(Image: Mitchell Squire/Private Media)

The sleaze and corruption swilling around federal politics has reached the point where it’s genuinely difficult to keep track of the scandals, outrages and abuses of taxpayer funding.

If it’s not Peter Dutton handing money to donors, or Bridget McKenzie blaming unidentified staffers for the sports rorts scandal, it’s the Liberals slapping their logo on vaccine information, or thin-skinned Marise Payne bailing on a partisan infrastructure media event when the local (Labor) MP dared to turn up.

Older scandals — like those of Angus “Watergate” Taylor, or the handing of tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to tax dodger News Corp, or the systematic partisan rorting of the Community Development Grants fund and other pork-barrels, or the Infrastructure Department’s windfall for the Perich family, or Christian Porter’s alleged public behaviour, haven’t got a hope of getting attention. They’re just so much flotsam in a rising tide of sleaze that marks the Morrison government as the grubbiest, most corrupt in federal history.

Bear in mind that it’s the Coalition that likes to claim it understands that taxpayers’ money doesn’t belong to politicians.

What’s rising, along with the level of filth, is the willingness of Coalition politicians to not merely brazen out revelations of blatant misuse of taxpayer funds, but to do it openly. The NSW Berejiklian government has led the way, with the premier herself declaring that the abuse of taxpayer money for the partisan goals of her own party was perfectly acceptable.

She was backed up in this recently by her deputy premier, John Barilaro, who justified the shameful partisan rorting of bushfire recovery funds in NSW as well as the rorting of the Stronger Communities Fund, which Berejiklian’s office tried to cover up.

But the blatant embrace of scandals has spread to the federal level, with another thin-skinned Liberal, Greg Hunt, last week responding to questions about Liberal logos on vaccine information by abusing the journalist concerned.

Once politicians become comfortable talking about pork-barrelling and misusing taxpayer funds as justified, and vilifying journalists who ask about it, we enter a quite different political space — a post-integrity politics when people in power don’t even bother with a pretence of sticking to the rules.

It’s easy to blame Donald Trump for this. He demonstrated to politicians the world over that it is possible to prosper politically not despite routinely lying, acting corruptly, engaging in disgusting abuse and encouraging violence, but because of it. Scott Morrison’s incessant lying certainly seems to reflect a lesson learnt from the years between 2016-20: that there need be no consequences to blatant dishonesty.

But the blame must also rest with voters — including large swathes of the Australian electorate who would fiercely reject any comparison to rusted-on Trump supporters who ignored evidence that he is a corrupt sexual predator and systematic liar to back him in November.

Judging by the polling of the NSW and federal governments, many voters seem content with politicians who misuse taxpayer funds. Lack of integrity isn’t a vote-changer, even if voters may not particularly like it. The sleaze has to reach out and affect them personally before they jack up about it.

This creates a pretty simple calculus for politicians. They can abuse taxpayer funds for partisan purposes, and reap a net benefit from that in terms of votes, or they can refuse to do so, and get no benefit at all.

Because if there’s any uncertainty about whether a lack of integrity hurts your electoral prospects, there is absolutely none about the fact that integrity doesn’t improve your prospects. The last government to try to govern in something approaching the national interest was the Rudd government, which tried to reform political donations, widened freedom of information laws, increased cabinet transparency, restricted its own capacity to advertise and made bipartisan appointments.

It got exactly zero benefit from that — only critical headlines when Rudd, back in power in 2013, junked the advertising restrictions to flog his hard line on refugees.

That’s the problem with integrity — it makes life harder for politicians. And if there’s no punishment for ditching integrity, then it’s a no-brainer.

Peter Fray

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