Here’s poor Odysseus being tempted by the sirens. I wouldn’t mind being so tempted – but there you go – you can’t give in. He made sure he couldn’t give in by getting his crew to tie him into the mast – they then blocked their ears with wax. No reference to Kevin Rudd was intended at the time, but who is to say what Rudd was thinking of when he dewaxed his own ears on camera a while back.
Be that as it may, the rise of Western civilisation has been fuelled by the gradual diffusion of power. It’s diffused through the market by competition between ‘agents’ as we say. And it’s diffused through government by principles such as the rule of law and the separation of powers. In fact separation works in a hierarchical way so that there’s separation at the top – Judiciary, Legislature and Executive – and then within each of these branches powers and responsibilities radiate out at finer and finer levels. (And yes I know that the separation of powers isn’t perfect in our system – what with the various links between the three ‘arms’ of government.)
Be that as it may, one of the huge things that powered us into the modern world was the idea of subjecting monarchs to the rule of law – particularly in Holland and the UK (after the Glorious Revolution of 1688). Because debtors for the first time had an expectation of being repaid when the monarch borrowed money off them, bond rates went right down and the government could borrow money. ‘A free nation deep in debt’ I think was the contemporary expression as Britain and Holland’s stars rose.
The Reserve Bank lashes the government of the day to the mast. And it does what Odysseus does when he heard the siren song. It screams to have the fetters loosened so that it can have its power back. But after the event it’s glad its orders were disobeyed. For all sorts of reasons it comes to pass that, while there may be some exceptions in difficult times, the government doesn’t generally want the power back. It’s with these ideas in mind that I’ve argued for a similar institutional environment to be built around fiscal policy. Of course it mightn’t look like a good idea at the time you give your power away, but I think as people looked back they’d think it was a hugely beneficial step.
Be that as it may I was reminded of all this reading Paul Austen’s column on independent commissions against corruption – and Victoria’s sad lack of one. Here’s what Peter Beattie has to say about them.
The CMC has had a therapeutic effect on politicians and police alike because they know their behaviour can be the subject of an independent investigation. This in Queensland has resulted in a significant improvement in public behaviour and a serious change in culture since the pre-Fitzgerald corrupt days. Queensland is a better and more honest place.
Morris Iemma was more forthright about how he now appreciated those ropes tying him to the mast.
Establishing the Independent Commission Against Corruption was one of the boldest decisions in NSW political history and it has been a resounding success. Here in NSW, we spent decades convincing ourselves that police corruption consisted of a few bad apples. . . . To all those who are here representing jurisdictions who do not have an ICAC or its equivalent, I say: Create one. You won’t regret it. It will be one of the best decisions you will ever make. . . . Creating a body like ICAC is not a sign of weakness, it is a sign of maturity and strength. In fact, I would argue it is a liberating experience for politicians because once an anti-corruption agency exists, it gives you a simple and transparent response to any allegation of corruption: Take it to ICAC. . . . Any jurisdiction that doesn’t have its own ICAC-type body is just crazy. If you don’t have one, you have either discovered a secret to human nature that has eluded the rest of us, or, as is more likely to be the case, you are just kidding yourselves.
The Victorian Premier John Brumby was not impressed.