Storm clouds over Canberra

| January 4, 2024

Australians could be forgiven for feeling weary of political scandals. The litany of them at the federal level in recent years has been fatiguing: Robodebt, allegations of rape and sexual harassment in Parliament House, former prime minister Scott Morrison’s secret ministries, sports rorts, ministerial affairs and bonk bans, and plenty more.

For reporters and pundits, scandals generate excitement and drama, something more novel than the tedium of day-to-day political processes. But even the most cursory glance at recent scandals – for example, the brouhaha over Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles’ expensive taste for RAAF VIP flights – reminds us that very few are unprecedented.

Flying high

Australians live on a big continent, and are acutely sensitive to the price of petrol and airfares. Consequently, the public and press have been quick to anger when politicians are caught misusing or abusing their taxpayer-funded travel entitlements.

Harold Holt learned this the hard way. In 1967, journalists and backbench senators began asking awkward questions about ministers’ use of VIP aircraft for personal purposes at the expense of the taxpayer. The prime minister – who was among the guilty – dodged questions and denied that any evidence existed, misleading parliament (and the public) along the way.

But his new Senate leader, John Gorton, took a different approach, tabling all the hidden documents in the Senate. According to a recent biography of Holt, Gorton told him “public disquiet over any alleged secrecy would be much greater” than the anger at the actual offence itself.

In the end, no ministerial jobs were lost, but the upshot was that when Holt took his fateful swim at Cheviot beach, the popular (but, as it turned out, scandal-prone) Gorton would replace him.

Travel entitlements were a sensitive topic for later Liberal prime ministers, too. In his first term, John Howard faced many ministerial resignations, two of them — Peter McGauran and John Sharp — for false travel entitlement claims, and a third, Administrative Services Minister David Jull, for not following “due process” when his office processed those entitlement claims.

Many will remember the furore about Speaker Bronwyn Bishop, who in 2015 chartered a helicopter from Melbourne to Geelong for a partisan fundraiser and charged taxpayers for the privilege. Faced with calls to apologise and repay the expense, she remained defiant until it was too late, her position no longer tenable. Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who had originally appointed his “political mother” Bishop to the role, found his position weakened too.

Bronwyn Bishop was forced to resign as Speaker over a travel expenses scandal. 

Mining for misdemeanours

It is one thing to abuse the “perks of the job”. It is another thing to be avowedly corrupt. But in truth, the history of corruption in Australia is extensive. In the colonial era, wealthy landholders and squatters sought to influence parliamentarians with monetary bribes.

In 1869, a Victorian parliamentary select committee found that pastoralists and investors, led by the highly influential squatter and speculator Hugh Glass, had engaged in “corrupt practices”. Glass and his peers had kept a fund of money for bribing MPs during debates about land reform.

Corrupt colonial politicians used public funds on projects from which they would personally benefit. In the 1880s, Victoria’s railway minister Tommy Bent established a new line that would run through his own electorate, enhancing the value of his own land. “Everyone knew Bent was a crook,” historian Frank Bongiorno has recently suggested, “and the newspapers called him one”.

There was nothing special about Victoria in terms of corruption. Queensland historians such as Lyndon Megarrity have shown that railway financiers used cash bribes to buy influence over railway legislation in the 19th century. That tradition of political impropriety was faithfully upheld in the 1970s and ‘80s by Joh Bjelke-Petersen, his Police Commissioner Terry Lewis, and a sprawling network of businessmen and developers.

At times, Queensland’s corruption scandals have had national consequences. In 1930, federal treasurer and former Queensland premier Ted Theodore was forced to resign, pending an inquiry into his financial affairs. Notably wealthy and often controversial, Theodore was accused of benefiting from the sale of Mungana Mines (in which he was a “silent partner”) to the Queensland government (of which he was then premier) for an artificially inflated price.

The timing of the scandal was critical. The state government launched its Royal Commission against Theodore just weeks before Labor won office in 1929. The report was handed down shortly before the new government’s first budget. At the height of the Great Depression, the federal treasurer had to stand aside in what the historian Joan Beaumont has recently called a “body blow” for the Scullin government. By the time he had cleared his name and returned to his post, Theodore has lost the chance to shape Australia’s response to the depression.

Barrels of pork

Corruption is clearly unacceptable, but notoriously difficult to define. Is pork-barrelling – the art of directing public funds and grants to marginal electorates – a form of corruption? Much of it goes unpunished, but occasionally an egregious case arouses the public ire.

There have been, for instance, two “sports rorts” affairs in living memory. Ahead of the 1993 federal election, Sports Minister Ros Kelly oversaw $30 million of funding for sports, recreational and community facilities.

Questions were later asked about the skewed distribution of the funding toward Labor marginal seats. When the auditor-general and a parliamentary committee investigated, the results spelled the end of Kelly’s tenure. Memorably, Kelly was accused of making decisions not through the usual mechanisms, but on a whiteboard in her office.

Former Sports Minister Bridget McKenzie was forced to resign in 2020 over the ‘sports rorts’ affair. A similar fate had befallen Labor’s Ros Kelly in 1994. 

More recently, sports rorts 2.0 – in which Bridget McKenzie, a senior minister in the Morrison government, resigned over a large grant to a shooting club of which she was an undisclosed member – seemed like history re-enacted on a larger scale. Timed for the 2019 election campaign, the Coalition’s sports and recreation grants were entirely contradictory to the merit-based advice the minister had received.

Private conduct in the public eye

Pork-barrelling and other misdemeanours are even more complicated when public questions are overlaid with private conduct.

In 2016, NSW Member for Wagga Wagga Daryl Maguire convinced the then treasurer Gladys Berejiklian to grant $5.5 million to a clay target shooting range in his electorate. The grant took place outside the usual channels, and the revelation that Maguire and Berejiklian had been intimately involved provided the final ingredient for a pork-barrelling and conflict of interest scandal.

But sometimes, sex scandals are newsworthy for their own sake, public administration aside. In 1975, Deputy Prime Minister Jim Cairns and one of his staff, Junie Morosi, found themselves at the centre of a media scandal.

When rumours emerged of an extramarital affair between the two, the media exposed the story in terms that highlighted Morosi’s physical appeal even as it censured the pair.

Cairns was damaged by the publicity around their affair. His friend and colleague Tom Uren later noted in his autobiography that there were many “irregular relationships” among the conservatives that “were not exposed in the press”.

Historically, though, conservatives had been fair game for sexual exposé. Accusations of marital infidelity and nepotism coloured many a conservative politician’s career in colonial times. Graham Berry, a colonial liberal in Victoria, resigned as treasurer in the face of a select committee inquiry into an earlier extramarital affair and possible bribery ensuring from it. As his recent biographer Sean Scalmer put it, the inquiry was “a hammer blow” to this “would-be gentleman”.

Journalists have chosen when to conceal and when to reveal. When Barnaby Joyce’s extramarital affair with staffer Vikki Campion and their pregnancy were revealed in 2018, the media showed that they retain this power. Many waited until they had unimpeachable evidence, and could use Joyce’s rhetoric during the marriage equality plebiscite – in which Joyce had defended “traditional marriage” – as justification.

Why scandals matter

Scandals matter because they illuminate the tensions that shape our political processes. The physical and social distance between electors and their MPs, the entitlements afforded to ministers to do their jobs, and the media’s discretion in deciding who and what becomes scandalous – are core features of our democratic system. They also involve blurred patterns of power and privilege.

A core pillar of responsible government is that ministers are accountable to parliament. When ministers mislead parliament – or in the case of Scott Morrison, do not even reveal to parliament their ministerial appointments – the most important constraint on executive power in Australia is undermined.

There have been many innovations in Australian politics in the hope of minimising corruption and avoiding scandal. In late 2023, for example, Independent MP Monique Ryan introduced a Private Members’ Bill to crack down on lobbying and making ministerial diaries publicly accessible. If passed, it will lift the lid on another grey area in Australian political misadventure.

This article was published by The Conversation.