Cleaning politics: hopes and fears

The elected Whitlam Government was sacked by Governor-General John Kerr in 1975 for trying to govern and spend money without the approval of the Parliament after Malcolm Fraser’s Liberal Party blocked Supply in the Senate.

In short, spending money by a Government without parliamentary approval is a a constitutional No-No.

Yet, last week the Australian National Audit Office reported that the Department of Health in the Morrison Government did precisely that. But that was four years and two elections after the event.

It said, “Following risk assessments from the Australian Government Solicitor which determined that there was no legislation that could reasonably be relied on to authorise expenditure on the whole of some grant proposals, Health advised the minister that it would proceed to execute grants despite there being no legislative authority to do so in some cases.”

In the lead up to the 2019 election the Morrison Government splashed money around marginal electorates to help it get re-elected. The money was not approved by Parliament and the health grants were not backed by any rational cost-benefit analysis. 

The health grants join the sports rorts; carparks; roads to nowhere; a rural and regional grants in a massive, corrupt campaign to use public money in an attempt to retain power. And it has taken four years and two elections to find out about this lawless conduct.

With the change of Government, Australia is now at a pivotal point. Does the Australian Government and Parliament clean this corrupt mess up and put in place institutional mechanisms to prevent its recurrence, or does the sorry historical pattern continue?

The Keating Government’s flagrant abuse of Government advertising for party political purposes was turned into an artform by the Howard Government. The Keating Governments small-scale barely legal sport rorts were escalated by successive governments to multiple schemes across all corners of society for ministers to buy votes.

Misuse of infrastructure became rife. The tenacles of corporate influence to line private pockets at public expense reached ever further as the Public Service withered.

Corporate donations became more secretive. Easily evaded caps and glacial reporting times have licenced influence pedalling making it immune from voter scrutiny until it is too late.

There is hope, but some alarming signs suggest this Government’s commitment is lukewarm.

The hope is in Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s track record. As Minister for Infrastructure in the Rudd-Gillard Government he established Infrastructure Australia. Its legislation required that projects with more than $250 million of Federal money be assessed for their economic cost-benefit. It required public reporting. 

But it could be ignored by Ministers without any requirement to publicly state why.

You would think that Albanese as Prime Minister would live up to the spirit of his creation and indeed strengthen it.

But there are alarming signs that this brake against pork-barrelling is being circumvented. His Government has caved in to blackmail from the AFL and will contribute $240 million to a new $750 stadium in Hobart – the AFL’s condition of granting a licence for a Tasmanian team.

Notice the $240 million is just under the Infrastructure Australia threshold. The AFL will contribute a trivial amount. So about $700 million in state and federal public money will be squandered without proper economic scrutiny.

On the hopeful signs, when Labor was in Opposition it denounced the pork-barrelling. But on the alarming side, a $5 million grant under the illegal Health scheme has not been cancelled by the incoming Health Minister Mark Butler as recommended by the Health Department.

The grant, for a project in Labor MP Josh Burns’ electorate of Macnamara was proposed by an organisation that runs camps on the Mornington Peninsula in former Health Minister Greg Hunt’s electorate of Flinders.

Worse, Butler is proposing a new category of grants for “explicit decisions of government” to “support timely delivery of published and explicit decisions of government”. In Opposition it is “pork-barrelling” and avoiding proper process. In Government it is “timely delivery”.

On the hopeful side, Special Minister of State Don Farrell has asked the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters to look at electoral funding. It will report soon and could be acted on before the next election.

It seems that all donations over $1000 will have to be reported in real time; caps will be imposed on total spending by candidates; public funding will be increased; and some sort of truth in political advertising brought in.

The strength will be in the detail. Expect a fight over union donations to Labor; corporate donations to the Coalition; and spending caps on independents.

On the hopeful side, Labor is axing the Morrison’s Government’s $2 billion dependency on big advising consultants and boosting the public service.

But there is little sign of improved Freedom of Information reform. At present any contentious request can be easily rebuffed by the Government by citing the “unacceptable call on government resources” provision.

On the hopeful side Teal Independent Sophie Scamps has introduced a Private Members’ Bill to ensure merit-based appointments for government jobs.

But the Albanese Government’s appointment without advertising of former DFAT head Kathryn Campbell to a $900,000 AUKUS advisory job indicates that jobs for mates is alive and well with the new Government. For once FOI worked due to dogged persistence by former Senator Rex Patrick.

At least Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus is to abolish the Administrative Appeals Tribunal because it has been riddled with Coalition-appointed unqualified mates. But that is correcting the past. What about ensuring no repeats in the future?

There is an urgency here. The longer a government is in office the more tempting it becomes to game the system – to abuse power to stay in power. But the temptation should be resisted. Good government is also good for the Government.

At the back of every Minister’s mind in this Government should be the knowledge that the Morrison Coalition Government was voted out of office largely because of its low-level corruption with jobs and grants. Labor squeaked over the line because the Liberal Party lost seats to anti-corruption Teals.

Labor owes it to itself and the electorate generally to put in place laws and mechanisms to ensure it does not meet the same fate.

Crispin Hull

This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 13 June 2023.

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