party and a donor. It is also completely accidental that Hockey has a substantial shareholding in the travel company.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison says it's all above board, so let's move on.
The awarding of government contracts without an open tender process is, according to Transparency International, a "breeding ground" for potential corruption. So, it's no wonder alarm bells began ringing when exactly this situation came to light and a previously anonymous shell company called Paladin was revealed as the beneficiary of a $420 million contract to manage security and services in the immigration detention centre on Manus Island.
The Paladin contract also flags several other issues of concern to Transparency International. According to news reports, several of Paladin's Papua New Guinea partners have links to the institutional corruption that plagues the PNG Government. The family of a prominent Manus Island politician is alleged to be at the centre of a web of corruption surrounding the detention centre. The secretive Paladin contract links the Australian Government to money-laundering, international organised crime and propping up corrupt politicians in PNG with taxpayer funds. PNG is ranked 138 out of 180 countries surveyed in the 2018 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index. Australia is a contributor to this high level of corruption through the operation of the detention centre in secrecy.
As for what's happening at the detention centre on Nauru, we don't know just how corrupt the tiny island nation is because it is not included in the TI survey. However, we know that Australian Government money has a corrupting influence in relation to the governance of Nauru. In late February, the Nauruan Government announced it would not allow detainees on the island to be medically assessed by teleconference, which is widely seen as a method of frustrating the MediVac legislation.
It's been alleged this was done with the encouragement of Peter Dutton's Department of Home Affairs.
It's also now come to light that there's possibly a corrupt cabal within Immigration and/or Home Affairs that is processing visa applications for hardened criminals for a fee of between $70,00 and $80,000. The whistleblower who broke this story is now facing deportation himself. Too bad he doesn't have a quick $70K to chuck to the right bureaucrat.
The murky world of political donations
Can the provision of free travel to political mates be considered a hidden donation to a particular political cause or party?
Can the undisclosed funding of a partisan website misleadingly badged to look like an official government service be considered a donation to a political party?
Unfortunately, at the moment these types of transactions might be ethically wrong but they are not technically illegal. According to TI Australia, our political donation laws are archaic and easily flouted by canny political operators. No government, state or federal, is in any hurry to reform donation laws or to strengthen them because all the major parties rely on the loopholes to keep their coffers full and bankroll expensive election campaigns. Lax donations laws create a heightened risk of corruption in the election process, particularly when state and federal laws are not aligned.
I forgot, I didn't look, I had my hands over my ears
As you've no doubt seen and heard, there is no shortage of excuses, but the funny thing is we only ever hear of the excuses when someone is caught out. There is not much pre-emptive admission of wrong-doing or even of innocent mistakes.
We know about the lapses only because there's been an embarrassing leak, or some enterprising reporter has patiently joined the dots or pieced together a puzzle that nobody in the Government wanted us to solve. We're supposed to believe all of these embarrassing missteps were accidental and it is just a coincidence that we're finding out about them now.
Are we moving into Oligarch territory?
We have had the Paladin Affair, the release of convicted criminal William Betham from immigration custody, free holiday travel for government officials, Tim Wilson's misuse of his position and Michaela Cash refusing to be accountable for the illegal actions of her staff. The common theme is that ministers are very busy and cannot possibly be across every detail of what goes on in their department or office.
These excuses don't stand up to scrutiny when assessed against the detailed work of an organisation like Transparency International. What we are witnessing is not an accident or coincidence, it is the collective action of a Government that has given up representing the public interest, that knows it is terminally unpopular and that is trying to shore up its support by any means necessary. Australia is not yet an oligarchy but leading figures in the Coalition Government are behaving like they wouldn't really mind if we move in that direction.
There is a proven link between transparency in government and governance and the health of a democratic polity. As governments hide more and more of their day-to-day operations behind a cloak of secrecy there is less transparency and more opportunity for personal corruption. When this happens, says Serena Lillywhite, democracy suffers.
When our democratic institutions are transparent and accountable, our democracy is healthy and robust.
The opposite is also true. Without strong institutional checks and balances, corruption erodes democracy and leads to abuse of human rights in the name of political expediency. Lillywhite is very clear on this point:
The strong message that resonates throughout TI's analysis is that to control corruption, governments the world over need to strengthen the institutions that provide democratic checks and balances and protect people's rights.
Do we need a federal ICAC? Yes, we really do, but unless it has real powers of investigation and the ability to impose criminal sanctions, it might not be effective.
So far though, the bad guys are winning and Lillywhite says it's not good enough:
You can follow Dr Martin Hirst on Twitter @ethicalmartini.