I have nothing against Steve Herbert. From all accounts he’s a decent man and perhaps a good minister. And I’m sure Bronwyn Bishop had redeeming qualities. Likewise every other parliamentarian who has at some stage abused or fudged their entitlements. But beyond the individual circumstances what matters more in such cases is not how their actions are viewed by their leader but how they are viewed by the public. Because that’s where Donald Trump and Pauline Hanson come in.
Firstly, let’s simply acknowledge that the entitlements of some politicians exceed public expectations. The public understands the sacrifices politicians make and appreciates the need to attract and retain people with appropriate qualifications and experience in parliament. And their work hours and circumstances must cause all manner of issues not tolerated in other talks of life. But there is no shortage of tales about twisting of accommodation allowances, travel to sporting events, payment of nannies, helicopter rides and so on. Some of them might pass muster in terms of what is strictly allowable but few pass the sniff test. Farrah Tomazin nailed it here; the rules around entitlements for politicians are too vague, perhaps deliberately so.
It’s hard to escape the conclusion that prime ministers and state premiers are more concerned with protecting thin majorities or maintaining relationships than they are about parliamentary standards. This is short term thinking and eventually it runs the risk of undermining confidence in politicians and politics as we know it. Every incident contributes to a widening gap between the general public and our politicians. It’s no surprise that anti establishment figures like Trump and Hanson emerge in those circumstances. It’s not too difficult to rally support when politicians indulge in the undermining of their own institutions. It may start with the disaffected and marginalised but it can spread, even within political parties themselves.
Nearer to home, those of us in education in Victoria are experiencing the fallout of the IBAC hearings conducted in the last 18 months. No doubt there was corrupt and inappropriate behaviour taking place, predominantly within the bureaucracy of our state education department. And it’s entirely predictable and appropriate that government would react with a raft of integrity related measures, seeking to reinforce public service values and standards of behaviour across its various departments. Well worth doing. However it will be impossible to create and sustain a culture of integrity within government departments if staff sense that there is one standard for them and another for politicians.
Should Steve Herbert be sacked? Probably not by recent standards. Should we be concerned about where those standards are today? Absolutely.
The application of Westminster standards of ministerial accountability does more than enforce discipline on those involved. It contributes to public confidence in our politicians and in politics itself. If this is diminished we are all at risk.