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A threnody for integrity



In the election campaign the need for an integrity commission has been a minor issue. Many independent candidates have supported it, but the major parties seem to have concluded that it will not significantly shape the way people vote. Yet given the evidence of a lack of integrity in behaviour by and within governing parties both at Federal and State level, the nature and importance of integrity in the processes of government deserve reflection.

Integrity has to do with consistency in relationships. A person of integrity will behave with due respect in all their relationships – within family, workplace and other institutions, in the handling of money, in gifts, in decision making.  In government, due respect will characterise the relationships between members of parliament, their staff and their constituents. In these relationships and in the making of policy, administration and in the allocation of money, integrity means that the decisive focus is on the good of the Australian people. It demands that this focus will override self and Party interest, and that decisions are subject and transparent to review.

Although much of the evidence remains untested, the number of people who have accused politicians, including ministers, of sexual harassment and bullying, the attempts in the media to discredit the complainants, and the slowness of party leaders to deal with these complaints, suggest a culture of male entitlement, an imbalance of power in which women pay a heavy price for demanding respect.

There is also frequent circumstantial evidence that appointment to public positions and the awarding of public appointments and  contracts favours people with connection with the ruling Party. Such appointments and contracts have bypassed the recommendations of public committees and been awarded without the normal processes of merits review and of tendering.

Election time always highlights projects funding allocated to seats that are marginal or are held by politicians whom the governments need to placate. Such projects often breach Governments’ own regulations for such funding. Even politicians with a reputation for high ethical standards seem to regard this as one of the perks of office. This practice has become so blatant and shameless that the Guardian newspaper can publish Pork-o-meter without meeting protests of hurt innocence.

Finally, reporting of the internal affairs of parties contains many accusations of branch stacking, factional backstabbing, of disregard of constitutional rules, and of the use of government funds for party political campaigns.


'If the recent evidence for lack of integrity in government is distressing, the evidence for public resistance to it is equally encouraging.' 


Some of the behaviour described here is arguably corrupt, but more significantly it is all lacking in integrity. Those involved in government and in political life are charged with governing for the people. To act as governments and their representatives for their personal gain or for the advantage of their party betrays that trust. It displays a sense of entitlement, whether to sexual favour, patronage, allocate money or to make laws to act in the interests of the Party.

All this leads to public disengagement with political life and the weary acceptance that this is what we can expect of politicians and governments. That lack of trust leads in turn to paralysis and neglect in government policy to do with the public good, to a focus on looking good and not doing good.

For this reason a lack of integrity and a culture of entitlement matter. At their extreme level the harm can be seen in totalitarian states like China and Russia where the interests of the Party or of the associates of the Populist leader rule supreme. It results in the apparent paradox of the coexistence of a libertarian approach to government behaviour and repressive laws and scapegoating directed against enemies of the Party or scapegoats for the Party. In Great Britain, a nation more like Australia, can be seen the same evidence of sexual misbehaviour, crony appointments, disregard for processes of approval and review, direction of public money to unscoped projects of donors and connections and disregard for the rule of law. Distrust of politics has also grown.

It is easy to curse the darkness and to bemoan each new instance of corrupt or self-interested behaviour, to pillory its perpetrators, and to preach on the text, ‘Do not put your trust in politicians’. It is more responsible and effective to muse on the virtue and attractiveness of integrity and to demand it of our political representatives. Integrity is the habit of mind that places the good of all Australians above individual or Party interests, resolutely acts on that basis, and expects that political friends and opponents will do the same. It accepts the entitlement to rule that comes with a favourable election result, but sees it as the license to lead wisely and to act as steward on behalf of the people. It also accepts that people in public life should be role models of public service, They should help shape a culture of integrity in society.


'A political culture in which virtue is honoured and its breach condemned is important. It is also the garden bed for democracy. It encourages the participation of the people in public life and the expectation of integrity in other areas of public service.'


Of course this ideal of nobility of purpose and conduct does not, and never has, reigned unchallenged in Australian or in other governments. Parliamentary representatives represent the rest of us Australians in our individual and collective mixture of intelligence and obtuseness, of virtue and vice, of selfishness and altruism, of the desire to serve and the desire to get to the top. For that reason a political culture in which virtue is honoured and its breach condemned is important. It is also the garden bed for democracy. It encourages the participation of the people in public life and the expectation of integrity in other areas of public service. Its absence alienates people and leads them to mistrust governance at any level.

If the recent evidence for lack of integrity in government is distressing, the evidence for public resistance to it is equally encouraging. The #MeToo movement, for example, has been effective in making the abuse of women a hindrance to Parliamentary advancement. Independent candidates who have supported Integrity and Anti-corruption commissions have also won strong popular support. We might hope that these and other similar grassroots activities will drive more general resistance to politics as usual. 




Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: IBAC Commissioner Robert Redlich speaks during the Operation Watts public hearing on October 11, 2021 in Melbourne, Australia. (James Ross / Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Election, AusVotes2022, Integrity



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Existing comments

Power inevitably leads people towards arrogance. Power also narrows the areas of our concerns. And we are all prone to the allures of power. Perhaps, instead of governments, we look to other sources of integrity: great writers, artists, community activists, people of faith, amongst others. Instead of the common good, however, too often we are let down by our own limitations in choosing heroes as well as our heroes’ natural limitations.
What we have in common then is our brokenness. However, brokenness can lead to integrity. Perhaps there is nowhere else to go.

Pam | 12 May 2022  
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‘What we have in common then is our brokenness. However, brokenness can lead to integrity.’

It’s probably easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for Greg Norman in a Saudi Arabian marsupial pouch to ‘move on’ on a fairway, unless ‘move on’ isn't quite the same as ‘lead to’.

Of course, marsupial pouches aren't indigenous only to Saudi Arabia. China has some very nice ones too.

roy chen yee | 13 May 2022  

I can't predict an election outcome but I do have control over the numbers I put on the ballot paper. It has been long held not only that justice must be done but it must be seen to be done. The recent ICAC gave Australia the opportunity to see the machinery of a Commission in very transparent, real time; no heavily edited transcript extracts... no "spin", unless to object to the process. Few of us like to see someone we like get taken down; we can even experience an associative guilt when we find our trust was misplaced. To refer to the ICAC as a "kangaroo court" (Morrison) is an allegation that there was something illegitimate in the process, a desired avoidance of public scrutiny, possibly because he interpreted the system to expose and destroy a colleague but equally probable to avoid public opinion in the future. In a Democracy we have the opportunity to express our approval (or otherwise) of the candidates and their performance on the hustings; I didn't see Scomo hiding from the public gaze, although a few of his trusted ministers are cunningly concealed during the pre-election melee... So we shall cast our votes accordingly; it may not be "easy under Albanese" but we can be certain where an alternative integrity will be buried.

ray | 12 May 2022  

Right throughout the Old Testament there is a cry to the Almighty for a Just King, who will rule His people Israel according to His Statutes. Throughout the Medieval Period a sharp differentiation was made between what were considered good kings and queens and who ruled their people justly and with integrity and those who did not. Our theory of parliamentary democracy is somewhat different, but we do require our elected leaders to rule with justice and integrity. Some of our past and present politicians did and do have both a sense of service to the community and integrity. I would name the late Ted Mack, the late Tim Fischer and John Anderson as such politicians. I think the vast majority of the Australian people have an inherent sense of what is right and what is wrong and no amount of obfuscation, from whatever source, will deceive them in the long run. I think they will judge whoever is elected as Prime Minister this time and his government by what they do, rather than what they say. I think the next federal government will mark a real turning point. It is already happening in the states.

Edward Fido | 13 May 2022  

Profoundly disturbing and worthy of more endorsement than the stalwarts supporting Andy's cri de coeur.

It used to be said that an Englishman's word was his bond and that generally held good for Australia. However, digging beneath the surface one discovered multiple inequities: ask any woman as well as other minorities about this.

The problem is insidious because, left undetected or ignored, it spreads like cancer throughout the body politic. 'If he can get away with it, why not I?' becomes the catch-cry as any teacher alert to the importance of adhering to standards will confirm.

My father, who had the conscience of a Calvinist, witnessed the transition of civil administration in India from the Raj to an indigenous leadership. Where Europeans were once awarded unfair advantages and instead of a scrupulous attention to merit-based appointment, the post-independent civil service quickly became corrupted.

I once asked Dad why he declined sumptuous gifts delivered to our home at Christmas. He replied 'I expect to chair a meeting in January that will award a contract to build a bridge for which the donor's firm had tendered. If the bridge collapses through lack of due process I would have that on my conscience'.

Michael Furtado | 13 May 2022  

The comments about male entitlement could almost identically be applied to the Catholic Church Fr Andrew- where half the population are effectively disenfranchised and treated as decidedly inferior members.
That aside, you are right about the integrity issue.
The important issues that people vote on are Defence, Housing affordability, grocery and petrol prices, China's sabre rattling, China's political interference, bribery of intellectuals, Chancellors, politicians, innovators and more.
When senior politicians like Andrews sell out to the Belt and Road, there is not much hope for job creation at home. When UAP can throw $100m at the election its preferences will carry the day.
The past Federal term has been swamped with covid lock downs, business closures, Fed debt accrual and some minor attempts to stand up to China's continuing attempts to bankrupt our economy.
Now China has again interfered with the Solomons, PNG, Fiji and will no doubt weaponize any ports and facilities they acquire close to Australia. 85% of urea imported to Australia has now been cut off by China so our farmers have zero fertilizer supplies. Urea with the addition of distilled water also becomes Ad Blue which 60% of our diesel fleet runs on.
This election will be won on Defence and the cost of living.

Francis Armstrong | 18 May 2022  

While the election wasn't won on Defence, though undoubtedly on the cost of living, Francis Armstrong has underplayed the value of his characteristically arresting opening salvo.

Indeed, Andy himself in this fine essay has overlooked the role of the Churches as supposed bastions of integrity. They still investigate themselves and have no respect for the principle of the separation of powers, which, for all its faults, provides the cornerstone of integrity.

Having commented on the corruption, intended or otherwise, of the Plenary Council Fathers, a litany of wrong-doing, especially to women and procedure, regularly articulated by John Warhurst, I turn to an experience of attending a gathering of gay men hosted by a sister church under the umbrella of an organisation called - wait for it - Integrity.

There I observe elderly well-to-do men with their considerably younger toy-boys, invariably refugees escaping marriage and children in generally Islamic countries, and whose applications for TPVs are processed by the church. Worse still, the Muslims are pressurised into converting to Christianity.

The priest in charge of this organisation employs its President as his Parish Manager and, when I asked questions about some of the conflicts of interest I saw I was blackballed.

Michael Furtado | 09 June 2022  

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