IT’S just on five years since the Queensland-born and Sydney-based Tony Fitzgerald QC delivered what he declared would be his “swan song”. Addressing the Accountability Round Table at Melbourne’s Monash University on March 11, 2010, the one-time chairman of the Commission of Inquiry into Official Corruption said that he was speaking out concerning his “pessimism” about democracy in Australia for “the last time”. It was not to be.
Last Wednesday, on the eve of the Queensland state election, Fitzgerald was the subject of a soft interview by ABC TV’s 7.30 presenter, Leigh Sales.
He used the occasion to complain about what he alleges is the lack of “proper representative democracy” in Australia in general and to bag Queensland Liberal National Party Premier Campbell Newman in particular.
While rejecting the suggestion that he is “a Labor stooge”, Fitzgerald went out of his way to criticise Newman’s campaign to win his marginal seat of Ashgrove in suburban Brisbane. Throwing the switch to cliches, Fitzgerald told 7.30 viewers: “What I’d like to see people do is take into account not merely what they’re being bribed with — the Ashgrove ‘You can win, you can have this and a set of steak knives’ sort of thing — and take into account there are those overarching issues.”
The matters Fitzgerald has in mind turn on his constant complaint that there is a deficit of democracy in Australia, but particularly in Queensland. He told Sales, Australians should “finally get to a situation where we’ve got a parliament that’s acting on behalf of the people and not on behalf of their (the politicians’) own constituents and supporters and rent seekers and chancers of all sorts who tie themselves on to them”.
This is the familiar gospel Fitzgerald has been preaching since he signed off on his report on corruption in Queensland in 1989, a quarter of a century ago.
In a speech in July 2009 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of his inquiry, Fitzgerald focused his attention on the “coalition of Nationals and so-called Liberals” which governed Queensland in the mid-1990s and its successor — the Labor government led by Peter Beattie.
Then in his (unfulfilled) swan song the following year, Fitzgerald described Australia’s “prevailing political culture” as “increasingly amoral with each party”. He failed to provide specific examples of the alleged amoral condition of politics in Australia. The only exception was Fitzgerald’s fashionable condemnation of what he regards as “our unwillingness to act on scientific warnings about global warming and its potentially disastrous consequences”. That was it.
In November 2013, Fitzgerald wrote an article for Fairfax Media in which he alleged that, in Australia, “after each election one or other oligarchy rules for a period”.
He accused the elected politicians of acquiring power for a period in order to advance the interests of their “adherents and supporters at the expense of the general community”. Once again, there was no evidence.
On this occasion, Fitzgerald dismissed as “simplistic” and “misleading” such terms as “war on terror” and “stop the boats”. But Western nations and others are in conflict with terrorists and unauthorised boat arrivals have almost entirely stopped, for the moment at least.
This suggests that at least part of Fitzgerald’s critique of Australian democracy is motivated by his opposition to the policies of what he terms the “political class” — Coalition and Labor alike.
In September 2014, at a speech in Brisbane, Fitzgerald returned to his familiar theme. He specifically criticised the Newman government and maintained that in Queensland “power has been substantially transferred to a small, cynical, political class”. Here Fitzgerald stated his belief that in a true democracy, “all government decisions and actions” must be “taken for the common benefit without regard to personal, political or other considerations”.
And here lies the problem. Fitzgerald does not like contemporary politics. He genuinely believes that there is such an entity as a “common benefit” that can be determined by people like him. The former judge does not concede that representative government is about peaceful political conflict leading to compromise in which electors get their say every few years as to who should hold office.
Earlier this month, the Australia Institute, a left-wing think tank, wrote to the leaders of the various Queensland political parties asking each to commit to four “principles of accountability and good governance put forward by the Honourable Tony Fitzgerald AC QC”. This mantra included a reference to “the public interest”. This assumes that highly qualified people like Fitzgerald can determine the true interest of Queenslanders better than elected politicians.
The list of signatories to the open letter is instructive. Their professions include university academics, lawyers and environmentalists. Even Alan Jones AO is on the list. The broadcaster came off his annual leave to campaign against Newman. Not one person who could be described as an everyday Australian signed up to the Fitzgerald mantra.
Fitzgerald was proclaiming his principles of good governance on 7.30 this week. However, towards the end of the Sales interview, Fitzgerald did concede he sounded “a bit precious”.
You can say that again. This followed his statement that he finds it “impossible” to see how people can become members of political parties because “we’re all answerable to our own consciences”.
Well, that’s true at the individual level. It’s just that democracy works because the system is based on compromise. Obviously Fitzgerald could not be a successful politician. But this is no reason to put down those who regard politics as a vocation as “the arrogant, the ignorant and bullies”.
The fact is that Australia, including Queensland, is one of the world’s most successful democracies, with remarkably little serious corruption. Yet if you only watched 7.30 you might come to a different conclusion. On January 21, the program ran another segment where it lined up three lawyers to rail against Queensland under the Newman government. No other view was heard.
There is not likely to be a swan song with respect to such allegations on the ABC and Fitzgerald may deliver yet another “last time” condemnation of contemporary Australian politics.