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As our year of pain draws to an end with signs of hope for a better 2021 on the economic and medical front, at least we can enjoy a summer break knowing that despite all else, 2020 was fantastic for corruption.

Today — finally — we launch the biggest sporting contest of the year, as our states, territories and the Commonwealth go head to head in a battle to determine who is the grubbiest government of them all.

The hits come hard in footy, but they’re nothing compared with the hits on the public purse from dodgy politicians and crooked bureaucrats.

Today, the first of our semifinals and the battle of the minnows. It’s comrade versus comrade as Labor states Victoria and Queensland do battle for the red banner of sleaze, while South Australia, Tasmania, WA and the territories will have a round-robin to see which of them gets to challenge the big states.

And while the rewards of victory are splashed across the front and back pages of the media, the glittering prizes in Sleaze of Origin last much longer — especially if you can keep them off the front pages.

Without further ado, let’s wish all our contestants good luck and blow the whistle — oops, poor choice of words — to signal kick-off.

Battle of the minnows

Just because they’re small states, doesn’t mean there aren’t creative and exciting forms of sleaze and corruption outside the east coast capitals.

In Western Australia, there have been several major scandals at the bureaucratic level. Fremantle Ports had a multimillion-dollar corruption scandal in which family members were charged and others fled Australia. There was a major corruption scandal uncovered in WA Health that involved the death of one of those involved. And in April there were charges over dodgy contracts that enriched a couple linked to the WA Department of Mines.

Each of these was revealed by WA’s Corruption and Crime Commission, the state’s integrity body. Another report also detailed extensive cultural problems, conflicts of interest and scandals in the suspended City of Perth council. But for the McGowan government it was a really poor year for sleaze.

Tasmania got through the year without a major corruption scandal either, but economist Saul Eslake exposed the strange deal in which the Tasmanian government ditched plans to purchase new ferries overseas in favour of a local build that may not be local but which might help a beleaguered Liberal donor.

In the Northern Territory, apart from the scandal of continuing violence towards Indigenous youth, the NT Parliament’s speaker was found have been responsible for corrupt conduct. There’s also the Gunner government’s continuing ban on news site NT Independent which has been criticised from all directions. None of that affected Michael Gunner’s easy election win.

In Canberra the ACT government maintained its reputation for dullness, with the Barr government — another electoral winner, racking up what now seems like a century of Labor-Greens rule in the capital — not troubling the scorers on corruption even as it rolled out major infrastructure projects and a huge change to the territory’s taxation system.

But South Australia delivered big time in the sleaze stakes and is far and away the convincing winner in the minor league. The government of Steven Marshall lost three ministers in July over a much-rorted expenses allowance for country MPs, then lost its whip a couple of weeks later for the same thing. On top of the remarkable scandal at the University of Adelaide, it ensures that South Australia is ready for promotion to the premier league of Australian sleaze.

Clash of the red titans

In our first big battle, it’s Daniel Andrews v Annastacia Palaszczuk in the battle for the mantle of the sleaziest Labor government.

There’s no doubt that this should have been a well-matched contest — with each side displaying different strengths. Up north, Palaszczuk had to fend off criticism very close to home when an investigation in September revealed that her former chief of staff, David Barbagallo, had not fully declared his non-pecuniary interests when working for her.

Much of the year was dominated by the fate of Palaszczuk’s former deputy Jackie Trad, who was cleared of corruption by the Queensland Crime and Corruption Commission in July, before losing her seat in an October election otherwise won comfortably by Palaszczuk.

But it’s lobbying that is the real strength in Brisbane. The links between the Palaszczuk government and prominent party leaders-turned-lobbyists raise persistent issues of probity and influence, especially when former party chieftains like Cameron Milner and Evan Moorhead switch between playing key roles in Labor’s election campaigns — complete with desk and car space in government offices — and representing the interests of their lobbying clients.

Much of the information we know about what’s going on in Queensland is due to that state’s good transparency around integrity issues — it has good donation reporting laws, and it publishes meeting diaries for ministers. That means Queensland comes into the contest with a systemic impediment to achieving really top quality corruption.

But to offset that, the Palaszczuk government had its now-withdrawn bill that threatened journalists with a possible six-month jail term over publication of complaints to the state’s corruption watchdog during election campaigns — a kind of barmy corruption grace note that tops off a strong year.

Not strong enough, however.

At some point in any contest sheer pluck gives way to raw power, and the Andrews government pulled out the big guns this year.

There was the Adem Somyurek branch stacking scandal that saw the Labor powerbroker booted out of the party and two other ministers, Robin Scott and Marlene Kairouz, resign. That alone would be enough to blow Queensland off the field. But this was a vintage year.

While there is no suggestion of corruption by anyone in the failure of Victoria’s hotel quarantine program that led to hundreds of deaths and a massive lockdown of the state, it raised huge concerns about lack of transparency and accountability as minister after minister — including Andrews himself — and senior bureaucrat after senior bureaucrat evaded the question of who actually made the key decisions.

Eventually Andrews threw his health minister Jenny Mikakos under a bus and she resigned, followed not long after by respected veteran public servant Chris Eccles.

Meanwhile, the Andrews government continued to use its draconian lockdown powers with little accountability, including terrorising Victorians in their own home. There was the small matter of the continuing ramifications of the complete suborning of the criminal justice system in the Lawyer X scandal. There was the astonishing corruption revealed in the V/Line cleaning scandal. And just for something different, the Melbourne local council of Casey was sacked over corruption.

It’s no contest: the Daniel Andrews government goes through as the first of our finalists.

Tomorrow: Sydney v Canberra as the Berejiklian government goes head to head with Scott Morrison and his cronies.