The outside world usually ignores Australia’s domestic political squabbles, for the good reason. They are almost invariably petty in content and conduct and have scant bearing on the doings of other nations.
However, in so far as Australia likes to set itself up to Asia as a model of liberty, democracy, good governance and economic success the extent of sleaze among not a few of its politicians may come as a surprise to those who generally assume that things there are clean and tidy at by comparison with the likes of Malaysia and Thailand.
So the roll call of recent sleaze makes interesting reading. To the normal level of verbal abuse and strong language which has long characterized Australian politics has been added two ingredients which have further lowered the tone and given rise to widespread public cynicism.
One problem, according to some analysts, is that politics has for many become a lifetime profession starting from graduation or earlier. At the federal level it is conducted in the hothouse atmosphere of Canberra, a city of politicians and bureaucrats often out of touch with reality and obsessed with power plays within their parties or in the quest for national power.
A more immediate cause however is that the current Labor government?s hold on power hangs by the slender threads of independents and maverick members of Parliament. Thus any schemes by Labor to shore up its position, or the opposition Liberal/National coalition to vote Labor and its Prime Minister Julia Gillard out of office, are regarded as fair game.
But the game has come close to criminal activity. In the most recent case, a judge ruled that the purpose of an allegation of sexual harassment brought by a male member of his staff against then Speaker of the House of Representatives Peter Slipper had been to “pursue a political attack against Mr Slipper”.
The judge noted that various email exchanges and meetings involving the accuser and members of the Liberal/National coalition amounted to a conspiracy in which the sexual allegations were the weapon, not the cause of the complaint against Slipper.
The political objective was clear enough. Slipper was a Liberal party member who had accepted the position of speaker, who only votes if there is a tie, making it easier for Labor to hold on to power. Forcing him to resign the speaker’s role because of sexual allegations could help unseat the government.
Slipper did have to resign — though his vindication by the court, which is subject to appeal, does not mean that he will return to the speaker’s chair. His own emails contained plenty of sleaze too and he is widely regarded as an embarrassment. However, the judge’s allegations against the conspirators are extremely serious, accusing them and their lawyers of “abuse of process” which could have brought the legal system into disrepute. One of those closely involved with the conspiring complainant was a senior Liberal party figure, Mal Brough, a minister in the previous Liberal/national government. Brough has been defended by Liberal leader and would-be Prime Minister Tony Abbott, a man who wears his Catholic religious principles on his sleeve.
Gillard herself has been the subject of sleaze allegations regarding her relationship with a person involved in the misuse of funds of the Australian Workers Union. But as these issues date back to the early 1990s their public impact has been limited.
More up-to-date sleaze however has touched another senior Labor figure, Craig Thompson accused of using union funds and a union credit card, in this case the Health Services Union, to buy prostitutes and expensive meals. Thompson denies the allegations but has been required to resign from the Labor party — though he remains in parliament and Gillard still relies on his vote.
The nexus between government, politicians and (in Labor’s case) trades unions creates numerous opportunities for corruption, especially at state rather than federal level. In Victoria, the Ombudsman reported last week that that Victorian Building Commission, which certifies builders and buildings was a cesspit of cronyism, maladministration and misuse of funds. It employed many ex-policemen who were unqualified for the job, spent lavishly on entertainments and, worst of all, gave licenses to builders who had failed the competence exam. There was evident collusion between the body which was supposed to be the regulator and the private sector bodies including the Master Builders Association of Victoria and the Housing Industry Association.
This amazing tale of sleaze at an important state body rated at best minor coverage in the national media. Meanwhile in New South Wales, the Independent Commission Against Corruption is investigating a state Labor party power-broker, Eddie Obeid, over allegations that he and his family mad potential profits of A$100 million by buying land in New South Wales shortly before the state Labor government granted mining licenses over an area believed rich in coal.
Australia has long been an over-governed country with federal, state and local governments all able to make decisions which profit a few at the expense of the many. New South Wales has a particularly bad reputation. Nonetheless the sheer number of cases suggests that even with the ICAC — and with a few media with the resources to do investigative journalism — corruption is far too common for comfort. So recent scandalous conduct by those near the top of federal politics hardly suggests that standards will improve at lower levels of government.