Scott Morrison government transparency foreign aid
(Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

Australia likes to hold itself up as a beacon of governance in our region and around the world. We’re spending nearly $800 million in foreign aid on effective governance this financial year, because “effective governance is one of the six priority areas in Australia’s aid policy”.

We’re eager to help less developed countries “reform institutions to strengthen regulation and delivery of public services and deliver more representative and accountable government” and “build effective law and justice systems”.

Perhaps our diplomats and aid delivery bureaucrats can spend some time in Canberra doing the same, because our federal government is indistinguishable from many of the countries we lecture about transparency and governance. We’ve got the governance standards of a banana republic. Let’s run through a brief list:

  • A “revolving door” for politicians and senior bureaucrats that sees Martin Ferguson, Ian Macfarlane, Christopher Pyne and Julie Bishop — to name only the most recent and high-profile examples — move seamlessly from regulating and handing out grants in a sector to working for and with companies in that sector
  • Routine interference by a minister in the agriculture portfolio to benefit major vested interests such as irrigators, agricultural companies and live exporters
  • Lobbying by senior ministers to potentially benefit companies part-owned by colleagues
  • Police raids on media outlets and journalists that have embarrassed powerful figures within the government
  • Security agencies that operate in secret with no parliamentary oversight
  • Prosecutions of whistleblowers who have revealed criminal conduct and wrongdoing
  • A minister and a departmental secretary ordering spying on the cabinet of a small neighbour to benefit an Australian corporation, then later taking roles with the same corporation — and the bugging and prosecution of the intelligence official who exposed it, and his lawyer
  • Routine commercial espionage against neighbours and allies designed to benefit Australian and US companies
  • Minimal transparency for donations made to political parties, and no penalties for non-compliance
  • No federal integrity commission and no likelihood of one for years;
  • Major political donors obtaining large contracts to provide policy and management services within the public service
  • Media law changes designed to serve the interests of major media proprietors and defamation laws designed to protect the powerful from scrutiny.

Let’s engage in a thought experiment: read that list and imagine if you read it in relation to, say, Malaysia or Indonesia or one of our Pacific neighbours. What would your reaction be? That this is what we can expect from a developing country? That they clearly don’t have the kind of integrity and governance safeguards that we in the West take for granted? That we’re lucky things aren’t like that here?

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Maybe our politicians and senior public servants should receive an aid package explaining the importance of governance and how to “deliver more representative and accountable government”.