Official inquiries shine light on the dark side of human nature

Individual self-interest is at the heart of much of the dark side of institutions. 

We are going through very dark times indeed, observing the dark side of too many institutions and individuals on a regular basis. It is no exaggeration to say that almost no institution in Australian society, public or private, left or right, big or small has been left untouched.

My focus is the current major inquiries into aspects of Australian life by royal commissions and/or the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. The list is a long one, including five major subjects of investigation. Each of the inquiries is broad.  Most have called numerous witnesses to public hearings. No final reports have yet been issued but the preliminary findings and the content of public hearings all point towards damning conclusions.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is currently sitting in Canberra. Previous inquiries have been held in Melbourne and Newcastle. Its focus has been on the Marist Brothers in particular and the Catholic Church in general. But previous hearings have focussed on the shortcomings of government-run institutions as well as other churches. There have been hearings on the Salvation Army, the Scouts and the YMCA among other organisations. Police and the legal profession have also been implicated. Half or more of the Australian community has an association and/or identification with these institutions.

The NSW Independent Commission against Corruption has been sitting in Sydney to examine a number of cases involving criminal and/or unethical behaviour in public life. It has implicated both sides of major party politics, probably more so the previous state Labor government but Liberals, too. Several former ministers have been implicated in large-scale corruption and many others, including MPs, lobbyists, fund-raisers and party officials have been condemned for their association with dubious if not criminal behaviour. A dark underside to public life has been revealed.

The Royal Commission into Trade Union Union Governance and Corruption is sitting in Melbourne, investigating alleged corruption in many parts of the official labour movement. The unions involved in public hearings so far include the Australian Workers Union and the Health Services Union. Major public figures, including former prime minister Julia Gillard, have been the subject of allegations from former union officials. The enquiry has cast a pall over an institution (trade unions) which still claims up to 20 per cent of the workforce as past or present members. At least one major company is involved.

An ABC Four Corners report recently cast further light into the long-running enquiries into sexual harassment and abuse within the Australian Defence Force. Investigations are ongoing under the leadership of Justice Len Roberts-Smith, chairman of the Defence Abuse Response Taskforce. There have been several damning reports over the past decade and allegations of hundreds of unresolved cases. It is probable that some of those implicated are still serving in positions of authority. Many believe there should be a royal commission and some even want the Australian Defence Force Academy shut down. Roberts-Smith reckons sexual abuse in the Defence Force, an institution with which most Australians identify in one way or another, is much greater than has ever been publicly acknowledged.

The royal commission into the previous Labor federal government’s home insulation scheme has investigated the role of ministers, public servants and the private sector in the administration of a scheme that led to four deaths. Former prime minister Kevin Rudd has appeared to defend his stewardship of the program, as have other former ministers and public servants. The program itself was implemented by many large and small businesses within the private sector.

These inquiries all receive plenty of publicity but that focus tends to be narrow. Reporters have their specialities and very few reports join the dots between the inquiries. Readers, sometimes driven by partisanship, have their pet guilty parties.

As a consequence the light is shone in turn on individual institutional targets: federal governments; state governments; the churches; welfare agencies; trade unions; the military; big business; small business; lobbyists; political parties; the police, and so on.

There are common themes, however, which reflect on Australian society as a whole, including politics and many of our major institutions. The stories that emerge are not just about a few bad apples but about dysfunctional institutions. These institutions have cultural problems. Invariably they lack transparency and defend their own self-interest. Senior office-holders have abused public trust and the trust of their members. Of course, all of these institutions also distinguish themselves by the good they do in and for the community. But that is not the point.

There is no easy solution to this institutional criminality and malfunction which indirectly touches nearly all of us, but three general points should be made.

We should be looking beyond individual commissions of inquiry and particular guilty institutions. The facts must be established. Criminal actions should be punished. No one in high office, whether they be ministers, chief executive officers, archbishops or generals should be protected or spared. Nevertheless the bigger picture of cultural dysfunction is ultimately more important, particularly if history is not to be repeated.

Second, government should not be made the scapegoat. Nor is stronger government the solution to better individual behaviour, no matter how much the law is enforced or new regulations introduced to manage public and private institutions.

Finally, human nature is central. Individual self-interest is at the heart of much of the dark side of institutions. The problems are so widespread that no one political, religious or social philosophy has the answer. We can’t just push the blame onto our political, religious or social opponents. Very few of us can be absolved from contributing in some part to the cultural understandings within which these abuses flourish.

John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University

[email protected]

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