Australian democracy is at risk

The Guardian’s Katharine Murphy asks

Sports rorts. Unlawful robodebts. More than $80m in election donations. Is this the governance we want?

Clive Palmer spent $83.3 million to distort election results

According to the Australian Electoral Commission, Clive Palmer spent $83.3m on the 2019 election. The returns – only made available this month

(12 months after the election)

– also revealed other big donations to the parties.

But just consider dropping a wad of cash north of $80m on an election

Consider having the means to swing an election outcome, and facing no prohibitive barriers to entry.

Mining magnate Clive Palmer invested $83.3 million to influence the election results

The federal election, the one that delivered the miracle, took place in May 2019. But because our disclosure system is deeply suboptimal, voters had to wait until February 2020 to learn where the money came from.
When the Australian Electoral Commission finally published the returns at the start of this week, we were able see that the mining magnate Clive Palmer invested $83.3m in fronting, but more importantly, influencing in the political contest that returned the Coalition to power. Let me just say that again – $83.3m.

This number is both staggering, and not really a shock, given you couldn’t traverse many parts of Australia during the election run up without being bombarded with Clive’s stupendous insights. Being ubiquitous certainly ain’t cheap.

But just consider dropping a wad of cash north of $80m on an election. Also consider the precedent of Clive19: high wealth individuals (as opposed to broadly based social movements tilting conservative or progressive), creating and bankrolling pop up political shopfronts, crowding out incumbents and any rival insurgents with fewer resources.

Consider having the means to swing an election outcome, and facing no prohibitive barriers to entry.

That’s some innovation in the Australian system. Give yourself a minute to reflect on how you feel about it. Are you comfortable? Does that feel like participatory democracy with equality of opportunity?

As well as the game changing adventures of Clive, there was also the curiosity of the big donation from the philanthropist Isaac Wakil.

One of my colleagues in the Canberra bureau heard during the campaign that an individual had made a big donation to the Liberals – larger than the million-plus donation Malcolm Turnbull made to keep the operation afloat in the 2016 campaign. We all made inquiries, but this proved impossible to track down.

Tips like this are needles in a haystack if nobody wants to help. So we had to wait almost a year to resolve the mystery of the generous benefactor, because in Australia, we don’t have continuous disclosure of political donations. We have a system geared to ensuring contributions can be made discreetly , without the inconvenience of the public knowing about, and potentially objecting to, people’s choices.

We allow contributions to be made, but not disclosed publicly until after the election caravan moves on – a deft little conjuring trick which renders these insights old news by the time they surface.

If it’s not already obvious where I’m going this weekend, let me be clear.

I’m anxious about the health of Australian democracy. I’m concerned about governance corroding and degrading. The whole system feels like its fighting off viruses.

I’m also concerned that my profession, the media, is failing to arrest this slide, in part because we tell this story in silos. We report diligently on the increments of failure, of scandal, of negligence, of dissembling, of cock-up, but we fail to bring the story together. We fail to join the dots.

We tick boxes, but we fail to raise the alarm.

This needs to change. We need to find ways to tell the story of the whole, rather than the story of the parts, to invite Australians to focus on whether their democracy is working for them, or whether standards that were once considered essential are being replaced by new norms that might work for powerful people but don’t serve the rest of us.

Harry Potter fans know about the room of requirement – the magical place of help that materialises for people in need. Think of the past week in politics as a room of requirement for people increasingly perturbed about our standards of governance. In so many ways, key themes of the story I’m intent on narrating unfurled over consecutive days.

There was the lagged disclosure returns, and a galling sense of deadlock. As recently as last year, the Liberal party told a parliamentary committee it did not favour a shift to continuous disclosure because, to quote federal director Andrew Hirst, there was no case to “unnecessarily add to the already considerable administrative and compliance burdens placed on political parties”.

Now before knee-jerk outrage ensues, Hirst has a point. We certainly don’t have enough transparency. We also don’t fund our politics sufficiently.

Political parties, ramparts of the system, are under-resourced. If the system flips to require more disclosure, campaign directors will have to move scant resources from campaigning to compliance, and that would feel like a zero-sum proposition.

So let’s pay that. But this isn’t an argument for blocking continuous disclosure. “We don’t have the resources to supply the transparency” is an argument for fixing the underlying structural problem, not for resisting real time candour.

One more observation about cash and politics before we keep joining our dots. The AEC returns highlighted the significant influence of the resources industry in Australian democracy. The summer has made us painfully aware that we still haven’t reached a sensible landing point to address the climate crisis, and the Coalition is trapped debating the same tortured fundamentals that it has been debating since the mid-2000s. Could these things be connected? Bugger me. Perhaps they are.

Before Monday, there was Sunday, and sports rorts. Scott Morrison persuaded Bridget McKenzie to take a long walk off a short plank. Cue applause (at least until the defenestration helped embolden Barnaby Joyce to storm the Nationals leadership on a day when parliament was supposed to be honouring bushfire victims). You’d say stay classy guys, but seriously, what would be the point?

Morrison’s method of defusing the sports rorts stink was to instigate a process within his department which ended up second guessing the inquiry undertaken externally and by the Australian National Audit Office.

When the ANAO looked at sports grants, it saw payments skewed to targeted seats rather than decided on merit, and grants made with questionable legal authority. But Morrison’s process delivered alternative facts. Nicer ones.

Implicit in Morrison’s reframing exercise was a prime minister asking voters to choose which reality they preferred – the reality where public administration was demonstrably off the rails, or the reality where it wasn’t.

Like truth was a vending machine. Or a box of chocolates, except you can only be told about the chocolates, you can’t actually have one, because Morrison declined to release the advice underpinning “the opposite is also true” report from his departmental head, Phil Gaetjens, and the attorney general, Christian Porter.

As a consequence of bad decisions cleaned up with crap decisions, Gaetjens, who once worked as a political staffer for Morrison, has found himself rebuked by public sector eminences. People like Michael Keating – a former head of the prime minister’s department.

Keating wrote this week Gaetjen’s first duty was to “uphold the values and integrity” of the public service, not to engage in end of lease cleaning. The precision scolding went on. “Gaetjens should be setting an example for the rest of the APS – indeed the head of any organisation has their greatest impact on its culture.”

Scolding too from a former New South Wales auditor general Tony Harris, who delivered the most brutal assessment of all. Harris said this week if the national affairs caravan moved on blithely from the sports rorts case study, this would be tantamount to permitting “corruption in the federal government”.

Now we arrive at robodebt, and the deeply uncomfortable proposition that the government we all elected to represent our interests may have rolled out an unlawful program targeting vulnerable people, largely to prop up the budget bottom line.

The specific development this week was a new dump of correspondence revealing that different parts of the government were talking among themselves about legal advice suggesting debts based solely upon income averaging of ATO annual tax data were not lawful.

It’s not clear when these conversations took place. But pause here for long enough to absorb the possibility of your government engaged in unlawful action. Also note the government has been painfully slow in admitting there’s a problem, and fixing the debacle, which it continues to try and minimise as just a bit of fine tuning.

Then we get to the cops and Angus Taylor. We’ve been waiting. Would the cops get to the bottom of the origins of a dodgy document used by the minister for emissions reduction in a puerile political attack against the Sydney lord mayor? Would they establish whether any offences had been committed under NSW law?

Well, no, as it turns out. The NSW police had a look, then handed the case to the federal police, then the federal police looked at what they’d done, and concluded they wouldn’t investigate because it was too resource intensive, it was a minor scrap, and Taylor had apologised.

Nobody would answer questions about how those inquiries had proceeded, and voters remain none the wiser about how false travel figures came to be deployed by a ministerial office during a public debate. Apparently that’s a set of circumstances that doesn’t require any sort of corrective, beyond saying sorry.

People will insist the answer to the current malaise is a federal anti-corruption body, and I have no argument with that. A body like that might check some of the creeping excesses, and it would help restore confidence in a system that people are losing confidence in.

But it’s not the only element that’s needed. Two other things are required. Political reporters, like me, need to communicate the seriousness of the times to readers and viewers, and keep showing up to work, pulling on the threads, and then putting the facts back together, no matter how difficult it feels to counter obfuscation, stonewalling and hostility.

And voters have to value their democracy enough to remain engaged, and keep speaking up when they see signs that the system that doesn’t work for them.

People have to be vigilant too.

She’ll be right mate isn’t an antidote.

Demanding good governance is the most powerful act of resistance there is.

Article originally published in The Guardian Sat 8 Feb 2020