The Tragedy of Costello's New Job

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Last Monday it was announced that former Australian Treasurer Peter Costello had accepted an appointment to the World Bank’s corruption advisory committee, known as the Independent Advisory Board. Costello told the Sydney Morning Herald it was a paid position but that he would also remain in Parliament.

Is this the best Costello can do? Before he finally ended the speculation that he was about to come out of semi-retirement and lead the Coalition, there were plenty of people expecting him to take a high-paying corporate job. But it seems even the big end of town doesn’t want him. Costello is a known quantity and as such appears to have burnt his bridges.

Still, one might have thought that anyone accepting a position on such an important body as the World Bank, carrying the weighty responsibility of examining the organisation’s procedures and preventing corruption associated with Bank projects, would have a finely tuned moral compass. But it is hard to say that about Peter Costello, a senior figure in a government which committed some of the most scandalous and controversial policy errors in our history.

The board Costello is going to join is a new body which was supposed to be staffed by "international anti-corruption experts". Even with the best will in the world, it’s difficult to read Costello’s CV and find him qualified for this job.

In its press release, the Bank says the new panel is expected to "protect the independence and strengthen the accountability of the [Bank’s Department of Institutional Integrity]"

Anyone who watched as the former government ignored their own independent bodies would be forgiven for thinking that Costello’s heart won’t be in the job.

He was the Treasurer in a government that detained people, including children, indefinitely, ignored the calls of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission for better treatment of asylum seekers and rejected similar attempts by international bodies to get us to behave decently towards such vulnerable people. You would think the World Bank would have made something of the fact that this policy was in contravention of Australian Law and International Conventions to which Australia is a signatory.

At the same time, the Howard government took the art of stacking public bodies with political appointees to new heights, repressed in-house and independent reports and made a mockery of freedom of information rules.

Perhaps most disturbing of all, while Costello was in power ministers made themselves virtually unsackable, able to avoid responsibility for nearly everything as they developed ways to avoid being told things that were inconvenient for them to know.

He believed, or found it convenient to believe, that asylum seekers would throw their children overboard in order to gain attention for their claim to enter Australia, and as a result should be demonised and punished by the Cabinet of which he was a leading figure.

Perhaps, however, Costello’s moral failings as part of the Howard government are not a big deal to the World Bank. However they ought to be concerned at his role in a government apparently unaware of the involvement of AWB in Iraq in the run up to the war.

Did the government know of bribes paid to seal our wheat deals? Did they suggest them? Did they collude and facilitate the payments? What enquiries did they make? How did they address their duty of care and their responsibilities to the market and Australian taxpayers? This was a major bribery scandal and the Howard government claimed to have known nothing about it. How does this sit with Costello’s new position? Was the World Bank aware of this failure when they appointed him?

Although that was a scandal closer to Alexander Downer (recently appointed as UN special envoy for Cyprus), it reflected the atmosphere of ministerial unaccountability that characterised the political cult Costello was a key part of.

On the upside, you could argue that having had the opportunity to witness such a dodgy operation from close quarters means Costello has the right kind of experience to spot that sort of thing again.

One would assume that, as Treasurer, Costello was aware of the plans of Dixon and Mansfield to take Qantas offshore, to the short term detriment of Qantas employees and the long term deterioration in the provision of air services within and to Australia. But there again, he did and said nothing.

In Parliament Costello shouted, bullied and belittled, but when push came to shove he did not challenge a prime minister who used the plight of Aborigines and refugees to further his political agenda. He actively supported Work Choices and scorned the notion of spending the budget surplus on infrastructure, health, education and research.

With this track record, Costello proved himself as a sharp operator, but not someone who will take a position against something that is wrong.

He brings little value to the World Bank, an organisation in need of fundamental change, and one whose major achievement has been to provide substantial tax-free salaries to senior employees.

One reason why corruption works is that very often you need a lot of courage to stand up and fight it. Costello had plenty of opportunities to take a stand against the morally bankrupt acts of the Howard government, but he was unwilling, or unable.

It is difficult not to ask questions about the seriousness of the World Bank about preventing corruption in itself and its projects if it goes about it like this. The situation is even worse when you consider that on this board there are only three other people. Even if the others are anti-corruption geniuses, the small body can never work at full strength.

Corruption in World Bank projects is a serious problem, and results in death, displacement and ruin for poor people in many countries. It is a pity that once again vulnerable people will be depending on Peter Costello to defend them.

This article has been edited from its original version.

New Matilda

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