2020 AGM address by Chair, Fiona McLeod, AO SC
In the interests of transparency, I must begin with a disclosure. Before my engagement with the Open government partnership and ART (and for a time Transparency International Australia) I had very limited exposure – I thought – to issues of accountability, except that it appeared to me obvious that I should use my various professional soapboxes to speak out when issues of government integrity and accountability arose.
I recognise that I am something of a maverick in this regard and history will tell whether I have served the institutions I led well in doing so.
The point is that many of my colleagues, some of whom join us this evening, have a far greater immersion in these issues than I. I include the original and current Board members of the ART for whom I have enormous respect, and our original founders Tim Smith and Race Matthews.
And I should also disclose a possible disqualifying factor. I am a warm embracer of social media which, as I have noted elsewhere, qualifies me for exactly nothing beyond enthusiasm – trait I evidently share with the President of the United States.
It has been an extraordinary journey being associated with ART and my gratitude and respect for members and their contributions over the last couple of years have taught me many things. I am still learning.
The point of delivering an online presentation such as this came about because we saw the need to reach out to like-minded thinkers. Those wondering how to turn the fact that they cared and were interested in a movement for change.
In August last year, six months before Australia faced the brunt of the Covid-19 pandemic, eminent ART Board member, Stephen Charles, delivered the Fitzgerald oration at Griffiths University to mark 30 years since the end of the Inquiry and 40 years since the Costigan Inquiry.
What might have been a moment to celebrate the advances we have made in a single generation in terms of our understanding and confronting corruption in all its forms, was notable instead for Stephen’s catalogue of corruption – from the subversion of proper tendering processes leading to the decision to buy submarines for an uncapped price (what number of billions are we up to now?) from a company with numerous corruption concerns hanging over its head, in order to shore up voter support in SA; to the misuse of MP stipends; shack-fronted Paladin’s closed tender for Manus Island; Helloworld; uncontrolled electoral donations; a Crown casino which just keeps giving, and more.
There is now an entire twitter group keeping track of these activities – to which we should add – the unlawful and plainly manipulative Sports Rorts involving the PMs office and the resignation and then immediate promotion of the Minister concerned and more. I could spend the next twenty minutes reciting a list – at every level of government.
These are things that once would lead, at the very least, to statements of responsibility.
And then nothing happened.
At some point we started to take it for granted.
Some outrage from the opposition and minor parties, some time-limited and under-resourced investigations through parliamentary committees did some good and some media, increasingly concerned to showcase the talking points of parliamentary communications staff, led to a day or two of focus, here and there.
It was all swept under the rug. Parliament committees met with refusal to answer and refusal to attend. Ministers staff asserted an unqualified protection against accountability that no one has tested despite precedent suggesting there is vast overreach in this regard. Public servants frightened into submission or fooled into believing protecting the interests of the government was somehow written into the public service values.
Other means of holding government to account were effectively shut down with the succession of crises hitting Australia and the world. Here, our drought, bushfires, floods and the pandemic.
And what has changed during these crises?
The President of the US lies directly to American citizens and turns on anyone, including those close to him, who speaks the truth. Public officials lie instinctively in anticipation of his wishes, in order to keep his favour. An entire machinery of government is devoted to persuading media outlets, including social media, to repeat those lies without scrutiny. The lies come so thick and so fast that reputable journalists have given up keeping count months if not years ago.
In Australia, government officials appear so cowed by the threat of dismissal that they allow unlawful wholesale misuse of public funds and of positions of power and influence to continue unchecked, resulting in the misuse of multi-millions of dollars of public funds; endorsing these acts through silence.
The media has the same short attention span that we do and very few turn up at leaders press conferences ready to insist on answers to inconvenient questions or able to handle being shut down.
The deliberate management or mismanagement of information by hordes of ‘comms’ people inside ministerial offices controls the message and feeds the trust deficit, spawning wild conspiracies that rampage unchecked alongside the virus.
We see deals in the dark, blatant acts of self-interest in office, a refusal to engage with police and parliamentary oversight.
Personal gain is seen as legitimate or irrelevant. We expect or accept that politicians will become multi-millionaires through their terms of office and never ask how or why.
Trust has been utterly devalued as a measure of fitness for office.
And we grind our teeth and wonder if we have the heart for the fight when no one is listening.
Our outrage is in short supply. When we do find an opportunity to express it, our voices are drowned by the counter-campaign, mobilised at an instant to generate social media sympathy or excuse for the culprit individuals, defence turned to offence with the ready personal attack on the voices for integrity.
It has me wondering why it is we are so resigned to our fate. Perhaps it is the overwhelming odds marshalling to silence the lone voice.
Perhaps it has more to do with our evolutionary biology. As a species we are adaptive, it is one of our extraordinary talents, but it is a capacity to adapt that depends upon a recognisable threat and a long horizon. We learn and then we teach the next generation that the predator is a threat to be avoided or defeated, that living in a particular place and a particular way will keep us safe.
It is adaptation that depends upon slow thinking, transgenerational learning – in evolutionary terms, the blink of an eye.
We have capacity to learn many things but, in terms of those things that change behaviour, these are mostly learnt through the reaction or visceral response to pain stimulus – don’t touch the hot oven, don’t step onto the road without looking, don’t eat the red plant, don’t stand on the rotten tree branch.Those psychological lessons are also linked to pain and context – run from the predator, fathers (ie all men) will hurt you, mothers (ie all women) will not protect you.
We have the capacity for rational step by step reasoning but rarely engage it. As our support for the institutions that support slow learning – our learned academies and universities, the arts in all their forms – are stripped away, we must exert effort to maintain our ability for deep learning.
And when the enemy is invisible and the need to adapt is intra-generational, we are failing.
The principle global threats we are currently facing include –
– Threat of obliteration through WMD
– Climate emergency and loss of biodiversity/food and water security
– Failure of stability of political systems; and
– Global pandemics
Covid is down the list of these – all occurring on a scale and with a pace we cannot comprehend – and they are all invisible enemies.
But this year the enemy has consumed all our attention. And for some of us it has been extremely challenging.
The available wealth of many has nose-dived; our capacity to cope with the endless sameness of lockdown has created enormous psychological pressure; we cannot access many things that give us respite and joy and engaged our other senses – the touch of loved ones, bird song in the new morning, the smell of the sea. For some it is truly a matter of life and death – trapped with the man who will do us harm.
We are distracted by our immediate needs. We cannot imagine the harm of the invisible enemy and cling doggedly to our notions that the individual freedoms that bought us a great sense of control in our lives, are subverted to the collective good because of the invisible enemy.
With no one to trust because it is all about power and all about politics, we become fearful and angry. The rise of populism and nationalism, and also, the election of hard right fascist demagogues, disinformation and the negative feedback loop of social media feeds, off this fear and anger.
The fact is we are terrible at perceiving risk and threats that are invisible, and in the longer term, we’re just not very good at it. We need generational story-telling to change our heuristics and thus our behaviour, even when our very survival depends upon it because our response to these crises is clearly – every man for himself.
The intersection of crises puts us at a more existentially at-risk time than ever before but without the adaptive qualities to respond.
I am not convinced that buttressing our adaptation mechanisms to deal with those four big threats is going to make any difference until we can develop the skills of collaborative and deep learning.
What are we to do when only a few of us are listening to the wisdom of our Barry Jones, our Galarrwuy Yunupingu, our Elizabeth Evatts and Gillian Triggs?
So, acknowledging the extraordinary risk that our own hard wiring represents in our inability to address the crises we face is the first step.
Although they do have a transitory impact, no glossy ad campaign is going to fundamentally shift human behaviour to address these threats
We need to bolster those institutions that support our ability to think our way out of this. Not just our Barrys, but the opportunities to think deeply across new areas of study in both science and humanities.
We need to bolster the arts – knowing as we do that immersion in all forms of art are essential for our deep learning faculties.
We need to embrace and acknowledge the intergenerational learnings of our First Nations and their ability to navigate complex issues by talking things out to consensus.
And for this audience, it is essential we continue to buttress the tools of democracy, truth, accountability and integrity in office, in order to stand a chance in the face of overwhelming odds. So that the conventions and customs that have protected us are renewed and strengthened.
This is not a political pitch, in fact it is a very conservative pitch, founded upon the recognition that the pillars of our democracy – accountability and transparency of government are essential.
Accountability is more important than ever. The decisions made over the last 8 months will shape our social and economic prosperity for generations.
Covid19 represents a unique opportunity to learn fast – by holding our hands to the flame to figure out what it is we must do now to hold government and the institutions of state to account – for their conduct and omissions, their decisions and indecision.
It is an opportunity to learn that ‘every man for himself’ does not serve us. To transform our ‘lockdown’ into a space for reflection and meditation.
To reassert the collective right to fair governments and to fair markets.
We need three things to make this happen:
We know that information is power and a source of domination.
We need access to information and the means to decipher meaning in the patterns and the workings of algorithms. We need public entities that know things and record things in a way we can access.
We need open access to data and the means of understanding what it means; we need to be able to scrutinise decisions and spending; we need a robust media unshackled from editorial interference, that follows stories and their outcomes instead of filling the page and moving on; we need controls over the influence of data harvesters facebook and google – not so they pay for advertising, but so they cannot sell our personal data off to the highest bidder.
Our independent monitors must be able to tell us what is going on and point us to risks of corruption.
We need resources to search and discover the truth, for our assurance and audit processes.
An auditor general’s budget overseen by parliament, as the act contemplates, that is not controlled by government.
An expert, emboldened, and secure public service.
A well-resourced, overarching national integrity commission.
We need to remove the temptation risks for those in power and seeking power through campaign fundraising and expenditure caps and real time disclosure.
And we need to remember. We need the historians, anthropologists and a multitude of wise elders to teach us the intergenerational lessons.
And then to repeat them.
And then repeat them again.
The address began with:
I acknowledge the Wurrundjeri people of the Kulin nation, the traditional owners of the land I am on today in a place known as Ngar-Go or high point, the traditional name of Fitzroy, and pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging. I extend my respects to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people joining us here today.