(Image: Private Media)

This is the eighth and final day of The Dirty Country: Corruption in Australia. Read the full series here.

In this series on “soft” corruption Bernard Keane and I have emphasised that there need not be an explicit quid pro quo between politicians and external parties for corruption to exist.

But as the events of the last month have shown, it is the implicit contract between politicians themselves that is responsible for what might be the most serious ethical and moral failing of all — the covering up of unacceptable, disrespectful, misogynistic, invariably revolting, and sometimes criminal behaviour by politicians and their staff.

All the talk of the need for cultural change in the parliament is, in a sense, exactly right. But in another sense the phrase “cultural change” is a content-free pair of weasel words that allow politicians to sidestep a hard yet pressing issue. The phrase certainly doesn’t provide any guidance about what might tangibly be done.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison likes to refer to himself as a “pragmatic person”. Yet with his comments on these issues — from the time that the story of former staffer Brittany Higgins came to light — the PM has not only shown a complete lack of understanding, but offered no practical solutions. At Tuesday’s press conference an attempted mea culpa turned into something resembling the docking of the Hindenburg.

If the first step in solving any problem is recognising there is one, then the second step is understanding the root cause of it.

And the root cause of the toxic culture in Australian politicians in general, and federal parliament in particular, can be summed up in one word: “omerta”.

The term originates in the code of silence practiced by the Mafia, but in recent decades it has become a broader phenomenon. Take professional cycling in the 1990s and early 2000s. We now know that doping using human growth hormones and steroids was rife, although not universal. But the code of silence — what the athletes themselves proudly called omerta — protected the bad actors.

The same code of silence persisted in the movie industry and parts of the U.S. media — as revelations regarding Harvey Weinstein, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly and Charlie Rose made clear. A disgraceful culture of abuse and criminal behaviour was allowed to persist because of a code at the core of organisational culture.

Now it can be the case that a brave whistleblower can break the stranglehold of omerta. Floyd Landis did it in cycling, and Gretchen Carlson did it at Fox News.

But it’s hard, requires tremendous courage, and is almost inevitably a career-ending move.

The code of silence in Australian politics might be even harder to overcome. Journalists, fearing that if they reveal details about a politician will never be briefed by that side of politics again, are understandably hesitant to expose reprehensible — or even just bad — behaviour.

If even someone at the pinnacle of Australian journalism like Leigh Sales is grappling with what to do, then how can we expect less-senior journalists to risk their careers with no guarantee of making a difference.

So, while we can hope and wait for brave whistleblowers and journalists to make single-handed inroads into parliament’s omerta, we shouldn’t count on that alone to lead to cultural change.

Parliament needs an independent body that can assess claims of misconduct or abuse. Indeed, this is precisely the kind of approach that any number of people have suggested over the past month and earlier. It not only makes logical sense, it makes moral sense.

But on top of that, politicians and observers must recognise that being part of a code of silence is the same as being complicit. A politician that knows of the kind of allegations that have come to light in recent times and doesn’t speak out should be judged harshly. Those in the know who are not part of the solution must be seen as part of the cover-up, and hence part of the problem.

And while we should be worried about and try to reform things like the undue influence of money in politics, we urgently need to reform politics itself. A culture that allows what we have seen over the last month cannot be allowed to endure.

Many practical things are needed to change that culture. But right near the top of that list must be an end to omerta in the so-called Canberra bubble.

Richard Holden is professor of economics at UNSW Business School, and president-elect of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia.

Read the The Dirty Country: Corruption in Australia here.

Peter Fray

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