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Consequences

The fallout from flouting the rules

AS ANY PARENT knows, the capital of consequences – their potential to shape desired behaviour – is critical to define and to spend wisely. Take an illustrative case from my childhood. Once, during the long summer holidays, our family and some visiting cousins went on an outing that culminated in my mother buying ice-creams to be enjoyed when we got home. She had barely returned to the car when the (numerous) children in the back seat (it was the early 1970s) started arguing over their claims to the several varieties available. With the volume and intensity of conflict rising, and my father’s eyes firmly fixed on the road, she asked that the fighting stop or no one would be having anything. Conflict persisted and so, without a word, she threw the entire package out the window, establishing both a family legend and an enduring lesson.

A similar lesson applies to the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, fresh from hosting COP26 in Glasgow and now mired in a political crisis of his own that has damaged his standing among even his most ardent supporters. On 3 November 2021, he ordered Conservative members of the House of Commons to reject the findings of the independent Standards Committee’s two-year inquiry into the conduct of veteran Tory MP and Brexiteer Owen Paterson. Johnson was determined to shield Paterson from a thirty-day suspension – the recommended consequence of his ‘egregious’ breach of parliament’s code on paid lobbying. MPs were instructed to support a motion to replace the framework for overseeing parliamentary standards that had operated since 2010 with a new process, chaired by a government MP. Aggressive whipping, including threats from Number 10 to cut constituency funding for any member who opposed the motion, provoked outrage – including from fifty-one backbenchers who refused.

The public backlash was visceral. MPs’ offices were inundated with complaints and the government was roundly condemned, even in traditionally sympathetic media outlets. Former head of MI5 Lord Jonathan Evans of Weardale (now Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life) used the first part of his scheduled address to launch the committee’s latest report on 4 November to lament the ‘very serious and damaging moment for parliament and for public standards in this country’. He argued that the ‘extraordinary proposal’ to retrospectively change the rules in the government’s favour

is deeply at odds with the best traditions of British democracy. The political system in this country does not belong to one party, or even to one government. It is a common good that we have all inherited from our forebears and that we all have a responsibility to preserve and to improve.

The details of the Paterson case are less significant than their confirmation of the Johnson government’s disregard for longstanding traditions of British governance. Since its landslide 2019 election victory it has sought to bend or otherwise subvert rules for its own political benefit. Journalist Andrew Rawnsley notes that ‘this contemptible episode [with Paterson] is not a one-off, but the latest exhibition of [this] pathology…’ The Economist accused the Prime Minister of ‘seeking to undermine Britain’s precarious system of checks and balances’ and ‘of neutering independent bodies supposed to hold it to account’.

Johnson has made a career of being a law unto himself. Financial Times columnist Robert Shrimsley claims Johnson ‘worries little about consequences because he trusts himself to get out of any scrape and conducts politics with a smirk as if we are all in on the joke’. And yet as Lord Evans noted, political leaders who fail to meet ethical standards undermine ‘the bonds of trust that keep our politics and governance functioning’. Moreover they damage a nation’s democracy, its economy and its ‘soft power’ – its standing in the world.

The UK has long been a beacon of good governance. It rates highly on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, but experts worry that the Johnson government risks undermining this cherished status. Since the 2016 Brexit referendum, the government has acted with impunity, perpetrating a series of constitutional abuses on key institutions of British democracy, including (inter alia) the Cabinet, the Civil Service, elections, parliament, the judiciary, the devolved institutions and even the monarchy. The Paterson affair compounds the Greensill lobbying scandal and claims of a ‘chumocracy’, where access, positions and honours are a quid pro quo for mates and political donors. Johnson’s honesty and personal integrity are also under scrutiny. He faces inquiries into his financial interests, including who funded luxury holidays and a lavish renovation of his Downing Street residence. Asked to comment on recent developments in the UK, Transparency International’s Steve Goodrich noted:

Where rules aren’t followed and there is no consequence, the absence of accountability can breed particularly egregious behaviour that could easily slip into out-and-out corrupt practices that you might expect from less-established democracies.

 

AS THIS SUGGESTS, there are consequences when there are no consequences. The systematic pattern matters here, as does the arc that’s drawn from 2016 through to the present. A report for the Constitution Society documented the inherent fragility of the UK’s model of constitutional regulation – which is premised on restraint and mutual respect for governing norms, particularly in the face of what now appear to be the Johnson government’s systematic efforts to undermine it. The Westminster tradition relies on ministers exercising power responsibly and a willingness to co-operate with oversight mechanisms. In Good Chaps No More?, Andrew Blick and Peter Hennessy argue ‘if general standards of good behaviour among senior politicians can no longer be taken for granted, then neither can the sustenance of key constitutional principles’. More effective ways need to be found to promote a culture of good behaviour among office holders and by enforcing consequences when they flout fundamental principles for short-term political gain.

Beyond undermining trust in political institutions and processes, the consequences of executive overreach include ill-considered short-term decisions that often lead to policy U-turns or expensive blunders – creating new and potentially more serious problems down the track. Take Robodebt, or comparable examples in the states and territories. Secrecy, a lack of accountability and lack of restraint breed incompetence and failure, creating a vicious cycle both for institutions and the public’s faith in them. And yet these are the hallmarks of how executive governance is now practised by populist leaders, including in the UK and Australia. It is the inevitable consequence of twenty-five years of the permanent campaign and one that epitomises the triumph of short-term partisan advantage over governing with purpose and in the long-term public interest.

Post-Brexit Britain may be further along this path, but a comparable lack of respect for traditions and conventions is also evident in Australia – particularly, but not only, at the national level. As I noted in the opening piece for this series, the examples are legion, and the trajectory is clear and increasingly desperate as the faux election campaign intensifies. In the continued absence of a federal integrity commission – the Morrison government has flagged that the legislation to establish it may not be introduced in the current term of parliament – this is something Australians should care about. An elected Senate, our federation and the need to maintain the support of parliamentary colleagues serve as constraints on prime ministerial power, but Australian leaders command infinitely greater capacity to dominate and set the culture of their governments than their UK counterparts. They are more able to act with impunity than British leaders because the ecosystem that maintains integrity and accountability is much weaker. This is opportunistic and strategic, facilitated by tight networks of interlinked, co-dependent and unaccountable advisors and staff, the complicity of safe-seat members and the hubris that breeds when codes of conduct are not enforced.

Scott Morrison embodies the decades-long evolution of the trend to centralisation and leader predominance in Australian politics on both sides. He has leveraged and strengthened the institutional and personal power resources of the prime ministership – including an inner court of trusted loyalists and a large and powerful Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). This office asserts discipline and control across the government, including the public service and Commonwealth entities such as the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Australia Post. Morrison’s PMO has developed a reputation for backgrounding against rivals and punishing critics, while his department, headed by former chief of staff Phil Gaetjens, has been accused of enabling the Prime Minister to evade accountability and scrutiny. Even senior ministers are barely visible – deferential and compliant. The media is a shadow of its former self, with fewer investigative journalists and increasing attacks on the public broadcaster, independents and other organisations that question the government’s modus operandi.

There are distinct parallels between the strategies and tactics deployed by Boris Johnson and Scott Morrison. They appear to share a similar mindset. Both are partisan warriors, ruthless campaigners with few ideological convictions and short attention spans. Neither seems much interested in the hard graft of policy and governance. Comments from Member for Bennelong John Alexander, whose retirement was prompted by ‘frustration at a government that does not have the foresight or capacity to make the kind of long-term policy decisions he [Alexander] believes are vital’, confirm this. Political historian Judith Brett argues that Morrison has ‘little understanding of the chains of consequence beyond the management of immediate issues; and even here the management is mainly that of the marketer and public-relations guy concerned with avoiding reputational damage rather than solving the problem’. Morrison and Johnson have little tolerance for contestability. Rivals are purged or sidelined. Both respond to criticism with displays of sometimes raw, unchannelled fury.

But while Johnson is notoriously careless, Morrison is controlling. He maintains strict discipline over the Liberal party room while attempting to contain his increasingly fractious Coalition partner. He needs to; his government holds office by a slim majority and faces an election before May 2022. This week five Coalition senators crossed the floor to join One Nation in demanding the Commonwealth override state vaccine mandates. A tense Liberal party room meeting prompted reports that Morrison had lost support among moderates and his right wing. By contrast, Johnson is only halfway through a five-year term and holds a thumping eighty-seat majority. But the Paterson affair and debate that followed about MPs’ outside interests has seriously diminished his authority, raising questions about his leadership and his transactional relationship with his party. The Spectator’s Katy Balls reports that the scandal has confirmed ‘MPs’ worst fears: Johnson doesn’t have a strategy’. John Alexander’s comments, and similar reports citing unnamed backbench MPs, suggest that a small but growing number of Liberals hold similar concerns about Morrison. This lack of strategy and long-term vision for their nations is the most consequential matter facing Australians and Britons. They will reap its bitter harvest in lower living standards, a loss of social cohesion and of the public trust essential to a functioning democracy.

 

OF COURSE, THE ultimate consequence in our system is electoral defeat – a consequence this Prime Minister hopes to avoid at all costs. Electoral defeat often comes too late in our system: most governments at all levels get a term more than they should. Because governments are selective in observing the ‘caretaker conventions’ – rules designed to limit executive power during an election campaign – incumbency is used for partisan advantage. We are now eight years into this Coalition government, and for the past three Scott Morrison has held power as Prime Minister. Morrison’s recent criticism of Covid restrictions in the states included the central message ‘that governments should get out of people’s way, shouldn’t mandate things, shouldn’t legislate things’. This vacuous slogan, which belies the federal government’s necessary public health and economic support interventions, invites a consequence, given its implications for the social compact between those who lead and those who are led.

I spoke of Queensland in the first piece in this series, of the political regime that I grew up with, of the time it took for citizens to realise what was going on. It’s often hard to join the dots in these situations because populist regimes are masters of distraction and intimidation, but different alliances of people worked relentlessly to bring the facts into public view. When finally people saw and understood the pattern and its many moving parts, they were horrified by the impact, the repercussions, the cumulative effects. What’s insidious now is that the assault on our democratic institutions is happening in plain sight.

The potential for power to be abused is inevitable – in the UK an overweening executive attacks the safeguards inherent to the British governing tradition; in Canberra a Deputy Prime Minister with a seat at the apex of power pretends to be an outsider and defies the PM’s own Cabinet rules in the certain knowledge he’ll never be held to account. It’s why the checks and balances integral to our system of government are so crucial. But the consequences of any abuse are dire. It’s part of what has compelled me to write this series now – the need to spell out what’s at risk, the desire to engage a voting public so often written off as disengaged. People need to care about this; they need to commit to doing something about it.

What, then, might they do? The government itself is under pressure on integrity and accountability on a range of fronts, most patently from independent crossbenchers and the independent candidates they’ve inspired in Liberal seats across the country. The possibility of engaging at a grassroots level, targeting local MPs and holding them to account, is one potential by-product of these independent campaigns beyond the possibility of electing a new member.

In all of this sits the need for supporting and encouraging independent media and investigative journalism – telling stories of action and potential and holding every level of government and public official to account in terms of promises and performance. Such increased engagement might not only intersect with the operation of democracy in the run up to the 2022 election. It would also thwart the loudly held opinions of so many cynical insiders who believe that the voters – the people – don’t care. And that’s just how they like it.

 

References

Balls, Katy, ‘Johnson tried to joke his way out of this crisis, but his MPs aren’t laughing anymore’, The Guardian, 19 November 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/nov/18/boris-johnson-joke-crisis-mps-prime-minister-sleaze

Blick, Andrew and Hennessy, Peter, Good Chaps No More? Safeguarding the Constitution in Stressful Times, The Constitution Society, 2019, https://consoc.org.uk/publications/good-chaps-no-more-safeguarding-the-constitution-in-stressful-times-by-andrew-blick-and-peter-hennessy/

Bongiorno, Frank, ‘The Alexander technique’, The Saturday Paper, 20 November 2021.

‘Boris Johnson treats checks and balances with contempt’, The Economist, 6 November 2021, https://www.economist.com/leaders/2021/11/06/boris-johnson-treats-checks-and-balances-with-contempt

Brett, Judith, ‘ScoMo and his flow brain’, Australian Book Review, Issue 969, November 2021.

Lord Jonathan Evans of Weardale, ‘Upholding standards in public life’, Speech to the Institute for Government, 4 November 2021, https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/upholding-standards-in-public-life-speech-by-lord-evans

Rawnsley, Andrew, ‘Boris Johnson’s contempt for integrity is at the rotten heart of the Paterson affair’, The Guardian, 7 November 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/nov/07/boris-johnson-contempt-for-integrity-is-at-the-rotten-heart-of-the-paterson-affair

Shrimsley, Robert, ‘Sleaze shambles holds warning for Boris Johnson’s next Brexit battle’, Financial Times, 11 November 2021.

Tingle, Laura, ‘When Morrison denounced violent threats, it was the second “of course” that left him on the back foot’, ABC News, 20 November 2021, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-11-20/morrison-on-back-foot-over-response-to-melbourne-protests/100633436

Webber, E and Casalicchio, E, ‘How corrupt is Britain?’, Politico, 11 November 2021, https://www.politico.eu/article/great-britain-boris-johnson-lobby-rules-corruption/

Whiteford, Peter, ‘Robodebt was a fiasco with a cost we have yet to fully appreciate’, The Conversation, 16 November 2020, https://theconversation.com/robodebt-was-a-fiasco-with-a-cost-we-have-yet-to-fully-appreciate-150169

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