The violence we have recently seen from a minority of anti-vax protesters is unacceptable and police should arrest and fine especially violent participants. It’s their job.

The fact that some of the demonstrators are now testing positive for COVID-19 highlights the risk they pose to us all.

But with the urging by police to ring Crime Stoppers and dob in protesters, thousands have answered the call, including with photos and videos.

For so many of our fellow citizens to be scanning news reports and dobbing in protesters, be they of the anti-lockdown or Black Lives Matter variety, makes me feel uncomfortable. Not because the protesters do not deserve to be brought to account, but because this dobbing-in trend runs counter to valued aspects of Australian culture – namely mateship.

In the world I grew up in, you confronted mates directly when they did something stupid like speeding or drink-driving . You told them in no uncertain terms they were being stupid. If they didn’t listen, you walked away from that friendship. But you did not dob them in, except in cases of extreme illegality.

It is not only in the public realm of illegal COVID demonstrations that the dob-in trend is evident.

With hundreds of new probity officers in the public and political spheres, dobbing in colleagues is endemic and this has transformed many workplaces into places of suspicion and fear, rather than counselling and mateship.

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Nothing is exempt. If you discover that a couple of your workmates have an intimate relationship or friendship that might, even in theory, create potential undue influence, you should dob them in to your supervisor.

I saw this in a recent IBAC sponsored forum on enhancing integrity, where many participants argued that close friendships as well as intimate relationships in the workplace should be reported to supervisors.

And, of course, no lunches with people where a potential conflict might arise. Even if each person pays for themself, it must still be declared. The longstanding tradition of taking it in turns to pay is a no-no as each lunch must be declared as a gift by the non-paying party. These strict integrity requirements, and the increasing acceptability of a dob-in culture in the pandemic era, are all based on a dark view of human motivations.

Tough rules and punishments to keep us in check and dob in those who break the rules are now the norm.

But human beings are not driven entirely by such dark motives. Motives are multifaceted and include genuine friendship, a real desire to pursue better public outcomes, and diverse cultural and political beliefs.

So, for example, for many cultures, offering to pay for lunch is part of their DNA. They resent the suggestion that this somehow makes them corrupt.

To be fair, IBAC did note that integrity considerations should not completely eradicate the human or cultural elements in our society. But it says something about the emerging work culture that a majority in the forum supported a stricter interpretation of integrity rules.

It is, of course, also possible that the individuals dobbing in their colleagues have personal or political agendas and use scrutinising bodies to ruin reputations and bring down opponents. Scrutinising bodies, senior public servants and parliaments alike must always be alive to this possibility.

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Reasons to be cautious

There are three reasons to be cautious.

First, a dob-in culture, within the context of a pandemic, can undermine our very democracy.

Those following the rules resent the demonstrators for putting them in danger. And many figure that if they are forced to comply with punishing rules, the rule breakers should be dobbed in and punished.

The demonstrators then become ever more aggressive, with Trump-like responses that challenge the legitimacy of our law enforcement. Our democracy becomes ever more divided – a trend that is evident in the US.

Second, in line with what the Victorian Auditor-General , Andrew Greaves, has argued, we must broaden the concept of integrity to include efficiency and getting good public outcomes.

For example, if ministers become obsessed with integrity and accountability requirements, they stay at “arm’s length” and leave decisions to “the experts” and the bureaucracy to avoid personal scrutiny.

It is not surprising that even a royal commission could not determine who decided to use contractors in quarantine. Building on Greaves’ point, it makes no sense to have a swag of individuals who claim to be honest and ethical – and who rush to dob-in their mates – but who are totally ineffective as decision-makers .
I have mentioned before how as a Minister I would sometimes meet one on one with a CEO to get a deal or an outcome for the State. This is rarely done these days but that’s how I got Etihad to start flying into Melbourne. It’s how I convinced Andrew Demetriou of the AFL and Geoff Lord of Melbourne Victory to support the construction of AAMI stadium against significant opposition.

Third, one of Australia’s economic strengths is in its cultural diversity. In many cultures it is normal to cultivate friendships as part of doing business. Australians who successfully do business overseas know this. But behind such friendships undue influence or collusion are increasingly assumed. This can curtail many potential opportunities.

A society that is really based on integrity values diverse cultural and individual human contributions to innovation that deliver public good. A rampant dob-in culture does not enhance these goals.

Theo Theophanous is a commentator and former Victorian Labor minister.