GOVERNMENT ACCOUNTABILITY SPEECH - WEDNESDAY, 21 JULY 2021

GOVERNMENT ACCOUNTABILITY SPEECH - WEDNESDAY, 21 JULY 2021 Main Image

21 July 2021

SENATOR KRISTINA KENEALLY

DEPUTY LABOR LEADER IN THE SENATE

SHADOW MINISTER FOR HOME AFFAIRS

SHADOW MINISTER FOR IMMIGRATION AND CITIZENSHIP

SHADOW MINISTER FOR GOVERNMENT ACCOUNTABILITY

LABOR SENATOR FOR NEW SOUTH WALES

 

GOVERNMENT ACCOUNTABILITY SPEECH

 

MELBOURNE

 

WEDNESDAY, 21 JULY 2021

 

Good evening,

I appreciate the opportunity to address this roundtable, and I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land where you meet – the Boon Wurrung people of the Kulin nations – and the land from where I am appearing tonight – the Ku-ring-gai people – and their elders past, present and emerging.   

Six months ago, I was asked by Labor Leader Anthony Albanese to take on the portfolio of Government Accountability.

That means it’s my job to call-out every government rort and racket, every broken promise, every instance of the Liberals and the Nationals putting their donors and their cronies ahead of the national interest.

Let me say this – it has been a very busy six months.

We wouldn’t be meeting here tonight if there wasn’t a serious problem – one that’s scale is unique to this Prime Minister, and one that white-ants our institutions and exposes our democracy to corruption and misconduct.

Now, let me be clear from the outset – no-one goes into politics to be in Opposition.

Especially not those of us on the Labor side, the party of initiative and ideas, the party created and sustained by a belief in the power of government to change people’s lives for the better.

But – so long as you are in Opposition - you have a fundamental responsibility to hold the government to account – not just on issues of policy but on questions of integrity.

I share that responsibility with Pat Conroy as Shadow Minister Assisting on Government Accountability, and all of my Labor colleagues in both the House and the Senate. 

We also share that responsibility with the media – the journalists and reporters who shape public opinion through the stories they broadcast – and, importantly, the ones they neglect to share. 

Their role is vital, because proper scrutiny and real accountability depends on issues being carried beyond the to-and-fro of parliamentary committees and the theatre of Question Time and into the homes and minds of readers, listeners and viewers.

And, of course, this responsibility also lies with our community – organisations like this – who play an active role in protecting and buttressing our democracy from the misconduct of politicians who put self-interest above all else.

And so tonight, I want to talk about why integrity in politics matters – why it is at the core of government accountability, the rule of law, and public trust. 

Why integrity matters to the health and strength of our democracy.

And why integrity matters to the state of our economy and the quality of Australians’ lives.

I can report, after six months in my new portfolio, that the sheer quantum of rorting by this Morrison Government is both staggering – and, alarmingly, growing every day.

Now, I’ve been in politics long enough to know there is a view out there that grift and graft and dodgy deals with donors are just par for the course, the nature of the beast, the cost of doing business.

This view is supposedly “factored in” by voters, because “all political parties do it” and all politicians are in it for themselves.

What is clear from Sports Rorts, Car Park Rorts, Building Better Regions Rorts – all 22 of the Slush Funds in Mr Morrison’s recent Budget – is that we are experiencing an all-time low for government accountability in this country. 

People are angry – and rightly so.

Every dollar funnelled into dodgy land deals and sports rorts and splashing cash on executive bonuses for Liberal mates is a dollar that can’t be used to help rebuild the Australian economy after a recession, or properly fund an aged care system overrun by neglect, Or help families battling cost-of-living pressures, including high childcare costs

But given the scale of what we are experiencing, perhaps people aren’t angry enough. 

Taxpayer money is being spent as Liberal Party money – at a disturbing rate, and with a brazen disregard for the principles of good governance and accountability. 

If these were normal times, I suspect the backlash towards this government would be fatal. 

This is not yet the case, and I believe this is for two reasons – firstly, we are not in normal times, as evidenced by the method through which we meet tonight. 

Secondly, the Prime Minister is on a mission to normalise his misconduct because he believes that it’s a sure-fire way to get re-elected.

The Australian people aren’t dumb – but they’re becoming numb to the wholesale rorting and waste of the Morrison Government. 

The media is rightly focused on the pandemic – and the stories that do get reported  are quickly forgotten, dismissed as ‘business as usual’, or ‘how the sausage gets made’.

The long-term impact of this is clear – deteriorating faith in the institutions that have underpinned our prosperity and success for over a century. 

Tonight, I want to talk about the misconduct of the Prime Minister – how he does it, why he does it, and how Labor will fix it. 

The key takeaway from is this – the Morrison Government has no respect for the rules of government.

They break the ones they don’t care about, and they change the ones they can. 

Mr Morrison doesn’t have a positive plan for the Australian people – a vision for our future, effective public policy, a talented Cabinet – all he has is his rorts.

At the heart of the Morrison Liberal Government is this promise:  we will spend taxpayer money like it is Liberal Party money, because the most important thing is re-election. 

The brazen behaviour of Mr Morrison and his mates threatens to further undermine public trust in our institutions. 

Mr Morrison has no vision for this nation beyond his own job title.

He’s made clear the price he’s willing to pay to keep his job – but its ordinary Australians who will have to pick up the bill. 

Let me be clear:  this is not normal. It weakens and corrupts our democracy, prioritising cheap politics over the strength and integrity of our institutions. 

And they plumb new depths every day. 

 

22 Slush Funds – And Counting

Only in the last fortnight has Labor uncovered yet another stunning example of Mr Morrison’s rorting.

What sets this latest scandal apart is that it is attempting to normalise – even formalise – the type of rorting that we now see splashed across damning ANAO reports. 

In October last year, Mr Morrison made a typically bold claim.  “We make things in Australia”, the Prime Minister, promising $1.5 billion to promote local manufacturing and create 380,000 direct and indirect manufacturing jobs in the process.

Now, we already know that, a year in, the program has failed to create a single job.

0 down, 380,000 to go.

But it’s another stream of this Modern Manufacturing Strategy that offers a case study of Mr Morrison’s gross misconduct. 

Under the ‘Collaboration’ arm of the Modern Manufacturing Initiative, the Morrison Government will award $800 million in grants to local businesses to support the development of manufacturing capabilities.

The decision as to where that money will be spent is solely at the discretion of the responsible Minister – Scott Morrison. 

Now, you might be mistaken for thinking that Mr Morrison was the Minister for Industry, Science and Technology. 

He’s not - that would be Christian Porter.

Under the new rules, Porter will take the Department’s recommendations, make his own changes, and then send them to the Prime Minister, who will get the final say. 

This grant is clearly being structured in such a way as to streamline pork-barrelling and proactively stymie scrutiny by attempting to normalise the same process that was so heavily criticised during Sports Rorts. 

What this grant represents is the formal baking-in of the infamous colour-coded spreadsheets – a complete subversion of the Westminster system of ‘ministerial accountability’ and the creation of a new normal where Mr Morrison decides who gets what based solely on his political ambitions. 

The Prime Minister will have $800 million to spend, all conveniently timed for grants to be announced during the next election campaign.  

The definition of insanity is to do the same thing over again and expect a different outcome.  

Who would be willing to bet that it is now, during a Federal Election campaign, that the Prime Minister discovers a new-found conviction for accountability and the rule of law? 

The only thing the Prime Minister intends to manufacture from this grant is some cheap headlines. 

With this grant, we get to watch in real-time a rort that will inevitably be damned by the ANAO in 2023 – but, by then, it’s too late. 

He’s willing to thumb his nose at the norms of our democratic institutions for a few ‘likes’ on Facebook.

Add this $800 million to the other 21 Slush Funds in the most recent Federal Budget – billions upon billions of dollars set aside to be spent at the discretion of the Minister.

The application process is for nought – Department recommendations are set aside for political considerations, which alone drive the work of this Government.

Sports Rorts.  Safer Seats Rorts.  Car Park Rorts.  Building Better Regions Rorts.  JobKeeper Rorts.  Change Room Rorts. 

Not to mention other scandals like the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, the RoboDebt debacle, Paladin, the NBN, and everything that Angus Taylor touches. 

Mr Morrison will continue to treat taxpayer money like it is Liberal Party money because his only goal is re-election.  He does not care what damage he does along the way – which communities miss out on much needed support or infrastructure – as long as he gets to stay in The Lodge. 

As I said – they break the rules they don’t care about, and they change the rules they can. 

The short-term gain for Mr Morrison is to our nation’s long-term detriment, but there is no indication that he intends to stop his rorting ways.

This is the Morrison-Minster System of Government – concentrate power, ignore the experts, rewrite the rules to suit yourself, and reward bad behaviour. 

Combine this with his defunding of the ANAO, his Government’s intentional tardiness in response to FOI requests, and their bullying of the media – Mr. Morrison is allergic to scrutiny and has a glass-jaw for criticism. 

When this behaviour can go unpunished, it is a clear indication that the current system is not working. 

Labor’s Solution – A Federal Anti-Corruption Commission

It’s far easier to break trust than it is to make trust – and the behaviour of Mr Morrison and his mates threatens to further alienate the general public who simply want politicians to be held accountable in the same way that they are. 

I’ve just outlined 22 Slush Funds worth billions of dollars that are being rorted by this tired Liberal-National Government for eight long years.

It’s a figure so large that it’s hard to quantify.  No wonder it’s becoming white noise to a constituency being told that this is ‘business as usual’ by a misbehaving government The risk we face is that Mr Morrison achieves his goal – to normalise this behaviour, to paint their exceptional misconduct as relatively ordinary.

And it’s working.

Simon Longstaff recently wrote in The AFR that:

I have spent the past two weeks wondering about whether or not there is any point to writing yet another article condemning political corruption among our governments. After all, nothing done or said to date has made the slightest bit of difference. If anything, government ministers have become even more brazen in their contempt for standards of political ethics…  Well, I realised this morning that my own reluctance to keep going is, of all the forms of corruption, the most insidious of all. Whether deliberate, or not, our governments are grinding us down – corrupting the democratic spirit of the nation.

How must the general public feel?

But why would a democratically elected leader seek to undermine the very institution that brought them to power? 

In short, when voters’ cynicism grows, politicians like Scott Morrison flourish.

It is much easier for a politician like Scott Morrison to serve his own political purposes if Australians have low expectations and cynical views of their Government.

His “what-about-ism” is of the worst kind – trying to paint former governments of both stripes in the same light as themselves, trying to draw parallels between their failings and the transgressions of government’s past which, frankly, pale in comparison to this wholesale rorting.

The risk is that more and more Australians lose faith in our system of government. 

The University of Canberra has found that satisfaction with Australian democracy has more than halved in the last decade, down from 86% to 41%.

The Lowy Institute found in 2019 that 22% of Australians support the statement that “in some circumstances, a non-democratic government can be preferable.”

It was a shocking 30% of voters aged 18 to 29 years who agreed with this statement.

This is bad news.  It goes without saying, but the alternatives to democracy are too dire to comprehend.

Our democracy is predicated on trust – and Labor is committed to restoring transparency and accountability to government.  

Democracy has always derived its strength from the consent of the governed, the will of the people.

And when that consent and faith and respect is undermined, democracy is weakened too.

For all its virtues, democracy is a fragile institution.

We saw vivid proof of that in January this year, the US Capitol Hill terrorist attacks, perpetrated by what President Biden rightly called domestic terrorists and far-right extremists.

We must restore trust in democracy, but it requires bold strokes – and a commitment to hold ourselves to the same standard that we impose on those opposite. 

I note in this roundtable’s working paper that you have sought to outline the ethical standards that officials should follow in their duties.  You state that the overall aim should be to make it:

Clear what the right thing to do is…. Easy to do the right thing… Hard to do the wrong thing… and easy to find out those who do wrong.

I agree with the above – but I would go further by saying these structures are already in place, but they’re actively ignored. 

The Morrison Government knows what the right thing to do is – they say it publicly all the time and then contradict themselves in private through their self-serving actions. 

It’s both easy to do the right thing and hard to do the wrong thing.

And we do have a way to find out who does the wrong thing – Senate Estimates, Question Time, and Parliamentary Committees regularly expose scandals and rorts to the public. 

When faced with scrutiny, those in the Morrison Government barely try to conceal their contempt for accountability. 

Questioned recently about Car Park Rorts, Simon Birmingham simply replied that “Look, the Australian people had their chance and voted the government back in at the last election”.

There’s no feigned remorse anymore – they just out and say that this is what they’re doing and there’s nothing wrong with it.

And yet the fact is that the rorting continues – and so the carrot must be replaced with the stick.

Labor will introduce a Federal Anti-Corruption Commission to ensure that the Federal Government functions for the Australian people.

We make that promise because we are on your side.  The need for this Commission demonstrates that Mr Morrison and his mates are not. 

You might ask yourself – how does shining a brighter light on corruption help increase trust and integrity?  

I’ve heard it argued that drawing attention to individual scandals and corruption and dishonesty and mismanagement only succeeds in damaging the standing of politics itself.

But that’s only half true.

Exposing acts of corruption doesn’t damage the standing of politics.

Corruption itself does that.  Even more so when corrupt acts go unpunished. When they’re ignored, or worse, rewarded.

And Mr Morrison doesn’t punish bad behaviour – he rewards it. 

When there are seemingly no consequences for gross incompetence and no penalties for scandalous negligence – that’s what undermines belief in the system and respect for the institution.

And apathy in the face of incompetence and scandal has been one of the hallmarks of this government for 8 years.

That’s why, as a major step to restoring integrity to our democratic system, Labor will create a strong and effective National Integrity Commission.

Powerful, transparent, independent.

With the powers, independence and resources of a standing Royal Commission.

We seek this reform because it is vital for the health of our democracy.

And we seek this form with genuine intent to fix the problems that ail our democracy – unlike those opposite.

Their Commonwealth Integrity Commission is all bark and no bite. 

A report from The Guardian found that their proposed federal anti-corruption body would have no power to investigate dozens of integrity, expense and pork-barrelling controversies that have come to light in recent years, the Guardian has found.

In fact, and analysis of 40 political controversies found that the Commission would have the power to investigate just two of them – and it would not be able to inquiry into Sports Rorts or Car Park Rorts.

It’s almost as if the Government’s solution to their own misconduct is a toothless Commission with such a narrow mandate that it will provide the perfect response to any question – “The Commission has found that there is nothing to investigate here”. 

As I said – they break the rules they don’t care about, and they change the rules they can. 

 

Conclusion

Mr Morrison doesn’t have a vision for this country beyond his own job title.

If he won’t hold himself to even the most basic standards, then it is imperative that we do.

The upcoming Federal Election Campaign shapes to feature some of the worst government rorting in history, and we all have a role in calling out this misconduct when we see it.

The ‘rule of law’ can’t be left on a shelf and admired from a distance – it needs to be defended, and refined, and championed. 

Labor has a plan for a federal anti-corruption commission to hold the government to account and restore trust in our democracy.

I look forward to taking your questions – thank you.