Whatever the New South Wales ICAC does or does not find about Gladys Berejiklian, there is a distinct possibility (or at least a decent hope) that Operation Keppel will mark the start of improved probity in the use of taxpayers’ money for political ends.
And about time. What is euphemistically called “pork barrelling” has ballooned into a multibillion-dollar cancer within Australian politics over the past half dozen years, a corruption of public trust as politicians brazenly seek to buy votes, to look after those who look after them.
If the price of turning the corner on flagrant rorting is Gladys Berejiklian’s political head, it is a price worth paying.
Along with maintaining public confidence in her government during the pandemic, helping draw a line under pork barrelling could be Ms Berejiklian’s great political legacy – not that she might like to think of it that way.
This potential resurrection of government integrity depends first on the integrity of Ms Berejiklian’s replacement as NSW Premier, Dominic Perrottet.
If Mr Perrottet was genuine last week in establishing a review by his department and the NSW Productivity Commissioner of state government grants the stage could be set to shame other jurisdictions into following his lead.
That’s if it is a real investigation that sets standards, not just another political obfuscation, a Morrison-style review.
It was another NSW Liberal Premier, Nick Greiner, who established the ICAC, Australia’s first independent anti-corruption and integrity body. It was an example followed by other states, albeit sometimes weakly.
Only the federal government has held out against having any such watchdog to keep it honest.
It is now 35 months since Scott Morrison and Christian Porter jointly proposed a Clayton’s Commonwealth Integrity Commission and there’s still no sign of the government bringing even that miserable thing before Parliament.
Two federal elections will have come and gone before there is a chance of such a body starting work – and heavens knows there is plenty of work for it to do.
Polling shows the electorate overwhelmingly wants a strong federal ICAC.
It is one of the core issues resonating with voters drawn to the independents movement. “Integrity” is second only to climate change.
The great promise of Mr Perrottet’s review is that it will be an opportunity to set clear standards of probity, transparency and equity, standards that other governments might be embarrassed not to meet.
“Taxpayers expect the distribution of funds will be fair. I share that expectation,” Mr Perrottet said when announcing the review.
“Every dollar from NSW taxpayers is important. I am committed to making sure grant programs are fair, robust and follow best practice when those dollars are put to work in the community.”
That would be a welcome change. If he is true to his word, it will mark a major break with the trend of political decay.
We have gone from Ros Kelly losing her job in the Keating government over a whiteboard and $30 million in sports rorts to several billion dollars in sundry slush funds, rorts and straight political appropriation of public money for electoral purposes with zero consequences.
No, Bridget McKenzie was not briefly sinbinned for her #sportsrorts scandal, but for a minor paperwork error back when the government cared a little about how such things looked.
Judging by the reaction of federal Finance Minister Simon Birmingham to the $660 million #carpork, the government no longer gives a damn about the optics of helping itself to public money.
Ms Berejiklian defended wholesale pork barrelling when caught with her fingers in the shredder over pre-election grants to NSW councils. “Too bad, it is what it is,” or words to that effect.
She persisted in defending “throwing money at” by-elections in the ICAC hearing.
As Mike Seccombe put it in The Saturday Paper:
“In her evidence before ICAC she made the same point, over and over, sometimes combatively, sometimes plaintively. She stressed it to the media after she left the commission: She had always acted in the best interests of the people.
“To believe such a claim, you have to believe, as Berejiklian apparently does, that the election of a Coalition government is in the best interests of the people, regardless of how much pork barrelling has to be done to achieve that result.”
The ICAC’s interest is in the disclosure of matters around that throwing of money. Mr Perrottet’s potential for great public service is in the throwing itself.
It is an opportunity to improve governance, to restore a little faith in our institutions. It could be something for a politician to be proud of.
We can only hope.