Keep Them Honest | The Saturday newspaper

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After absorbing the first few pages of this book, most readers will, one suspects, mentally substitute “the bastards” for “them” in its title. Keeping Them Honest: The Case for a Genuine National Integrity Commission and Other Vital Democratic Reforms documents the breathtaking recklessness with which Australian politicians ignore ethics, probity and the rule of law.

Even those who follow parliamentary politics closely might find themselves shaken by the shonk catalog presented by Stephen Charles, a former judge, and Catherine Williams, a jurist.

The couple, both linked to the Center for Public Integrity, have led us since the 2019 “sports arrest” case – which they describe as “blatant political corruption… a violation of the rule of law and an act of defiance by coalition ministers of three of Australia’s High Court’s clear rulings’ – to the $700million suburban car park deli – ‘another cynical and gross breach of the rule of law by a shameless government “. They describe the $444 million allocated to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, a huge sum that Australia’s National Audit Office found incompatible with existing rules governing transparency and value for money.

They remind us of the two closed tenders for services on Manus Island, tenders which, as Senator Stirling Griff put it, “average[d] $1,600 per day to house each refugee […] which is more than double what you pay in a five star hotel”. At the time, Paladin Group – the company benefiting from government largesse – was registered in a beach shack on Kangaroo Island.

Then there is the so-called robotic debt scandal, in which the government sought to recover alleged overpayments from welfare recipients. “The scheme was illegal from the start,” Charles and Williams say, “and the amounts had been set by computer, often wrongfully, without any court or legal authority. Hundreds of thousands of people were affected, the human cost a been important and there were many suicides.

But even robotic debt pales in comparison to the government’s use of an aid package to bug the cabinet offices of its supposed allies in East Timor. The interceptions allowed Australian officials to outwit their Timorese counterparts in negotiations over the gas and oil fields that Asia’s poorest nation relied on for its income. After Alexander Downer, the foreign minister at the time, accepted a job with Woodside Petroleum – the company exploiting Timor’s resources – the ASIS agent in charge of the operation, a man known only as of Witness K, turned whistleblower in disgust.

In response, ASIO robbed the office of K’s attorney, Bernard Collaery, and the government’s prosecution of Witness K and Collaery resulted in secret trials for both men.

Wearily, Charles and Williams enumerate the crimes committed in Timor: “lying; duplicity; contract fraud; criminal trespass; contempt of court; denial of fair trial; failure to act as a model litigator; large-scale theft” – as part of their case for an effective National Integrity Commission. It is already mandated, they remind us, by Australia’s commitment to the United Nations Convention against Corruption.

Scott Morrison promised a commission in 2019. Yet the draft scheme proposed by the Coalition at the end of 2020 focused primarily on law enforcement rather than parliamentarians, potentially allowing politicians to “indulge in the corruption of any kind, however serious, without fear of investigation by the [commission]unless it is a “scheduled” criminal offense and it is not an abuse of power or a perversion of the course of justice”.

Charles and Williams argue that an effective watchdog must be independent and adequately funded. It needs the powers of a royal commission and the ability to make findings of fact and findings of corrupt conduct.

keep them honest emphasizes the importance of transparency. As Tony Fitzgerald, the man who started Queensland’s corruption boil, says: “The public has a right to know what is going on in public life.

Certainly, in the past, open investigations have mobilized popular opinion against parliamentary crooks. Yet we see more and more demagogues – think Donald Trump – scare their scandals away, convinced that a disengaged electorate will not hold them to account even for overt acts of illegality.

Given that Charles and Williams describe the current government as “using the rule of law as a convenient front, while breaking the rule whenever it sees fit”, we might wonder how any other legal body – even properly built – could make a lot of difference.

With a foreword by Sir Gerard Brennan AC KBE, former Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia, this is not a militant book. But despite their legalistic prose, the authors’ real anxiety about the erosion of democratic standards shines through.

Multiple obstacles to good governance include, they say, the continued under-resources of regulators and inadequate disclosure rules for political donations, with, for example, the huge increase in payments in 2013-14 apparently due “to lobbying efforts to repeal the Clean Energy Act”. Similarly, a revolving door between government and industry allowed Martin Ferguson of the Labor Party to move within months from the Department of Energy to the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association, and to John Kunkel to serve Scott Morrison as chief of staff after stints at Rio Tinto and the Minerals Council of Australia.

A national integrity commission may not be enough to fix Australia’s democracy, but keep them honest argues strongly for its necessity.

Scribe, 272pp, $32.99

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 23, 2022 under the headline “Keeping Them Honest, Stephen Charles and Catherine Williams”.

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