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Integrity in government? Get real, mate…

ByRobert Silverman

The Author

Robert Silverman is the pen name of a journalist and academic with extensive Australian and international experience in teaching, researching and writing on politics and history.

Outside Australia, Daniel Andrews put Victoria in global focus by imposing the longest and harshest lockdowns in the world. Inside Australia, the government he leads has become a byword for deceit, manipulation, secrecy, dishonesty and a lack of integrity. 

The rot flows directly from Andrews himself, seeing that he is the real government and his ministers only envoys relaying his directives to the world outside Spring  Street. He has been implicated personally in five IBAC (Independent Broad-based Anti-Corruption Commission) investigations but without yet being held directly accountable for anything. 

In March this year, IBAC’s report (Operation Daintree) concluded that there had been “a range of misconduct” in the awarding of a $1.2 million to the health workers’ union. When Andrews dismissed the report as “educational” IBAC commissioner Robert Redlich pointed out that “the whole report is about findings of misconduct and all of these findings point to a lack of integrity in the way in which the decisions that pertained to the union were made.” Ombudswoman Deborah Glass said the report was “damning.” Andrews tried to deflect by  misdescribing the main findings as only “recommendations.” 

In December 2022, Redlich had already sent a letter to the presiding officers of the Victorian parliament accusing Labor members of the Integrity and Oversight Committee of seeking to discredit IBAC in retaliation for its ongoing investigations into corruption within the government. They had asked Callida Consultancy to “find dirt on IBAC.”

IBAC commissioner, Robert Redlich. (Image: AAP)

Redlich, a former Supreme Court judge, is one of the most senior legal figures in Victoria, yet when asked for his comment on his letter Andrews dismissed him as “someone who used to do a job [who has written a letter] that apparently says a whole bunch of stuff … I reject any suggestion that the government that the government does not act appropriately.” The word ‘appropriate’ is often on Andrews lips. He always acts apppropriately, which, in the context of his own political interests, no doubt he does. For Redlich, however,  “if we can’t say the integrity committee of the Victorian parliament is acting with integrity we have a very, very serious problem.” When opposition leader John Pesutto read the letter in parliament, Andrews turned his back on him and mocked him with hand gestures.

In July,  IBAC’s Operation Sandon report found that two Casey city councillors, Geoff Ablett and Sameh Aziz had been given hundreds of thousands of dollars to push the interests of property developer John Woodman. The precise amounts were $600,000 for Aziz and more than $500,00 for Ablett,  delivered in cash. A third councillor, former mayor Amanda Stapleton, committed suicide in January 2022 after a draft report referred to her as the “councillor A” who had been instrumental in seeking to influence council processes on rezoning that would benefit Woodman. The council was sacked in February 2020 after the allegations against the councillors became a matter of public notoriety. 

The report also concluded that Two Labor MPs, Jude Perera and Judith Graley, were found to received electoral campaign financial support in 2018 before trying to influence the planning minister to support a rezoning application that would benefit Woodman.   

Andrews gave evidence to IBAC but defended himself from being implicated on the basis that no adverse findings had been made against him. As Redlich pointed out, however, the high threshold set by legislation for recommending prosecution for possible criminal activity had “stifled” IBAC’s role.    Andrews knew Woodman, had attending fund-raising occasions when he was present and in 2017 had had lunch with him. However, he had “no recollection” of Woodman raising planning matters with him.  He could not recall it, he “may have had” a conversation with a Woodman lobbyist but it was “highly unlikely” that he would have passed on his apologies for the delay in responding to a rezoning application. Yet it was the lobbyist IBAC chose to believe, not Andrews. His denials were a replay of his shifting and shuffling when giving evidence in 2020 to the Coate inquiry into the hotel quarantine shambles. 

Ethics and party politics are like oil and water. They don’t mix. What counts in politics is numbers and deals whatever it takes to fashion them. The golden rule is not to get caught. With few exceptions politicians everywhere behave the same way. In Australia the rot in the Victorian government has been exposed by IBAC, but is this just Victoria during the life of a government that seems riddled with corruption?

Robert Redlich does not believe so. “I think we are dealing with a fundamental problem in the way executive government operates not just in Victoria but around Australia and in the federal environment,” he told an Age reporter in late July. “It has to be understood that this is a decline which has occurred not just today or last week or for ten years. We can go back 40 years to when those problems started and they’ve gone on unarrested.” 

That Australians take a dim view of their politicians is supported by public opinion polls.  In 2020, the Pew Research Centre ran a global survey beginning with the question ‘Do elected officials care about ordinary citizens?’ In Australia, 63 per cent of those polled disagreed. Asked ‘Is the state run for the benefit of all?’ 46 per cent disagreed. On the Transparency Project’s corruptions perceptions index Australia was given 75/100, a decline of two per cent since 2021 and nine percent (from 84) since 2012.  

Why Redlich chose 40 years he did not explain but four decades takes us back to Margaret Thatcher’s statement in 1987 that “there is no such thing as society” along with Bob Hawke’s ‘accords’ and Paul Keating’s ‘enterprise bargaining’ both of which further advantaged the employer over the individual worker. Part of this socio-economic rearrangement was the encouraged growth of an ‘aspirational’ class out for what it could get. These were all signs of societies being pushed back to the ‘rugged individualism’ associated in the 20th century with Ayn Rand and in the 19th with the British philosopher Herbert Spencer. ‘Deregulation’ took societies further in this direction. Such radical changes bring with changes in the values by which people live and are governed. Did they lead to the decline in ethical behaviour noted by Robert Redlich, in corporate as well as political life? 

Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews. (Image: Dave Hewison)

The ALP has had a socialist objective since 1921 but has long since been ‘democratic socialist’ in name only. Its economic policies are little or no different from its conservative/rightwing capitalist rivals. As nominal representatives of a class about to be put to the sword  – the working class –  Bob Hawke and Paul Keating achieved what the Liberal/National Party could only have dreamed of. The economic restructuring of Australia in favor of  the corporate class was delivered to them on a plate by these two icons of the labor movement and the Labor party. It was Hawke and Keating and not a Liberal prime minister who began the great sellout of Australia’s economic and thus political independence, such as it was, not to speak of their real-life abandonment of the party’s core socialist objective. 

Their ‘liberalisation’ was a misnomer because it ‘liberated’ the markets to do pretty much what they wanted. Industrialists were now ‘liberated’ from national tariff restrictions. They were free to set up shop where they could produce goods at a fraction of the cost in their country of origin and sell in the home country as if they had been made there (not that capitalism has any other home but profit). There was no incentive for manufacturers to stay put and keep people in work. This was all part of Keating’s ‘level playing ground.’  Like black rot spreading in a vineyard, deregulation devastated the manufacturing base of most ‘western’ countries. Australia was being surrendered, not to Asian immigration as the historian Geoffrey Blainey had believed, but to the neo-liberal ‘Washington consensus.’ 

The ‘privatisation’ of public utilities was central to the program. The sell-off included the essentials of daily life, water, energy and public transport. There was no risk involved. Public money was simply transferred into private pockets.  There was no longer a government building where a water or electricity bill could be paid because the building had been sold and turned into a shopping mall or an apartment block. State institutions that had been built up over more than  a century and had served the people well – Gas and Fuel and the SEC (State Electricity Commission) are two examples in Victoria  – disappeared almost overnight.

In private hands, the drive for profit and more profit than the year before changed the relationship between consumer and provider. Governments and corporations adopted the same techniques of dealing with their customers or ‘clients’,  with call centres and internet chat lines that eat into our time and save theirs by replacing direct contact by phone or email. There can scarcely be anyone in the country who has not been frustrated beyond measure by having to wait at the end of a phone queue and then having to wait again for however long it takes a call centre to attend to  their problem. When the corporation or the government department might have an office just down the road, of course their ‘clients’ are going to wonder why they have to call Mumbai. The profit-seeking greed encouraged in this new environment led to the banking scandals exposed by an official inquiry in 2017.  

Swanston St, Melbourne. (Image: Rafael Ben-Ari)

These changes people feel and experience in their everyday lives are part of the new world into which they are being herded. It is an incredibly sophisticated world, being created over their heads, with corporations and governments joining forces to monitor, control and shape human behaviour thanks to advances in technology which H.G. Wells or George Orwell could not even have imagined. Artificial intelligence, digital ID and a cash-free economy will cut down even further on human interactions in an increasingly dehumanised world and strengthen the capacity of governments to control us.   

Politicians are supposed to be the servants of the people but now more than ever it seems we are serving them. They take even life-threatening decisions without our consent (the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq). They have developed into a self-serving professional class that basically looks after its own interests first. There are exceptions but the politician who puts ethics ahead of self-interest and party or factional loyalty will undoubtedly have a short career. Pointing to Victoria as the supreme example,  Robert Redlich says a lack of integrity in executive government is common across Australia. How we got to this point is a question for the historians and sociologists; how we rein in the politicians at this crucial juncture in Australia’s history, domestically and in foreign policy, is the task ahead.    



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