One of Australia’s higher-profile think tanks, the Australia Institute (TAI), recently reprised its double act with legendary Queensland corruption fighter Tony Fitzgerald and staged a media stunt in hope of publicity for its Federal ICAC Now conference next month.
TAI did something similar in 2015 during the lead up to the Queensland state election, asking each political party to give an undertaking that it would abide by the principles of good governance outlined in a speech given by Mr Fitzgerald the previous year.
Those principles were about governments acting in the public interest, not giving anyone special access or treatment, and being honest with the public about significant or controversial decisions and actions.
These are good and honourable principles that all politicians should abide by. It’s a sad indictment of our polity that anyone even aspiring to political life, let alone those who manage to get elected, should be asked to make this commitment. It should be a given that honourable members will act honourably.
Yet as we know through Mr Fitzgerald’s corruption inquiry in Queensland, the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption, and the parade of federal MPs caught with their trotters in the trough, the unethical temptations that come with elected office have proven hard to resist.
So the case for a federal corruption commission or ICAC is very appealing – to voters that is – while the prospect could be horrifying to some of our elected representatives.
This explains why the major parties have squirmed every time someone calls for such a body: they don’t know what will be unearthed, or whose head might roll.
But each time an MP “accidentally” buys a house while on government business, or even forgets they bought a house in the first place, voters conclude that if not-so-honourable MPs can’t abide by the rules then it’s time to clean them all out. A national ICAC appears to be the easiest way to enforce that spring clean.
Labor has found a way to be seen to be supporting a national corruption body without actually doing so. The party supports a Senate inquiry into the idea, no doubt in the hope it will find there are already enough checks and balances in place to rule out the need for a new bureaucracy.
The Greens, on the other hand, are reasonably confident their MPs have not lapsed into corrupt behaviour. So the party is keen for the boost of votes that could result from a federal ICAC shedding light on another unwanted element of the old party system.
This is where the Australia Institute comes in. Like many of the other think tanks that try to influence politics and policy, TAI is informally aligned with a political philosophy or party. In this case, it’s the Greens.
The organisation’s board is mostly made up of philanthropists, academics and union leaders, but its senior staff are mostly former Greens advisers. There’s nothing wrong with that; TAI has just as much right to participate in Australia’s democracy as does the Institute of Public Affairs, which has a board and staff festooned with former and likely future Liberal MPs and advisers.
In effect, both are more lobby groups than they are policy-driven think tanks.
This week’s attempt to shame MPs who didn’t “sign up” to a strengthened version of the Fitzgerald Principles is just another of TAI’s Greens-friendly campaigns. All ten Greens MPs got brownie points for agreeing they were “ethically obliged” to act honourably and fairly, tell the truth, not mislead or deceive, not obfuscate, and not spend taxpayers’ funds or use their position for personal gain.
All government MPs either declined or abstained, seeing the stunt for what it was. They knew that any government MP who agreed to being ethically obliged to tell the truth would be challenged over the times they’d said something that was later proved untrue. Such as “he has my full support”, or “the government has no plans”.
In short the TAI survey could have opened a Pandora’s box that delivered even more unwanted consequences for Coalition MPs than a federal ICAC, so it was universally avoided by government MPs. Of course, the politically street-smart people at TAI knew this would be the case.
It’s a shame the Australia Institute exploited Tony Fitzgerald’s anti-corruption reputation for a cheap political stunt.