ICAC, TRANSPARENCY & THE ESSENCE OF DEMOCRACY
Stone the crows! We ought to export ICAC. Not as in ship the agency offshore, there would be rioting in the streets if that happened. ICAC only costs $25m a year, which makes its hearings Sydney’s best value entertainment now Rake is off air.[i]
No. ICAC’s achievements should be explained to the people of Afghanistan, India and Indonesia as the best way to ensure they get value out of their elections.
Smarties suggest that this is pointless because most cultures do not get democracy. There was a lot of this about when the US freed Iraq from the vile dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. This argument evaporated in 2005 when as many as eight million ordinary Iraqis turned out to vote in the first free elections in 50 years.[ii] And the Afghans who just voted defied the Taliban, who argue elections are only for infidels. The Crows also remember warnings that democracy was not enough to hold Indonesia together when Soharto fell, that the country would divide on ethnic lines or be taken over by Islamic extremists.[iii] But the Indonesians got the idea of elections as nation building just fine.
People of all ethnicities and cultures, of every religion or none, intuitively understand that a political system that holds to account the people with the guns, money and friends in high places is the best way to ensure the state respects ordinary citizens’ human and property rights.
It is why some seven million Afghans voted for a president at the start of the month.[iv] And why anything up to 190 million Indonesians voted to fill 20,000 parliamentary and local posts in last Wednesday’s poll.[v] It is why, between now and mid May, 815 million Indians are empowered to elect the national legislature.[vi]
The Crows can’t think of a case where a majority of citizens voted away their right to regularly chose their rulers since Louise Napoleon Bonaparte won a plebiscite three to one in a poll of not far fewer than 10 million voters in 1851.[vii]
Even so, democracy is getting a bad wrap just now. The Economist suggests the rise of China demonstrates what an undemocratic state can do for its citizens’ standard of living.[viii] In contrast, Russia demonstrates that an elected government does not necessarily protect people from poverty.
At which the Crows just caw. The crony capitalism that bedevils Russia occurs in China and it is why sooner or later both regimes will fail. States where self-selecting elites govern without the mandate, and scrutiny, of the people are inevitably corrupt and inevitably economically inept. As the Moscow Times editorialised at Christmas, Vladimir Putin’s “iron grip on power … allows his close friends to become billionaires. It is also the reason that Russia has no chance of winning the global race for competitiveness.”[ix]
Given the national leadership’s desperate attempt to be seen cleaning up corruption, China could be passing from the stage where people in power skim a percentage off the top, but keep the economy ticking over, to one where they assume government exists exclusively to enrich them.[x] From a condition where the insiders steal to one where they loot, as James Fallows puts it.[xi]
But elections alone are not enough to keep the bastards honest anywhere – the electors have to know who is in the smoked filled rooms and what is in any brown paper bags exchanged.
Which is where ICAC and its equivalents come in. The Crows express no opinion of what the courts will or will not make of the behaviour of the formers ministers, their mates and minders who have appeared at ICAC in recent times. But that they have appeared is a thoroughly good thing. Democracy is best served by people in power always knowing they work under the bright light of public scrutiny.
Over the years, ICAC has annoyed important politicians, including some hauled in whom the Commission concluded had done nothing wrong.[xii] But this does not invalidate the case for scrutiny.
Democracies need five things to function – free elections, human and property rights, open markets, the rule of law applicable to all and transparent process. No four of them can exist without the fifth – which why ICAC and its equivalents are essential – in Afghanistan, India and Indonesia as much as Australia.
French peasants and workers voted for Louise Napoleon in 1851 because they decided the legislature and bureaucracy did not govern for them, and that political insiders ran the republic to suit only themselves. Democracies will only fail today if their citizens think the same. The best result is for strong and inquisitive anti-corruption commissions to find nothing. But it’s always good for the voters to know they are always having a good look.
Speeches drafted, op eds written.
[iii] Nicholas D Kristoff, “The fall of Soharto,” New York Times, May 24 1998
[v] The Economist “The chosen one stumbles,” April 12
[viii] “What’s gone wrong with democracy,” The Economist, March 1