'2022 Aussie election: What is the true price of integrity?' - Jersey Evening Post

2022-05-21 22:10:10 By : Mr. Dongsheng Yang

In this Australian election campaign, the media are putting our politicians under the microscope as never before. We study and psychoanalyse them like characters in a soap opera. We know them better than our next-door neighbours. And there’s not much to like or admire.

Both major parties base their TV ads on the flaws of the opposing leader. Labor shows PM Scott Morrison saying (during the bushfires) ‘I don’t hold a hose, mate’, then (of the slow Covid-19 vaccination rollout), ‘It’s not a competition; it’s not a race’ and finally in three different situations, ‘It’s not my job’, ‘it’s not my job’ and ‘it’s not my job to do that’.

Liberal Party commercials slam Labor leader Anthony Albanese’s economic credentials and conclude with the rhyming couplet ‘it won’t be easy, under Albanese’. The tense of the verb gives away what their internal polling is telling them: if they expected to win the election, the script would have been ‘it wouldn’t be easy…’.

Public distaste for political parties here is based on copious evidence of their inevitable slide into corruption. Sooner or later, it seems, all political parties come to believe the greatest public good is their own re-election: so they spend public money to entrench their power. The longer they cling to office, the deeper they get their fingers into the till and their trotters into the trough.

For the electorate, the big issue is whether either major party is going to do anything to salvage Australia’s deserved reputation as disgraceful global laggards on climate change. The vast majority of voters want more action, but both parties are running scared of losing key votes and seats in coal-mining constituencies.

An even more important issue is whether either party has the guts to create a federal integrity commission with real powers to investigate corrupt behaviour by politicians and misuse of public funds.

All six Australian States and both Territories have such organisations but there has never been one at the federal level, and it is easy to see why.

At the last election, Morrison promised to set one up. Nobody expected him to win, so it seemed a safe promise.

In the final few days of his three-year term, the PM produced a proposal for a ‘toothless tiger’ integrity commission, lacking powers to conduct public hearings, to receive allegations of corruption from ‘whistle-blowers’ or to interrogate Members of Parliament. Labor refused to support it, the independents and smaller parties who hold the balance of power in the Senate also demurred and Morrison withdrew his bill before suffering the indignity of having it voted down.

As a former judge of the Supreme Court of Victoria and the Court of Appeal, Stephen Charles QC, put it: ‘Never has anyone in office justified the breach of an election promise on the basis that the opposition opposes it. Scott Morrison’s explanation is a pathetic attempt to defend the indefensible.

‘The opposition could not possibly have supported Morrison’s useless and contemptible model. The truth is Morrison and his cabinet are frightened of an effective integrity commission and they have good reason to be.’

Morrison argues that the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) is ‘a kangaroo court’ which denigrated the character of the Premier of NSW, Gladys Berejiklian, and led to her resignation. (Police recordings of telephone conversations between the Premier and her secret lover, a corrupt member of state parliament, revealed her misuse of millions of dollars of public funds for party-political purposes.)

Morrison sees nothing wrong with this conduct. Indeed, the Auditor-General has reported that the coalition government engaged in ‘pork-barrelling’ at the 2019 election, to the tune of $924 million. To avoid the irksome requirement to ask Parliament to approve these allocations, they set up three well-endowed funds with the power to distribute money for sporting facilities, car parks and ‘community safety’.

Sporting bodies and local councils made detailed applications for funding. Public servants scrutinised them, interviewed the applicants and made their recommendations. A week before the last election, the Sports Minister conferred with the PM, scrapped the list of approvals and diverted the funds to marginal electorates being targeted by the coalition parties. The same happened with the car parks: of 47 projects selected, over half were approved one day before the election was announced.

The same has happened at this election. The coalition has promised to spend $924 million in just ten marginal constituencies. Labor candidates also tout how much cash they will splash if elected. There is free pork for everybody: the PM cut the tax on petrol by 50% for the next six months and proudly announced generous (but short-lived) cuts in income tax.

Two weeks out from polling day, my wife and I received $250 each, paid directly into our bank accounts, with letters from our caring government advising that these are tax-free payments to help us to cope with the rising cost of living!

Whose money is this, we wonder, that the government is handing out so generously? Did we pay too much tax, last year? Will we be paying more tax, next year? I’m afraid the answer to both questions is yes – but if it helps to ensure the re-election of this government, it’s money well spent, isn’t it? Isn’t it?

Here’s our democracy: rival gangs of politicians compete for the right, by winning elections, to allocate public funds without statutory approval, to grease the palms of their supporters and ensure their re-election. Who needs an integrity commission when the system already works so seamlessly?

Viewed from afar, there seems to be a real danger that Jersey will head down this slippery slope, where public funds will no longer be applied for public benefit, but to help teams of politicians to help themselves.

Scrapping the honorary system means what was once public service is now a well-paid job. The Island’s elected representatives doubt their own ability to make the best decisions in the public interest, so they employ more and more costly consultants to advise them. So the bureaucracy grows and grows and prosperity drains away.

When will electors awaken from this nightmare? On 21 May in Australia? On 22 June in Jersey? If you think that, you probably believe in the Tooth Fairy.

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