Kristina Keneally has done the country a favour. By holding the government to account and Malcolm Turnbull in particular over a grace and favour grant of $443.8 million to an obscure non-government organisation she has amplified a much wider Australian governance problem.
If nothing else, revelations emerging from the banking royal commission, that was opposed tooth and nail by the government, has revealed systemic shonkiness in the financial system, and more broadly.
This rottenness has in turn exposed the fecklessness of the country’s regulatory agencies, principally the Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC).
Unusual though the Turnbull bequest might seem to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation this slipshod approach to disbursing taxpayers’ funds to an entity which did not even request the money is hardly unique.
Both sides of politics are culpable. Labor has its “mates’’, incubated in the union movement and in the party apparatus. You can be sure more than a few are straining at the leash to get back to the trough.
The Coalition has its corporate rent-seekers distinguished by their participation in peak business entities, memberships of federal boards, recipients of honors for their contributions to “business’’, and as benefactors of supportive think tanks – until it’s time to scuttle away.
As prospects of a Labor victory firm we are witnessing a lot of scuttling.
In the matter of dishing out money in ways that might seem, well, unorthodox, Turnbull has form.
As Environment Minister in the John Howard government in 2007 he sanctioned the allocation of $10 million dollars to an obscure organisation that claimed to be able to produce rain out of a clear blue sky using Russian “technology’’.
Needless to say, this Russian “blue sky’’ technology did not work.
Before going to the broader issue of the country’s weak governance arrangements more or less across the board what can be said about the GBRF largesse is that it calls into question basic processes in the disbursement of government funds, leaving aside reasonable criteria for a grant of this size.
Money was doled out to an organisation whose advisory board is stacked with corporate chieftains just days before the end of the financial year. If you were of a suspicious mind you might say the government wanted to keep this sizeable sum away from the budgetary ledger for 2018-19.
As members of the Expenditure Review Committee obliged to sign off on the “grace and favor’’ reef foundation payment, Treasurer Scott Morrison and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann have questions to answer.
Speaking of questions, the Australian National Audit Office will have a long list when examining the reef foundation deal, including whether the government complied with Commonwealth grants' rules and guidelines in the disbursement of these funds.
Senator Keneally is not alleging corruption but what she calls “extraordinary maladministration’’.
“Why did the Prime Minister have a secret meeting to give away nearly half a billion dollars to a tiny foundation that hadn’t even asked for the money?’’ she asks.
Good question, and one that Keneally and shadow attorney general Mark Dreyfus deploy to effect in their calls for a National Integrity Commission to discourage not simply corruption, but government activities that skirt rules and processes.
All this underscores a decay at the heart of Australian democracy. People have lost trust in government precisely because of episodes like the reef foundation sweetheart deal.
An anti-politics trend in the country is not simply attributable to concerns about immigration, wage stagnation or a widening rich-poor gap, but to a broader loss of trust in the system.
In its useful elections study – Trust, Parties and Leaders: Findings from the 1987-2016 Australian Election Study – the Australian National University reports a sharp deterioration in satisfaction with democracy’s functioning.
Trust had declined between 2007-2016 by 26 percentage points to 60 per cent from 86 per cent of those interviewed who were “very’’ or “fairly’’ satisfied with democracy. Over the same period the “better government’’ issue emerged as one of three major concerns among voters, and second only to economic management in some of the ANU’s polling.
One can assume the “better government’’ measure has become more – not less – of a preoccupation since 2016. An accelerating drift to fringe parties is part of this process.
All of this speaks to the need for far-reaching housecleaning to rebuild trust in the system. This should begin with political donations reform where Federal requirements are the weakest in the Commonwealth, apart from Tasmania.
These “better government’’ measures should also include requirements that think tanks and lobby groups expose their sources of funding given these bodies are among the least transparent in the world, according to the influence peddler watchdog Transparify.
Stricter codes of conduct should also be applied to politicians and public servants taking the “revolving door’’ route to lucrative lobbying positions after public service.
Finally, Turnbull and his Attorney General Christian Porter could do worse than revisit calls for a National Integrity Commission. Neither could argue that confidence in the system is anything but fractured.