But when a reporter asked the Prime Minister why he hadn’t agreed to Labor’s demands to create the royal commission earlier, the politics was suddenly irrelevant. «The politics of this — who cares?» he said. The royal commissioner «called out the boards of those banks, the boards of these big public companies and he has laid the blame fairly at their feet. That’s exactly where it should be»
Shorten said that Hayne was so soft on the banks that «there was a little sigh of disappointment» from the people. The Labor leader called for jailings: «If no one gets prosecuted or charged, or goes to jail, I think Australians will think there’s been a cover-up. We want to make sure the Parliament does its bit to restore faith in the banking sector.» But who will restore faith in the political system?
In the same week that the federal political leaders were getting outraged and indignant about the banks, how many outrages emerged among federal MPs? No fewer than three in a single week.
First, a Liberal MP, who happens to be the Assistant Minister for Roads and Transport in the Morrison government, admitted to being an «idiot». Scott Buchholz apologised for inappropriate behaviour towards a female member of the RAAF who was doing her job.
Second, another Liberal MP, Ian Goodenough, was caught promoting a property business that he has an interest in as a director and 50 per cent shareholder. He had not disclosed the interest. And it was second conflict of interest revelation about Goodenough in a single week, the other involving a lobster business.
Third, Liberal MPs were revealed to be abusing their positions in a separate outrage. One MP, Jason Falinski, was offering members of the public access to another, Tim Wilson, in return for donations to the Liberal party. Wilson happens to be the chair of a parliamentary committee inquiring into Labor’s dividend policy.
And while this week’s affronts were all perpetrated by members of the Liberal Party, the Labor Party’s record is no better. At the NSW level the corrupt former ministers Eddie Obeid and Ian McDonald are in jail. At the federal level, Sam Dastyari was drummed out for selling his soul to the Chinese Communist Party. He had, however, broken no law in existence at the time. He even disclosed the donations he’d received, as parliamentary guidelines required.
And Labor came within a whisker of winning the last federal election based, in part, on an outrageous campaign of deception claiming that the Turnbull government was planning to privatise Medicare, the so-called Mediscare campaign. Completely misleading and entirely legal.
Trust in government in Australia is at its lowest since the greatest shock in modern Australian governance, the constitutional crisis of 1975, when the governor-general sacked an elected prime minister, Gough Whitlam, according to ANU’s Ian McAllister. And it only keeps going lower.
In an effort to recover trust, political leaders have announced quite a few new rules and institutions in the last decade. The Gillard government created the Parliamentary Budget Office. The Turnbull government created the Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority. Turnbull even imposed a «bonking ban» against ministers having affairs with their staff.
What of that most infuriating psychosis, the lightning assassination of an elected prime minister by internal coup? In his second incarnation as prime minister, Kevin Rudd introduced a rule to restrain them. Scott Morrison did the same for the Liberals.
Yet none has so far done anything to improve the dire disregard in which Australians hold their politicians. If rules aren’t restraining the federal politicians, could self-regulation work? In the introduction to his report, the banking royal commissioner strips all his considerations and verbiage back to just six underlying principles, «six norms of conduct». They are, in Ken Haynes’ words:
«Obey the law; do not mislead or deceive; act fairly; provide services that are fit for purpose; deliver services with reasonable care and skill; when acting for another, act in the best interests of that other.»
You don’t need to be a High Court judge, or a retired one in Haynes’ case, to understand these. By putting profit above principle, much of the financial services industry managed to ignore the basic precepts of honesty, decency and duty. The head of the Ethics Centre, Simon Longstaff, said this week that all the pain and loss exposed by Hayne could have been avoided if the people in the finance industry had signed up to the Banking and Finance Oath, a simple seven-point pledge of principles that was drawn up after the global financial crisis threw the international finance system into disgrace. How about a Politicians’ Pledge? A simple statement of principles, embraced voluntarily, that might prevent further embittering of the Australian people against their legislators?
The woman who wrote the banking oath, head of Macquarie Bank’s integrity office at the time, Clare Payne, a former marathon swimmer, says that it was «based on self-regulation, so it needs a critical mass to mean anything».
«I imagined a mass take-up of the initiative, a changing of the ways, moving from the era of Gordon Gekko to something wholly more noble.» It didn’t happen. How many of Australia’s bank and finance personnel signed the oath? About a thousand, out of a potential pool of some 450,000. Among the many others, the top people in her own bank declined to sign.
It should be much easier to sign up all Australia’s federal parliament — there are only 150 MPs and 75 senators, a total of just 225 people. The question is, would they sign such a pledge? More importantly, would they keep it?
One already exists, aimed at State MPs, created by Longstaff’s centre four years ago. It has gone nowhere. Payne, author of a book on trust and a fellow at Melbourne University and an EY fellow in trust and ethics, proposes a shorter, simpler and very timely oath. She wrote it this week.
The Politician’s Pledge
The people before the party; and
The public interest before my own.
I will act with:
Care for the people;
Integrity in promise and practice; and
With the skills to keep my promises.
My word is my bond.
If embraced by federal politicians, and followed faithfully, this pledge would transform the parliament and the country. Unfortunately, it will not be. Australia is entering the season of greatest temptation for the political parties — an election.
The biggest betrayals of trust, the most dismal breaches of ethics in national politics, have been election promises made and then broken. And election campaigns are when the meanest tricks and dirtiest politics are deployed.
Where the banks put profit before principle, the political parties are about to showcase how they put power before principle. They will once again demonstrate to the people why they are not worthy of trust. And then they will marvel at how the country disdains them.
I hope I’m wrong, but it would be a case of hope over experience. The consolation for Australia is that the political parties are about to get their own equivalent of the Hayne royal commission. It will be a federal integrity commission. It won’t be the model proposed by the Morrison government, a feeble effort that lacks parliamentary support. But, after a very long wait, all the parties now support a federal corruption watchdog in principle. Its creation is now inevitable; only the details remain to be negotiated as it is established by the next Parliament. As the ancient Greeks knew, hubris is always followed by nemesis. Sometimes it just takes a while.
Peter Hartcher is political editor.
Peter Hartcher is Political Editor and International Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.