With Australia a banana republic in which self-interest, non-accountability and corruption — in soft or hard forms — pervades business and politics, we have only a limited number of institutions that we can trust to protect the public interest from politicians and the vested interests that control them.
But many of them are under attack from the politicians that they threaten.
With the Australian public service, and even its famed central agencies, now hopelessly politicised, sources of independent, high-quality policy advice are becoming rare.
The Productivity Commission (PC) remains independent and willing to criticise government economic policies — particularly its failure to pursue a carbon price, its facile obsession with managed trade deals, and its steady re-embrace of protectionism.
But there are concerns about the PC. In 2019, Scott Morrison appointed longtime Liberal Party staffer Michael Brennan to replace outgoing chair Peter Harris, who was often outspoken in his analyses, and a vocal critic of the government’s secrecy around the failed Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal.
Brennan has reasserted Liberal Party orthodoxy in the role, insisting the recession is a supply-side problem, not one of demand, and the economy needed deregulation and a reduction in industrial relations protections.
Early this year, Brennan’s predecessor Harris mocked what he called “[trotting] out that old whipping dog, red tape” for “another beating”.
And while the Reserve Bank long ago took Treasury’s mantle as the country’s most credible economic policy institution and remains independent, don’t forget Tony Abbott considered a plan to bring the bank more under his control by appointing an external conservative figure to replace Glenn Stevens.
The Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) under auditor-general Grant Hehir has expanded its role as a thorn in the side of the public service, repeatedly exposing bungling and rorting by bureaucrats and ministers, most spectacularly with its exposure of systematic rorting of the sports infrastructure grants program by Bridget McKenzie and Scott Morrison’s office.
In recent years the government has slowly chipped away at the ANAO’s budget. In the last Labor budget, the ANAO received around $72 million, with its budget forecast to rise to $76 million by 2016. The Abbott government cut that back, keeping the ANAO to around $72 million in ensuing years, until in 2017 the Turnbull government sliced $2 million a year from its budget.
In each successive budget since then, including the recent one, the ANAO has had $1 million sliced off its budget, so it will now only receive $68.6 million this year. In that time, it has gone around 350 staff to 320.
The government has been more successful at nobbling Australia’s most trusted media outlet, the ABC, with budget cuts and a persistent campaign of intimidation and harassment that has cowed the ABC’s news division into compliance and responsiveness to Coalition criticism.
The Coalition has also been a persistent critic of the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption, and even engaged Margaret Cuneen, a high-profile critic of ICAC, to help design the risible federal integrity body that has fallen into a hole since it was proposed more than two years ago.
Many of the design features of the Morrison “integrity” model reflect the constant attacks by News Corporation on ICAC, which were renewed today despite the clear public interest in the revelation of close links between the premier and a corrupt MP.
The Coalition’s preferred model for independent regulators is weak and underfunded: it gutted the corporate regulator ASIC when it was elected, slashing tens of millions in funding. Its aged care regulator is hands-off and reluctant to intervene in the deeply rotten private aged care sector. And it has systematically stacked the Administrative Appeals Tribunal — the front line for litigation against government decisions — with Coalition appointees.
The lessons from the multiple scandals unfolding now is that genuinely independent, well-resourced and properly empowered regulators, run by non-partisan figures, are crucial to exposing and deterring corruption and misconduct by politicians and business people.
That seems to be the last thing the Morrison government wants.