By Nick O’Malley

Late last month the writer E. Jean Carroll published a detailed account of her rape in a New York department store by Donald Trump in 2005 or 2006. President Trump denied the allegation, explaining that Carroll was not his “type”.

America’s media shrugged and moved on, following the President to the G20 meeting in Osaka where he met with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (or MbS as he is affectionately known in the West). The Prince, according to the CIA, last October had a Washington Post columnist, Jamal Khashoggi, murdered in a basement. “It’s an honour to be with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, a friend of mine, a man who has really done things in the last five years in terms of opening up Saudi Arabia,” Trump said before the two sat down to breakfast.

With the G20 wrapped up Trump popped over to Seoul for a quick “grip and grin” on the border with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un before returning to America where his name was soon again linked to that of the financier Jeffrey Epstein, accused of recruiting, trafficking and assaulting dozens of girls.

“I’ve known Jeff for 15 years. Terrific guy,” Trump, who is now distancing himself from Epstein, once told New York magazine. “He’s a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side. No doubt about it – Jeffrey enjoys his social life.”

Malefaction by Australian politicians may lack the gaudy operatic quality of that practiced in Washington, DC, at present, or the alleged vile brutality of Salman, but the constant shocks to our collective sense of decency – and the insults to our intelligence – are having a measurable and destructive impact on our democracy, says Hannah Aulby, the Executive Director of a new Australian think tank, the Centre for Public Integrity.

She says voters view their leadership and political culture in a global context, and the collapse of standards of public integrity around the world is undermining the faith Australians have in their own democracy. This is being exacerbated, she says, by the reluctance of Australian politicians to raise – and police – their own standards.

We are living through a period in which it seems there is no penalty for public malfeasance, and the sense of hopelessness is eroding our democracy.

Scott Morrison’s return from the G20 was not nearly so colourful as Trump’s. While in Japan he too had met with MbS, the cost of doing business these days. On arrival in Australia he was hardly pushed at all on the dregs of the minor scandal that had burbled on while he was out of the country.

On Wednesday, June 26, the former defence minister, Christopher Pyne, announced he had accepted a job as a defence consultant with consulting firm EY. “I am looking forward to providing strategic advice to EY, as the firm looks to expand its footprint in the defence industry,” Pyne said in a statement.

A couple of days later, the former foreign minister, Julie Bishop, announced she had joined the board of the private aid delivery outfit Palladium. A few old sticks-in-the-mud pointed out that one of the key reasons that Palladium was so active in the sector in Australia was because as foreign minister Bishop had scrapped the government aid agency AusAid and opened the area up to, well, to outfits like Palladium.

After some dark muttering from the opposition, the Prime Minister announced that he had asked the head of his department to “investigate” whether or not Pyne and Bishop had breached the “Statement of Ministerial Standards”, which holds that former ministers cannot take lobbying jobs for 18 months after leaving office.

This investigation is unlikely to be causing sleepless nights for the two former ministers, given that the statement of standards is neither policeable nor enforceable.

And this is perfectly in keeping with the government’s general approach to imposing accountability onto our elected representatives, their staff, the departments they oversee and the vested interests that seek to manipulate them.

For years the government has resisted calls to establish a federal corruption watchdog similar to the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption. One of the chief opponents over the previous term was Tony Abbott, who once argued, preposterously, that corruption was an affliction of state MPs rather than their federal counterparts

This conceit infuriated the retired Victorian appeals court judge Stephen Charles, who has long campaigned for an effective federal integrity watchdog, and who will sit on the board of the Centre for Public Integrity when it is formally launched next Wednesday.

As Charles notes, corruption flourishes most vigorously at the point where power and money collide. Which is to say, in places like Canberra.

Even before Pyne and Bishop jumped ship for their new jobs Charles could rattle-off long lists of issues he would like an integrity commission to investigate, including the so-called Watergate affair, the government’s $423 million contract with Paladin for security on Manus Island, the lazy half-billion slung to The Great Barrier Reef foundation, the events leading up to the approval of the Adani mine and allegations about rorting in defence procurement.

When pressed hard on the issue by the Australia Institute and crossbenchers last year, Bill Shorten announced he would introduce an ICAC-style body should Labor be elected. The then PM Malcolm Turnbull said he would consider introducing a commission modelled on Victoria’s Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission.

This was a bait-and-switch, as Charles explained at the time. Politicians back the IBAC because the IBAC is weak.

Consider the case of the Victorian opposition leader Matthew Guy, who was embarrassed back in 2017 when it was revealed he had sat down for a lobster and a few bottles of Penfolds Grange with Tony Madafferi. The problem was that Madafferi is not just a successful pizza shop owner and market gardener, but in the opinion of the Victorian police, a suspected mafia boss.

Shocked at the suggestion that anything untoward had occurred over the crustaceans, Guy immediately referred himself to the IBAC, which carefully considered the case and came to the view that looking into the relationship between alleged mob bosses and aspiring premiers was not in its purview.

That is the sort of integrity commission a politician can really get behind, one that is not so much toothless as utterly lifeless.

Research by the Australia Institute has found that 78 per cent of people polled support a commission holding public hearings and 85 per cent believe there is corruption in politics at the federal level.

Recent Ipsos polling found that fewer than 41 per cent of Australian citizens are satisfied with the way democracy works in Australia, down from 86 per cent in 2007. Public satisfaction has fallen particularly sharply since 2013, when 72 per cent of Australian citizens were satisfied.

Transparency International, which ranks nations according to perceptions of corruption on a score of 100 has tracked a decline in Australia’s standing from 85 in 2012 to 77 this year and from eighth place in the world to 13th.

At present the government does have a proposal for a federal watchdog, to be called the Commonwealth Integrity Commission. According to Charles, the division of the CIC aimed at parliamentarians would have a cripplingly narrow remit, would be unable to hold public hearings and would have no mechanism to allow the public to make complaints.

Because it would not be allowed to launch investigations unless it was reasonably certain a crime had been committed, it would not be able to investigate tip-offs of the sort that led to an ICAC inquiry into the former NSW ministers Eddie Obeid and Ian Macdonald, who were both later jailed for their corruption.

Charles will be joined on the board of the Centre for Public Integrity by the Queensland Court of Appeal president Tony Fitzgerald, the former NSW Court of Appeal judge and NSW ICAC commissioner David Ipp QC, and former NSW Supreme Court judge Anthony Whealy QC, who will chair the Centre.

The centre will research and campaign for reforms to Australia’s pitiable federal regulation of lobbying and political donations, and for the creation of a federal integrity commission with teeth.

The work of the centre will be crucial, says Charles, because a toothless corruption watchdog is worse than none at all.

He believes the CIC as proposed is not designed to serve the public, but to hoodwink it into believing an effective federal watchdog exists. It would provide a venue that politicians could refer themselves to when pinged for, say, a lobster lunch with a crook, safe in the knowledge that they will suffer little more than a warm gumming.

This story was published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 13 July 2019.