Why can politicians so easily dodge accountability for their mistakes? The troubling answer: because they can



Damian Shaw/AAP

Chris Aulich, University of Canberra

In recent days, the issue of government accountability was brought into sharp focus — again — when NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian admitted that community grants awarded primarily to councils in Coalition seats ahead of the 2019 state election was pork barrelling.

In defence, she said the practice of pork barrelling was “rightly or wrongly” normal and wasn’t illegal, and that governments of all colours engage in election spending in order “to curry favour” with the electorate.

When the premier of NSW uses as a standard of integrity that pork barrelling is “not against the law”, she shows contempt for democratic conventions and a U-turn from the views she expressed in February 2019 when introducing measures to strengthen integrity in government.

These measures included a revised code of conduct for ministers and a stern reminder to politicians that they “always remain accountable to the community”.

Ministers were once held to a higher standard

In the 1960s, the eminent scholar Roger Wettenhall argued ministers were accountable for all that occurred within their departments.

This was a recognition that even if ministerial action was not directly responsible for errors, ministers were nonetheless accountable for them. In the most serious cases, there was an expectation that ministers should resign, though in reality, few ever did.




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Ministers are not just accountable for significant errors made within their departments, but also for behaviours deemed contrary to their ministerial code of conduct. Again, conventions hold that ministers should resign if their actions are deemed dishonest, were intended to mislead parliament or the public, or brought the government into disrepute.

Many ministers have resigned over improprieties in the past. For instance, Immigration Minister Mick Young stood aside over the “Paddington Bear” issue, Jim Cairns resigned over improperly seeking overseas loans, Jamie Briggs stepped down over his “personal behaviour” and Michael MacKellar resigned over importing a colour television.

Briggs resigned as a minister in the Turnbull government.
Briggs resigned as a minister in the Turnbull government over an incident in a Hong Kong bar involving a female public servant.
MICK TSIKAS/AAP

How ministers today have dealt with scandal

But fast forward to today, and neither Richard Colbeck nor Stuart Robert have resigned over major blunders within their ministries related to aged care and the “robodebt” scandal, respectively.

This begs the question why Prime Minister Scott Morrison did not deem it sufficiently important to exact accountability from his ministers for their major mistakes, especially when these two cases cost more than a billion dollars of public funds.

It also remains unclear why minister Angus Taylor, who sent a letter to the lord mayor of Sydney making false accusations about the Sydney City Council’s travel expenses, was not asked to resign.

Taylor was forced to apologise for the letter.
Taylor was forced to apologise after the figures in his letter were proved incorrect. He says he now considers the matter ‘finalised’.
MICK TSIKAS/AAP

Similarly, the personal conduct of ministers Alan Tudge and Christian Porter has come under scrutiny thanks to an ABC Four Corners investigation, but has been dismissed by Morrison on the basis their alleged actions occurred during the watch of the previous prime minister.

And on numerous occasions, the travel allowances for ministers and MPs have been challenged, without serious repercussions. The current federal ministerial code of conduct spells out clearly that such indiscretions are not acceptable.




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What’s in the ‘public interest’? Why the ABC is right to cover allegations of inappropriate ministerial conduct


This brings us back to the issue of pork barrelling. At the federal level, minister Bridget McKenzie did resign this year over the “sports rorts” affair. The code of conduct provides that ministers allocate the funds available to them in “the public interest”. McKenzie’s view that the public interest was the same as her party’s interest was unacceptable.

This scandal has parallels with an earlier “sports rorts affair” that cost Labor minister Ros Kelly her position in 1994, as well as with the current NSW local government grants scheme with its shredded papers.

Rather than accept their accountability like McKenzie and Kelly, Berejiklian is maintaining that pork barrelling is common practice — an opinion that might well be contested by parliament and the community.

McKenzie resigned from Morrison’s ministry.
McKenzie resigned from Morrison’s ministry in February over her role in the sports rorts affair.
MICK TSIKAS/AAP

Have politicians been emboldened by their COVID successes?

Why, then, are so many current politicians willing to dodge taking accountability for their actions? The easy answer is because they can.

After all, the government conventions around accountability have no legal force. They have merely been “honoured” by politicians as part of our democratic culture – as sociologist Edgar Schein suggests, it is “the way we do things around here”.




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It seems current politicians are re-setting this democratic culture and the conventions that go along with it. Modern politicians are now very savvy in managing the press, and deft at reframing issues to their advantage.

Berejiklian gave a master class in this when she was confronted with accusations of failing to disclose an intimate relationship with disgraced former MP Daryl Maguire.

She reframed the issue as a personal one, in which she had been swept along by a romantic attachment. She argues, probably correctly, that she did nothing that was illegal. However, her actions were highly questionable from an ethical point of view.

Berejiklian has been under intense media scrutiny.
Berejiklian has been under intense scrutiny since revealing her relationship with Maguire in October.
DEAN LEWINS/AAP

Perhaps our current federal and NSW leaders have been emboldened by their successes in responding to the pandemic and are counting on this to defuse criticisms of their actions. They likely believe that issues of accountability — at least in the public mind — might pale in relation to the “big” issues of bushfires and COVID-19.

As such, ignoring accountability is seen as merely a small peccadillo.

Independents may be the key

In the broader context, voters have shown they are more willing to elect local independents, such as Helen Haines, Rebekha Sharkie and Zali Steggall at the federal level and Roy Butler, Joe McGirr and Helen Dalton in NSW, who are not seen to be in the mould of other politicians.

There is clearly a move towards candidates who place a very high value on conventional values, such as representation and integrity. And it is these members who may act as circuit breakers to stop the further corrosion of democratic conventions in our governments.

Simon Longstaff, executive director of The Ethics Centre, summed this up well when he noted

we want politicians who see engagement in public life as a vocation and not just a game. We want politicians who will speak the truth – even when it harms them to do so. We want politicians who respect us as citizens and not just as voters.

If the major parties continue to ignore accountability, perhaps the election of independents and minor parties will provide the stimulus for truth to power.The Conversation

Chris Aulich, Adjunct Professor at the University of Canberra, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Karnataka Top in Attacks on Christians in India


Through August, more violence against Christians reported in state than in any other.

NEW DELHI, September 21 (CDN) — With at least 43 incidents of anti-Christian violence, Karnataka saw more attacks on Christians in the first eight months of this year than any other state in India, according to advocacy organizations.

The figure compares with 35 attacks on churches, worship services and Christians during the same period last year in the state, which has become the center of violence against Christians. The states with the next highest incidents of anti-Christian violence from January through August this year were Andhra Pradesh with 14 and Madhya Pradesh with 11, according to figures from the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) and the All India Christian Council.

Former Chief Minister of Karnataka H.D. Kumaraswamy on Sept. 11 called on Gov. H.R. Bhardwaj to rein in abuses by the state’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government to ensure that law and order is maintained, reported the GCIC. In several districts of Karnataka during the first eight months of the year, local authorities allowed Hindu extremists to beat pastors, disrupt prayer meetings and worship services, and burn, vandalize, demolish or shut down prayer halls.

After August last year the number of violent incidents against Christians in Karnataka raced up, with a total of 112 attacks on Christians in 2008, and the Christian community fears a repeat of hostilities.

Kumaraswamy noted that a Sept. 10 attack on St. Francis De Sales Church at Hebbagudi, on the outskirts of Bangalore, came just days after Gov. Bhardwaj voiced concern over the security of minorities in the state. Armed attackers broke into the church, damaged statues and other items, smashed windows and destroyed a house behind the building, according to the Evangelical Fellowship of India. Church damages were estimated at 200,000 rupees (US$4,173).

“It is unfortunate that the government did not take any action to curb communal menace even after your caution,” Kumaraswamy wrote in a memorandum to the governor, adding that Gov. Bhardwaj was constitutionally bound to stop state security personnel from violating the law.

The former chief minister said he felt that the attack on the church, located close to the Hebbagudi police station on a busy road, reflected growing religious intolerance and tension in the state, and he criticized Home Minister V.S. Acharya for terming the attack a “minor incident.”

Archbishop of Bangalore Bernard Moras told Compass that past experience leaves him little hope for future justice.

“The state government has promised to make an immediate inquiry into the recent church attack in Hebbagudi, but nothing has been done so far, and we have no results whatsoever from the Justice B.K. Somashekar Commission of Inquiry made into church attacks last year,” he said. “Sad as it is, we feel that justice delayed is justice denied.”

Former chief minister Kumaraswamy has demanded a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe into attacks on prayer halls in the state. The leader of the opposition in the state Legislative Assembly, Siddaramaiah (who goes by a single name), has also demanded a CBI inquiry into all attacks on minorities and places of worship. The Hindu reported that he had asked state Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa to stop blaming others for the mistakes of his government.

Siddaramaiah told media on Sept. 13 that members of the Hindu extremist Sangh Parivar were involved in the attacks on churches.

“The BJP government led by B.S. Yeddyurappa has failed to take action against those involved in these incidents that created unrest in society, and now the chief minister is blaming others for the mistakes committed by his government, which has resulted in a law-and-order problem in the state,” he said.

The Hindu reported Siddaramaiah as saying that in an effort to cover up their mistakes, the chief minister and his cabinet dismissed the accusations as efforts to topple his government.

“If the chief minister has any proof to support his statements, let him hand over the issue to the CBI,” Siddaramaiah added. “The truth will be out.”

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also recently remarked that Karnataka has witnessed a number of incidents of communal violence this year.

“What is more worrisome is that the incidents were not limited to one or two districts,” Singh said in comments that Chief Minister Yedduyurappa brushed off as untrue; the chief minister referred to the violence as a “few stray incidents” that were “blown out of proportion.”

Tensions are high in the districts of Davangere, Mangalore, Bangalore, and also potentially volatile are the districts of Chickmagalur, Chitradurga, Belgaum, Tumkur, Udupi, Shimago, Bagalkot, Dharwad and Kodagu, reported the GCIC.

Chief Minister Yeddyurappa reportedly has instructed police to provide security at all religious venues and directed them to take steps to take preventative measures. City Police Commissioner Shankar Bidari has reportedly said the chief minister ordered security officers to deal sternly with those involved in incidents of religious violence.

The Bangalore Rural police on Sept. 12 reportedly handed over the investigation of the attack on St. Francis De Sales to the Criminal Investigation Department.

Attempted Anti-Conversion Law

Foremost among priorities of the Hindu nationalist BJP when it came to power in Karnataka last year was to introduce the kind of “anti-conversion” law that has provided the pretext for anti- Christian violence in other states.

Alarmed by what they said was an increase in conversions to Christianity, six prominent Hindu leaders on June 25 said that they had urged Chief Minister Yedduyurappa to introduce “anti-conversion” laws similar to those of Madhya Pradesh and Orissa, reported The Hindu. Passage of an anti-conversion bill has been left hanging, however, with negative publicity over communal violence and Christian protests against such a bill.

Such laws are designed to thwart forcible or fraudulent conversion, but they are popularly misunderstood as criminalizing conversion in general. The laws seek to curb religious conversions made by “force, fraud or allurement,” but human rights groups say they obstruct conversion generally as Hindu nationalists invoke them to harass Christians with spurious arrests and incarcerations.

Anti-conversion laws are in force in five states – Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat – and its implementation is awaited in the states of Arunachal Pradesh and Rajasthan. Several cases against Christians have been filed under various anti-conversion laws in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Orissa, but no one has been convicted in more than four decades since such laws were enacted.

Naveen Kumar of the Federation of Christian Churches and Organizations told Compass that Christians from different districts in Karnataka have come out in protest against such a bill since August of 2008. The Christians believe that the passing of an anti-conversion bill in the state would heighten atrocities against them.

Of the 52.8 million people in Karnataka, Christians number slightly more than 1 million.

Report from Compass Direct News