In early May, three weeks into his 2022 re-election campaign, Scott Morrison gave an interview to the Nine newspapers in which he warned of the dangers of a federal anti-corruption agency.
‘The unintended consequences of an ill-thought-through integrity commission, I think are very dangerous,’ Morrison said.
If we are going to so disempower our elected representatives to do things about what is needed in their communities, then what is the point?
We can’t just hand government over to faceless officials to make decisions that impact the lives of Australians from one end of the country to the other. I actually think there’s a great danger in that.
It wouldn’t be Australia any more if that was the case, it would be some kind of public autocracy.
This was a surprising sentiment to hear expressed in a formal interview by Australia’s head of government. Politicians typically say they are against corruption. It’s not every day you hear the Prime Minister argue against integrity in public office.
A ‘public autocracy’, whatever that means, certainly doesn’t sound like a compliment. But then again, perhaps Morrison was merely being consistent. The Prime Minister has repeatedly railed against the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption, memorably calling it a ‘kangaroo court’. Ever since New South Wales premier Gladys Berejiklian decided to resign before facing public questioning at ICAC, Morrison and many in his government have vowed never to implement a similar model at federal level.
Why would Scott Morrison be so opposed to a federal integrity agency? It might have something to do with the number of questions that have been raised about his government’s integrity. In late March, for instance, the ABC ran an important story on the Morrison government’s system of accrediting carbon offsets—a key part of the government’s plan for Australia to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
The carbon offsets system, it turns out, is riddled with dodgy reforestation schemes and shoddy accounting. Many carbon offsets are devoted to forest projects in regional Australia. Some are for simply doing nothing: paying for tracts of woodland not to be cleared by landowners. This is not an emission reduction, obviously. A reduction would mean, you know, reducing pollution—such as shutting down a coal-fired power station.
But avoided emissions are just the tip of the melting iceberg. Some of these offsets won’t offset. Some of them won’t even exist. Forest projects are being accredited in areas far from any tree cover, and some are being greenlit for sand dunes in central Australia. Experts, including the CSIRO, say they aren’t real carbon reductions. In nominal forests of imaginary trees, many of these credits will capture no carbon whatsoever. They are, in a word, fraud.
The man who blew the whistle is respected ANU academic Professor Andrew Macintosh. He’s not beating around the bush. ‘An environmental market without integrity is not an environmental market,’ he told the ABC’s Stephen Long and Alex McDonald in March. ‘It’s a rort. And I feel that Australia’s carbon market is just that—it’s degenerated to become a rort.’
Macintosh used to be on the government’s Emissions Reduction Assurance Committee. When he left to work on the latest bushfires royal commission, Energy Minister Angus Taylor replaced him with the fossil fuel lobbyist David Byers, a former CEO of the Minerals Council of Australia. Who’s paying for these dodgy carbon credits? Taxpayers. The Greens have referred the whole scheme to the auditor-general.
In a normal government, a billion-dollar fraud would be big news. But in the Morrison government, a billion-dollar fraud facilitated by the fossil fuel sector is best described as ‘Thursday’. The day before Macintosh spoke on 7.30 back in March, Taylor issued a media release detailing a $50 million government handout to gas frackers in the Northern Territory’s Beetaloo Basin. The funding was explicitly described as supporting gas exploration, in line with the Morrison government’s commitment to facilitating more gas production. Gas is a fossil fuel. Producing more gas will mean more carbon emissions.
But more gas and net zero by 2050 are perfectly consistent, at least in the warped world view of the Morrison government. Indeed, the ‘gas-led recovery’ is official policy, announced with much fanfare by Morrison and Taylor in the depths of the pandemic in 2020. ‘We are building a robust and competitive gas industry that will allow both gas producers and users to thrive,’ Taylor proudly told the media at the time.
In that same week in March that Macintosh went public with his concerns about carbon credits, Western Australian courts sentenced former Fortescue CEO Nev Power for breaching WA quarantine directions in 2020. Power had flown in a helicopter to Exmouth from his property in Queensland, without isolating. He copped an eight-month suspended sentence and a criminal record: quite the comedown for the hand-picked successor to mining oligarch Andrew Forrest.
In 2020, Power was appointed by Scott Morrison as the chair of Australia’s COVID Coordination Commission. Supposedly tasked with advising the government on ‘all non-health aspects of the pandemic response’, this risible outfit barely met. A couple of ‘business tools’ on its website and a handful of media releases didn’t amount to much coordination, and business figures such as Catherine Tanna and David Thodey started quitting. By the time it was wound up quietly in mid-2021, the commission had contributed little more than a secret report recommending new gas plants and some vague PR about, you guessed it, the ‘gas-led recovery’. There was, however, enough budget to pay for some focus group polling by favoured Liberal pollster Jim Reed, half a million dollars for the Boston Consulting Group … and around $430,000 paid straight to Power’s trust fund.
Just to make sure no-one found out about what the Coordination Commission got up to, Morrison wheeled all the commission’s deliberations through Cabinet, telling the media he was moving it ‘within government’, in other words under Cabinet secrecy. But one key outcome of the COVID Coordination Commission was locked in: $600 million in public spending for a new gas plant at Kurri Kurri in New South Wales, formally budgeted for by Josh Frydenberg in 2021 and signed off by the Berejiklian government in late December.
When you put down the details of deals such as this, you could be forgiven for noticing a pattern. But by 2022, what would once have seemed like a devastating series of integrity revelations are barely remarkable. In Scott Morrison’s Australia, impropriety and breaches of public trust are business as usual.
So deep is the Morrison government mired in sleaze, it’s getting hard to separate the petty incompetence from the systemic dismantling of public policy safeguards. In December 2021, for instance, the acting Education Minister, Stuart Robert, vetoed a number of academic research grants. The offending grants, Robert announced, did not meet his definition of the public interest. He also directed the public body handing out the grants, the Australian Research Council, to give more of its funding to industry projects. The boss of the Australian Research Council, Sue Thomas, resigned soon afterwards, leaving a farewell message to researchers urging them to get with minister Robert’s program.
Academics were horrified. More than a thousand signed a petition against political interference in research funding, and even the normally well-mannered Australian Academy of Science put in a protest. Greens senator Mehreen Faruqi got up a Senate inquiry, which looked at the decision by Robert to veto.
What was astounding about the decision to veto six research grants was why Stuart Robert bothered at all. This was not a rational intervention into research policy: vetoing a handful of grants on the basis of the short blurbs provided to the minister is neither systematic nor coherent. One of the cancelled projects was researching the China of Xi Jinping—purportedly the government’s number-one foreign policy priority. Other grants were cancelled apparently because of references to climate change. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that Robert did it on purpose, to generate headlines for himself for whipping woke academics back into line: an off-the-cuff ‘F you’ to Australian researchers and universities more generally. A troll.
Robert was the acting Education Minister because the former education minister was Alan Tudge. Tudge had stood aside after allegations of abuse and violence were made by his former staffer Rachelle Miller. A slow-moving internal inquiry eventually cleared Tudge of breaching ministerial standards, but the former rising star resigned from his ministry, told to concentrate on holding his once safe seat in Melbourne’s leafy eastern suburbs. To add the confusion, the Prime Minister then told journalists in April that Tudge remained ‘technically’ in cabinet. Tudge is a kind of Schrodinger’s minister: both resigned and not-resigned, both in the cabinet but absent from the campaign trail.
Robert, one of Scott Morrison’s closest political allies, has a long history of integrity issues of his own. In his first term as a minister, he was sacked by Malcolm Turnbull for a political donation scandal. Robert had travelled to China for a freelance lobbying mission—supposedly taking time off from his official duties as Assistant Defence Minister—to lobby on behalf of top Liberal donor and mining executive Paul Marks. His plea that he was just on holidays unravelled when photographs surfaced of him, in suit and tie, at an official signing ceremony with a Chinese assistant minister.
In Robert’s defence, separating the public interest from the private interest of Liberal donors and supporters is becoming increasingly difficult. The fundamental fusion of corporate and public interest has progressed sufficiently that senior ministers no longer seem to know where the line is, let alone whether it has been crossed. Perhaps this is how you can manage to charge the public $38,000 for your home internet bill.
In Scott Morrison’s government, the integrity scandals are everywhere, almost wherever you look: billions of dollars of JobKeeper paid to companies that made profits; a systematic program of rorting sporting grants to marginal and Liberal-held seats; and $660 million of commuter car parks built in suburbs that don’t need them, most of which haven’t been built.
As criticism of his government has mounted, Morrison and his Cabinet have toyed with a promise to establish a national anti-corruption agency. An exposure draft of the legislation has been released, but plans for such an agency do not appear to have progressed. It didn’t help that the former attorney-general who was going to draft the bill, Christian Porter, quit politics after denying another set of serious allegations made against him, allegations we must be careful writing about. Porter’s replacement, Michaelia Cash, surprised no-one when she eventually admitted the government wasn’t going to create an anti-corruption body after all. Morrison then made campaigning against an integrity commission a motif of the election campaign.
After nine years of Coalition government, there appear to be few consequences for abusing the public trust. Multiple integrity scandals in the Home Affairs Department have had no discernible impact on Peter Dutton’s career, or that of vainglorious department secretary Mike Pezzullo. Josh Frydenberg is still the Treasurer, even after his well-publicised role in awarding $443 million in public funding to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, a bespoke environment charity whose CEO was married to a former chief of staff of former Queensland LNP premier Campbell Newman. (The Great Barrier Reef Foundation didn’t even apply for the funding, a perk that burnt-out academics with vetoed ARC grants can only dream about). Bridget McKenzie, the minister who oversaw the sports rorts debacle, is back in the Cabinet. Her reappointment came in the same term of government in which she resigned for rorting public funds and breaching ministerial standards.
Understanding this atmosphere of normalised graft and misconduct also explains one of the greater mysteries of the Morrison government: why it is so incompetent. A lack of integrity bleeds into a generalised lack of capacity to carry out the basic functions of state. When you’re not sweating the details, disastrous decisions like jetting off to Hawaii during a national bushfire emergency, forgetting to include a clawback mechanism for firms making profits while on JobKeeper, or not getting back to Pfizer about an offer to provide Australia with a coronavirus vaccine do not seem so incongruous.
We can see this with the accelerating politicisation of the Australian Public Service, which worsened under Tony Abbott but has reached crisis proportions under Morrison. A once-proud public service is cowed and thoroughly demoralised. Although it is still capable of offering independent advice, it’s not apparent the Morrison government wants to hear it. The modern-day Coalition minister prefers the advice they can commission from the big four consulting firms. Failing that, perhaps a special taskforce can be created, stacked with Liberal donors and corporate mates.
Beaten down and much ignored, it’s not surprising that ordinary public servants have lost the courage to tell ministers the truth. This cultivated tendency of working towards the minister seems to have morphed into a culture of outright partisanship, in which senior public servants implement the political will of their ministers with apparently no scruples.
Take the head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Kathryn Campbell. Campbell is one of the Coalition’s favoured public servants, now occupying one of the most senior roles in the APS. One reason she is so well liked by the Coalition is her demonstrated public advocacy for their policies, and her bulldog defence of indefensible government cockups. Among her other achievements, including a career in the ADF, Campbell is the senior public servant who was primarily responsible for Robodebt, the government’s notorious Centrelink algorithm that levied more than $1 billion in false debt on impoverished welfare recipients. Labor has promised a royal commission into Robodebt if it wins office.
Campbell not only ran the department that scoped and then built the rogue algorithm, she also enthusiastically defended the policy at a string of Senate Estimates hearings and public inquiries. By the time the algorithm was struck down as unlawful in a $1.8 billion settlement in the Federal Court, Campbell was on her way to DFAT, where she is in charge of all our professional diplomats and privy to the government’s topmost secrets. She has never admitted any culpability for a policy that contributed to a number of suicides by desperate welfare recipients, harassed by private debt collectors for unlawful and fictious welfare ‘debts’.
Then again, perhaps Campbell was just following orders. In 2019, Morrison issued a public warning to the APS, in which he stated unambiguously that he expected the bureaucrats to do their duty. ‘Only those who have put their name on a ballot can truly understand the significance of that accountability,’ he declared, with that special talent he has for highlighting his own glaring deficiencies. ‘Under our system of government it must be ministers who set the policy direction.’ Morrison’s diktat was underlined by the choice of Phil Gaetjens, a loyal apparatchik manifestly unqualified for impartial policy leadership, to the most important role in the federal public service.
These days, lots of questionable business goes on in the federal public service that Gaetjens heads: strange decisions to buy water licences from shell companies based in Caribbean tax havens; interesting meetings with a federal minister to reconsider environmental protections for grasslands that he just happens to co-own; a ‘limited tender’ for a $423 million contract on Manus Island to a company with a business address at a beach shack on Kangaroo Island; no-tender contracts to Aspen Medical to run pandemic responses; colour-coded spreadsheets that list funding announcements by marginal seat.
The appointment of Gaetjens is just the most obvious example of the Coalition’s relentless commitment to stacking essentially all public positions with allies, donors and political fellow travellers. The process is most obvious in Commonwealth tribunals such as the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and the Fair Work Commission, where failed Liberal politicians such as Sophie Mirabella and Karen McNamara enjoy lucrative sinecures, earning more than they used to as backbenchers. In early April, for instance, Cash appointed a string of former Liberal politicians to the AAT, including former NSW minister Prue Goward and two former WA Liberal parliamentarians. But the stacking goes all the way down, from the Coalition’s assiduous reorganisation of the directors of public agencies such as the ABC and the Takeovers Panel, to such seemingly small beer as the board of the Australia Council or the War Memorial.
All of this has a cost. Robodebt resulted in a judgment of nearly $1.8 billion against the taxpayer, leaving aside the misery it caused individual welfare recipients. In Defence, flawed procurement processes are costing tens of billions, symbolised by the farcical decision to cancel the French submarine contract, which will cost an estimated $5 billion in sunk cost payments made to the shipbuilders Naval Group. The failure to claw back JobKeeper from profitable companies has been priced by the Parliamentary Budget Office at $19 billion. Dozens of residents at St Basil’s aged care home died after the federal government gave Aspen Medical a contract to take over care provision at the facility. Such calamities can’t just be sheeted home to Cabinet ministers: they are also failures of policy advice, and ultimately of the public service itself.
In a deeper and more worrying way, the politicisation of the public service has profoundly reduced its capacity. As Bernard Keane noted in a perceptive article in Crikey in early 2022, the current leadership of the APS is among its least impressive since Federation. In many cases, the national bureaucracy now seems incapable of basic service delivery, let alone responding to urgent national disasters such as bushfires, pandemics or floods. The Morrison government’s constant conscription of the ADF for each pressing crisis only highlights the lack of civilian capability.
In February this year Nick Bryant wrote an expansive profile of Anthony Albanese for The Monthly, entitled ‘The Repair Man’. The image is reassuring, summoning up a vision of Albo in overalls, getting under the sink to fix the nation’s leaking pipes. But ‘repair’ hardly seems the right word for the task an incoming Labor government faces, given the depth and breadth of the Coalition’s wrecking job on Australia’s public institutions. The issue is not just that the public service has been starved and sidelined, or that consultants, corporates and donors now take most of the key decisions in our democracy. There is a general culture of mismanagement and graft in Australian public administration. A federal anti-corruption commission will only begin to address the problem.
The stakes of the 2022 election for Australian government and public institutions are therefore high indeed. A re-elected Morrison government would only accelerate the decline of public trust. Who knows what sort of pro-business schemes could be cooked up for a fourth term in office? Perhaps a proper crackdown on unions and climate protestors; no doubt some new and even more lucrative public funding for the fossil fuel sector; certainly more jobs for the boys and the girls. In a word: barely hidden corruption, this time on a really grand scale.
Ben Eltham is a journalist and researcher. He lectures in the school of media, film and journalism at Monash University.
This post will be published in the June print edition of Meanjin.