The government can act super-fast on integrity issues when it wants.
On Thursday a Senate estimates committee was told the government-owned Australia Post bought Cartier watches worth $3,000 each for four senior employees as rewards.
Scott Morrison said he was “appalled” – immediately the government ordered Post’s CEO Christine Holgate to stand aside (or quit entirely if she preferred) and launched an inquiry, which will report to cabinet.
But when it comes to structural reform to improve integrity, the pace has been snail’s, the slowness justified by COVID.
On any reasonable timetable parliament would be voting about now to set up a national integrity commission.
Instead, draft legislation sits in the files of Attorney-General Christian Porter. In Senate estimates this week it was confirmed he’s had it since December last year.
The government was not inclined to conduct the necessary detailed consultations during the pandemic, Porter told parliament. Morrison said he wasn’t having a single public servant diverted from COVID.
Now COVID is more or less under control, and Morrison this week indicated to the Coalition parties he intends to run full term – that is, into early 2022.
So he has all next year to get this commission legislated and ready to start, assuming he really wants to.
He’d prefer not to be going down this path. The Coalition has been cornered by the politics into committing to a commission. Even Labor, which has become a passionate advocate, didn’t see the need for a federal body until recent years.
The New South Wales’s ICAC hearings about disgraced former state Liberal MP Daryl Maguire and premier Gladys Berejiklian have reignited the debate about integrity and a federal body.
More directly, a recent report from the federal Auditor-General exposed that the Commonwealth paid $30 million for a parcel of land later valued at only $3 million, near Badgerys Creek, site for Sydney’s second airport.
The sale, now being investigated by the police, didn’t reach ministerial level.
But the other major scandal uncovered by the Audit Office this year had a minister at its core. “Sports rorts” claimed the scalp of Nationals’ Bridget McKenzie, though Morrison forced her out on a technicality and never admitted the political rorting.
Issues of accountability and transparency tend to be “nerdy” except when they break into spectacular headlines. But they’re at the heart of achieving good government.
Ministerial standards in practice vary from time to time but federally they’re lower than they used to be (for example in periods of the Fraser and Hawke governments and the first days of the Howard government). The inclination of governments is to hang onto ministers, however compromised. McKenzie was only chopped when it was politically impossible to sustain her.
The top of the public service has also become increasingly politicised, reducing the checks in the system. On the other hand, Senate estimates hearings have proved themselves invaluable forums to mine information that’s embarrassing or worse, as we saw again this week.
Though the government says it is committed to an integrity commission, it has blunted its proposed teeth, so far as they would apply to politicians, their staff and public servants.
The commission would have a law enforcement division and a public sector division – the latter (which we are concerned with here) covering federal parliamentarians, staffers and bureaucrats.
While Porter says its powers would be “greater than a royal commission” the hearings in this division would be in secret. Those who favour secrecy argue it is necessary to avoid the “kangaroo court” aspect of ICAC; others believe open hearings are in the public interest and the threat of them can be a deterrent.
Crossbenchers have been strong proponents of integrity measures.
On Monday Helen Haines, independent member for Indi, will introduce her private member’s bill for an integrity body; she describes it as “a consensus bill with strong safeguards”.
Senate independent Rex Patrick (formerly of Centre Alliance) says the pandemic is no excuse for the government failing to table its draft legislation immediately.
“They haven’t progressed it fast enough”, he says. “Their heart isn’t in it. They are trying to hide behind COVID.”
Patrick believes the commission should be able to hold open hearings at the discretion of the commissioner. But, he says, a threshold should be met before people’s names become public.
If anyone needed evidence of the Morrison’s government’s lack of enthusiasm for scrutiny bodies, they’ve only to consider the treatment of the Audit Office in this month’s budget.
The office unsuccessfully sought $6.3 million extra funding for 2020-21. Its finances are complicated – the best measure of what is happening to it is actually how much work it can do.
Its target is 48 performance audits a year. Auditor-General Grant Hehir told Senate estimates: “We are forecasting that in 2020-21 we will produce 42 audits, falling to 40 in the following year, and then, by 2022-23, down to 38”.
In what might be less-than-welcome news for the government, Hehir noted in the Office’s annual report that its program in the longer term “will need to address the delivery of the intended outcomes of the COVID-19 response, including at a macro level, and we will plan for audits of recovery programs”.
Given the Coalition’s attacks on Labor’s programs responding to the global financial crisis, it will be interesting to see how its programs fare under forensic scrutiny.
Labor’s Julian Hill, deputy chair of the parliamentary joint standing committee of public accounts and audit, accuses both that committee (which receives the Office’s draft budget estimates) and Morrison of failing to stand up for the Office.
He claims the government has cut the Office’s funds in “revenge” for it exposing sports rorts, the Badgerys Creek land deal and defence spending blowouts.
Hill proposes changes to strengthen the independence of the Auditor-General – who is already an “officer of the parliament” but sits within the Prime Minister’s department administratively and has to look to the PM to support budget pitches.
The Audit Office deserves a big shout-out this year. But it can’t fill the gap that exists because of the absence of an integrity commission.
Surely the government can only dally on that for so long, shielded by COVID.
If any other Australian leader had given the sort of evidence Gladys Berejiklian did to the Independent Commission Against Corruption on Monday, they’d probably have been out of their position by the end of the day.
The NSW premier was protected, in the immediate term, in part because the disclosures about her five-year secret relationship with the disgraced former Liberal MP Daryl Maguire seemed so bizarrely out of character with her unsullied past and apparent conservatism in her private life.
Also, she has been a highly competent premier, especially during COVID. The pandemic fireproofed her.
Her political performance this year is certainly one reason the prime minister is standing with her. As Scott Morrison has said repeatedly, NSW has set the “gold standard” during the coronavirus crisis.
But Berejiklian’s personal and political reputation should not obscure the seriousness of her actions, or rather her inactions, in relation to Maguire.
She didn’t just make a bad judgment about a sub-optimal boyfriend which can be written off as having “stuffed up” her personal life. She made a series of decisions that were inappropriate.
When in 2015 she changed the nature of her relationship with the then member for Wagga Wagga from friendship to a “close personal” one, she failed to disclose this to colleagues.
Her supporters say her private life was no one else’s business. If her relationship had been with the plumber down the street who was unconnected with government, that would be absolutely correct. It’s another matter when those involved are a senior minister, who then became premier, and one of her party’s MPs.
The premier could affect the fortunes of the MP; the MP could use the relationship, even if undeclared, to further his own interests by suggesting he could deliver access.
As Berejiklian has said, there is nothing wrong per se with two members of parliament having a personal relationship. But, given the position of one of them, in this case it should have been put on the record – at least to cabinet colleagues.
When Maguire fell foul of ICAC in 2018, Berejiklian should have belatedly admitted to the relationship, informing senior colleagues, so there would be no time bombs. Certainly she should immediately have broken off the connection with Maguire, rather than continue it until this year, when he was back in ICAC’s sights.
Most compromising, however, is the material captured by phone taps of Maguire’s conversations with Berejiklian.
Maguire told her of his lobbying for developers. The activities referred to might not have been illegal – Berejiklian makes the point MPs are allowed to engage in business – but for any premier they would be very uncomfortable.
Berejiklian certainly seemed uncomfortable and on two occasions said “I don’t need to know”.
She explains her apparent dismissiveness of what Maguire was saying as boredom with his big-noting. It sounded, however, more like she did not want him to give her information she preferred not to receive. She had a deaf ear to clues she should have picked up.
Imagine the reaction if Morrison had given such evidence, or been embarrassed by such tapes. People would not be looking for reasons to excuse him.
The line that everyone makes mistakes in their private life – “people have all made personal decisions I’m sure they regret, that’s human”, Morrison says – won’t wash.
Berejiklian can be forgiven for initially being taken in by Maguire. But persisting with the relationship after he was found out is surely harder, if not impossible, to justify, regardless of her explanation he was in a “very dark place”. After all, she removed him from the Liberal Party and pushed for his resignation from parliament in 2018.
To maintain that different, tougher standards are applied to women leaders may often be true, but it doesn’t fit this instance. If anything she is being given a softer run.
Morrison has said “it would be a bit of a numpty of a decision” to replace her.
Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull praised her integrity and said: “Her leadership of this state has been tried and tested in the toughest circumstances this year, from the bush fires to now the pandemic and she has excelled.” And, he pointed out, “Let’s be frank – leaders of her calibre are not easily found.”
If the point is that the alternatives on offer – and it is not clear who would become leader if she went – wouldn’t do as good a job, that might be a valid argument on strictly utilitarian grounds (although if she survives, this scandal will make it much more difficult for her to govern effectively).
When you compare the way the NSW and Victorian governments have handled the pandemic, NSW has been way ahead (the Ruby Princess debacle notwithstanding).
Yes, she would be hard to replace. But this should not be confused with a clear-eyed view about the ethical shortcomings in her behaviour over Maguire.
In recent decades we’ve seen declining trust in political institutions. The pandemic has led people to reattach to these institutions and all Australian leaders – Morrison and the premiers – saw their ratings rise.
What we don’t yet know is whether trust in general will again plummet when the pandemic subsides.
If politicians seem to be holding their noses when there’s the whiff of impropriety or corruption in the air, they are trifling with the public’s trust in them and in the political system. They are treating the electorate with disdain.
The ICAC hearings this week have reinforced the case for a federal integrity body. But the reactions of Liberal politicians show why they want it to be relatively toothless.
It is not being suggested Berejiklian, whose leadership hangs by a thread, has personally engaged in wrongdoing; her appearance at ICAC was as a witness in an investigation into Maguire’s alleged wrongdoing.
But on what we have heard this week, she has fallen short of the standards that should be expected of a premier. Federal and state colleagues who are defending her are being tribal or expedient or both.
New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian has become ensnared this week in the sensational ICAC hearings into alleged corruption by former MP Daryl Maguire — and suddenly finds her future very much in doubt.
In yesterday’s hearing, Maguire admitted to using his parliamentary office and resources to conduct private business dealings, including receiving thousands of dollars in cash as part of a visa scam.
Meanwhile, Berejiklian, who has denied any wrongdoing by maintaining a personal relationship with Maguire even after he was forced to resign as MP, has faced calls from the Opposition for her to resign.
Whether Berejiklian will be forced to step down remains to be seen. But it’s becoming clearer by the day that, at the very least, her reputation will be seriously tarnished by the explosive revelations.
Berejiklian is hardly the first NSW politician to become enmeshed in scandal.
Corruption has been ingrained in the political culture of NSW, from the days of its founding in the 19th century. This is the very reason the Independent Commission Against Corruption was formed in 1988 — and why it remains a vital watchdog over the inner workings of state government.
A corrupt old town
With a fully elected parliament and premier, however, things changed. And democratic politics attracted corruption from the beginning.
Historian John Hirst said that after 1856,
to conservatives it appeared as if the government had been debased into a giant system of corruption with needy ministers and members bound together by their joint interest in plunder.
Politics then (and now) was a honey pot: needy, greedy ministers and MPs were always looking to benefit from public works, jobs, development and government contracts, as well as through the manipulation of the criminal justice system.
NSW has also always had a sleazy subterranean network of fixers and door-openers who could influence decisions for the right price.
Sydney has traditionally been thought of as a corrupt old town. Whether this was because of its buccaneering origins in the convict era or because it was where all the action took place has long been an open question.
A few of NSW’s not-so-finer moments
The colony’s early days set the stage for a long history of political and public corruption. Among the more notable episodes:
a royal commission in 1905 revealed Lands Minister Paddy Crick had been involved in large-scale extortion and corruption, leading to his resignation
the corrupt dealings of Agriculture Minister WC Grahame led to his resignation in 1920
the 1951 Maxwell Royal Commission revealed widespread police involvement in corruption and the “sly grog” trade
the term of Liberal Premier Bob Askin (1965–75) saw rampant corruption at the highest levels of politics and the police
during Labor Premier Neville Wran’s time in office (1976–86), the corrective services minister and chief magistrate were tried and subsequently imprisoned for corruption
and in the late 1990s, the Wood Royal Commission revealed entrenched, systemic corruption in the police force.
ICAC is formed — and then brings down its founder
In response to the storm of corruption allegations in the Wran years, Liberal Premier Nick Greiner created the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC). The new body had wide powers, a broad anti-corruption brief and iron-clad independence.
Ironically, Greiner was an early victim of the new body. In 1992, it found him guilty of corruption for appointing renegade Liberal MP Terry Metherell to a senior public service position to allow the government to regain his safe seat.
The finding was overturned by the courts on appeal and most today would agree that Greiner had acted corruptly in only a technical sense. (He had not benefited personally and in the pre-ICAC era, this would have been seen as an astute bit of politics.)
Greiner’s downfall was a vivid indication of the seismic shift that had taken place in NSW politics to try and rid the state of corruption.
The previous “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” era of political favours was gone. A problem could no longer be fixed with the right contacts and right sum of money, and turning a blind eye to improper behaviour by “mates” was no longer acceptable.
Everyone in the public sector was on notice that corrupt dealings would be investigated and punished and offenders publicly shamed.
ICAC itself comes under scrutiny
In 2012-13, ICAC investigations exposed former minister and power-broker Eddie Obeid’s extraordinary influence on the Labor governments of Morris Iemma and Kristina Keneally and the insidious tentacles of the Obeid family’s covert business empire.
Then, in 2014, Liberal Premier Barry O’Farrell resigned after falsely denying to ICAC he had received a bottle of expensive wine from an associate of Obeid’s, who was lobbying for a valuable government contract.
O’Farrell admitted to a massive failure of memory but was cleared of any wrongdoing by ICAC. Nonetheless, he took the honourable course and resigned.
In recent years, ICAC itself has come under scrutiny. In 2015, it was accused of overreach, particularly in its pursuit of Deputy Chief Crown Prosecutor Margaret Cunneen.
David Levine, ICAC’s inspector and a former judge, harshly criticised the commission’s investigation of Cunneen, calling it “unjust, unreasonable and oppressive”.
Reforms are brought in, but are they enough?
As a result, ICAC was restructured in 2016. The existing single commissioner was replaced by a panel of three — a full-time chief commissioner and two part-time ones.
A decision to proceed to a compulsory examination or public inquiry needed majority approval of the three commissioners. More emphasis was placed on procedural fairness in inquiries.
And the highly respected Supreme Court judge Peter Hall replaced Megan Latham as chief commissioner in August 2017.
Levine had also proposed abolishing public inquiries, which he said had resulted in the undeserved trashing of reputations.
He recommended an exoneration protocol for those who had a finding of corrupt conduct made against them but were acquitted in court, and judicial review of ICAC decisions.
These recommendations were rejected at the time, but they may be worth reconsidering — particularly if the inquiry into Maguire’s actions unfairly jeopardises Berejiklian’s premiership.
In recent months, two investigations by The Age and the Nine Network have revealed allegations of branch stacking in the Victorian divisions of the Labor and Liberal parties. The scandals saw ministers and powerbrokers resign and investigations launched.
But what is branch stacking? At its most basic level, it involves recruiting members to a political party who have no genuine interest in supporting the principles or participating in the activities of that party. It can involve paying new recruits membership fees, falsely reporting addresses and recruiting people who don’t know they are even joining a political party.
By increasing the number of members in a given branch, the “stacker” can manipulate party decisions about candidate pre-selection and its internal governance bodies. These organs control the rules about how the party selects candidates, resolves disputes and governs its internal affairs.
As political scientist Anika Gauja explained, one way to reduce branch stacking might be to adopt the Queensland model of electoral commission oversight. By shifting responsibility and compliance to a third party, this could reduce the incentive structure for party operatives.
But branch stacking raises two broader questions about the health of our political parties and the way our political system operates.
Our parties aren’t as healthy or representative as they could be
The first is philosophical. It relates to why branch stacking is a problem for political parties in the first place — and it’s not just that it violates the parties’ own rules.
Australian parties claim to be democratic institutions that represent popular opinion, albeit shaped by specific political values and principles. In this way, they claim to be a vital democratic link between citizens and the elected elites who govern us, rather than a narrow group of power-seeking individuals. This is key to their claims of legitimacy.
Branch stacking undermines this claim, because it shows the selection of candidates is not always based on democratic principles, merit or representation.
Are the candidates who win the right to represent parties in government a true reflection of the values of the voters? It becomes harder to argue this point if the only way representatives got into power is because they ingratiated themselves with the right power-broker.
The second question goes to the health of political parties. Australian parties have very low rates of membership (less than 2% of the population). Moreover, they are not required to publish membership numbers, despite receiving public funding.
As the recent branch stacking scandals demonstrate, manipulating party membership numbers and votes is far easier in institutions that have scant members in the first place. In small branches that are poorly attended, it only takes a few new recruits to shift outcomes.
Better ways to bring citizens into government
While parties can take steps to try to boost membership and internal party democracy by giving members a greater say in selecting candidates, leaders and policies, it may also be time to consider system-wide institutional reforms.
With interest in joining political parties so low, placing the entire burden on parties to ensure robust democratic representation may be too much to ask.
There are multiple options that could help fix the current system. Some include increasing the overall size of parliament, creating more opportunities for people to run for office, or modifying the voting system to be more favourable to minority candidates.
Expanding the size of parliament can bring new opportunities for different types of representation, such as deliberative forums. This style of forum involves the recruitment of ordinary citizens to consider a specific problem facing society with the assistance of balanced, expert advice.
Citizens are given the opportunity to discuss and deliberate issues, potentially changing their minds. It was precisely this process that saw the historic removal of abortion laws in Ireland.
Another option is to select a portion of our representatives by democratic sortition.
Sortition involves the selection of representatives by lottery, similar to jury duty. The advantage of sortition is that it is random and more likely to recruit from across the community.
Given this, careful consideration would need to be given to the exact number of members drawn by lot and how long we might expect citizens’ recruited this way to serve in parliament, given the disruption this may cause to their lives. Such a system could be combined with the methods of party-based selection that we use today.
No magic bullet, but clear alternatives
To be clear, political parties remain important institutions in our democracy and are likely to persist for some time to come. Further, none of these measures outlined above would be a magic bullet.
In fact, any of these suggested alternatives involve trade-offs, but they would all change our current structure which encourages recruitment of professionalised politicians from narrowing groups.
Ultimately, what the alternatives do offer is a chance to reconsider how we bring ordinary Australians into the political system again and to encourage a debate about what we want representation to look like in the 21st century in order to best renew our democracy.
Malaysians are rejoicing the news this week that former Prime Minister Najib Razak has been found guilty on seven charges related to corruption and abuse of power, and sentenced to 12 years in prison.
Many people want to see him (and his wife) jailed for the 1MDB financial scam, in which billions of dollars went missing from a government investment fund. Whether Najib will eventually end up in jail, though, is unclear. He will next file an appeal and the process could take more than a year to play out.
But there is a bigger question not being addressed in Malaysia. Does this verdict represents a watershed moment in Malaysian politics? Will Malaysian politics, or more precisely Malay politics, fundamentally change as a result of this monumental victory against corruption?
I would argue no.
A system built on Malay supremacy and discrimination
At its core is the belief Malaysia is Tanah Melayu (Land of the Malays) and ethnic Malays are the true indigenous people. As such, even though at least one-third of Malaysia’s population are non-Malays, Malays must be first in every facet of Malaysian life — from politics to government to religion to culture.
This philosophy has been institutionalised since 1971 under the government’s New Economic Policy (NEP). The NEP dictates that bumiputera (the official term for indigenous Malays) are given preference in all socio-economic spheres, including entry to the civil service, quotas in university intake, mandatory shareholdings in listed companies and exclusive business licences.
You can even get a 7-15% discount for buying a new house under the “bumi discount”, in addition to the government’s bumi quota for new properties.
In the religious sphere, Islam is widely considered the official religion of Malaysia, even though it accounts for just 61% of the population. In practice, this means people of other faiths are faced with discrimination and stringent restrictions.
For example, it is a legal offence for anyone to proselytise Muslims, but not the other way around. In fact, there is no legal mechanism for a Muslim to leave Islam. If one is born an ethnic Malay, the constitution defines that person as Muslim. As a result, many Muslims, especially the younger ones, believe Islam is superior to all other religions.
In February, the Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) government fell, just two years after wresting control of the country from the Barisan Nasional, which had ruled Malaysia since independence.
The new Perikatan Nasional (PN) government that came into power in March was unashamedly “Malay First”, with Ketuanan Melayu Islam at its core.
So, what’s this got to do with the Najib verdict?
The short answer is the Najib verdict will not be allowed by the PN government to be a catalyst for real reforms or a reset of the Malaysian political system.
As long as the governing system is built on the notion of racial and religious superiority and discrimination, Najib’s verdict will be seen by the Malay elite as a story of personal greed rather than a failure of the system that allowed Najib to carry out the 1MDB scam.
The Malay elite wants to keep the current system because it allows them to wield power in the name of Ketuanan Melayu Islam and reap the economic benefits.
More importantly, it allows the Malay elite to stay in power by divide-and-rule over Malaysia’s plural population. The divide-and-rule policy (or divide and conquer) was set up by the British colonial rulers to maintain their control. The policy ensured each ethnic and political group did not cooperate with other groups to challenge the British authorities.
Is it any wonder the Malay elites are still using the same methods today?
Another important point to remember is the current system ignores the basic rules of economics. By setting up a system based on racial preferences, market forces are often ignored in economic policies in the name of “Malay share”.
Thus, anyone questioning shady deals involving the government are told to shut up as the normal rules do not apply to what is often referred to as the “Malay agenda”.
Najib was able to hide the 1MDB scandal for so many years precisely because nobody dared to question him. He claimed 1MDB was a Malaysian sovereign wealth fund and everyone in government understood it to mean a way of supporting the “Malay agenda”.
Khazanah Nasional, the real sovereign wealth fund, is tasked with ensuring the Malay stake in the economy, so it is not unreasonable for people to assume 1MDB was doing the same.
Najib’s guilty verdict will not bring even an iota of change to the country’s political and economic system. What is needed in Malaysia is the abandonment of the racist Ketuanan Melayu Islam ideology.
When Russians voted in early July on 200 constitutional amendments, officials rigged the election to create the illusion that President Vladimir Putin remains a popular and powerful leader after 20 years in office.
In reality, he increasingly relies on manipulation and state repression to maintain his presidency. Most Russians know that, and the world is catching up.
At the center of the changes were new rules to allow Putin to evade term limits and serve two additional terms, extending his tenure until 2036. According to official results, Putin’s regime secured an astounding victory, winning 78% support for the constitutional reform, with 64% turnout. The Kremlin hailed the national vote as confirmation of popular trust in Putin.
The vote was purely symbolic. The law governing constitutional change does not require a popular vote. By March 2020, the national legislature, Constitutional Court and Russia’s 85 regional legislatures had voted to enact the proposed amendments.
Yet, the president insisted on a show of popular support and national unity to endorse the legal process.
The Kremlin’s goal was to make Putin’s 2024 reelection appear inevitable. Given the stakes, the outcome was never in doubt – but it did little to resolve uncertainty over Russia’s future.
Declining social support
Why hold a vote if a vote isn’t needed?
As a scholar of Russian electoral competition, I see the constitutional vote as a first step in an effort to prolong Putin’s 20-year tenure as the national leader. The Kremlin’s success defined the legal path to reelection and the strategy for securing an electoral majority in the face of popular opposition.
Its effect on societal attitudes is less clear. A recent poll by the independent polling organization the Levada Center showed that while 52% of respondents supported Putin’s reelection, 44% opposed. At the same time, 59% want to introduce a 70-year-old age cap for presidential candidates. This change would bar the 68-year-old president from running again.
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The government’s disorganized and weak response to COVID-19 highlighted the inefficient and corrupt system and produced an unprecedented drop in Putin’s public approval ratings.
Growing signs of popular discontent in Russia suggest this polling data underestimates demand for change. Local protest against pollution, trash incineration and state reforms continue to grow across the Federation. Focus group data reveals that ordinary Russians are concerned about state repression and civil rights violations.
In the leadup to the constitutional vote, internet influencers read the public mood and refused payments for their endorsement, fearing a backlash from followers and advertisers.
A new Putin majority
Declining popular support highlights the difficulty of building a new voting coalition. Manufacturing a demonstration of national unity was the first step in reinventing Putin’s links to core supporters in the runup to the next national election cycle.
By 2012, Putin’s first coalition, forged in the economic recovery of the early 2000s, was eroded by chronic economic stagnation punctuated by crisis.
In the mid-2010s, Putin’s new majority was based on aggressive foreign policy actions. That coalition declined, as conflicts in Ukraine and Syria dragged on, and public support for expensive foreign policy adventures decreased.
The constitutional vote marks Putin’s third attempt to reconstruct electoral support rooted in patriotism, conservative values and state paternalism that echoes the Soviet era.
Fixing the vote
The constitutional reform campaign focused on state benefits rather than the Putin presidency.
Putin offered something for everyone in the 200 amendments.
As an antidote to unpopular pension reforms, a new provision guarantees pensioners annual adjustments linked to inflation. Other amendments codified existing policies guaranteeing housing and a minimum wage. New clauses codify Putin’s version of conservative values, with measures that add a reference to God, a prohibition against same-sex marriage and support for patriotic education. Other provisions take aim at corruption, by prohibiting state officials from holding offshore accounts.
A massive PR campaign framed starkly different appeals to different voter groups. For those concerned with international security, ads depicted apocalyptic visions of Russia’s future after a NATO invasion. For younger voters, appeals depicted happy families voting to support a bright future.
State television featured supportive cultural icons and artists, including Patriarch Kirill, who is the head of the Russian Orthodox Church. Putin himself argued that participation was a patriotic duty. No one mentioned the controversial loophole that would allow Putin to run again.
The campaign foretold the outcome: The regime would stop at nothing to secure success. Officials coerced employees of government agencies and large businesses to turn out. Voters were offered prizes, food and chances to win new housing and cash for participating.
Ostensibly in response to COVID-19, the Electoral Commission altered voting procedures to evade observation, developing a flawed online voting system and creating mobile polling stations in parks, airports and outside apartment blocks. There is overwhelming evidence that the Kremlin resorted to falsification to produce the desired outcome.
Most Russians understand that the manufactured outcome does not accurately reflect attitudes about Putin’s reelection.
Limits of disinformation
There is growing evidence that the public is no longer persuaded by disinformation and political theater such as the rigged constitutional vote. Trust in state media, the president and the government are declining precipitously.
The realities of sustained economic stagnation and the Kremlin’s anemic response to COVID-19 stand in sharp contrast to its all-out approach to the symbolic national vote. It can rig a vote, but it can’t control a virus.
The Kremlin’s pandemic response raises doubts about its ability to fulfill new constitutional mandates. Widely publicized efforts to reform the Soviet-era health care system still left hospitals unprepared to manage the pandemic. The state proved incapable of delivering bonuses to first responders and medical workers. The Kremlin refused to use its substantial emergency fund to support entrepreneurs, families with children and the unemployed.
Given these realities, upcoming elections will test the illusion of a new pro-Putin majority defined by this rigged vote. And if the voters abandon Putin, the new Constitution provides a final path to remain in office: the unelected chairmanship of the powerful new State Council.
The corruption trial of Najib Tun Razak, the former prime minister of Malaysia, has finally begun following two postponements and an attempt on the opening day of the trial for a third. Many Malaysians were starting to wonder if Najib would ever get his day in court.
Najib’s lawyers have used every legal manoeuvre at their disposal to try to delay the trial as long as possible. These tactics verged on the ridiculous a month ago when Najib’s main lawyer claimed his pet dog had injured his wrist. The move worked – the former PM was granted another reprieve.
The trial over Najib’s role in a financial scam involving Malaysia’s 1MDB sovereign wealth fund will certainly not proceed smoothly, and the defence is sure to file new objections to higher courts to try to stop it again.
The reason Najib wants the trial delayed is simple: if he is found guilty, it will have a major impact on other upcoming trials.
His wife is also charged with money-laundering in connection with the scandal. (She’s accused of splurging on designer clothes and handbags during million-dollar shopping trips.) If Najib is found guilty, this would undoubtedly strengthen the case against her. Several ministers who served under Najib have also been charged with corruption.
Najib himself also faces several other trials related to the 1MDB scandal. For the government, the current trial is by far the simplest and easiest to prosecute. It involves 42 million Malaysian ringgit (A$14.5 million) that made its way from SRC International, a former unit of 1MDB, to Najib’s personal account. All these transactions occurred in Malaysia, unlike the other cases, which involve international transactions and multiple jurisdictions. The paper trial for this trial is straightforward.
Najib has pleaded not guilty to all charges and claimed the money in his accounts did not come from SRC International.
If Najib is found guilty, he will automatically lose his seat in parliament and face possible jail time. Being an MP gives him the platform to influence politics and say anything he likes against the current government, led by his political rival, Mahathir bin Mohamad.
Najib is already working on his political comeback – part of the strategy is to maintain a high profile as an MP through social media.
How Malaysians are viewing the trial
Many Malaysians want the trial to proceed without any more interruptions, because it would show the accountability process is finally working in Malaysia. Najib and his government were ousted from power in last year’s election because voters wanted the PM (and his wife) to face trial over the corruption allegations. Previously, it was understood that if you held a high political office, you were likely to get away with corruption.
If Najib isn’t convicted, many will likely wonder if there was any point to the change in power. The new government knows this and must deliver a credible trial. There is no other political option.
If Najib and his expensive lawyers are able to continue delaying the trial, Malaysians may start to lose faith with the new administration. Mahathir has publicly pledged to jail Najib for corruption before he hands over power next year to party leader Anwar Ibrahim, and if he cannot deliver on this, it will damage his successor’s political capital.
Najib may even try to delay his trials until after the next election, due in 2023, so he can continue to mount his political comeback.
Far more important for Malaysia, however, is the issue of political immunity. No previous leader has ever been charged with corruption and it is vitally important the rule of law is applied here for future generations.
This has regional implications, as well. Many activists in countries such as Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand see the Najib trial as a benchmark for tackling corruption in their own countries.
In many Southeast Asian countries, a culture of impunity persists at the highest levels of government. There is a belief among many political leaders that once they leave office, the sins they committed while in power will not lead to jail. It is as if this is one of the benefits of being elected to office.
In the coming days, expect more delay tactics by Najib’s defence team. The case might even be halted again due to a legal challenge on a point of law.
But given the stakes involved, I have no doubt the new Malaysian Attorney-General, Tommy Thomas, will make sure Najib’s trial goes ahead. Malaysia as a nation cannot have closure over the 1MDB affair until he is called to answer for his alleged crimes.
The federal government has announced it will establish a Commonwealth Integrity Commission. This new commission will be the peak body to detect and investigate corrupt and criminal behaviour by Commonwealth employees.
This announcement followed mounting pressure from Labor, the Greens and independent MPs, who argued that a national integrity commission was vital to rebuild trust in Australian democracy.
On November 26, independent MP Cathy McGowan introduced a private member’s bill for the introduction of a national integrity commission, further increasing the pressure on the government.
All Australian states have anti-corruption commissions, and the federal government is lagging behind in this area.
Why do we need this commission?
The case for a national integrity commission is strong.
Australia has fallen steadily in Transparency International’s global corruption index, from eighth place in 2012 to 13th this year.
More alarming is the fact that one in 20 Australian public servants said in a survey last year that they had seen a colleague acting in a corrupt manner. This figure has doubled in the past three years.
Moreover, a Griffith University survey has found strong public support for a national integrity commission, with two-thirds (67%) of Australians in favour of one.
What will the commission look like?
The commission will be an independent statutory agency led by a commissioner and two deputy commissioners. It will have two divisions: a public sector division and a law enforcement integrity division.
The Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity will be reconstituted as the law enforcement integrity division with an expanded jurisdiction. But its jurisdiction will be limited to certain departments and agencies dealing with law enforcement and those that have coercive powers, such as the Australian Securities and Investments Commission.
The public sector integrity division has a broader coverage. It includes public service departments and agencies, parliamentary departments, statutory agencies, Commonwealth companies and corporations, Commonwealth service providers and any subcontractors they engage, as well as parliamentarians and their staff.
Is the proposed model adequate?
The proposed model is a watered-down version of an anti-corruption commission, with limited powers.
The Commonwealth Integrity Commission will have the power to conduct public hearings only through its law enforcement division.
Conversely, the public sector integrity division with the broader remit will not have the power to make public findings of corruption. Instead, it will be tasked with investigating and referring potential criminal conduct to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions.
This is a far more limited jurisdiction compared to its equivalent state counterparts, such as the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), which has the ability to conduct public hearings and make findings of corruption in the public sector.
Although it is envisaged that the Commonwealth Integrity Commission will play a role in preventing corruption, this model lacks a dedicated corruption prevention division. This is a pro-integrity function that monitors major corruption risks across all sectors.
There are also other activities that do not amount to corruption, but nevertheless show an undue influence on government. Ideally, a federal anti-corruption commission should sit alongside a broader package of reforms that impose stronger rules on lobbying and political donations, as well as a code of conduct for MPs, policed by an independent commissioner.
This would form an interlocking political integrity system that would keep politicians honest.
The government is taking submissions on the proposed model for the Commonwealth Integrity Commission.
It is commendable that the government is finally taking action on anti-corruption measures. However, it is important to get the model right. The proposed model is an improvement on the status quo of patchwork regulation, but does not go far enough to properly investigate corruption in federal government.
The government has given in to pressure to set up a new Commonwealth
Integrity Commission but its operation would be strictly
circumscribed, without the ability to hold public hearings into
allegations of corruption against politicians.
While the new organisation would be the lead body in Australia’s
multi-agency anti-corruption framework, Scott Morrison stressed the
government had learned the lessons of “failed experiments” at state
“I have no interest in establishing kangaroo courts that, frankly,
have been used, sadly, too often for the pursuit of political,
commercial or bureaucratic agendas in the public space”, he told a
joint news conference with Attorney-General Christian Porter.
The announcement comes after crossbench pressure in the final sitting
of parliament for a new federal anti-corruption body, which had
earlier been promised by the opposition. Morrison said the government
had been working on the issue since January.
Opposition leader Bill Shorten slammed the proposed body as “not a
fair dinkum anti-corruption commission”. It would be limited in scope
and power and have no transparency.
Also – given it would not be able to investigate matters
retrospectively – “Mr Morrison should explain to the Australian people
why he wants to set up a national anti-corruption commission which
curiously exempts himself and the current government from any
Morrison and Porter said in a statement that the CIC, an independent
statutory agency, would be headed by a commissioner and two deputy
commissioners, and have public sector and law enforcement integrity
“The public sector integrity division will cover departments, agencies
and their staff, parliamentarians, and their staff, staff of federal
judicial officers, and subject to consultation judicial officers
themselves, as well as contractors.”
The Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity would be
reconstituted as the law enforcement integrity division. It would have
an expanded jurisdiction to also include the Australian Competition
and Consumer Commission, the Australian Prudential Regulation
Authority, the Australian Securities and Investment, the Australian
Taxation Office, and the whole of the Agriculture Department.
Both divisions would investigate allegations of criminal corruption.
The criminal law would be amended to add new corruption offences.
The CIC would have the power to conduct public hearings only through
its law enforcement division.
The public sector integrity division would not be able to make public
findings but would investigate potential criminal conduct and refer
matters to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions.
The government outline of its proposed operation says “it will only
investigate criminal offences, and will not make findings of
corruption at large.
“It will not make findings of corruption (or other criminal
offending). Findings of corruption will be a matter for the courts to
determine, according to the relevant criminal offence. This addresses
one of the key flaws in various state anti-corruption bodies, being
that findings of corruption can be made at large without having to
follow fundamental justice processes.”
The CIC’s investigatory role is to “complement” the work of the
Australian federal Police. “The AFP will retain its role in
investigating criminal corruption outside of the public sector, and
could cooperate with or take over investigations on referral by the
CIC where appropriate”.
The public sector division “will focus on the investigation of serious
or systemic corrupt conduct, rather than looking into issues of
misconduct or non-compliance under various codes of conduct”.
Independent Andrew Wilkie said the proposal was “fundamentally flawed
and entirely unacceptable.”
“For example the public sector integrity division, which will
investigate parliamentarians and their staff, can only investigate a
specific set of criminal offences and can’t make findings of
corruption, which is just bizarre.
“Moreover an MP can only be referred by a particular agency and
there’s no way for the public to refer someone – and there’ll be no
public hearings at all meaning the Commission will operate behind
Crossbencher Kerryn Phelps tweeted “I can’t speak for the entire
crossbench but I certainly won’t be supporting any proposal that fails
to result in adequate transparency and proper investigative powers”.