Keeping Them Honest

Stephen Charles and Catherine Williams

Scribe Publications  Rrp $32.99

When you read that former Attorney-General Christian Porter described the views of the distinguished former Victorian Appeal Judge and QC, Stephen Charles, relating to the establishment of a national integrity commission as being ‘kooky’, ‘absurd’ and ‘bizarre’, you know that Charles must have hit a raw nerve and had something important to say. And say it he does in this book which former Australian Chief Justice Sir Gerard Brennan describes as ‘disturbing.’ 

This book is certainly disturbing and when reading parts I found myself feeling some anger. Anger tinged with some sadness about the parlous state of public affairs in Australia, a state partly caused by the Coalition’s failure to honour its election promise to establish an effective national integrity commission.

Since retiring as a judge Stephen Charles has become a board member of the Accountability Round Table and the Centre for Public Integrity. The website of the Accountability Round Table says:

The Accountability Round Table is dedicated to improving standards of accountability, transparency, ethical behaviour, and democratic practice in Commonwealth and State parliaments and governments across Australia.

It is concerned that, in recent years, honesty and integrity in government have been eroded while maladministration and misconduct in public office have noticeably increased.

Catherine Williams is the research director for the Centre for Public Integrity.

The book presents a strong and compelling case for a robust and effective national integrity commission. The book also exposes the shallowness of all the arguments against having such a body.

The book begins by pointing out that when serious rape allegations were made against Christian Porter, he refused to resign by suggesting that to do so would be contrary to the rule of law. In this he was strongly supported by Scott Morrison. However, as the authors’ arguments develop the reader is left in no doubt about the hypocrisy of the position taken by Porter and Morrison on this and other issues where they and others in their government use the rule of law argument as a convenient shield when it suits them but ignore it when it does not.

The book looks in some detail at several instances of behaviour by the Coalition Government which would have been able to be examined by a robust integrity commission. Just some of the issues discussed are Robodebt; Administrative Appeals Tribunal appointments; Sports Rorts and Carpark Rorts, and the granting of some government contracts. 

The book also looks at the corroding influences on our democracy of political donations and the revolving door between politics and business.

The Coalition Government did produce some draft legislation for the establishment of an integrity commission. The authors explain that the Government’s proposed model was seriously flawed in that it would allow for corruption of law enforcement officers such as police and judges to be exposed but would not expose similar behaviour by politicians, their staff, and most public servants. The book comments:

The disqualifying problem with (the Government’s proposal) is that the half intended to monitor the rest of the public sector (other than law enforcement) is so crippled by its constraints that it is, as senator Jacqui Lambie has said, a ‘feather duster’. It would also function as a protective shield. Rather than being an anti-corruption agency, it hides and thus allows corruption.

The authors identify several other weaknesses with the Coalition’s proposal so far as it relates to politicians and most public servants such as the fact that:

In order for any inquiry there must be a suspicion of certain criminal offences.

A complaint cannot be made by a member of the public directly to the integrity commission.

There can be no public hearings.

The Commission cannot make any critical findings about anyone.

The book examines the New South Wales and Victorian integrity bodies and debunks the argument that they unfairly taint reputations, particularly by the holding of public inquiries. The hypocrisy of the Coalition’s comments on this issue is exposed by its own legislative model which permits public hearings in relation to law enforcement officers. Apparently their reputations don’t matter.

The authors suggest that Scott Morrison’s attack on the NSW ICAC when it was investigating Gladys Berejiklian was completely out of order and unwarranted.

Issues of Concern

Chapters 10, 11 and 12 deal with other significant issues of concern to our democracy such as weak federal political donations laws, lying by politicians during elections and other times, and blatant pork barrelling.

The book concludes with the following comment:

The community is sick and tired of politicians engaging in favour for favour; returning benefits and access to large donors; giving contracts to friends and allies; and using taxpayers’ money as if it was their own. It has had enough of the evasions and secretive responses of this (the Morrison) government. The community is longing for integrity in government, and most want a strong national integrity commission.

This is a very timely book and deserves a wide readership. It should be required reading for all politicians and aspiring politicians. (And voters! Ed.)

John Watts

Retired Barrister, Gloucester resident, and author of ‘The Town That Said NO to AGL. How Gloucester Was Saved from Coal Seam Gas’. John is also the president of the Gloucester Environment Group

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