Why ICAC is indispensable

Stone the crows! Think corruption is crook here? You must have missed Four Corners last week on the cartels that run the drug trade in Mexico.

The country is a Hobbesian horror where the gangs fight each other for turf, kill anybody else who gets in the way and where sensible civilians do not know which officials are straight and accordingly trust none of them.

There are all sorts of reasons for this catastrophe. The obvious one is to blame the Americans. Certainly without the vast US demand for cocaine and marijuana the profits of the trade would be smaller and the struggle for market share commensurately less intense.

But if the Americans legalised drugs, crims being crims, the cartels would just find other areas of the economy to corrupt. They would fight for stand-over franchises, take control of gambling or simply levy their own taxes, without the bother of providing services in turn.

To assume that the Americans are to blame for Mexico’s woes confuses cause and effect. The trade exists because Mexican governments failed to stop it.

And they failed long before the shooting started. Long before the Mexican military was deployed to defeat the armies of the drug lords who fight each other on city streets and murder anyone who annoys them.

They failed when the first officials and attorneys, ministers and military commanders, party bosses and police chiefs, signed on with the cartel. And the more people on the payroll the bolder the crims got.

If there was ever a case for every Australian state having an independent corruption commission that can compel police and public servants to answer questions Mexico makes it.

The only way to kill corruption is to stop it before it starts, to create a culture of fear among anybody with the opportunity to bend or break the rules.

Every backhander to a bodgie town planner, every kickback to a corrupt copper, every patronage pea for a public service pod, every act of petty corruption, takes us down the Mexican road.

And the only way to avoid it is to set standards and ensure they stick. Australia has no private armies fighting for control of crime empires worth billions and it certainly has stronger civil institutions than Mexico.

So does Canada. But bikie gangs fought a civil war on the streets of Montreal throughout the 1990s, for control of a drug trade worth a mere $100 million a year. The city saw 160 murders between 1994 and 2001, including 20 people caught in the crossfire.

Towards the end, the dominant gang was murdering off duty prison guards to make clear the case against imprisoning their members.

And it all occurred because the state lacked the resources and determination to stop them. Beating this sort of crime, which at the very least relies on people in government looking the other way, requires a zero tolerance approach to public sector probity.

And an ICAC or its equivalent is the way to do it.

Sure this comes at a price. Whenever an ICAC or equivalent investigates an innocent minister who comes up clean people argue we do not need standing corruption inquiries, that they waste time and money and accomplish nothing.


Eternal vigilance is the price of probity.

“It takes very little to govern good people. Very little. And bad people can’t be governed at all. Or if they could I never heard of it,” Sheriff Bell says in Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men.

The trick is to stop the crims acquiring influence over the institutions of civil society. Because once they have it they will use it and once crims have mates in power at any level they are very hard to stop.