Former PM Malcolm Turnbull has voiced his concerns that the rule of law is “under threat” in Australia, claiming parliamentarians have enabled an “normalisation of lies” that is undermining federal politics.
In a wide-ranging address to a public integrity organisation, Mr Turnbull complained the federal parliamentary press gallery and the News Corp media empire was too “compliant” to the Coalition government, and called recent actions of government MP George Christensen and Alex Antic “bizarre”.
“We’re starting to see a political environment which has ethically lost its way,” the former PM told an online event for the Accountability Round Table on Wednesday night.
“At the heart of this is a diminishing adherence to, understanding of, respect for the values of accountability.”
Mr Turnbull has been a vocal critic of his successor, Scott Morrison, and the Coalition since he was spilled as prime minister in August 2018. The former member for Wentworth regularly weighs in on government scandals and has joined former Labor PM Kevin Rudd’s call for further scrutiny of News Corp.
On Wednesday, Mr Turnbull launched the ‘Integrity Now’ project from the Accountability Round Table. It calls for reforms including greater parliamentary oversight of treaties, legislation and spending; changes to parliament’s question time; greater scrutiny of ministerial staff; overhauls to freedom of information laws; and a strong Commonwealth integrity commission.
Nearly three years after proposing such a body, the Morrison government has still not introduced its legislation for a federal anti-corruption body into parliament, despite having its proposal finalised.
In an online speech, Mr Turnbull bemoaned what he called “the rise of populist authoritarianism”, which he compared to fascism, in the US and Australia.
“The rule of law here is under threat as well,” he said.
“Right at the heart of that is the normalisation of things we’ve always regarded as being beyond the pale. The most fundamental of them is the normalisation of lies.”
Mr Turnbull did not mention any politician specifically in that criticism, but spoke of what he claimed was a culture that allowed politicians to “say whatever works best for [them] in the moment”.
“You get these examples where not only are people doing the wrong thing, but they don’t think they’re doing the wrong thing. And that is what creates the urgency for the type of measures we’re talking about here today,” he said.
Mr Turnbull described Mr Christensen and Senator Antic – who have spread criticisms of Australia’s COVID and vaccine rules on far-right American talk shows – as “bizarre” and “on the fringes”. But he claimed the so-called ‘blind trust’ to finance the legal fees of former attorney-general Christian Porter was “the most bizarre”.
“It didn’t wash, and resulted in him having to leave the ministry. But the fact it was even considered viable, tells you something about how bearings have been lost,” Mr Turnbull said.
He said he initially did not support the idea of a federal integrity body like NSW’s Independent Commission Against Corruption, claiming he did not believe corruption was a major issue in Canberra when he entered politics in 2004. However, Mr Turnbull said he now believed that a Commonwealth body, with public hearings, was needed.
The Morrison government’s federal integrity commission would not hold public hearings for politicians.
Mr Morrison has described NSW’s ICAC as a “kangaroo court” and “a bad process”. In seeking to encourage former NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian to enter federal politics, despite pending results of an ICAC investigation into her dealings with ex-boyfriend Daryl Maguire, Mr Morrison complained she had “suffered terribly in terms of things that have been aired publicly”.
Elsewhere in his address, Mr Turnbull criticised the government for what he claimed was an attitude that those inside the Coalition felt they “can do whatever we like”.
Mr Turnbull also decried what he described as “falsehoods and half-truths” spread by the government over the AUKUS pact, which cancelled a submarine deal he had negotiated with France.
He also alleged the federal press gallery – the journalists stationed permanently inside Parliament House, who report daily on national politics – had become too “compliant” to the government.
“News Corp is effectively part of the government,” Mr Turnbull said.
He also questioned whether the government’s passage of the news media bargaining code – which compelled Facebook and Google to broker commercial agreements with journalism outlets – was “ethical” or a “conflict of interest”.
“The Australian people, from whom that authority came, have never been told how much money there was,” Mr Turnbull said.
“This means the government does not feel it has been held to account by the media in the way it was … far too many journalists are not doing that job anymore.”