Ideas for a brighter future for all


The fallout from flouting the rules

As any parent knows, the capital of consequences – their potential to shape desired behaviour – is critical to define and to spend wisely. Take an illustrative case from my childhood. Once, during the long summer holidays, our family and some visiting cousins went on an outing that culminated in my mother buying ice-creams to be enjoyed when we got home. She had barely returned to the car when the (numerous) children in the back seat (it was the early 1970s) started arguing over their claims to the several varieties available. With the volume and intensity of conflict rising, and my father’s eyes firmly fixed on the road, she asked that the fighting stop or no one would be having anything. Conflict persisted and so, without a word, she threw the entire package out the window, establishing both a family legend and an enduring lesson.

A similar lesson applies to the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, fresh from hosting COP26 in Glasgow and now mired in a political crisis of his own that has damaged his standing among even his most ardent supporters. On 3 November 2021, he ordered Conservative members of the House of Commons to reject the findings of the independent Standards Committee’s two-year inquiry into the conduct of veteran Tory MP and Brexiteer Owen Paterson. Johnson was determined to shield Paterson from a thirty-day suspension – the recommended consequence of his ‘egregious’ breach of parliament’s code on paid lobbying. MPs were instructed to support a motion to replace the framework for overseeing parliamentary standards that had operated since 2010 with a new process, chaired by a government MP. Aggressive whipping, including threats from Number 10 to cut constituency funding for any member who opposed the motion, provoked outrage – including from fifty-one backbenchers who refused.

The public backlash was visceral. MPs’ offices were inundated with complaints and the government was roundly condemned, even in traditionally sympathetic media outlets. Former head of MI5 Lord Jonathan Evans of Weardale (now Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life) used the first part of his scheduled address to launch the committee’s latest report on 4 November to lament the ‘very serious and damaging moment for parliament and for public standards in this country’. He argued that the ‘extraordinary proposal’ to retrospectively change the rules in the government’s favour:

"is deeply at odds with the best traditions of British democracy. The political system in this country does not belong to one party, or even to one government. It is a common good that we have all inherited from our forebears and that we all have a responsibility to preserve and to improve."

The details of the Paterson case are less significant than their confirmation of the Johnson government’s disregard for longstanding traditions of British governance. Since its landslide 2019 election victory it has sought to bend or otherwise subvert rules for its own political benefit. Journalist Andrew Rawnsley notes that ‘this contemptible episode [with Paterson] is not a one-off, but the latest exhibition of [this] pathology…’ The Economist accused the Prime Minister of ‘seeking to undermine Britain’s precarious system of checks and balances’ and ‘of neutering independent bodies supposed to hold it to account’.

Johnson has made a career of being a law unto himself. Financial Times columnist Robert Shrimsley claims Johnson ‘worries little about consequences because he trusts himself to get out of any scrape and conducts politics with a smirk as if we are all in on the joke’. And yet as Lord Evans noted, political leaders who fail to meet ethical standards undermine ‘the bonds of trust that keep our politics and governance functioning’. Moreover they damage a nation’s democracy, its economy and its ‘soft power’ – its standing in the world.

The UK has long been a beacon of good governance. It rates highly on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, but experts worry that the Johnson government risks undermining this cherished status. Since the 2016 Brexit referendum, the government has acted with impunity, perpetrating a series of constitutional abuses on key institutions of British democracy, including (inter alia) the Cabinet, the Civil Service, elections, parliament, the judiciary, the devolved institutions and even the monarchy. The Paterson affair compounds the Greensill lobbying scandal and claims of a ‘chumocracy’, where access, positions and honours are a quid pro quo for mates and political donors. Johnson’s honesty and personal integrity are also under scrutiny. He faces inquiries into his financial interests, including who funded luxury holidays and a lavish renovation of his Downing Street residence. Asked to comment on recent developments in the UK, Transparency International’s Steve Goodrich noted:

"Where rules aren’t followed and there is no consequence, the absence of accountability can breed particularly egregious behaviour that could easily slip into out-and-out corrupt practices that you might expect from less-established democracies."

As this suggests, there are consequences when there are no consequences. The systematic pattern matters here, as does the arc that’s drawn from 2016 through to the present. A report for the Constitution Society documented the inherent fragility of the UK’s model of constitutional regulation – which is premised on restraint and mutual respect for governing norms, particularly in the face of what now appear to be the Johnson government’s systematic efforts to undermine it. The Westminster tradition relies on ministers exercising power responsibly and a willingness to co-operate with oversight mechanisms. In Good Chaps No More?, Andrew Blick and Peter Hennessy argue ‘if general standards of good behaviour among senior politicians can no longer be taken for granted, then neither can the sustenance of key constitutional principles’. More effective ways need to be found to promote a culture of good behaviour among office holders and by enforcing consequences when they flout fundamental principles for short-term political gain.

Beyond undermining trust in political institutions and processes, the consequences of executive overreach include ill-considered short-term decisions that often lead to policy U-turns or expensive blunders – creating new and potentially more serious problems down the track. Take Robodebt, or comparable examples in the states and territories. Secrecy, a lack of accountability and lack of restraint breed incompetence and failure, creating a vicious cycle both for institutions and the public’s faith in them. And yet these are the hallmarks of how executive governance is now practised by populist leaders, including in the UK and Australia. It is the inevitable consequence of twenty-five years of the permanent campaign and one that epitomises the triumph of short-term partisan advantage over governing with purpose and in the long-term public interest.

Post-Brexit Britain may be further along this path, but a comparable lack of respect for traditions and conventions is also evident in Australia – particularly, but not only, at the national level. As I noted in the opening piece for this series, the examples are legion, and the trajectory is clear and increasingly desperate as the faux election campaign intensifies. In the continued absence of a federal integrity commission – the Morrison government has flagged that the legislation to establish it may not be introduced in the current term of parliament – this is something Australians should care about. An elected Senate, our federation and the need to maintain the support of parliamentary colleagues serve as constraints on prime ministerial power, but Australian leaders command infinitely greater capacity to dominate and set the culture of their governments than their UK counterparts. They are more able to act with impunity than British leaders because the ecosystem that maintains integrity and accountability is much weaker. This is opportunistic and strategic, facilitated by tight networks of interlinked, co-dependent and unaccountable advisors and staff, the complicity of safe-seat members and the hubris that breeds when codes of conduct are not enforced.

Scott Morrison embodies the decades-long evolution of the trend to centralisation and leader predominance in Australian politics on both sides. He has leveraged and strengthened the institutional and personal power resources of the prime ministership – including an inner court of trusted loyalists and a large and powerful Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). This office asserts discipline and control across the government, including the public service and Commonwealth entities such as the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Australia Post. Morrison’s PMO has developed a reputation for backgrounding against rivals and punishing critics, while his department, headed by former chief of staff Phil Gaetjens, has been accused of enabling the Prime Minister to evade accountability and scrutiny. Even senior ministers are barely visible – deferential and compliant. The media is a shadow of its former self, with fewer investigative journalists and increasing attacks on the public broadcaster, independents and other organisations that question the government’s modus operandi.

Read more at Griffith Review


Professor Anne TiernanDr Anne Tiernan is a leading Australian scholar in public policy. Her career spans higher education, federal and state government, consultancy and teaching. Now managing director of mission-led consultancy firm Constellation Impact Advisory, Anne consults regularly to organisations committed to purpose and positive impact. She has written extensively on the political–administrative interface, governmental transitions, policy capacity and executive advisory arrangements. Her publications include The Oxford Handbook of Australian Politics (co-edited with Professor Jenny Lewis, 2021), Lessons in Governing: A Profile of Prime Ministers’ Chiefs of Staff and The Gatekeepers: Lessons from Prime Ministers’ Chiefs of Staff (both with RAW Rhodes, Melbourne University Publishing, 2014), Learning to be a Minister: Heroic Expectations, Practical Realities (with Patrick Weller, Melbourne University Press, 2010) and Power Without Responsibility: Ministerial Staffers in Australian Governments from Whitlam to Howard (UNSW Press, 2007).

Dr Tiernan is a National Fellow of the Institute of Public Administration Australia and a Fellow of the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG). An Adjunct Professor with Griffith University, and previously a member of the university’s senior leadership team.

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