The Premier’s Progress: From bags of cash to a concept of integrity

We are witnessing a high-speed evolution of political integrity in Australia, writes Michael Pascoe.

We are witnessing a high-speed evolution of political integrity in Australia, writes Michael Pascoe. Photo: TND

Evolution happens. Sometimes it’s fast, turbo-charged by an asteroid; sometimes it’s at the speed of dripping water wearing a channel through rock, but it happens.

Right now we are witnessing a high-speed evolution of political integrity in Australia.

In fairly short order we’ve gone from a Premier grabbing bags of cash and selling knighthoods, to a Premier resigning over what might be a matter of diving into the pork barrel to do a mate a favour.

The journey from Sir Robert Askin to Gladys Berejiklian represents a tide in the affairs of politics that is gaining momentum.

For the moment, the flood is crashing up against a resolute wall shielding the Morrison government’s lack of integrity and its unprecedented exploitation of public money for the benefit of the Liberal and National parties – but that wall can’t last.

The disparity between what is expected of New South Wales politicians and what federal politicians flaunt, is one of the three core issues driving the rise of the independents’ movement towards the next election.

The disparity between what is expected of federal and state politicians is driving the rise of independents. Photo: AAP

Ms Berejiklian’s defenders can claim it is unfair for her to be expected to resign from a state Coalition government when the federal Coalition government welcomes onto its benches a politician who has accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars from donors he either can’t or won’t name, when the federal Coalition’s plundering of taxpayers’ funds has been at least as flagrant as the matters being investigated by the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption and on a vastly larger scale.

Ms Berejiklian’s critics – and the disinterested – can agree it is unfair, but to Australian citizens, not to Ms Berejiklian.

If anything, the Commonwealth government should be held to higher standards than the states.

I want to be clear here that this, like all the myriad opinion pieces rushed into print and broadcast since Friday, is written in ignorance of what ICAC knows about the “Daz and Glad” affair, of exactly what led the commission to issue its Friday media release.

All of the opinion pieces written since Friday are in ignorance of what ICAC knows about the ‘Daz and Glad’ affair. Photo: TND

Such ignorance hasn’t stopped all manner of people voicing strong opinions for and against Ms Berejiklian, and for and against ICAC.

What is publicly known about the several million dollars given to Wagga’s Australian Clay Target Association has been best summarised by the ABC’s Paul Farrell.

From that and the ICAC media release, we can safely expect the public hearings and the commission’s findings will explore what precisely is the nature of “public trust” that may or may not have been breached by Ms Berejiklian.

That will be a fine public service. We urgently need it as corruption also evolves. We can fall as well as rise.

From Askin’s days of cash bundles, NSW moved to Neville Wran who, at best, turned a blind eye to obvious corruption.

It took Nick Greiner as Premier to make the big leap of establishing ICAC, and an ICAC with teeth at that.

Although Mr Greiner was damaged by ICAC – and subsequently cleared – he has continued to defend it from its detractors.

ICAC (and the Wood Royal Commission, substantially instigated by  independent MP John Hatton) dragged NSW out of the sewer, lifting standards and cleaning out much of the corruption from both sides of politics.

It is the threat of ICAC, as much as what it actually does, that has enabled progress.

Now we have the potential to lift standards again – if ICAC isn’t nobbled – after they have fallen over the past three years.

Political corruption has evolved to the extent of politicians claiming it doesn’t matter, that voters expect it, too bad.

That’s effectively what Ms Berejiklian said in 2020 when caught with her fingers in the shredder and what Finance Minister Simon Birmingham did three months ago defending #carpork.

The federal government’s exploitation of taxpayers’ money for political party purposes has blown out into the billions and the government now boasts about the Treasury being looted.

“We must be always alert to the misuse of power,” warned Tony Harris, former NSW Auditor-General, in an ABC interview after Ms Berejiklian resigned.

“The first issue we need in the social contract between voters and government is that we can trust government to do the right thing. The second issue is that they do the right thing as best they can.”

Using taxpayers’ money to buy votes to ensure re-election is not the right thing. Using taxpayers’ money to do a favour for a little mate is not the right thing.

It is argued that Operation Keppel has made the Morrison government even more opposed to a real national integrity commission, but its absence will be even more invidious if ICAC ends up defining the “public trust”, making the social contract clear.

Federal Labor has committed to a genuine federal ICAC – one of Labor’s few points of strong policy differentiation.

Independents could again hold the balance of power in a close election. Helen Haines has her Australian Federal Integrity Commission bill ready for another go.

If more independents are elected, it will be on an integrity platform.

That’s two out of three possible election outcomes – not bad, according to Mr Meatloaf.

The “Daz and Glad” show has kicked on longer than I expected last year when the curtain went up, but it is still relatively small beer, “only” several million dollars involved, Daryl Maguire merely grifting on the edges of a much bigger game.

There is much to be done. Our political standards have a long way to evolve yet.

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