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November 30, 2022

Comment: Why we need a federal ICAC

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Hon. Catherine Cusack MLC. Photo Facebook.

I’ve been thinking about very slow things. Thinking about very fast trains that are very slow coming. Thinking about the never-ending Ballina-Byron Airport upgrade – build a new entry, take it out. Build a new, new entry. Take it out. Rinse, repeat.

This week, we should be thinking about an especially slow thing that is finally going to see some action.

The Albanese Government is making good on its pledge to introduce federal ICAC legislation to parliament – an initiative it seems that is best done when governments are fresh into office.

So we have been waiting a very long time for this baby to land.

How important is federal integrity legislation?

Why do we need transparency?

I was asked this question in a Zoom meeting during the lockdown. In reply, I stood up, revealing a pair of hot pink shorts that definitely clashed with my lovely silk blouse.

‘So here I am, dressing like an MP for what is visible on the screen. Because you can’t see the bottom half of me, I didn’t dress properly, believing you would never know. Do you think if we were meeting in person in my office in parliament, I would be wearing these pink shorts? The only reason I am wearing them now is because I knew you couldn’t see them, and I was sure to get away with it.’

The ease and speed with which personal dress standards crashed the minute nobody was looking is a dead ringer for what happens in any situation where secrecy creeps in.

Imagine roads, where the speed limit is never policed. It would not take long for vast numbers of otherwise respectable citizens to just drive how they liked. The road rules are quite clear. It is the absence of transparency and policing that would literally crash the standard of driver behaviour.

Secrecy

When it comes to political power, the absence of transparency brings out its evil twin – an addiction to secrecy. And this leads to a vortex of problems immersing every facet of democracy.

I am pretty sure it starts with low level stuff like covering up poor performance – a negative business case or program evaluation that the public never gets to see. When politicians and public servants get away with little slip-ups the secrecy becomes habitual.

Soon, it escalates with ‘cabinet-in-confidence’ routinely deployed as an excuse. It is inevitable that giving a government an ‘invisibility cloak’ will engender feelings of invincibility and entitlement, and this starts to open the door to corruption.

This, in a nutshell, is the ‘integrity issue’. An issue Scott Morrison kept telling us Australia doesn’t care about. The manipulative way he did this is a stern reminder as to why a federal ICAC is so crucial to restoring credibility and faith in our democracy.

Controlling the agenda

Everyone in politics understands the golden rule of political success is setting and controlling the agenda. Scott Morrison was gifted in ensuring the media and voters spent as much time as possible focussed on issues perceived to be his strength. At the same time, his weaknesses were batted as far off the radar as possible.

His favourite technique was to instruct us all as to what we think.

It didn’t matter if it was true or not – it was his way of towing the political agenda into safe harbours for the government. It started in earnest when he was elected leader, with his line that voters ‘didn’t care’ about dumping Malcolm Turnbull.

He used the method a lot with what he called ‘identity politics’ (his code for gay marriage and transgender rights). ‘I don’t think, frankly, most Australians are terribly focussed on that,’ he said. 

It was an awesome way to shut down awkward questions. Press conferences became riddled with phrases like ‘Australians don’t care about…’ and ‘nobody has said to me…’ and ‘people don’t want…’

References to ‘the Canberra bubble’ were sometimes peppered in. Journalists trying to ask searching questions on specific issues were shut down with the generic response: ‘Australians don’t care about the Canberra bubble’ – and that was that. It worked well until the issue of his broken promise to have an integrity commission became a problem for the government.

Voters don’t care?

When asked about it, Morrison dismissed the issue, describing Labor’s policy as a ‘two page fluff sheet’ and anyway, ‘voters don’t care about a federal ICAC’.

The Sydney Morning Herald surveyed his Liberal-Nationals team and found MPs loyally stuck to the ill-fated message. They all backed the proposition that ‘voters don’t care’. La Trobe MP, Jason Wood, said, ‘I am getting no heat on it out my way.’  In NSW, MP Fiona Martin said voters’ key issues related only to the economy. It turns out this was incorrect – citizens do care about integrity – in fact they care a lot.

Whatever system of government, whoever is in power, a lack of integrity strikes at the very legitimacy of those entrusted with power.

Integrity and trust

That word ‘integrity’ embodies transparency and authenticity. Without integrity, there can be no trust in authority – there can be no sustainable mandate to govern, and no ethical basis for citizens to accept your decisions.

This is why young Iranians are rebelling against the Islamic regime’s Morality Police. It is why authoritarian governments in Russia, and China, and military dictatorships in Myanmar and North Korea routinely slow or shut down the internet – to repress information and inhibit transparency.

The move to establish an Australian federal ICAC with teeth is overdue, and especially welcome in 2022, when national security is an issue and democracy is increasingly under attack.

I am sure it won’t be perfect, and it will need to evolve, perhaps like Ballina-Byron Airport, it will be a work in progress that never ends. But better that than nothing at all – this week is a good week for Australia.


Catherine Cusack is a former NSW Liberal MP, based in Lennox Head.


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15 COMMENTS

  1. And it will simply be a tool of distraction staffed by their mates. But maybe their mates will actually go after the last government. That way we can be a full blown banana republic where each new government puts the last one in jail until someone decides they don’t want to loose power and go to jail, gets the military on side, and takes over permanently. But these things can never happen in this time and place people have always said throughout history.

    Federal ICAC will most likely just be to distract people from real corruption with tawdry sex scandals. Sex scandals entertain the public, real corruption is dry, boring, made up of esoteric details, and people are generally confused by the explanation of how the complex scam works. You may as well just read the constitution out on live television. Or you can just say ‘BOOBS’ and people are happy.

    • [Word deleted by comments editor] Steinberg, you seem to know an awful lot about Fed ICAC despite the details not yet being publicly released.
      As usual you just write bull.

      • All hearings done behind closed doors. No prosecutorial powers. Findings can be withheld from the public.
        So it’s like a Royal Commission, but the public doesn’t get to see it, and doesn’t have to be shown the findings. Imagine my shock. I also don’t see any definition of corruption. Most of the dodgy stuff they do is perfectly legal, so what do they even mean by corruption. Definitely not what we mean by the word. But when someone claims corruption, they can say ‘ICAC looked at it and didn’t find any’, and that will be that. What a great leap forward for good governance, and as predictable as the sunrise.

    • Just because the LNP used multiple RC’s wasting 10 of millions to attack 3 Labor leaders for political reasons with zero findings. Don’t think for a moment that someone like Labor attorney general Mark Dreyfus would ever do anything like that. The LNP should be extremely worried about prosecution for their catastrophic crimes against the commonwealth, because they have committed real crimes!

  2. What a brilliant article! Thank you!
    Catherine Cusack has absolutely nailed the importance of transparency and integrity in politics, and yes, we voters do care about it!

  3. A Federal ICAC has been long overdue and it is becoming a reality because the ALP had a change of heart to their long held opposition to a Fed ICAC.
    Finally – shonky LibNat actions like . RoboRobberyDebt, Leppington Triangle, SpRorts, CarPork and Ride – just some of all too much ammunition for the ALP to ignore a Fed ICAC.

    • Joachim very selective in your assessment
      Your Greens have also a lot to answer for ..
      Like your mate on the north shore not declaring
      The 100k as a donation and from whom ?
      Fossil fuels ? Dos this jolt your selective
      Memory Joachim… your Greens Captain planet Joachim are hypocrites in the first order ..

      • Barrow, Barrow, Barrow, ya gunna have to try a lot harder but that’s what happens when you watch too much SkyintheDark TV and read too much of your Unki Rupert’s Liberal Party Newsletters that pretend to be newspapers.

        You haven’t named the MP that you delighting in taking a pot shot at, but I’ll take a stab that it the Zali, the Independent MP for Warringah in your mate Phoney Tony’s old stomping ground before he was dumped out on his arse.
        I’ll repeat for you Barrow, the important detail that the Zali is Independent MP, NOT, Greens MP – you got that now?

        The details surrounding the $100,000 donation that has you in a such lather of excitement have been fully canvassed, but somehow, as always, ‘details’ elude you before you start scribbling away with bull.

  4. “That word ‘integrity’ embodies transparency and authenticity. Without integrity, there can be no trust in authority – there can be no sustainable mandate to govern, and no ethical basis for citizens to accept your decisions”.
    Australia’s priority must be to have this in it’s media first, then it’s impossible for the Govt to be corrupted.
    Morrison catastrophic scamvangelical faction was only able run his appalling shadowy corrupted misinformation Govt because an equally shadowy corrupted misinformation media protected him and his govt. The attacks against anyone questioning Morrison or the LNP Govt are still happening NOW!
    We all know who the usual suspects are in our corrupted media and they must be called out and removed. Only then can we hope to have good Govt. The attacks on you Catherine by trash talking TV/radio talkback host when you spoke out was appalling, that must be stopped! We don’t want the social fabric torn apart as it has been in the USA by the same type of media propaganda. Just try calling local talkback radio all channelled from 2SM 2HD and state some facts and call out the LNP, many of them will not even permit you to speak!

    • Censorship is your go to solution. I know that you are actually complaining about the lack of civil discourse, but that is down stream of culture. No amount of censorship fixes the lack of public standards, nor a lack of public intellectualism. A dumb down public is not interested in a nuanced logical debate, they can’t understand it. They want mud slinging, like a bunch of five year olds, so that’s what you get.

      • The editor owner of Der Sturmmer newspaper was convicted and executed at the Nuremberg trials after WW2. He never fired a shot, but was convicted for poisoning the minds of an entire nation. There is precedence in holding a corrupted fascist media misinformation and blatant lies to account! “The only dumbing down is by that fascist media onto those QAnon conspiracy nutters, cookers and assorted crazies living on their mothers garages, that read and listen to and actually believe the lies”? Looking at the corrupted media and Republican party in the USA, jthat has been introduced into Australia, ust how far are you prepared to go in support of what is neo-fascism?

    • I know what Tweed means by ‘integrity’, you know what Tweed means by ‘integrity’, but what are they legally defining ‘integrity’ as? Is ICAC tasked with upholding the appearance of ‘integrity’ in the system? Magistrate courts are tasked with giving the ‘appearance that justice has been done’, some of you may have noticed that. Perception control. Control peoples perceptions, you control their actions. That’s what Q-Anon, Climate Disasterism, and the such like, are for. Sheeplisation.

  5. Catherine is quite right on this. I worked on development issues in third world countries first for 23 years. Most of the problems, and the consequential poverty, came back to poor governance, a result of a lack of transparency and so a lack of monitoring by auditors, by public servants with integrity, and by the public and media. Previously effective governance in the colonial eras – to benefit the colonialist as much as the colonised of course – were allowed to decline. There is always a risk our good governance will decline too, and an ICAC is one way to make sure that does not happen.

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