It’s now almost mandatory media style for any political controversy within a democracy to have the word “gate” attached to it. The reference to the great journalistic scoop of the modern age the break-in at the Democratic Party’s headquarters at the Watergate building which led to Richard Nixon’s forced resignation two years later was a scandal that started as a minor crime which, due to Nixon’s mishandling, became a political catastrophe.
It also led to a situation where the US system of government was almost rent asunder. As a consequence of Watergate, Nixon and his successor Gerald Ford, under pressure from Congress, walked away from the US commitment to provide military supplies to the anti-communist regime in South Vietnam.
This contributed to the conquest of South Vietnam by communist North Vietnam, which was supplied by the (then) Soviet Union.
There was only one Watergate. But there are many “gates”. Most recently in Australia, sections of the media in Australia have labelled “Utegate”.
The issue had been bubbling away for some time until it exploded at the weekend with allegations which focused on alleged inappropriate behaviour concerning the administration of the proposed OzCar scheme.
OzCar is designed to assist car dealers to acquire credit during the Global Financial Crisis.
The story is well known. Malcolm Turnbull maintains the Treasurer, Wayne Swan, misled Parliament about representations made on behalf of a car dealer, John Grant, who happens to be a friend of the Prime Minister.
The Opposition believes Kevin Rudd is also involved in seeking a favour for Grant who happens to have provided him with a utility for use in his electorate. And Rudd and Swan believe Turnbull made use of a forged email which he should have known was false. So Rudd and Swan have called for Turnbull to resign while Turnbull has called for Rudd and Swan to resign.
Despite all the current excitement, it seems likely that this controversy will pass without any political fatalities. The Prime Minister exhibited an error of judgment in not discontinuing the benefit he received from Grant immediately on becoming Labor leader in late 2006. And the Opposition Leader demonstrated a lack of judgment when, in the aftermath of Peter Costello’s retirement announcement, he threw the switch to exuberance and called for Rudd to resign.
It is not credible that Rudd would act improperly for so slight a benefit as access to a motor vehicle. And it is not believable that Turnbull would knowingly use a false email to score a political point. The OzCar legislation is yet to pass the Senate and it is not clear whether the Special Purpose Vehicle proposal will ever be implemented. In other words, all this is a long way short of the real Watergate.
If anyone were forced to resign on account of the OzCar issue, it would be an unfortunate day for Australia. Whether or not you agree with their policies or the style of their behaviour, Rudd, Swan and Turnbull are able politicians who are in no sense corrupt or corruptible.
The willingness of some journalists to attach the word “gate” to various political controversies stands in stark contrast to the all but total lack of corruption at the Commonwealth level.
There is some corruption in local government and occasional illegal behaviour in state and territory administrations. But the Commonwealth Government is all but without stain in this regard. In recent memory, all governments have lost ministers for example, Ros Kelly when Paul Keating was prime minister, Jim Short in Howard’s time and this year, Joel Fitzgibbon. All three made errors of omission or commission but no corruption or even improper behaviour was established.
When in opposition, Labor made much of the AWB’s improper actions in the Iraq oil-for-food scheme and Rudd even accused Howard of lying about this matter. Yet no impropriety against any politician or senior public servant was established and Howard and his senior ministers were cleared by an inquiry which had judicial powers. If there were evidence of improper action it surely would have leaked by now.
No doubt, the OzCar controversy will continue to gain significant media interest. This is understandable – since the relative absence of corruption in Australian political culture has the unintended consequence of translating the mundane into scandal. Also, some alienated or disaffected types have a natural tendency to see impropriety where others see argument. In yesterday’s Australian Financial Review, the embittered former Labor leader Mark Latham reflected on the “evils” of political patronage in Australia. He provided scant evidence for so serious an allegation and failed to explain why he did not act on such matters when he led the ALP.
Latham’s intervention is unfortunate because it gives a false impression about the operation of democratic government in Australia. The real story turns not on corruption but, rather, its relative absence.
What is politically significant this week centres on the debate over whether Australia should take a legislated position on carbon reduction to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen next December. Or whether, like the US, Australia should decide its emissions trading policy after Copenhagen. Australian policy on carbon reduction really matters because it has a direct impact on both jobs and exports. Compared with this, the argument about a second hand ute is a trivial matter just another gate blowing in the wind.