Revelations of corruption and actions that look suspiciously like corruption shock us but they shouldn’t: look for corruption in Australia – as in many western democracies – and you will never be disappointed. It’s as common as other national institutions – the barbecue or the Akubra – indeed, it’s been normalised.
It’s been exceptionally easy to acquire an education in corruption in Australia because the opportunities abound. In my own case, I was blessed in this regard by teaching politics for six years in Western Australia in the 1980s leading up to the Royal Commission of Inquiry known colloquially as WA Inc. It was especially instructive to find one’s former students receiving mentions in the despatches.
This education has also been greatly enhanced by well over thirty years in the university system but whereas corruption in the former was high end – criminal and frequently to the financial benefit of friends, family relatives, trusted colleagues and supportive organizations, the latter is more circumspect. It is far more subtle and curial, especially where official favour is an ongoing sensitivity and perhaps best exemplified by habits of mind still to be found in my own academic home, the Australian National University.
From its earliest days, it maintained such close relations with government that its Vice-Chancellor, in 1955, could assure the Minister for External Affairs (who, in turn, assured the Prime Minister, but urged him nevertheless to pressure the Vice-Chancellor), that the ‘right type of man’ would be sought for appointment to the Chair of International Relations. Specifically and importantly, he was someone who would be selected on the basis of ‘qualifications other than professional.’ Yet, in the words of Shakespeare’s Mark Antony, they were “all honourable men.”
This is not to say that Western Australia, or the universities are intrinsically corrupt; rather, it is to say that, look as we might, there are no corruption-free zones. In any case, we have been entertained by accounts of the phenomenon – else when Frank Hardy’s Power Without Glory and Morris West’s Cassidy. Though both are fictional tales about the compromises of lives of power and corruption, they read also as modern Australian political history and their portents are frequently realised in the reports of the six state-based specialist anti-corruption agencies established sine 1988.
There are many rooms in the house of corruption: on a horizontal continuum they range from large scale dishonesty, bribery and embezzlement, through to a range of accommodations and small favours committed behind screens of opacity. Vertically, the scale runs from the petty to the grand to the systemic. All are, in a declaratory sense, anathema to the governments and organisations in which it is practised. As a general rule, however, the resources devoted to countering it are insufficient, not least because the majority of the relevant polities have so learned to tolerate it that has become normalised.
In sum, there is an acceptable level of corruption. It is a robust game capable of being played indoors and outdoors and there is no discrimination (religious, political, physical, gender, social, racial) as to who may participate.
Accordingly, there are behaviours which look unseemly and suspicious to decent people and which in a political system governed by honesty and integrity would be defined as corruption, yet so few dare call them corruption; indeed, their actions are thought to be sound career moves.
By way of just five examples, how else do we explain the limp protestations by the public and opposition parties in the face of:
- 1. A Defence Minister of just 10 months standing retiring from politics and becoming an advisor to leading defence contractor.
- 2. The use of RAAF aircraft as transport by federal MPs and Senators from Western Australia at a cost in excess of $10,000 per parliamentarian, per flight, in order to avoid the inconvenience of traveling a day earlier or making a connecting flight.
- 3. Widespread avoidance of responsibility by Cabinet Ministers claiming they did not know of actions which could result in their dismissal being taken by their staff.
- 4. The tasking of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, using the cover of an aid project to install listening devices in the East Timorese ministerial offices in Dili for the purposes of providing Australia with secret access to East Timor’s internal deliberations and negotiating tactics with regard to the bilateral negotiations over oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea, a relatively short time after which the administrative Head of the Department in question, joined the board of directors of one of the principal corporate beneficiaries, and the responsible Minister, upon retirement from politics, was appointed a lobbyist for the same company.
- 5. The current Australian Government’s unsolicited donation of $444 million to the Great Barrier Foundation without due process.
The lessons of the past and of now remain the same as they have been since the ancient Greeks wrote on politics nearly 2,500 years ago: Force and fraud are ever present and the latter is endemic whenever and wherever large-scale government funding is at hand.
Explaining this requires an understanding of political history because it helps to dispel a core myth concerning democracy. That myth holds that, when monarchy gave way to democracy, the sovereigns narrow interests were supplanted by the nation’s. Cute and consoling – but wrong. In point of fact, the state which emerged and which vastly more responsibilities than the monarch could ever have imagined had a cornucopia of potential patronages at its disposal. There weren’t called that of course but their euphemisms are common parlance: tax exemptions, ear marks, subsidies, tenure, ambassadorships, appointments to a dazzling array of boards and agencies, no-bid contracts, defence contracts, etc, etc.
All is finessed by the appearances that all is given in that spirit described as the “nobility of mind” which animates the paternalistic politician attending to the needs of his people but this should not disguise the nature of the practice.
An awareness of it might prepare Australia for its current trajectory into a period of extraordinary corruption jeopardy, specifically in the domain of defence procurement.
Australia has long been silent on the fact that its dominant alliance partner, the United States, and source of many of its weapons systems has a defence industrial sector which, by any strict definition, must be described as profoundly and chronically pathological and frequently criminal. Since 1950 over 30 reports and studies have reached virtually the same conclusions and made the same recommendations for reform of this syndrome but without effect.
Given that the Australian Government is buying a fleet of Joint Strike Fighters at an announced cost of $12.4 billion from this source, why is it that the question of corruption risk has never entered public discussions – just as it has remained absent from the debate over the future submarine project conservatively costed at $50 billion?
The answer is quite straightforward given the easy access to the historical record: corruption is tolerated and / or concealed from the public. And this of course is a form of corruption in itself.
From 1982 to 1988, Michael McKinley taught diplomacy international relations and strategy in the department of Politics, at UWA. From 1988 to 2014 he taught diplomacy, international relations and strategy at the ANU. He is currently a member of the Emeritus Faculty at the ANU.