Federation balance of power – things have changed, part 3

By Stephen Bartos

Wednesday May 5, 2021

(Image: Adobe/ Alexander Mak)

The relative moral standing of different levels of government has shifted since the closing decades of the 20th century. And here’s why, writes Stephen Bartos.

There was once a time when commonwealth public servants were inclined to look down on their state counterparts as prone to politicisation, cronyism, mismanagement and corruption.

Often this was down to the behaviour of ministers, not public servants – but the reputation of a jurisdiction as a whole is affected when misbehaviour occurs at the level of either ministers or public servants.

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Particularly notable were NSW – with a reputation for corruption dating back to colonial days, entrenched under the Askin government, and kept bubbling away by ministerial misbehaviour including from the likes of Eddie Obeid or Ian Macdonald and by public service involvement in highly dubious development deals.

Queensland too was a big part of public perception of state misbehaviour and corruption. Its failings were revealed by the Fitzgerald inquiry in the late 1980s.

There were problems other than corruption. Examples included the undue influence of the former hydro-electric commission over the Tasmanian government, or the habit of the Northern Territory of spending subsidies from Australian taxpayers on extravagances in Darwin (the Parthenon-like parliament house often cited as an example, or indeed having 25 parliamentarians for its tiny population).

It was not every state. Some, like South Australia, had and continue to have a reputation for a corruption-free public service. Might be something to do with Adelaide being the city of churches.

Nor was it by any means a universal view at commonwealth level or among academic observers of the federation. Wiser heads realised the commonwealth government was always at risk of similar problems. Corruption needs only a small nudge of temptation (accompanied by secrecy and lack of accountability, meaning the risk of being caught is low) to take hold.

The relative moral standing of different levels of government has shifted since the closing decades of the 20th century.

Partly this is because states have got serious about tackling corruption – the Independent Commission Against Corruption in NSW, the Crime and Corruption Commission in Queensland, and similar bodies, are serious corruption investigation and prosecution bodies that help deter misbehaviour.

A major contributor to cleaning up NSW government has been a ban on political donations by property developers and the gambling industry. No such ban applies at commonwealth level.

The corrupting influence of money has been a large part of why the commonwealth has seen the spread of unethical behaviours. They include the proliferation of grants targeted at marginal seats for electoral gain, post-ministerial employment in companies related to their former portfolios, lack of transparency in procurement including multi-million dollar contracts handed out without proper tender processes, the Leppington triangle overpayment scandal, and the like.

The Mandarin’s sister publication Crikey has run a series of articles on corruption in Australia; the commonwealth government does not emerge unscathed.

More indirectly, but just as corrosive, is cronyism – preferential treatment in employment, including appointment or promotion, of friends or family. At political level, it includes the appointment of political allies to senior positions on boards and authorities.

Commonwealth public servants themselves see it as the top form of corruption observed in their work.

Whereas in the past a member of the public might have had suspicions about whether a top state or territory public servant was appointed on merit or due to cronyism, today they may (with good reason) have similar misgivings at commonwealth level.

Corruption and cronyism are, however, by no means widespread at commonwealth level. Nor was it ever commonplace at state or territory level. Likewise, it has not been eliminated at state level even though some jurisdictions have improved.

What has happened is that the perceived advantage the commonwealth had in ethical conduct is no more.

Although rare and isolated, any corruption at all is too much. If a government has a corruption, ethics or misconduct scandal, it will overshadow any number of squeaky-clean positive achievements. That’s what the public will remember.

This matters. Not only for its own sake (lack of corruption is a desirable end in itself), but for how it affects a government’s ability to get things done. A government that is perceived as reliable and honest is more likely to be trusted, and that translates into more citizen cooperation with and support for government programs.

It also affects in a subtle way who has the upper hand in negotiations between different levels of government. The moral high ground is not as important as controlling the financial levers but can be an influencing factor.

Now that the commonwealth, states and territories are on more even moral ground, other factors that have changed the balance in the federation, as discussed in the previous two articles in this series, have more impact.

Citizen trust and confidence is vital. What we can hope for, and many civil rights and judicial reform campaigners aspire to, is not a levelling down but a levelling up of government morality.

That is, a state of governance where the commonwealth, states and territories all have unimpeachable standards of honesty and ethics.

It is aspirational but not impossible – some countries have arguably reached that level, and we should aim for no less.


Federation balance of power – things have changed, part 1

Federation balance of power – things have changed, part 2

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