When does a political system become corrupt? When is the line crossed from garden variety rorting by a few members of parliament to institutionalised abuse of taxpayers’ money by the system?
The latest scandal over politicians’ entitlements has been like lifting the proverbial rock to discover a deeply, ethically challenged netherworld. One flagrant folly scuttled out, only to be followed by a horde of others.
Individual politicians have responded by pointing the finger at everyone and everything except themselves. This includes blaming their transgressions on a “system” of entitlements they created.
The public has reacted with disgust. And rightly so. This is our money being used for gratuitous chopper rides and flying the family business class to outback resorts.
It’s also compounded a growing view that our democratic system has become largely unaccountable and insensitive to citizens and, as a result, is reaching breaking point.
In this hothouse environment of outraged public opinion, it can be easy to exaggerate current events into claims of a full-blown crisis. After all, politicians have been up to these sorts of shenanigans since forever.
So how do we run a ruler over recent transgressions to see if they represent a superficial problem, or something more deeply embedded? Fortunately we have guidelines in the form of an article by American philosopher Amelie Rorty on how and why corruption begins and spreads.
Rorty is concerned with “the gradual corruption of an individual”. But her observations have important implications for the institutions and systems that individuals inhabit.
Her article, “How to Harden Your Heart: Six Easy Ways to Become Corrupt”, says the slippery slide to corruption is rarely obvious or defined by a single event. Instead, it happens by nuance and degrees.
It usually starts as the result of small errors of judgment. Individuals might rationalise their behaviour as minor infractions and even admit wrongdoing. But no real steps are taken to stamp out these behaviours. As acceptance of small errors compounds, hardens and spreads, self-deception leads to denial. The occasional individual ethical lapse becomes habitual corruption.
Applying Rorty’s thinking to our national political system provides a disturbing insight into where it is, and where it might be heading. The conclusion is unthinkable in a country that prides itself and its democratic system as being largely “clean”.
Rorty points to six warning signs that indicate if an individual is moving into the danger zone. The cues are eerily similar to what many in the community now consider to be broader weaknesses of our political system.
The first danger signal is what Rorty calls “attention to the present”. In the context of our political system it’s the overweening obsession with the short term and is potentially dangerous in fostering corruption because it allows wrongdoers to disconnect their present actions from future consequences. Obsessive reliance by MPs on fortnightly opinion polls is but one example of this corrosive impact.
Another warning sign is what Rorty calls “groupie attraction” or “gravitating to the company of like-minded” – a succinct way of describing the Canberra political bubble.
This is dangerous because the groupthink it creates provides both protection and support for wrongdoing (what is upheld as the “standard” in Canberra won’t often pass the pub test in Castlemaine).
Another red flag, “imitating the leader”, is self-explanatory in a political world where parties and Parliaments are increasingly organised around the dictates of their leaders.
“Captain’s calls” are increasingly the norm. The result is political subordinates who struggle to think for themselves. Rorty describes this warning sign as when “newcomers and initiates gravitate to powerful figures. Without realising it, novices emulate the behaviour of those who model ‘how things are done’.”
One final sign is “papering over the cracks”, which Rorty highlights as an attempt to distance the problem from the cause. We have seen this in Canberra via claims the problem lies with the “system” and not the ethical lapses of individuals.
In short, Rorty requires us to face up to the cause, not the symptom.
The entitlements scandal is a sign of alarming and unprecedented corrosion of Australia’s political culture. It has emerged from a succession of suspect individual moral judgments contributing to what is becoming a debased political system. That’s why far-reaching measures are needed to stamp out the rot before more damaging behaviours take hold.
Measures offered by politicians that are likely to tinker with the present expenses system will be insufficient. As Rorty warns, “when corruption is widespread, home-grown prevention can at best provide only some resistance”.
Full, immediate and independent transparency on entitlement use is but the first step on the long road to democratic renewal.
Dr Mark Triffitt is a lecturer in public policy at the University of Melbourne. Dr Travers McLeod is the chief executive officer of the Centre for Policy Development.
This article first appeared in the Melbourne Age on August 13, 2015.