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Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Pork barrel’s days are numbered

Peter Hartcher writes in the SMH

The Fix was in

When the Morrison government was handing out cheques to build new car parks for commuters at Melbourne railway stations, it judged that some commuters were more worthy than others. Specifically, the truly worthy ones were those who used train stations in areas held by Liberal MPs. If you took the train from a station represented by a Labor MP, you were much more likely to be treated as a second-class citizen as measured by your entitlement to a car park.

Or, as the 2019 scandal became known, ‘‘car pork’’.

So if you caught your morning train to the city from any of the 13 stations in the federal seat of Isaacs to Melbourne’s south, held by Labor’s Mark Dreyfus, bad luck. No money. No car pork.

But if you boarded your train at any of the 12 stations a bit further north in the seat of Goldstein, then held by the Liberals’ Tim Wilson, your chances were much better. Morrison promised car parks for six stations in that electorate.

Labor’s Mark Dreyfus would have applied for a government grant for the stations in his electorate if he’d known that it was a thing. But the first he and other Labor MPs heard about it was when the Morrison government announced the lucky winners.

The fix was in. Or, as the Auditor-General put it in his report into the $660 million grants program, ‘‘it was not demonstrated that projects were selected on merit’’. The auditor found Morrison decided the funding the day before he called the 2019 election. So they could be announced during the election campaign.

All up, money for 25 car parks was announced for Liberal-held seats, only five for Labor-held seats. It was an insultingly skewed misallocation of taxpayer funds. It was plainly designed to serve the interests of the Liberal Party, not the people, not the nation.

So when Dreyfus was sworn into Anthony Albanese’s cabinet last week as Australia’s Attorney-General, he didn’t waste time in starting the clean-up. The creation of a national integrity agency is his ‘‘paramount priority’’, he says.

If he needed any further incentive, he got it from Albanese. ‘‘When your leader says during the election campaign that we will legislate a national anti-corruption agency before the end of 2022, that concentrates the mind,’’ as Dreyfus put it. He’s set up a taskforce in his department to bring a bill to parliament ‘‘as soon as possible’’.

Dreyfus describes the proposed body as a ‘‘nation-building measure’’.

The encroachment of the ‘‘car pork’’ style of pork-barrelling was breezily dismissed by the former NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian – ‘‘it’s not an illegal practice,’’ she said. All governments did it, she shrugged.

But they shouldn’t. ‘‘Legality has taken the place of morality in defining the permissible limits of political and administrative action,’’ said Sir Gerard Brennan, former chief justice of the High Court, in the last written opinion of his life, a foreword for the book Keeping them Honest, by Stephen Charles and Catherine Williams.

‘‘The decline in standards opens the way to corruption,’’ said Brennan, supporting calls for an integrity commission. ‘‘Integrity has been sapped by political ambition and by the seeking of party and personal benefits.’’

Demanding honest and accountable government was not a political act, said Brennan, who died this month at 94. Judges and retired judges had a duty to speak out. ‘‘Corruption that erodes honest administration and the disregard of the rule of law in the pursuit of political power … are issues that affect the social health of the community.’’

The foremost activist for a federal integrity agency in the last term of parliament, independent MP Helen Haines, took the precaution of putting it to Albanese on the day he was sworn in as prime minister. ‘‘He assured me it was a top-order priority for his government.’’

‘‘I think the Australian public have made it very clear that it’s a high-order priority,’’ she says. It was Haines who had drafted a bill for such a body and attempted to put it before the parliament for debate, but the Morrison government used parliamentary process to kill it. Morrison ‘‘had no strong intention to legislate an integrity commission at all’’, says Haines.

Although Morrison had promised at the 2019 election to create one, the model he put forward was opposed by all other parties as weak and ineffective. It would have been unable to investigate MPs, for instance. It would not have passed the parliament. So Morrison gave up, and didn’t even attempt to negotiate its way through. ‘‘I don’t think he seriously believed he needed one,’’ submits Haines.

Morrison used parliament to kill debate

The Australian people believe otherwise. Morrison’s failure to legislate an anti-corruption commission was one of the government’s top three weaknesses, according to an exit poll conducted by the Australia Institute, which advocates in favour of such a commission. The crisis in aged care was ranked the No. 1 failure, nominated by 67 per cent as a weakness, and the treatment of women No. 2, at 66 per cent. The failure to set up an integrity commission ranked third (61 per cent).

The six ‘‘teal’’ independents who took seats from the Liberals on election day all campaigned heavily on the need for an integrity commission. For them, it was second only to the need for climate change action. So Morrison did need one for electoral survival, it seems, even if he wasn’t keen to pursue the idea.

The way the Morrison government operated, it was about the last thing he wanted. Under Haines’ proposal, an integrity commission very likely would have ruled rorts such as ‘‘car pork’’ to be corrupt. Labor has promised a detailed audit of $5.7 billion worth of Morrison government grants programs in quest of ‘‘waste and rorts’’.

The chair of the Centre for Public Integrity, former NSW Supreme Court judge Antony Whealy, says he had given up on the Coalition’s promise to implement an integrity commission. So he admits he ‘‘raised a glass of champagne on election night, and maybe more than one’’. He took up the cause when he heard an official representing a former Coalition attorney-general, George Brandis, submitting straight-faced to a Senate committee that ‘‘there is no corruption’’ in the federal government.

‘‘That got me going and I haven’t stopped since,’’ says Whealy.

This raises the critical question of definition – how should corruption be defined? Whealy cautions that ‘‘the battle is not yet won’’ and that he’s hoping that the definition ‘‘will be at least as broad as Helen Haines’ definition, and that’s based on the NSW ICAC definition. If it’s that broad, it’s really good. If it’s narrowed down, that would be a matter for concern.’’

In Haines’ bill, corrupt conduct is ‘‘any conduct of any person that adversely affects, or that could adversely affect, either directly or indirectly, the honest or impartial exercise of official functions’’ by the parliament, a Commonwealth agency, any public official. Dreyfus says the Haines bill is the government’s starting point. He emphasises that the commission won’t be expected to pursue petty corruption – a clerk stealing stamps, for instance. It must be ‘‘serious and systemic’’. It would be up to the commission itself to decide which matters to pursue and how to pursue them, within its legislated guidelines, says Dreyfus. But that broad definition would be open to scrutiny. For example, the billions of dollars’ worth of federal government contracts awarded without competitive tender.

It also could be open to programs such as ‘‘car pork’’, where the government systematically allocated public funds in pursuit of a private advantage – in this case, a political advantage.

The government very likely won’t need the opposition’s support to pass its integrity legislation. Haines says she was ‘‘surprised and pleased’’ that Peter Dutton appeared to be open to the idea.

You can see the advantage for Dutton. Morrison’s de facto opposition to an integrity commission was an enormous political liability. If Dutton wants to revive the Coalition, he’d be better off without this rotting albatross carcass hanging around his neck.

But there are risks for him, too. The government intends to give the commission power to investigate retrospectively. This could open some of the Coalition’s recent spending to investigation. Dutton sent an indirect warning to Labor of how he might react if it did – calling for the new agency to investigate Labor’s links to some trade unions.

The Albanese government intends to give the commission full independence. Any commissioner would need to use great judgment to make sure he or she was acting accordingly, without fear or favour. It would be a terrible misfortune to set up a commission only to see it discredited as politicised. Overpoliticisation, especially in the use of public money, is part of the problem the commission is supposed to fix.

The greatest irony of politically skewed funding decisions, including car pork, is that they don’t work.
They abuse public money and public trust.

But when a government’s time is up, it’s up.

Pork-barrelling didn’t save Howard, Gillard, Rudd or Morrison. Its only certain outcome is to debase governance, abuse the public trust and harm Australia.

Peter Hartcher is the Sydney Morning Herald political editor.

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