From Robodebt to Ruby Princess, politicians are past masters at ducking responsibility, though busy prosecuting their perceived foes. Will they stop at nothing to avoid being accountable, asks Elizabeth Minter. Taxpayers are on the hook for $3 million in court costs fighting whistleblowers. All the while, in the absence of a federal anti-corruption commission, the political scandals unfold, and pass without consequence.
Political commentator Sean Kelly recently wrote: “A reasonable question is: why are we so obsessed with blame? Because our politicians do everything they can to avoid it.”
Similarly, why are we so obsessed with accountability? Because our politicians do everything they can to avoid it. They all too often refuse to be held accountable for their decisions; decisions that can have profound consequences on people’s lives.
As Guardian Australia reported on Thursday, the Coalition government has spent nearly $3 million of taxpayers’ money pursuing four whistleblowers through the courts.
Most expensive has been the action against Canberra lawyer Bernard Collaery and his client Witness K, who exposed the Howard government’s bugging of Timor-Leste officials’ private discussions about maritime boundary negotiations – to give Australia the upper hand. Documents reveal the bill to taxpayers is $2.47 million.
But more egregious is the strong message the legal action is sending – that those who try to hold politicians accountable will face the full force of the law.
It was also revealed on Thursday that lawyers for the federal government threatened to launch High Court action to force the Ruby Princess inquiry to withdraw a summons for a departmental worker who refused to testify.
So much for Scott Morrison’s promise of co-operation with the NSW government-commissioned inquiry. “We always cooperate with royal commissions,” the prime minister said when asked if he would cooperate fully with the inquiry.
But there’s nothing new in politicians refusing to be held accountable. What was revealed this week is just the latest in a long line of examples where politicians have gone to extraordinary lengths to keep secret “evidence” on which they base their decisions.
While most of the following examples relate to the Coalition, this is primarily a result of it being in power federally for the past seven years.
Consider the Robodebt disaster, which caused untold misery, stress and anxiety to many hundreds of thousands of people. The Department of Social Services admits that more than 2,030 people died after receiving Robodebt letters.
Kath Madgwick and Jennifer Miller have separately alleged that their sons, Jarrad Madgwick, 22, and Rhys Cauzzo, 28, died by suicide after receiving notices. Greens senator Rachel Siewert said she had been told of “five families … who believe their family members’ suicides are connected to receiving a Robodebt letter”.
That misery was all the more distressing because the Coalition ignored repeated warnings about the scheme and ploughed on regardless. Centrelink was warned more than four years ago that Robodebts could be “inaccurate”; three years ago, that the Robodebt scheme was “unenforceable”; and more recently that the scheme was unlawful but the government is refusing to say when it was given this critical legal advice.
That the government backed the scheme for so long in the face of contrary advice shows it believed “the means justified the ends”. Come hell or high water, Centrelink recipients were going to play a key role in the Government’s efforts to get the budget back in the black. Yet where is the accountability for those who repeatedly failed to recognise procedural fairness and ensure accuracy? Who has lost their job? What changes are in place to prevent this ever happening again?
Report on Centrelink withheld
In a push to support outsourcing of Centrelink services, the Coalition government said in October 2018 that an independent report showed private contractors answered more calls than public servants, had less down time between calls, were cost effective and ranked equally for customer satisfaction. But it wouldn’t release the report.
The Community and Public Sector Union said the KPMG figures were misleading and that contractors took more calls because staff simply transferred customers straight to a permanent Centrelink staff member. According to the union’s deputy secretary Melissa Donnelly: “It’s telling that the government is providing no data on how many calls these private call centres actually resolve.”
Then there was the phone call Morrison made to NSW police commissioner about the investigation into Angus Taylor and the Sydney City Council doctored document.
Former anti-corruption commissioner and senior judge David Ipp says the phone call was clearly not appropriate and Morrison appeared to have made it to help him make a political decision – whether to keep Taylor or fire him. “An ordinary citizen would not be able to get that information from the police … so what is it about the prime minister that entitles him to that information?” asked Ipp.
Does Morrison think he is above the usual rules of accountability? To prove there was nothing untoward in the phone call, the government could just release the transcript, as requested by the Senate, but the government refuses, claiming “public interest immunity”.
Dutton ignores Senate order…
The public interest immunity claim was also in action in January 2018, when Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton refused an order from the Senate to release documents about services for refugees on Manus Island.
Dutton said making public the details would “damage Australia’s international relations with Papua New Guinea”. Of particular interest was the contract with the security firm Paladin Solutions, which was earning $72 million (about $585,000 a day) for providing security on Manus Island for four months. Senator Stirling Griff said the minister’s reasoning that releasing the documents would affect diplomatic relations “stretched credibility”.
… and spent $10,000 on au pair legal battle
Then there was the more than $10,000 of taxpayers’ money that the Coalition and Dutton spent fighting a Freedom of Information request about his decision to overturn the deportation in 2015 of three young women working as au pairs. Media reports noted the political connections of the employers of some of the women.
It later emerged that Dutton had repeatedly refused to meet an Army veteran trying to obtain a visa for his Afghan interpreter whose life was in danger for helping Coalition forces.
Brandis’ three-year fight over diary
Then there was George Brandis’ fight to keep secret his ministerial diary. Labor wanted to see who Brandis met with in the lead-up to the Coalition’s 2014 budget, which slashed funding for community legal centres. These centres provide free legal advice to the community on a range of issues, and also advocate for a fairer community.
Brandis’ office blocked the FoI request on the grounds it would take too long to process. It was also argued the release could lead to potential security risks, because of the disclosure of ministerial travel arrangements.
When the AAT ruled against Brandis, he lodged an appeal with the Full Court of the Federal Court, which again ruled against him. Finally, in March 2017, after a three-year battle Brandis released the documents under the threat of contempt of court proceedings and six months after the Federal Court ruled he had no valid grounds to withhold them. Yet, as widely noted by the media, the documents revealed little – but taxpayers were left with a legal bill running into tens of thousands of dollars.
$1 million-plus bill for ‘red shirts scandal’
Victorian Premier Dan Andrews’ fight to block the probe into the “red shirts scandal” reportedly cost taxpayers well over $1 million – with the legal battle going all the way to the High Court.
In 2015 Labor MPs used electorate staff of MPs in safe seats to work as organisers in marginal electorates. Taxpayer-funded electorate staff are not meant to be used for political work.
While an initial police investigation cleared Labor of criminal activity, the Greens in the Upper House pushed for the state ombudsman Deborah Glass to investigate. In 2018, she found that Labor had misused $388,000 of public money through the arrangement, money that Labor repaid. The fraud squad reinvestigated but eventually cleared all MPs.
Politicians avoiding blame, denying responsibility and obfuscating proper process are some of the main reasons trust in government in general, and elected representatives in particular, is as low as it is. Until it changes, we will continue to pay a high price.
Editor’s Note: and what’s with all this hiding stuff? Taxpayers are on the hook for $5b for Snowy Hydro 2.0 but they refuse to release a 30-year old report which they claim justifies the project.
A 30-year veteran of the mainstream media, Liz was the editor of Michael West Media until June 2021. Liz began her career in journalism in 1990 and worked at The Age newspaper for two 10-year stints. She also worked at The Guardian newspaper in London for more than seven years. A former professional tennis player who represented Australia in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, Liz has a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Letters (Hons).