The abuse of government largesse for political advantage got qualitatively worse this week.
For a quarter of a century the major parties in government in Australia have sunk lower and lower in misusing government money to advertise themselves and misusing it in the form of grants to hand out to their own electorates or promise it to electorates that they hope to win.
This week’s qualitative worsening came with Greg Hunt’s response to questions over the use of the Liberal Party logo in a Twitter announcement that the Federal Government had secured 10 million more Covid vaccine doses and with NSW Nationals Leader John Barilaro’s response to accusations that the Coalition Government skewed bushfire relief to councils in Coalition seats and denied those in Labor and Greens seats.
Hitherto, when caught out like this, Ministers used to dissemble, mumble or mount some half-baked justification. Sometimes the pressure resulted in resignation or quiet removal on other grounds. But in these two cases the Ministers displayed active pride in what they had done, and said that it was part of the democratic process.
It was an attempt at normalising what should be abnormal. Making praiseworthy something which should be denounced as corrupting the political process.
When called out by ABC Breakfast’s host Michael Rowland, Hunt responded by attacking Rowland as a “leftie”. That is of little moment. Journalists are frequently branded as biased to the left or right or both, as I can attest.
No, the concerning thing was his explanation of how and why he put a Liberal Party logo on what was essentially a government announcement about the spending of government money.
Hunt said of the logo that he was “elected under that banner, multiple members across multiple parties do that . . . .
“I’m a very proud member of that party with a great heritage and tradition in Australia and that’s part of the Australian democratic process,” he said. “There’s no problem with identifying entirely appropriately within the rules. The origins and heritage of that banner under which we were elected by the Australian people.”
Well, yes, there is a problem with that. The blurring of government and party is dangerous. It is one of the classic traits of authoritarianism.
Barilaro’s response, too, went a qualitative rung lower than responses hitherto to this abuse.
“When you think about it, every single election that every party goes to, we make commitments,” he said. “You want to call that pork barrelling, you want to call that buying votes, it’s what the elections are for.”
Celebration rather than contrition. Moreover, it was an inaccurate portrayal of what happened. The bushfire grants were not election promises. They were a legislated response to a new event and the money was not applied as it should have been on objective criteria, but according to the political party that represented the area.
In Barilaro’s response there was not even a hint that politics should not drive a grants process. Rather he celebrated and tried to normalise it.
Small wonder voters are turned off.
Now, like Michael Rowland, I am not a football barracker for the left. As a journalist I say all politicians should be questioned.
Indeed, the artform of misusing government money for party advantage began with the Keating Government, a quarter of a century ago.
In the sports rorts affair, money was handed out to favoured Labor electorates. Records were scant.
But at least Keating was unaware and both he and Kelly were embarrassed. They attempted to justify and say the grants were all according to the best of Westminster principles. Ultimately, however, Kelly resigned after her defence that her office had done thorough vetting with “a great big whiteboard” became laughably untenable.
But at least there was a sense of shame and that something was wrong.
But no lessons were learned. Keating went into the 1996 election with a bucketful of Government money paying for “Working Nation” advertisements that were not legitimate expenditures of government money to explain newly enacted law, but puffery to extol the virtues of Labor policy which had not been enacted as law. The spending on the advertisements was illegitimate verging on the corrupt.
John Howard made meat of it in the 1996 election running on the slogan “who do you trust”. He won in a landslide, but ignored the lessons of his own victory. Instead of building bureaucratic and institutional structures to prevent a repeat, he built upon what Keating had illegitimately done, using government money to spruik Liberal Party policy and replicating the sports rorts methodology to roll out money to Coalition seats in the form of a government regional support program.
Even so, when caught, his government blushed and shuffled its feet.
This week’s qualitatively different response is alarming. They are institutionalising the corruption. They are rejoicing in it as a legitimate part of democracy.
The small percentage of voters who are alert and alarmed are appalled by it.
However, there is an opportunity here. Oppositions are usually regarded as ineffectual. But they can present as a moral force.
Labor should now propose a raft of integrity policies. It should propose: an independent vetter of government advertising; an independent vetter of all government spending programs; an independent commission against corruption with strong investigative powers; the prohibition of corporate political donations; and a robust immediate reporting regime for individual donations which should be capped at $1000.
It would force the Government to match the proposals in the same cynical way they match any Opposition promise that gets traction. And integrity proposals would get traction.
Voters are heartily sick of government money being spent on political-party promotion and pork barrelling.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 13 February 2021.