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Ethics in Australian public life have reached an all-time low

Some years ago, a lawyer friend of mine was released from prison after serving time for trust account fraud. Upon being asked what he was hoping to do with his liberty, he mused that teaching ethics to law students was his new calling. After I picked myself up off the floor, he explained that he had previously thought ethics was a lot of silly annoying rules, rather than a moral code, and he hoped to save the next generation from going where he had been.

Nicola Gobbo appeared on the ABC last year, but her face hasn't been seen at the royal commission this week.

Nicola Gobbo appeared on the ABC last year, but her face hasn’t been seen at the royal commission this week.Credit:ABC

His inquiries to various law schools drew a blank.

John Cain, the most ethical politician I ever met, was this week honoured at a memorial service. Premier Daniel Andrews announced that part of the tennis centre will be renamed John Cain Arena to honour his memory. But how about a better legacy for Cain – restoring integrity and teeth to Freedom Of Information laws, another of John Cain’s remarkably progressive creations?

The Labor state government has taken to releasing reports with the content entirely blanked out, just pages and pages of black ink, instead of submitting to proper scrutiny. This is a betrayal of the FoI mandate and a betrayal of the legacy of its creator.

Illustration: Matt Davidson

Illustration: Matt DavidsonCredit:

Casey Council extended paid leave to former mayor Sam Aziz, who has urgently decamped to Egypt just as strong evidence of bribery is ventilated against him at the IBAC. He denies any wrongdoing, but, inconveniently, a heart condition prevents him returning to attempt to clear his name. The council claims it has legal advice that it is compelled to keep paying its absent and disgraced former leader.

And then, to put the icing on top, an offshore company, part of a complex international network of companies fronted by Heston Blumenthal, trousers a $2 million licence fee from Crown casino to open a restaurant using the celebrity TV chef’s fame as a drawcard.  Over just a few years the staff are underpaid $4.5 million. Crown say it was nothing to do with them … they just advertised for the staff, interviewed them, vetted who got hired but never directly employed any of those forced into working huge unpaid overtime. No, not at all. They were in fact employed by a company registered in a Caribbean island tax haven, untraceable and unaccountable.

Who else got dudded here? Crown was charging Heston rent of $1 a year, so we assume that peppercorn rent was paid and Crown are not down the gurgler for one entire dollar. But what about the ATO? Superannuation? Other small and trade creditors?

And what of the creative hard-working accountants and solicitors who structured ghastly confection? Their work was almost as complex as the pungent sauces and flavours that made Heston famous around the world. But unlike the tax experts, Heston’s staff leave you with a pleasant taste in the mouth.

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I spent last week working in Port Moresby. The new prime minister, James Marape, is committed to creating an anti-corruption commission and whistleblower protection laws when their Parliament resumes in a few weeks. It looks as if PNG will have an ICAC before Australia does.

Our government seems to be made up of the last people to get their heads around the urgent need for a similar national body here. Might the sports rorts scandal be an example of the type of referral to a National Integrity Commission [NIC] that the Coalition is determined to avoid? And the ALP want to call it that so that when the warrants are issued you are “nicked”.

Back in Port Moresby, when asked why he was committed to doing what many PNG PMs had all promised to do but never delivered, Marape said he was doing it because he wants his kids to be proud of their name. His spontaneous answer provoked spontaneous applause from the sceptical and wary mining executives and business audience he was addressing.

This week the Cain family were publicly honoured, and rightly so. When he delivers, so will the Marapes in PNG. But the Blumenthals? The Aziz family? Was the quick buck worth the public disgrace?

And my heart goes out to an ailing Sir James Gobbo, former governor of Victoria, and those many honourable Gobbo family members for the continuing cloud over their otherwise distinguished legacy.

Jon Faine is a former presenter on ABC 774.

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