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Who is the autocrat?

By David Solomon

Autocracy: ‘a system of government by one person with absolute power’.

Public autocracy? There’s no such thing, according to my dictionaries, or indeed, Google. It’s a contradiction in terms.

But what I think Prime Minister Scott Morrison meant when he declared (in an interview reported in Wednesday’s Sydney Morning Herald) that Australia could become a ‘public autocracy’ if a national integrity commission had too much influence over government thinking was that absolute power would be exercised by public servants, rather than by politicians such as himself.

It is a nonsensical suggestion, that deliberately, falsely, misrepresents the power any prospective national integrity commission might have, and the way the public service does, can or even might operate. But it says a lot about the unconstrained powers that the Prime Minister considers are appropriate for him and his ministers. Indeed, about the way he and his government have sometimes acted.

Integrity commissions don’t tell governments or public servants what to do. What they do is forensically examine complaints that individuals involved in government have behaved corruptly. For ministers and MPs that corruption might involve a breach of the criminal law, or a substantial breach of a code of conduct. The commission may make findings, but any penalties would be imposed by a court after a successful prosecution where the evidence obtained by the commission may not always be admissible.

It is utterly false to describe any such integrity commission as a ‘kangaroo court’. It is not a court. It is true, however, that if it holds public hearings (and it may be restricted as to when or if it can hold such hearings) the evidence that emerges, which may have been discovered by the commission itself (perhaps through phone taps) or which is provided by witnesses, may be damning of the person under investigation.

But the commission cannot declare someone guilty of a crime, nor can it impose any penalty. Nor can it require ministers or public servants to do anything – other than give evidence, truthfully. Some current Liberal ministers, who in the recent past have refused to provide evidence to police, might be fearful of that.

In the interview, the Prime Minister said members of parliament were accountable to voters and should be able to allocate funding for community grants and infrastructure without undue fear of being investigated by public servants.

“If we are going to so disempower our elected representatives to do things about what is needed in their communities, then what is the point?” he said.

“We can’t just hand government over to faceless officials to make decisions that impact the lives of Australians from one end of the country to the other. I actually think there’s a great danger in that. It wouldn’t be Australia anymore if that was the case, it would be some kind of public autocracy.”

Morrison stressed that a national integrity commission should focus on identifying criminal behaviour rather than more subjective questions such as whether marginal seat spending amounts to pork-barrelling. ‘No-one is suggesting anyone has broken any law are they?’

Well actually, they have in relation to the sports rorts affair. It is a fundamental principle that government can only spend public monies in accordance with the laws passed by the parliament. The laws set out what grants can be made, what criteria have must be applied, and who makes the decisions. The money isn’t there for ministers to dish out at their whim.

The grants in the sports rorts affair were made under legislation which gave the power to determine which organisation could get grants to particular public service entities. The Minister could only make grants in circumstances which did not arise. Nevertheless, she did intervene and make the grants overriding the legitimate decisions of her officials.

Additionally in that case as in most of the other rorts that have become public knowledge, ministers made decisions based on political considerations – political, meaning that the decisions were influenced or wholly determined by the partisan political advantage the government parties would gain from the decision, i.e. getting more votes.

Decisions were not made ‘in the public interest’ as the Prime Minister’s ministerial code and the common law require.

No wonder the Prime Minister objects to a federal integrity commission with power to look at government decision-making – these rorts would be investigated and exposed for what they were. Prosecutions might follow, but not necessarily.

It is fatuous for the Prime Minister to suggest that because members of parliament are accountable to the electorate they should be able to allocate funds without fear of being investigated. If ministers are accused of breaking the law or a code of conduct that is supposed to govern their behaviour the accusation should be investigated. Ministers shouldn’t have a free pass to escape scrutiny for their actions just because they come up for election every three years.

Elections are just a small, but obviously very important, part of accountability.

The Prime Minister’s defence of his government’s refusal to enact an effective anti-corruption body has been so over the top that it was rejected by the NSW Liberal Premier. Mr Perrottet said he thought the ICAC played ‘an important role in upholding integrity and confidence in politicians and public servants’.

Note the Premier’s reference to politicians coming with ICAC’s ambit. The Prime Minister’s proposed integrity commission would have essentially prevented it from examining the misdeeds of politicians and ministers.

David Solomon is a former legal and political correspondent. He has degrees in Arts and Law and a Doctorate of Letters. He was Queensland Integrity Commissioner 2009-2014.



This article was originally published on Pearls and Irritations.


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  1. Phil Pryor

    It needs to be repeated, over and over, that this rotten P M, a putrid mentality, is a sickodicko slightly neurotic, slightly psychopathic, probable schizoidy deficient. who functions by lying loudly, listening only to inner voices and dirty drives, following anti-intellectual instincts, easily accommodating donors, patrons, hearing friendly voices, absorbing mystery and fantasy to suit, disregarding truth as an impediment to action, conjuring up lying imagery as the “story”, as only he knows it.., all this is nation ruining, egofixated, selfromancing political perversion. OUT.

  2. New England Cocky

    You cannot have a federal ICAC questioning the decisions of the born-to-rule COALition of Liarbrals and Nazional$ because that would expose those politicians to scrutiny of the government largess to their mates in corporations, both local and foreign owned, and THAT would never do. Why some mean spirited Australian voter may decide to pursue legal action to recover the expenditure, and THAT would never do.

    Indeed, it would never do to have another COALition misgovernment ….. STOP THE LIES VOTE LABOR

  3. Kaye Lee

    All this bluster – whatever happened to the idea that, if you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear. Whatever happened to promises of transparency and accountability. If voters are to be the ones to hold the government to account, then all the more reason for us to know exactly what they are doing and how they are spending our money.

    Morrison keeps referencing Berejiklian, suggesting she was pilloried for her choice of boyfriend. Whilst I would be embarrassed too, she is being investigated for possibly breaching public trust or encouraging corrupt behaviour. The “I don’t need to know about that” line was pretty damning. If someone is allocating public money to save the political fortunes of their partner, that is not ok. If someone is ignoring corruption (or giving tacit approval to it), that is worse. We have a right to know.

    An interesting aside, Gladys is now dating Arthur Moses, the lawyer who represented her at the corruption hearing into her former boyfriend Daryl Maguire. They started dating in June last year, she resigned in October. Presumably she would have discussed it with him.

    Moses is now representing Ben Roberts-Smith in his defamation case.

  4. Some Village Hampden

    Sometimes you have to speak up. So I did.

  5. Canguro

    OT, perhaps, but sometimes it’s difficult to find the right spot for a comment:

    Is Marise Payne an android? She never seems to smile.

    Google her name and click Images, and of the 78 or so on show, she’s smiling, or endeavouring to, in about five of them.

    I know politics is a serious business, but really? Hasn’t she heard about mirror neurons? Even serious folks can be warm and friendly – they’re not polar opposite qualities.

    Maybe she’s just overwhelmed by the reality of having to inhabit the same universe with the bunch of reprobate arseholes she’s saddled with as ‘colleagues’.

  6. Roswell

    SVH, all I can say is “Wow”. All I can feel is sadness.

    Well done on creating such a stirring and needy video.

  7. Albos Elbow

    Some Village Hampden, well said.
    I believe a change of government, with a sprinkling of Green and Teal will help us move toward the Australians we all really want to be.

  8. Harry Lime

    Gladys might be dating Moses,but will he lead her to the promised land? Representing Roberts-Smith suggests he may have either a problem with his judgement or like Dazza, a healthy appetite for a stash of coin.Who was it again bankrolling the former soldier?

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