Has there ever been a story quite like the grants rorts scandal? With new revelations of dodgy handouts landing almost daily (I literally got a news alert about another one
as I was writing this piece), it’s now pretty clear that this ostensibly frugal government is remarkably cash-happy when it comes to rewarding its mates and buttering up marginal electorates.
It’s also pretty clear from where the proverbial fish rots. The prime minister is deeply implicated, as the 160-plus emails that bounced back and forth between his office and Bridget McKenzie’s team attest to. As Paddy Manning writes
, “It is hard to recall the last time a prime minister was so personally implicated in a scandal – the kerfuffle over Paul Keating’s interest in a piggery, perhaps, but there was no taxpayer money at stake or electoral gain involved there.”
As damaging as this scandal ought to be (it won’t be, of course, because we live in a Trumpian hellworld where truth means nothing), the rorts saga may not even be the worst example of this government’s corruption. In fact, it’s hard to know where to start.
How about the awarding of contracts? Like the Paladin
affair, where a little known security outfit registered to a Kangaroo Island beach shack was awarded more than $400 million to run the Manus Island offshore processing facility. Or the Great Barrier Reef Foundation
, a tiny outfit with connections to former PM Malcolm Turnbull mysteriously given close to half a billion dollars. Or the awarding of the cashless debit card contract to Indue
, a company with strong National Party connections.
How about the blatant nest-feathering and expenses rorting? Like the Watergate controversy
, where a company associated with Angus Taylor made massive above-market profits from an $80 million water buyback. Or when Sussan Ley was caught out
claiming personal travel expenses from the taxpayer, including a trip to the Gold Coast where she bought a luxury apartment “on impulse”. Or Stuart Robert claiming $38,000 in internet expenses
last year after previously being demoted for helping a Liberal Party donor sign a deal in China from which he personally benefited. (Both Ley and Robert have been rehabilitated – it’s a miracle! – and are now back in the ministry
I won’t go on, although I could. The short version is this: it may not quite be at Howard government
levels yet, but the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government is on track to being the most corrupt federal government in Australia’s history.
A loss of faith
Eighty-five per cent of Australians believe
our politicians are corrupt, while Transparency International says there is a long-term trend of worsening perceptions
of corruption in Australia (and many other developed western democracies for that matter).
So what’s happening? Is it that politicians of this generation just happen to be greedy, self-serving resume-padders who view higher office as a stepping stone to personal enrichment? Yes, but that’s an incomplete explanation.
The heart of the problem, as Dr Lindy Edwards argued in issue 26
, is the malign influence of corporations in our political system, manifesting as donations, lobbying and the promise of sweet post-politics gigs in return for favourable legislation and meaty government contracts.
Christopher Pyne is the most recent, and egregious, example of the problem. In June last year, mere weeks after leaving his job as defence minister, Pyne joined consulting behemoth EY
to help grow its defence business. In the four years prior to that EY had been awarded $148 million in contracts from the defence department. Sounds perfectly above board and normal! Pyne is now a registered lobbyist with GC Advisory, a firm that lobbies on behalf of two defence contractors
The revolving door
between Canberra and industry has been merrily spinning for years. Mark Arbib, Martin Ferguson, Nick Minchin, Peter Costello, Peter Reith and many more have sold off their insider knowledge and contacts to the highest bidder. Of the 591 lobbyists currently listed on the official register
, 228 of them – about 40% – are former government representatives.
Retired Victorian Supreme Court judge Justice Stephen Charles said the lobbying of federal ministers was “out of control
”. “There is little or no control of lobbying in the federal area,” Justice Charles said. “Ethical lobbying is a perfectly normal part of any democracy but there are few rules, and those that exist appear never to be enforced. Hundreds of lobbyists walk the halls of Parliament without scrutiny.”
So what to do? Well for one thing we should overhaul the rules
around lobbying by broadening the definition of a lobbyist and extend the cooling off period for former parliamentarians and government representatives. I think we should also ban all corporate donations and move towards a public funding model
for election campaigns.
We also need a federal Icac
, ministerial standards that are enforceable and more safeguards for whistleblowers to call out corruption when they see it.
It also falls to us – voters – to stop rewarding shitty behaviour. The decline in standards and probity is the work of both major parties, not just the Coalition. We don’t have to hold our noses and vote for one or the other. In fact, many people clearly don’t anymore, as evidenced by falling primary votes for both major parties and increased support for the likes of The Greens and One Nation.
Punish them where it hurts. That’s how we get change.