Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Malcolm Turnbull opens door to national anti-corruption body but dismisses ICAC model as beset by 'hearsay and rumour'

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has for the first time suggested he is prepared to consider creating a federal anti-corruption watchdog.

Mr Turnbull said he is not yet persuaded the case has been made for such a body but that "the policy objective is zero tolerance, I take that very seriously".

With all other parties in the Federal Parliament prepared to support such a body, Mr Turnbull's government – which has thus far resisted calls from the crossbench, Greens and Labor – is the final obstacle.

And in an interview with Fairfax Media to mark the end of the Parliamentary year, Mr Turnbull also ramped up pressure on Bill Shorten to sack embattled NSW senator Sam Dastyari, arguing to do otherwise was a failure of leadership.

The Prime Minister also played down the impact on Australia-China relations of the government's new foreign interference legislation, arguing the furious reaction from Beijing was "of a kind that we have seen before".

Mr Turnbull said that if a federal anti-corruption body were to be created, he favoured something modelled on Victoria's IBAC, the independent broad-based anti-corruption commission, rather than New South Wales' ICAC, the Independent Commission Against Corruption.

The ICAC has been criticised for having powers that are too broad; the IBAC has, conversely, been criticised for powers that are too narrow and do not allow it to fully investigate suspicions of corruption or misconduct in public office.

After a difficult 2017 that saw the Coalition consistently trail Labor in published opinion polls – and his government beset by divisions over same-sex marriage, the citizenship crisis and energy policy – an optimistic Mr Turnbull said he had dealt with those three large "barnacles" attached to the ship of state.

Heading into 2018, his focus will be on delivering personal income tax cuts for middle Australia and trying again to cut company taxes for businesses with a turnover of more than $50 million a year.

But it is his failure to rule out a federal anti-corruption watchdog that is most significant.

"New South Wales, we all understand the problems that arise if these things turn into places where hearsay and rumour can be thrown around free of any responsibility," he said, referring to that state's anti-corruption body.

"So you have to make sure that you re-assess these agencies, reassess the work they are doing, ask the question if they are adequate to the task – there has been a Senate Select Committee recently [looking] at a National Integrity Commission."

"I am considering that report very carefully and if the government's conclusion is that there are gaps in our armoury, then we will look at the best way to fill them. But you have just got to make sure that you get it right, as the experience has been mixed."

The Senate inquiry, which concluded in September 2017, recommended the Commonwealth give careful "consideration to establishing a Commonwealth agency with broad scope and jurisdiction to address integrity and corruption matters", as well as a Parliamentary Integrity Commissioner.

It also suggested additional resources be allocated to the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity (ACLEI), which monitors police agencies.

There have already been discussions in the public service about transforming a "super-sized" ACLEI into an anti-corruption body.

On Senator Dastyari, who is under mounting pressure to quit Parliament over his links to Chinese Communist Party-linked political donor Huang Xiangmo, Mr Turnbull said it was "absolutely screamingly obvious that Dastyari should not be in the Senate".

"The Dastyari episode is a shocking one, I think it will provoke nothing less than contempt in Beijing that an Australian senator would behave in this way – and it's a terrible indictment on Shorten and his failure of leadership," he said.

The proposed foreign interference laws were not about China, he said, but simply focused on ensuring that anyone who sought to influence Australian politics and decision making did so openly.

"There is no taint about representing the interests of a foreign government in Australia, as long as you do so transparently and honestly."

Mr Turnbull would not comment on whether any state or federal politicians had been identified by government agencies as possible agents of foreign influence.

Mr Turnbull suggested that the significantly changed complexion of the Senate crossbench – six senators, including two from One Nation, two from the NXT, one Family First senator and Jacqui Lambie have all gone – could open the door to his government successfully steering the company tax cut through.

But in a direct pitch to middle Australia, Mr Turnbull said "the next priority is personal income tax cuts, middle income tax cuts – the timing and extent [of which] is obviously a question of affordability".


Electricity and gas bills take up to 12 per cent of household budgets

Large low-income families, pensioners and indigenous Australians have been hardest hit by the rise in energy costs and face increasing difficulty paying electricity and gas bills that could consume 12 per cent of their household budgets.

Research to be released today by KPMG, using census data and the Household Expenditure Survey published this year, pinpoints the impacts of “energy poverty’’, suggesting about 42,000 families are struggling to deal with rising power costs.

The paper, authored by demographer Bernard Salt, who acted as special adviser on the research, and Cassandra Hogan, KPMG’s national sector leader for power and utilities, suggests that spending on energy rises only modestly as income rises.

Per-person spending in the lowest income bracket averaged $15.57 a week compared with $18.91 in the highest income bracket. This meant low-income families had limited ways of reducing energy costs and large families and pensioners were most vulnerable to rising bills.

A low-income family of five with an estimated weekly energy cost of $77.85 would be spending about 12 per cent of their weekly income of about $650 on energy. A pensioner couple’s weekly energy costs of about $31 would be 5 per cent of a weekly income of $650.

Ms Hogan said the rising cost of energy could affect a household’s quality of life “in a very real way since energy is a fixed, as opposed to a discretionary, cost’’. “And the reason why it is devastating is because it exposes no less than 1 per cent of the Australian nation, including no less than 200,000 kids, to the bruising effects of energy poverty,” Ms Hogan said. “Poor households with big families in the public housing estates of our biggest cities are most exposed. For these Australians there is no defence.’’

The impact of energy poverty includes about 10,000 low-income families in the western Sydney suburbs of Fairfield and Liverpool. Energy poverty hot spots in Melbourne include about 9700 families in the city’s north at Hume and the southeast at Dandenong. In Brisbane, the impact is clustered around Logan to the south of the city, affecting 3700 families. In Perth about 3000 families, centred on Gosnells, are affected. And in Adelaide, the impact is on about 2400 families around Salisbury.

The research found that weekly average household spending on domestic energy had risen 26 per cent over six years to $40.92 from $32.52 in 2010.

Ms Hogan said better targeting of relief payments and hardship schemes was required from government and retailers. She said customers facing hardship could be automatically placed on the best available energy offers. She also called for improved efforts to offer early assistance to customers struggling to pay.

“The federal and state governments need to develop a national concessions framework to ensure a consistent and transparent approach to customer assistance that minimises costs for retailers and hence consumers,’’ she said.

Smarter technology enabling customers to understand where costs were escalating quickest would help them manage. They would also benefit if retail plans were made easier to understand and to compare like-for- like.

While new technology such as gas and battery storage and more energy-efficient appliances could help, gas remained a potential problem. There were insufficient options to alleviate gas consumption, which represented a large proportion of household energy usage.


Whistleblower compensation is sorely needed

I was a teenager working at Walton's department store when, in 1986, one of Walton’s senior managers discovered that the store's new owners, the Bond Corporation, had embarked on a creative method of recognising revenue.

As he had repeatedly reported the matter internally without a response, the manager felt there was no other option but to report the transactions to the company's external auditor.

The following morning he was greeted by this auditor and Alan Bond. And, just like that, this senior manager’s 25 year career at Walton’s was over.

The auditor had told Bond, one of Australia's most powerful businessman, that this manager had blown the whistle. Eight months later, he left the business. He was 51 years old.

This story stayed with me after I left Waltons and became a policeman. In 1992, while I was investigating a major drug syndicate, a whistleblower came forward providing important details of the syndicate’s supplier.

The whistleblower was registered as a confidential informant and in return for his information, he was entitled to a monetary reward.

The cops, not known then for progressive thinking, had nevertheless worked out that for a person to risk their safety or career to help catch a bad guy, something more than the warm, fuzzy feeling of helping expose corruption was needed.

Fast forward to 2015. Sixteen years into my career as a forensic accountant and I was interviewing a minor player in the centre of large corruption scheme which ultimately led to seven executives being charged and convicted.

Not benefitting from the scheme personally, but aware that the conduct of his executives was wrong, the employee said he had helped cover up their misconduct for fear of losing a job he had held for 12 years.

Asked to co-operate and provide evidence, the employee asked: "what is in it for me?" The only honest answer I could give was: 'nothing.'

Decades after the cops twigged that rewards were needed to solve crimes, our corporate crime busters, the federal police and the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, can offer little to entice potential whistleblowers to risk their career to help expose corporate corruption.

Yet think of the benefits of exposing corruption before it causes a major scandal. The impact on a company, its employees and shareholders if this is not done can be significant, causing major damage to reputation, share price and company morale.

The impact can shudder through the economy. Thousands of mum and dad investors or policy holders were adversely impacted by scandals involving Enron, OneTel and HIH.

Whistleblowers represent the innate part of the human spirit where there is value placed on doing the right thing.

Society needs to protect these people who often risk more than they will ever gain by speaking out.

They represent the honest and decent core of our community, often protecting shareholders or the general public from the fallout if corruption is not exposed before it spreads.

In October, the federal government released the first of what will hopefully be a much wider program of legislative reform aimed at encouraging corporate and tax whistleblowers to speak out.

The draft legislation, which is currently before the Senate, aims to protect whistleblowers who may expose themselves to significant personal and financial risk.

The bill has received mixed reviews with some proponents suggesting the proposed reforms are limited and in some cases unworkable for many companies.

As part of the wider reform program, the federal government is expected to review the recommendations from the parliamentary inquiry into whistleblowers, including the consideration of a reward program and establishing an independent Whistleblower Protection Agency.

I largely agree with this report's recommendations, but I do not subscribe to the 'US bounty' style payments for whistleblowers.

I was not surprised that this has not found its way into the draft legislation.

Still, some form of compensation scheme is badly needed.

The introduction of a Whistleblower Protection Agency with independent members and the inclusion of judicial experience could help manage this, ensuring appropriate compensation is delivered for the loss of future earnings (rather then a US style cut of any penalty faced by the company).

Strong penalties for those that fail to protect whistleblowers are also necessary to ensure corporate Australia takes notice.

The scheme should be designed to protect the senior manager who blew the whistle at Waltons and to punish those in the company who destroyed his career.

For those wondering what happened to this maligned whistleblower, after leaving Waltons he focussed on raising his seven children. A whistleblower scheme could have seen this man prolong his professional career.

But my father told me that if he had his way again, he'd still have spoken out. I don't doubt him for a moment.


The Dystopia in the Desert: Australia’s Remotest Aboriginal communities

In the clear-skied springtime of 2010, an enthusiastic new recruit to desert life named Tadhgh Purtill clambered aboard a light plane and took the long flight out to Warburton community, the little capital of the Ngaanyatjarra Aboriginal lands in Western Australia. He was a true believer, a robust advocate of strong self-determination, a supporter of the idea that indigenous people should be free to live on their ancestral lands.

Purtill felt these people had “every right to place themselves at a distance from mainstream Australian society, even to opt out of it, and that their cultural interests and rights might be best served by such a situation”.

He spent 2½ years in the remote world of the Ngaanyatjarra, first as a community development adviser and then as a managerial mentor to the region’s staff. None of his initial convictions survived his time in the bush: in fact, he found the opposite of his dreams.

His account of this remote community sojourn, The Dystopia in the Desert, brings together what he saw, heard and learned, and builds a theory from his observations. It is a detailed and disquieting narrative, at once an adventure of personal discovery and an exercise in wild social analysis. He plunges into delicate terrain, and deals in explicit fashion with matters that are usually airbrushed out of view. This is a work to set beside the darker texts of modern anthropology, and one that reveals a good deal about its author as well as its ostensible subjects.

It is a mark of Australia’s lack of serious attention to questions about remote Aboriginal life that this book has been ignored while headlines have been devoted to the elusive dream of indigenous constitutional recognition. For Purtill, the realm of the Ngaanyatjarra, a quarter of a million square kilometres inhabited by some 2000 people, is a place unlike any other:

The region is home to a social and organisational event of disorienting complexity. It is also home to a culture of deep darkness, one that is not seen in the official and statistical registers. This culture is not the Aboriginal culture. It is an operational culture that has grown up within the region, partly through what is perceived to be necessity, partly through convenience, partly through neglect, but in all cases through a strange encounter between Aboriginal culture and whitefella culture, and the contrary expectations of each.

The “region” is, in other words, a modern frontier zone, an ambiguous, shifting domain where policy ideas and strategies clash with each other, and interest groups and individuals strive for advantage in an ill-charted murk.

The rules are elaborate, and unwritten: Purtill sets them out. In this era of self-determination, those who run the communities, the “staff”, must appear to consult their Aboriginal subjects and obtain a degree of consent for the regulations they impose and the initiatives they advance. Welfare and municipal funds provide the life blood of the system: access to and control over the money flow equates to power. Administrators naturally seek accommodations with community leaders; they tend to favour their clients in return for expressions of support. Locals give lip service to the outside staff in return for benefits such as access to vehicles, housing, travel funds, store and fuel vouchers, all the items that lubricate remote community life and contribute to status and advantage.

This kind of patronage system is familiar enough in authoritarian regimes around the world, where power decides resource allocation. The novel element in the Australian remote indigenous community context is that the entire system is itself dependent on dependency. Locals depend on administrators and their service organisations, and service organisations depend on government. Worse is better: the poverty and dysfunction of the Aboriginal bush is what generates the necessary funds. Hence a premium is placed on the absence of progress.

“It is reasonable,” writes Purtill, “to ask whether any organisation that depends on government money, and whose entire existence therefore depends on a demonstration of its own need, is likely even to have the operational capacity to develop the independence, capacity and power of its own constituents.” Purtill came by his interpretation of the system through a hard exposure to its workings. He took up his initial post in a tiny Ngaanyatjarra community that he is careful not to name. It was in fact Tjirrkarli, one of the grittiest Aboriginal outposts in the Western Desert.

His experiences there and more broadly through the lands were exorbitant: he reports that violence and bullying were endemic. Advisers like him were regularly abused, threatened and on occasion assaulted by Aboriginal community members seeking money or protesting against local regulations and rules: “Most staff have witnessed violence among community members, or have dealt with its immediate aftermath, and perceive that threats made against them are not idle.”

In his 19 months at Tjirrkarli, a place with fewer than 25 residents, he saw a community member bashed outside his office, a man attacked with a machete, and a woman assaulted with rocks and projectiles by a group of eight or 10 assailants. He saw an older woman threatened with a brick by her own son after she refused him money; he found a man wandering about the community with a deep cranial gash and a piece of stick protruding from his forehead after an attack by a petrol sniffer. Death threats came his way from time to time. Sometimes tensions ran so high, he felt it best to spend his nights away from his house in the community.

One natural result of this pervasive atmosphere of threat and aggression is a high turnover of outside staff. Other writers seeking to convey the texture of remote community life tend to present this in oddly humorous terms, as a token of the amusing incompetence and ­naiveties of incoming do-gooders. Purtill provides a more sombre anatomy of the standard cycle of community employment. The new staff member arrives with much enthusiasm and sets to work with a will, determined to improve things. Over time they experience various stressful, disappointing or even frightening situations involving other staff or locals, and from that point on the person lives in “an emotional state in which his private tension never completely ­subsides”.

Then comes self-questioning, disillusion or a sense of defeat. Decision time now looms: either leave, or stay and accept that this is how things are in the bush communities.

Often this second course of action gives way to a position of acceptance: the staff member ceases to be offended by the social dysfunction and comes to see it as legitimate, as somehow authentic, as “the way the locals want to live”.

At this point the staff member has become part of the system, and even comes to resist any attempts at reform.

The missionary — nowadays the well-meaning secular idealist — becomes the disillusioned but well-remunerated mercenary and then, having lost his moral and ideological bearings, morphs into the ensconced misfit. The transformations are never witnessed or recognised by others because the others are not there long enough to see all three phases occur in the same person; and the eventual misfit himself continues to believe that he is still acting from noble motives.

Perverse progression! But perverse incentives and consequences, and ill-kept secrets and half-articulated compromises, are endemic in the portrait Purtill presents of the lands. This is a realm where staffers can forge the signatures of community leaders, where some shopkeepers feed themselves from the stock of the community store, where staff administrators running a strict alcohol-free zone drink in their homes and where spending public money irresponsibly is an art form. Purtill gives, again, examples from his own experience: a plumber based in Kalgoorlie is sent 900km to fix one pipe in a community, does the job and then, without offering his services to anyone else there, turns around and drives back. A school has too much food for its breakfast program, but reducing the oversupply is bureaucratically impossible and the surplus food mountain continues to grow. A plane flies in from Alice Springs to take a girl to boarding school, but no one has arranged the pick-up and it flies back without her.

Episodes of this kind are familiar features of remote community life. What is less familiar is Purtill’s willingness to describe the pattern.

His observations lead him to his theory: the entire Ngaanyatjarra region, he argues, has now become a special “operational space” where a greatly transformed post-traditional Aboriginal society interacts with the Western administrative culture. Much of this interaction is nominal, rather than real.

Training, employment, schooling, governance — the Ngaanyatjarra themselves tend to be apathetic towards these activities, and participate only when benefits, in the form of a barbecue, perhaps, or a sitting fee, are on offer. New programs aimed at community development come and go in quick succession. Work by ­locals on local projects is often skipped or poorly done, school attendance is low, the official claims of success and progress in economic or educational ventures are facade claims, quite at variance with reality.

“What we now have,” writes Purtill, “is a general image of disorder, imbalance, pointlessness, confusion — in its essence, futility.” It is a “carnival” of administered chaos, there is “the swirl and lurch of different people and processes, the cross-surgings, the many goals of a motley system”.

Deceptions and self-deceptions are everywhere, dewy reports to government that misrepresent the dire condition of the communities are routine. Meanwhile the entire frontier zone operates to maintain the dystopian status quo. Not only do Aboriginal people not run their communities, they do not have the capacity to run them.

The polite story locals and administrators profess to believe is that the whitefella staff carry out the wishes of Aboriginal leaders, but this is “simply a myth”. Aboriginal leaders have influence, of course, but that influence falls far short of self-determination, and the powerful “custodial class” of long-established whitefellas in the region has no desire to surrender control.

Hence the unspoken arrangement in place, the “implicit moral contract in which whitefellas gain professional status, salaries and operational power while Aborigines retain formal pre-eminence and personal freedom from the burdens of operational responsibility”.

What has developed in the far desert Ngaanyatjarra lands is not, then, a society that is in a state of dysfunction but a smoothly running mechanism, a successfully dysfunctional little state.

This is quite a charge sheet, made yet more potent by its evident relevance to scores of other similar groupings of remote indigenous communities strewn across the centre and the tropical north: Aboriginal people viewed as indolent, manipulative, violence-prone and devoid of any serious commitment to economic or educational advancement; whitefella staff as mediocre, profiteering, hypocritical basket cases, presiding over a failed, chaotic network of human zoos. The whole remote community world as a long-running enterprise of conspiracy devoted to propagating a profitable lie.

A handful of the key administrators and anthropological specialists who work in the Ngaanyatjarra region have read The Dystopia and, unsurprisingly, disagree with the harsh contours of Purtill’s analysis. No doubt Ngaanyatjarra men and women would be wounded, if they read it, by certain aspects of the frontier portrait the book sketches out.

No work of such critical intensity has been published to date on the modern remote community system, and while there is much in the portrayal that is frank, fearless and precise, there are aspects of it that invite modifying commentary. This is a work pitched, for all the specifics and case examples, at a high level of abstraction, an elegantly written intellectual jeremiad rather than a standard memoir of a season spent in the indigenous bush. This its besetting difficulty.

Purtill seems not to have learned any Western Desert language, and not to have enjoyed close relations with any local informants. The Aboriginal figures who appear in the narrative are ghostly shadows, rather trapped and exploited by their compliant-seeming whitefella custodians.

The view of Western Desert traditional culture that is presented is at once respectful and elegiac. Yes, there are times of “creativity, joy, celebration, happiness” in the communities, and these are often related to ceremonial life, but regional bodies in the desert are seen as overplaying the cultural strength of the locals because they know that their own legitimacy is strongly tied to that culture’s continuing resilience.

The truth, for Purtill, is that the culture is fading away, and “to admit the true extent of cultural depletion” would be “an embarrassment”. And of course by some fundamental, pre-contact benchmark, indigenous culture is changing, adapting, becoming a less potent dilution of what it originally was, and in a fateful way all Aboriginal societies are following this trajectory.

But if there is one place in Australia where the picture is a little different, it is the deep Western Desert region centred on Warburton and the Ngaanyatjarra lands.

From this January to May, a vast ceremony cycle bringing more than 200 desert men together unfolded smoothly, in secret, free from all outside involvement, at sites in the vicinity of Warburton.

Once the enduring position of ceremony, ritual, law and the bonds they forge is given its central role in desert community life, Aboriginal behaviour begins to look slightly less inexplicable, less feckless and perverse.

For many of the current generation of senior men and women leading traditionally accented lives, religion and law provide the heartbeat for their world, and the administrative presence and the programs and incentives that seek to usher them into a modern existence are mere distractions from the true, fulfilling purpose of their lives.

Resistance and noncompliance with the dreams of mainstream Australia for a placid, integrated Aboriginal society in the remote bush thus have a certain logic. It is a resistance that runs paradoxically alongside submission to welfare dependency and to the encroaching blandishments of Western influence, its alcohol, drugs and tidal waves of mass entertainment.

It’s a resistance that has the strategy of exploiting its masters and the effect of subverting their reforms.

Purtill himself hovers close to this more nuanced analysis in his final pages, as he describes the limits that inevitably preclude full comprehension by outsiders of the desert world: “That world, a foreign domain of thought and feeling, novelty and inheritance, with its seething weave of the tragic and the beautiful and the intriguing — its different notions of what is — can it ever be really understood?”

There is an unknowable hinterland that he sees stretching out beyond his compass of desert life. “It is in that hinterland that the communities of the Ngaanyatjarra region are functioning, and creating, and defying. The defiant creation, the dystopian system, caters to inextinguishable Aboriginal instincts — the instinct to survive as a people, to refuse to become something else.”

And refusal helps create the present impasse, and invites the ever more concerted policies of surveillance and supervised community-based work governments are now mandating in a bid to promote change.

But the present landscape contains a double bind: the remote Aboriginal frontier, ­chaotic as it is, offers no obvious prospect of constructive evolution in conformity with mainstream desires. Hence the vital, unask­able questions: How long can the bush communities continue to exist in their present form? How might they develop, and under what terms? And who, what kind of people, will live in them in generations to come?


Posted by John J. Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.).    For a daily critique of Leftist activities,  see DISSECTING LEFTISM.  To keep up with attacks on free speech see Tongue Tied. Also, don't forget your daily roundup  of pro-environment but anti-Greenie  news and commentary at GREENIE WATCH .  Email me  here

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