OPINION

What happens to a government which gives out bucks for ballots?

Don't expect Peter Dutton or Greg Hunt to experience any consequences for their actions any time soon. Picture: Getty Images
Don't expect Peter Dutton or Greg Hunt to experience any consequences for their actions any time soon. Picture: Getty Images

The politicians in this country's government have lost both their minds and their morals.

They get to do this because there is no timely oversight of their behaviour. We have to wait to vote. Which means that, way too often, serious misdemeanours are ignored or forgotten. We have too few elections to make politicians take real responsibility during their terms in office; or our memories are too short.

This isn't a request for more elections. Gaia forbid. We would get triple the number of lies and deflections then, and less time for real action. But we do need some instruments of discipline for our fearless leaders when they behave badly.

We don't have a federal integrity commission. We don't even have anyone punishing politicians for breaches of the ministerial code of conduct. Regular members of Parliament get to do whatever they like, including spreading lies about COVID, masks and worming treatments. Their boss doesn't punish them. Any internal party processes lack transparency.

Geez, who wouldn't love a well-paid job with little accountability?

The very best we can hope for is interrogation by journalists and now, particularly now, the government is trying to undermine that part of the democratic process.

Politicians blithely hand out money to whomsoever comes cap in hand. They seize credit for it by plastering party branding on anything that moves. They abuse journalists. And that all happens in one day. God only knows what we can expect tomorrow.

On Wednesday night we discovered Peter Dutton, the minister for misery, handed out a one-off grant of nearly a million bucks to the Queensland-based National Retail Association after it donated $1500 to Queensland's Liberal National Party. That donation was for the express purpose of supporting Dutton. I guess it follows the mould of sports rorts, a long-running saga where Coalition or marginal seats got bucks for ballots (OK, it wasn't quite that simple, but you get the drift). I imagine, based on the experience of sports rorts, that barely anything will happen to Dutton. Firstly because Scott Morrison still needs him, and secondly because he is not a woman.

On Wednesday morning we discovered the Minister for Health Greg Hunt channelling Donald Trump. When ABC journalist Michael Rowland asked Hunt why a Liberal Party logo was attached to the minister's tweet about the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, he replied: "I know you have strong views ... we predicted that you seem to be the most exercised of any person in the Australian media about this."

Well yes. Hunt's tweet made it look like the Liberal Party should be given credit for the provision of the vaccine, when it was a government decision and funded by us, the taxpayers.

Rowland replied to this personal comment with: "No, I don't - I'm asking why?"

"It just struck me as odd," he continued. "I asked the same question about the Labor government's, a party political logo attached to an Australian government announcement."

Hunt replied with the response my children used to give when interrogated about bad behaviour: everyone does it.

Then he said: "I'm a very proud member of that party with a great heritage and tradition in Australia and that's part of the Australian democratic process ... There's no problem with identifying entirely appropriately within the rules. The origins and heritage of that banner under which we were elected by the Australian people."

Hunt added: "I know this is an issue for you. In many ways, you identify with the left."

As if only the left is interested in political and moral probity (and if that's the case, the right is morally bankrupt - see paragraph one). And how gross of Hunt to have slimed Rowland, who was just doing his actual paid job.

What's sad for Hunt is he had just about resuscitated his career after making one of the most egregious errors of his time in Parliament. You will recall in 2018, during one of our interminable leadership coups, Hunt decamped to Team Dutton. Anyhow, as happens to most ministers for health during pandemics, he's been rehabilitated. COVID-19 has been the remaking of him. Until yesterday.

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Whenever I despair about the state of the Australian government - usually in the late hours of the day - I text Sydney University's emeritus professor of government, Rod Tiffen.

"Still awake?" I ask.

He reminds me that there have been many such confrontations over the years between journalists and politicians.

"It's just a way of avoiding the question," says Tiffen. It also looks like Trump-lite, that vulgar approach of trying to take control of the interview by demeaning the journalist.

Tiffen also reminds me that this is not the first time Hunt has lost his cool while being interviewed. His fracas with Patricia Karvelas over "free speech" was a good example of bad behaviour. And he doesn't just do it to journalists. A couple of years back, Tiffen recalls Hunt abused the mayor of Katherine in the Northern Territory. He apologised, and then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull told question time all ministers should treat those with whom they deal with respect. Who knows who else Hunt has treated badly? And how many don't ever get to tell Hunt he's wrong?

Hahahahaha. It's been many years since we've seen any evidence of that.

As Tiffen says, until we have independent regulators monitoring and meting out punishments, this will never change.

Yes, that means independent regulators with teeth. Codes of conduct which must actually be upheld. And a federal integrity commission.

It mightn't be enough to teach badly behaved politicians how to control themselves, but it might frighten them enough to start treating everyone with just the tiniest bit of respect.

  • Jenna Price is a visiting fellow at the Australian National University and a regular columnist.
This story What happens to a government which gives out bucks for ballots? first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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