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

Jan 12, 2018


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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