In many cases, the response to scandal is often as instructive as an assessment of its cause. So it has proved to be in the case of the issues that led to the resignation of Senator Bridget McKenzie as a Federal Government Minister.

The findings of the Auditor General unleashed a fair amount of anger and disgust – especially amongst community groups who were deemed to be meritorious recipients of funding but who missed out due to political considerations.

While I understand the outrage, strong emotions can make us blind to areas of ethical importance. As citizens, we need to notice the rapid normalisation of deviance that is eroding the foundations of our representative democracy.

In this, we should look to the insights of Edmund Burke who recognised the role played by traditions and conventions in maintaining the integrity of institutions and societies.

Those who know my writings might be surprised to find me ‘channelling’ Burke. For three decades, I have warned of the perils of unthinking custom and practice. But note that my target has always been practices and arrangements that are unthinking. I am a great admirer of customs and practices that derive their life from a conscious application of purpose, values and principles.

Too often, it is the dead hand of tradition that leads institutions to betray their underlying purposes, lose legitimacy and invite revolution. In that sense, I think that Edmund Burke and I would be in perfect accord.

I also think that Burke would be deeply concerned by the radical turn away from convention taken by the government of Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, in response to the ANAO’s ‘Sports Rort’ Report.

The government’s response has been marked by a persistent refusal to acknowledge and uphold, in practice, a couple of fundamental principles. First, that public power and monies (levied by taxes) should be used exclusively for public purposes. Second, that Ministers are responsible for all that is done in their name.

Instead, the government and its representatives have sought to distract the public by laying some false trails. They have claimed that ‘no rules were broken’. They have argued that the ‘ends justified the means’. They have suggested that the Minister should be excused from responsibility for the activities of her advisers (and possibly advisers in the offices of other ministers) who shaped decisions according to the political interests of the Coalition parties.

The fact that Senator McKenzie resigned over a ‘technical breach’ of the Ministerial Code – without any sense of remorse or censure for the way she exercised discretion in the allocation of public funds – has reinforced the public’s perception that politics and ethics have become estranged.

Just the other day someone said to me, “I can’t believe you expected anything different …”. The person then paused, in mid-sentence, and said, “Did I really just say that …? What has happened to us?”. Indeed, how have we come to accept such low standards as ‘normal’? When will we realise that we are being robbed of our reasonable expectations as citizens in a democracy?

Our government’s behaviour may deserve moral censure. However, we should not let this obscure the fact that its response to the ‘Sports Rort’ reveals a woeful lack of commitment to the preconditions for a functioning representative democracy. It is this, more than anything else, that should really worry us.

“Our government’s behaviour may deserve moral censure. However, we should not let this obscure the fact that its response to the ‘Sports Rort’ reveals a woeful lack of commitment to the preconditions for a functioning representative democracy.”

One result of a lack of clear commitment to ethics within government has been the growing demand for a Federal Integrity Commission. The idea is popular with the general public – who are sick of being held accountable for their conduct while watching the most powerful people in the nation letting each other off the hook. Given this, the major political parties are committed to the creation of this new, independent oversight body.

Personally, I think it incredibly sad that it has come to this. That multiple generations of politicians, from across the political spectrum, have made this necessary is an indictment of their stewardship of our democratic institutions.

However, if it is to be done, then it must be done well. There is no point in the Parliament putting in place a ‘paper tiger’ limited to reviewing the most extreme cases of ethical failure by the smallest possible subset of public officials. It is for that reason, I support the Beechworth Principles which were launched this week.

We deserve governments that earn our trust and preserve their legitimacy. Is that really too much to ask of our politicians?

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