Draw back the curtains on hypocrisy

By Janet Albrechtsen, The Australian March 28, 2012.

HERE is a story called Hypocrisy in the Nation’s Capital. Like a Dickens novel, it’s a serial. The latest instalments came thick and fast.

First, we learned the Gillard government is expected to introduce new laws later this year that will make company directors personally liable for certain tax bills payable by companies.

On the same day last week, we learned that eight ministers in the Gillard government awarded $8.2 million in grants to their own electorates without abiding by Labor’s new rules set out in the Commonwealth Grant Guidelines. In short, while those who run companies are expected by the Labor government to abide by harsher and heavier liabilities, those who run the country are happy to shirk even the mildest set of reporting rules.

The double standards of Labor government ministers are especially wicked given Julia Gillard’s great ethics fanfare in the lead-up to the 2007 election. “To win the next election, to regain the trust of the Australian people, we must demonstrate the highest ethical standards in how we operate. On the question of standards in government — openness, accountability, divorcing the workings of government from the influence of peddlers and the donors — we need to be absolutely right, not just better by comparison.”

Here is the most recent chapter of Labor’s ethics in government. On March 14, the joint committee of public accounts and audit held a public hearing into ANAO Audit Report No 21 (2011-2012 Administration of Grants Reporting Obligations). Liberal member for Kooyong Josh Frydenberg took the chaps from the ANAO, including Auditor-General Ian McPhee, to page 89 of their report, which sets out the new reporting requirements. When a minister makes a grant within his or her electorate or makes a grant against the advice of the relevant agency, the minister must report it to the Finance Minister.

Frydenberg asked whether the 33 reported instances of ministers failing to report millions of dollars of grants made in their electorates (a failure rate of 38 per cent) was a high number. “Indeed,” replied Brian Boyd, the executive director of performance audit at the ANAO. Moreover, Boyd told the committee: “It was not a small number of agencies or a small number of decision-makers. It was across a range of portfolios.” Frydenberg asked that the list be made public.

With committee chairman Rob Oakeshott out of the room, acting chairwoman, Labor MP Yvette D’Ath, declined to make the list public. She put the decision off to the next meeting. With Oakeshott back in the chair at the March 21 meeting. Frydenberg succeeded. The list was made public. Labor’s hypocrisy was revealed: the party that campaigned on higher ethical standards of governance was found by the Auditor-General to have failed its own anti-pork barrelling guidelines. And Frydenberg was rightly lauded in the party room by fellow Liberal Alby Schultz for his forensic work in uncovering hypocrisy on a grand scale in Labor ranks.

The next chapter of Labor’s double standards traces what happened in question time on the same day the 33 breaches were made public. In an apparent Dorothy-Dixer, the helpful Oakeshott offered the PM a free kick to explain. Unwittingly, in responding, Gillard reminded us of Labor’s duplicity. In 2007, Labor went after the Howard government with guns blazing for what became known as “regional rorts” — the damning 2007 Auditor-General’s report that found the Howard government had favoured Coalition-held seats in awarding regional grants.

Gillard told Oakeshott that the new rules would “ensure transparency in federal grants programs.” Indeed, the PM has talked endlessly about “more open, more accountable, more transparent” government, “greater scrutiny” of government. “Let’s draw back the curtains and let the sun shine in,” she said after the 2010 election.

Where’s that sunshine? While some ministers have been quick to offer personal explanations of breaches of the new Commonwealth Grant Guidelines, the fact remains that Labor has broken its own rules for open, transparent, more ethical government.

Another chapter in this tale of double standards deals with a 2010 Auditor-General’s report revealing that Labor has handed out $2.2 billion in taxpayer funds to eight infrastructure projects that its own advisory body, Infrastructure Australia, has questioned as economically unviable and “not ready to proceed.” Yet another chapter covers the getting of religion once ministers leave government. Former finance minister Lindsay Tanner castigated his former Labor colleagues at an infrastructure forum last week for making lousy, ill-conceived, politically determined decisions about spending taxpayer funds without enough consideration of merit. Yet, it was Tanner who tried to flog Aussie Infrastructure Bonds to mum and dad investors in 2009 to fund the National Broadband Network despite admitting that the government had not yet done a business case, a feasibility study or a cost-benefit analysis of the huge infrastructure project.

Another chapter in this sorry tale will ask why a different set of rules applies to politicians. Section 52 of the Trade Practices Act makes it a serious offence for a corporation to engage in conduct that is misleading or deceptive or is likely to mislead or deceive. Yet, in Canberra it is commonplace for governments to mislead and deceive. Remember Labor’s promised budget surplus for 1996 which turned out to be a $9bn black hole? Remember John Howard’s core and non-core promises, Paul Keating’s L-A-W tax cuts and Gillard’s “no carbon tax” promise? Queensland’s outgoing premier, Anna Bligh, said she’d stay on even if Labor lost government. Now she’s leaving. Heck, Labor ministers even lied en masse and for years about the capacity of their own leader, Kevin Rudd, to run the country.

If a company were run the way our country is run, the company would be shunned by investors and punished by authorities for misleading and deceptive conduct. Directors would be penalised for breaching myriad duties not to make reckless statements and banned from running a company again. But if you’re running the country and you mislead and deceive or break the few rules that govern politicians, we say: “it’s OK, it’s politics.” We shrug our shoulders and nothing happens.

Hypocrisy in the Nation’s Capital ends like this: if this insincerity trend in Canberra, not to mention our own apathy drift, continues, voter disgust with the machinery of government will increase. Those of any talent will look at Canberra with equal disgust and turn away from politics as a career. And the running of the nation will be left to an even bigger group of even more mediocre politicians.

What’s the answer? Every episode of hypocrisy in Canberra needs to be exposed and transgressors publicly shamed. So pay attention. Speak up. And keep asking our elected representatives who are so busy regulating every other profession why politicians appear to be the most unregulated profession in Australia.




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