War crimes… deaths in custody… political corruption: is anyone powerful ever held accountable for anything?

War crimes… deaths in custody… political corruption: is anyone powerful ever held accountable for anything?

From politics to business to sport, are people in Australia ever required to face the consequences of their actions?

Go through the long list of serious crimes, corporate and political scandals, corruption and misconduct that have marked recent years in public life in Australia, and check which ones have actually resulted in serious consequences for the perpetrators.

Nearly two years after the release of the Brereton inquiry report revealing dozens of killings among other war crimes by members of the Australian Defence Force in Afghanistan, evidence for prosecution of 25 ADF personnel, and more than four years on from detailed media reports of war crimes, no one has been charged, let alone convicted.

The “top tier” investigative team headed by former Attorney-General’s Department head Chris Moraitis, established after the Brereton report was released, has barely been heard from. And the senior officers who allowed a culture of war crimes and murder have faced no repercussions either.

Despite more than 500 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths in custody in the past 30 years, no police officer has ever been convicted in relation to any of them. With deaths in custody increasing over the past 12 months, Indigenous people dying while detained or imprisoned is once again becoming normalised. But even after directly killing Indigenous men and women, police are rarely charged, and never convicted.

No senior financial executive in Australia has been prosecuted in relation to the the misconduct and crimes revealed by the Hayne royal commission, including systematic defrauding and misleading of customers that immiserated tens of thousands of Australians, and which has so far cost banks more than $3 billion in compensation.

No one has been prosecuted for the massive money laundering exposed at the Commonwealth Bank and Westpac by Austrac. No one has been prosecuted for the systematic money laundering that went on at the Star and Crown casinos, nor for the cultivation of links with organised crime figures.

Nor has there been any individual accountability for the epidemic of wage theft that has characterised many of Australia’s biggest businesses over the past decade (at least).

The news is no better on the political front. The perpetrators of some of the worst rorts and scandals of the Morrison era, such as Alan Tudge, Angus Taylor and Bridget McKenzie, not merely remain in Parliament but are unashamed opposition frontbenchers. The ministers and senior bureaucrats responsible for the crime that was robodebt may yet face accountability via the royal commission currently under way, but criminal prosecutions are unlikely despite the death toll from a scheme the government knew was illegal from the start.

In Victoria, the perpetrators of the Red Shirts scandal within Victoria Labor have gone unpunished. In Victoria, NSW and Queensland the politicians on all sides who enabled the misconduct of Star and Crown through their weakening of regulators and granting of favours have been untouched by the fallout from investigations into casino operators. Routine revelations of the extent to which bullying and harassment characterise our parliaments elicit commitments to improve, but it’s rare for perpetrators to be held to account — Walt Secord and Eleni Petinos in NSW are almost unique recent examples.

It’s little better in sport. Repeated incidents and reports of racism in the AFL and NRL produce extensive expressions of dismay and commitments to do better, with no one ever being held accountable. The latest revelations of quite extraordinary revelations of racial bullying and workplace abuse of Indigenous players at AFL club Hawthorn seem destined for the same fate — lots of words, yet another inquiry, no accountability.

The most serious fate that can befall the perpetrators of many of the examples listed above is to lose their jobs. Banking executives and directors moved on, casino executives and directors forced out, soldiers asked to show cause, politicians leaving politics. But that’s only in a minority of cases, and in all cases the executives and directors involved can simply move on to another, highly remunerative position.

Only the worst, most egregious perpetrators end up in jail: Eddie Obeid and Ian Macdonald, two of the most corrupt members in a NSW Labor government riddled with corruption, are locked up. Obeid and two former colleagues, Joe Tripodi and Tony Kelly, currently face prosecution.

While there are an array of factors that help shield perpetrators — high standards of criminal proof, defamation laws, insistence on due process for the subject of allegations (due process being something their victims usually never get), weak regulators, cultures of cover-up and silence within institutions, perpetrators having moved to other positions before their conduct is exposed — the result is that Australian public life is characterised by a culture of non-accountability for anyone with sufficient institutional protection.

Corporate executives, police, ADF personnel, football clubs, politicians, judges, directors all know that, unless they break the law outrageously, the worst they can face, and it’s an unlikely fate, is losing their job, and often times they’ll get an equivalent job if they wait long enough for controversy to die down and the media to move on.

These groups frequently end up deploring the lack of trust the public has in institutions: the business leader who laments the lack of support for economic reform; the politician who vows to restore trust on government; the football club executive who talks about the spirit of the game; the military who demand respect for their sacrifice.

Run a crooked system long enough, rig the game often enough, and eventually people wise up: if those with institutional power face no consequences, why should anyone else. Why are only the powerless and the penniless required to pay for their actions?

A national anti-corruption commission is a good start federally,
but the push for true accountability needs to go much further than politics.

This article was originally published by Crikey

Bernard Keane is Crikey’s political editor. Before that he was Crikey’s Canberra press gallery correspondent, covering politics, national security and economics.

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