“The Australian people deserve a government that will act with integrity and in the best interests of the people they serve.
“Serving the Australian people as ministers and assistant ministers is an honour and comes with expectations to act at all times to the highest possible standards of probity.”
No, that’s not Anthony Albanese grandstanding. It is what Scott Morrison wrote as the foreword to the Statement of Ministerial Standards he adopted when he became Prime Minister in 2018.
In light of various rorts and scandals, it seems those standards have been observed in the breach as often as not.
Each Prime Minister since Kevin Rudd in 2007 has adopted a Statement of Ministerial Standards.
Lacking a national integrity commission, genuine or otherwise, or any other code of conduct for federal politicians, the statement is the only thing we have for attempting to hold ministers to account, short of criminal law.
In my opinion and, much more importantly, that of an ethics expert who was one of the statement’s original co-authors, the $660 million “#carpork” rorts fails the ministerial standards Mr Morrison has professed and that his ministry has agreed to.
The standards have been blatantly and repeatedly breached with zero consequences.
This is not technical stuff. Read the standards for yourself in light of the past eight years and there’s a fair chance you might wish to laugh or cry.
Breaches of the standards run far beyond the #carpork example of the government misusing public money in a blatant attempt to buy votes before the 2019 election.
But for the purposes of the exercise, let’s stick for now with the scandal freshly detailed by the Auditor-General.
The original statement began life as a code of conduct for the Labor shadow ministry commissioned by Senator John Faulkner in 1998.
One of the co-authors was Howard Whitton, subsequently an ethics adviser to various UN agencies and the OECD and a founding director of the Ethicos Group of integrity consultants.
Mr Whitton points to the opening principles of the statement Mr Morrison endorsed, that the ‘Trust principle’ is fundamental.
“Public office is a public trust,” is writ large in the second paragraph, in light of which “Ministers will act with due regard for integrity, fairness, accountability, responsibility and the public interest”.
The next two paragraphs shaft any pretence that #carpork met those standards (Mr Whitton’s italics):
In particular, in carrying out their duties:
- Ministers must ensure that they act with integrity – that is, through the lawful and disinterested exercise of the statutory and other powers available to their office, appropriate use of the resources available to their office for public purposes, in a manner which is appropriate to the responsibilities of the Minister
- Ministers must observe fairness in making official decisions – that is, to act honestly and reasonably, with consultation as appropriate to the matter at issue, taking proper account of the merits of the matter, and giving due consideration to the rights and interests of the persons involved, and the interests of Australia.
The very next paragraph stipulates that “Ministers must accept accountability for the exercise of the powers and functions of their office” – they can’t flick responsibility off onto some political hack adviser or hapless public servant following orders with an eye to what might happen next to their career if they don’t.
In my opinion, there was nothing “disinterested” (an absence of personal involvement or bias) in throwing hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars at a bunch of hastily contrived projects overwhelmingly situated in Liberal Party seats.
Instead, there was a great deal of personal involvement and bias in trying to get the Liberal Party re-elected, in the ministers keeping their jobs and their fatter pay packets.
Similarly, fairness was not observed in making the official decisions.
In Victoria, the core political target market for this pork barrelling, 16 Labor and 11 Liberal seats were theoretically eligible for the car park projects, but there are only four in Labor seats and 20 in Liberal seats.
The official decisions were self-evidently not made in the interests of Australia but the interests of the Liberal Party, the ministers, the relevant Liberal Party MPs and the Liberal Party’s backers.
Mr Whitton underlines that the Statement of Ministerial Standards’ principles are stated as required – not merely preferred or wished for.
A little further down the statement is another required principle:
“When taking decisions in or in connection with their official capacity, Ministers must do so in terms of advancing the public interest – that is, based on their best judgment of what will advance the common good of the people of Australia.”
The common good of the people of Australia would be for an alleged “congestion-busting” series of car parks at railways to be sited where they would do the most good and do so most cost effectively.
The Morrison government’s sometimes weren’t even attached to railway stations, were haphazardly selected with no apparent consideration of price/performance and – most clearly in Victoria – with negligible if any regard to where they would do the most good for their alleged cause.
Later in the standards under the heading The Public Interest, Mr Morrison and his ministers endorsed that: “Ministers are expected to conduct all official business on the basis that they may be expected to demonstrate publicly that their actions and decisions in conducting public business were taken with the sole objective of advancing the public interest.”
Ah, a “sole objective” test, “advancing the public interest”. Such overwhelming skewing of public money for party political aims is not “advancing the public interest”.
Mr Whitton says the principles and this test are intended to prevent a minister from declaring any decision they may choose to make as being in “the public interest”.
That should be a barrier to #carpork, #sportsrorts et al – if the Ministerial Standards were observed.
Ministers also “are expected to be honest in the conduct of public office and take all reasonable steps to ensure that they do not mislead the public or Parliament”.
Readers can reach their own conclusions about which ministers have been honest about their pork barrelling and whether they have tried to mislead the public.
There is much more to the standards and their interaction with various scandals and shortcomings in recent years – I haven’t even mentioned Robodebt – but there is one large catch: Short of a criminal charge, the implementation of the standards is pretty much entirely up to the Prime Minister.
Readers will remember that the Prime Minister’s Office itself was heavily involved in #carporkrorts – the department Scott Morrison is directly accountable for.
And according to the standards endorsed by Scott Morrison, the integrity of the Ministry is entirely up to him.