IN the 1970s and 80s, I worked for a total of 11 years as a political staffer in both government and opposition and for the Australian Public Service. During this period, I did not see any evidence of corruption within the commonwealth government among Coalition, Labor and other politicians or public servants.
Australia is relatively free of corruption when compared with authoritarian regimes and even some democratic societies. Certainly there have been cases of graft in local government through the years and some instances of corruption at the state level. However, national politics in Australia has been remarkably clean since Federation in 1901.
It’s just that someone arriving in Australia in the past month from, say, China or Italy would get the impression that Australia is reeking with political corruption from the top down. Last Monday both The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age ran the screaming headline “Treasurer for sale”. The allegation was that Joe Hockey offered access to business people in return for campaign contributions.
As is so often the case, ABC reporters and presenters were soon running the Fairfax Media line. For example, on Radio National Breakfast, The Conversation’s Michelle Grattan told presenter Ellen Fanning that “quite clearly this is selling a senior politician … in return for money”.
Soon after, on ABC Radio 702 in Sydney, Linda Mottram interviewed the University of Melbourne’s Melbourne Law School academic Joo-Cheong Tham, who alleged that Hockey was involved in a “type of corruption”. No other view was heard on the program.
This was a huge and damaging beat-up. It is widely known that, apart from public funding, the Liberal Party raises most of its money from business. Some of the Coalition’s corporate supporters also make donations to Labor.
It is also widely known that, apart from public funding, the ALP raises most of its money from the trade union movement. The result is that trade unionists who voted for Tony Abbott in the election last September were forced to contribute to Kevin Rudd’s campaign. The Fairfax Media allegation, written by Sean Nicholls, is that Hockey’s campaign as the member for North Sydney is partly funded by the North Sydney Forum. This is a fundraising body run by the North Sydney Federal Electoral Conference and is no secret. Hockey meets on occasion with members of the North Sydney Forum.
This is no different from, say, the former Labor treasurer Chris Bowen meeting members of the ACTU.
Nicholls provided no evidence that Hockey was influenced by any meetings he has had as Treasurer.
Despite the political opportunity offered to Labor to join in the Fairfax Media’s “Treasurer for Sale” chorus, the opposition declined to do so.
Labor frontbenchers Anthony Albanese and Gary Gray stated that the commonwealth had been consistently free of corruption.
The problem with the obsession with perceived corruption in sections of the media is that it trashes Australia’s reputation for no good purpose. To allege that Hockey is “for sale” implies that the federal Treasurer can be influenced by donations to a campaign fund over which he has no control and from which he receives no financial consideration.
It’s not much different with the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption. In a quarter of a century, ICAC has achieved two significant political scalps, namely the honest and reforming Liberal Party premier Nick Greiner in 1992 and the honest and reforming Liberal premier Barry O’Farrell last month. ICAC’s finding against Greiner was overturned by the NSW Court of Appeal, but by then he had been forced out of politics.
O’Farrell was forced to resign for forgetting that he had received an expensive bottle of Grange Hermitage three years ago that he failed to declare at the time. This is hardly the kind of “corruption” that ICAC was expected to root out when it was established by the Greiner government.
Certainly, in recent times, ICAC has made findings of corruption against one-time NSW Labor ministers Eddie Obeid and Ian Macdonald. But both men were sacked as ministers well before ICAC’s inquiries began.
Many journalists just love ICAC because it presents them with great stories. At times, ICAC gives the impression that it is appealing to the media. The current counsel assisting ICAC, Geoffrey Watson SC, has become a media star, with his quotations from Shakespeare receiving coverage on the evening TV news. Last Saturday, Watson did a “Q&A” with The Daily Telegraph where readers learned about the contents of his refrigerator and how he just loves peanut butter and hot chips.
ICAC is capable of doing good work. But its hearings should be held in private. Right now, individuals who are called to appear before ICAC or who appear as witnesses are denied the legal rights that pertain in a court of law. It is ironic that the likes of David Marr, who is usually heard advocating human rights, support the ICAC process.
Last week Victorian Premier Denis Napthine was accused of inappropriate behaviour by the ABC television program 7.30 on account of the fact that a constituent in his electorate, who happens to be an acquaintance, received a government grant for his meatworks business, which employs locals in Warrnambool. Napthine was cleared within days by the Victoria Independent Broad-Based Anti-Corruption Commission. But, by then, damage to his, and Victoria’s, reputation had been done.
The allegation that Australian politics is corrupt stems from those who are alienated from the political system — including many on the lunar Right and green Left sides of politics and journalists who like to report their assertions. The facts indicate otherwise.