JOHN WARHURST. Corruption and decay of Australian politics. A REPOST from June 15 2017


This week’s ABC Four Corners program that revisited, after 30 years, Chris Masters’ revelations of police corruption in Queensland, “The Moonlight State”, brings to mind how widespread corruption in Australian politics has been since then. 

Yet we remain relatively unconcerned by the parade of corruption and its near neighbour, unethical insider lobbying, in our public affairs. Too often, revelations are treated as individual instances – the occasional bad apple – rather than part of a pattern that reveals the stench of systemic decay.

A similar failure to see the big picture is also true of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse’s revelations. These criminal outrages are compartmentalised by concentrating on crimes by churches rather than put into a broader social framework by linking them to evidence revealed by other inquiries into sexual harassment in the armed forces, and bullying and corruption in the union movement. We are afraid to join the dots, and gain comfort in restricting our anger to individual sectors or states as if there was no wider social problem.

The replay of the Moonlight State corruption, which reached up to police commissioner Terry Lewis and other high-ranking police officers, showed how deeply infected the police force was and how intertwined it was with guilty criminals. Together, they fought back to put immense pressure on the lives and careers of Masters and his brave informants within the force. All was eventually revealed by the Fitzgerald inquiry into police and government misconduct, called, to his credit, by police minister and acting premier Bill Gunn.

Thirty years later, Four Corners and Fairfax Media together revealed the extent of potential corruption caused by Chinese-Australian political donations on a huge scale to both sides of Australian major party politics. Several millionaire businessmen with links to the Chinese government and the ruling Communist Party have insinuated themselves into politics.

These revelations will predictably be met by the federal government and opposition banning foreign political donations. But such action has come about remarkably slowly in response to public pressure rather than being met immediately with urgent action by the political class. The response is piecemeal and limited once again, rather than a broad-brush investigation of a creeping cultural sickness at the heart of Australian politics.

Associated with the revelations of Chinese influence has been further evidence of the role of lobbyists and consultants within and on the fringes of the system. Former trade minister Andrew Robb joined the payroll of one of the big Chinese donors precipitously a day before the July 2 federal election. He did not breach the letter of any “revolving door” rules or cooling-off period but he certainly tested the spirit of such rules.

Robb reacted indignantly to any suggestion of personal unethical conduct, indicating he was employed to give advice on international rather than domestic developments. But, at the very least, this revelation of a personal contract worth nearly $1 million a year demonstrates the tremendous value to well-heeled political donors of high-level insider advice from former cabinet ministers and the lack of transparency about global business-government relations.

Fairfax also revealed another example of the well-worn track between senior political staff and the world of lobbying. Former NSW premier Mike Baird’s director of strategy, Nigel Blunden, and his wife, also a former staffer to a NSW cabinet minister, applied to become lobbyists less than six months after he resigned his government position. Such a development would be unremarkable if it were not so common.

No cooling-off period is required in NSW despite a 2010 recommendation by ICAC that such rules that which apply to ministers should also apply to their staff. Once again, governments are treating such evidence of insider politics as a low priority despite evidence that the public are keen for such loopholes to be closed.

Simultaneously, we are treated to the fruits of another ICAC corruption inquiry, with the jailing of former NSW Labor minister for mines, Ian McDonald, and the continuing court cases of the already jailed former minister Eddie Obeid and members of his family. All involved continue to protest their innocence but, as well as noting their clear self-interest, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that they were immersed for so long in a sick political environment that they are blind to their guilt.

Pressure has now mounted for a federal corruption commission and for corruption commissions in other states and territories, including the ACT, which have still not moved in this direction. Further restrictions on political donations will also undoubtedly be introduced and the necessary steps will probably be taken soon. The political parties are pragmatic enough to read the political winds.

But history will show that governments of all persuasions take only stuttering steps, as they need been dragged along behind media investigations and a rising swell of adverse public opinion against corruption and insider politics. Governments and parliaments are much too relaxed about evidence of a self-serving political culture but feign outrage whenever corrupt behaviour is uncovered.

Too often, governments ignore the big picture. Consequently, the remedies proposed are often too narrow and fail to address the necessary internal cultural change. Governments are always quick to demand cultural change by other failing public institutions, like business, unions, churches and the armed forces, yet they are reluctant to apply such a remedy to themselves. We need a royal commission into insider politics.

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

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3 Responses to JOHN WARHURST. Corruption and decay of Australian politics. A REPOST from June 15 2017

  1. Michael D. Breen says:

    Not a wholesome picture, John, and who cares? Who benefits? Certainly not the mass of the population. Meanwhile the soul and heart of the Nation is infected. As it is there is no personal internal morality to be relied on. It is only the 11th commandment, “thou shal not be caught”. So we need a catcher.
    If politicians believe they can break the law of the land, or interfeere in due process, bend the rules or profit inordinately from their tax payer funded career development on retiring, or beiing sacked, why not everyone else?
    The media as you describe can play a significant role. But the media can also bury the symptoms or interfere with the evidence.
    As a citizen I fear more from the predations of Lend Lease or the Macquarie Bank with their brimming lobbying coffers than I do from ISIS.
    This seems an inevitable outcome of capitalism. Those with the most dollars run the rest. They can buy influence, netwworks and decisions. The rest of us have to abide by the rules. “Have you thought of writing to your local member?”
    All the clinical indications are that we need a specialist body to manage the national malady. How to get it? What would happen if enough citizens on the basis of not getting goods and services for the taxes we pay garnered our tax bills? Say a one dollar in ten? If enough of us did it the it would be difficult to pursue the individual dollars. And all we would be doing is using our little power to ask for reform.
    Meanwhile The Australian Wheat Board get away with their illegal sales to Iraq. Statutary bodies like the Human Rights Commission or our international obligations and agreements towards refugees are twisted to suit. Howard gets away with a crazy decision to go to Iraq and the poor bereft ex politicians sit in a mercinary slave market hoping someone will offer them a job. No it’s time to blow the whistle and call a an honest cop.

  2. Jim KABLE says:

    Let me speak plainly – like a politician – but that I am not – so here goes… “Everywhere I go around Australia (are you with me this far?) people tell me they wouldn’t trust a politician as far as they could kick one! They are all (so they say – slight – but only slight – hyperbole) out for themselves and for their mates – those lobbying them – and giving them and their parties kickbacks in terms of funding/donations…destroying the farmlands. (Hey! I’m currently in Barnaby Joyce’s mis-managed seat of New England – not a farmer here with a kind word to say about CSG and coal-mining (Barnaby’s loves) – even this afternoon I had one – initially guardedly so – railing against the destruction of our beautiful countryside and agricultural land – until he understood I was in sympathy with his perspective)! Sacking the lot of them now would not be too drastic – and put the indignant Robb out of contact with any government instrumentality, please – what a sneaky devious little tired hard-working chap was he – knowing the rainbow with the golden salary lay right there along with – nay before – his “retirement”! Right royally rorting!

  3. Paul Frijters says:


    agreed on the problem, but the solution will take more than a few overpaid lawyers in Melbourne coming up with a commission report and delivering a few token sacrificial lambs: when your problem is with pretty much the whole of ‘authority’, it is not from even more authority that you should seek the solution. That the lazy attitude that got us here and will keep you here (guess who will write the terms of reference to that commission?).

    It will take tens of thousands of people taking an active part in driving a wholesale reform of the political and administrative system. And millions of voters.

    I personally think that holding the top of the political tree to account, in particular our former prime ministers, is a good place to start, and would like to see those of the Lib/Lab persuasions to go after the traitors in their midst. I also like the idea of a new anti-corruption political movement. History shows they can rise remarkably fast.

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