Remember the gas-led recovery?
First trumpeted by the prime minister at a National Press Club address in February 2020, it proposed that the energy transition plan Australian business has been begging for for more than a decade — and that Turnbull lost the Coalition leadership over twice — should be built around gas. Also that Australian taxpayers should underwrite the manufacturing sector’s efforts to deliver it.
There is, the PM said, “no credible energy transition plan for an economy like Australia that does not involve the greater use of gas”.
The howls of protest that greeted this were voluminous and widespread.
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They came from the 82% of Australians concerned about the effect of climate change in our backyard and appalled that the leaked draft report backing the strategy didn’t even mention the climate crisis, nor propose a single alternative to centring Australia’s energy future around fossil fuel.
They also came from governance experts, appalled at how the membership of the National COVID-19 Coordinating Commission that wrote the report had been stacked by members from the mining and fossil fuel industries, including taskforce head Andrew Liveris, who was also a board member of Saudi oil company Aramco and mining business Worley.
Everyone wondered whether there was some connection between the government’s direction and its financial indebtedness to the fossil fuel industry. But no one could prove it. Why? Because the Commonwealth doesn’t have real time disclosure of political donations.
Only now, long after the public’s attention has moved on, have those suspicions been confirmed. Thanks to the donations data recently made public on the Australian Electoral Commission site, we know that fossil fuel companies — and the gas industry in particular — were giving generously to both major parties at the time, a whopping $1,329,754 to be precise, with just over half of this from the gas industry.
The Coalition got the lion’s share ($731,534), although Labor collected the not-insignificant sum of $598,220.
If you add to the Coalition’s total for that year the just over $1 million the LNP harvested from fossil fuel via its fundraising entity Cormack, the Coalition’s indebtedness to gas, coal and mining in the 2020-21 period swells to $1,735,048.
Is this proof of corruption? No, but it certainly gives reason for voters to consider whether corruption has taken place. To wit, whether the gas-led recovery policy was designed and intended by the Morrison government to serve the public interest or private ones.
Such doubt is devastating for the public trust needed for democracy to work — and right now that trust is already on the decline. According to Transparency International Australia, 85% of Australians believe at least some federal members are corrupt. Couple this with precipitously declining perceptions about the overall integrity of the public sector — we’ve dropped 12 points in the past year to a score of 73, just six points ahead of the US, where democracy is in crisis — and the imperative for swift political action to restore the public’s faith is clear.
Indeed, if we don’t do something to halt and reverse the decline, Museum of Australian Democracy research predicts that by 2025 “fewer than 10% of Australians will trust their politicians and political institutions”.
No democracy can survive such low levels of trust, and ours won’t either. It will founder — or die.
What else can we do to restore trust in our democratic institutions and representatives? One critical step is for taxpayers to provide limited and exclusive funding to parties for elections. Private donors lose their sway over elected representatives when MPs don’t need their money to win.
At the very least, we must impose a cap of $1000 a donor — it’s currently $14,500, with loopholes big enough to drive a truck through — to limit the influence the big end of town has on “public” policy.
Finally, every rule we make to improve transparency and restore trust must have an enforcement mechanism, and be enforced by a federal integrity commission promised by the Morrison government before the last election but now shelved.
There is a small piece of good news. For the first time in a long time in Australia, public integrity is on the agenda for the federal election. The other day I drove past a campaign poster in the treasurer’s electorate of Kooyong that suggested a vote for him was one for “integrity in government”. I’d imagine similar signs are appearing in other inner-city seats that were once safe for Liberals — Tim Wilson in Goldsmith, Dave Sharma in Wentworth, Trent Zimmerman in North Sydney — though the revelation that independent Zali Steggall failed to declare a $100,000 donation casts doubt on the viability of alternatives for the disenchanted voter.
All of which means we have work to do. Right now is the time to get your candidates on the record about what they would do if elected to restore integrity to our systems of democratic governance and, by so doing, restore our trust.