Psst . . . wanna buy time with the Minister?

From yesterday’s Fin

Many Australians are mesmerised by an inquiry into Wollongong City Council and some of its councillors and staff and developers. NSWs Independent Commission Against Corruption is unveiling a plot which links sex, bribes, blackmail, greed, abuse of office and treachery, to name just a few admitted and portrayed flaws. Political fund raising also features.

The state government has also been implicated, partly because of donations to ministers made by persons being investigated by the ICAC. Concerns are so grave that other doubtful donations and other NSW ministers have been questioned. And voters have been asked to accept that ministers never act corruptly because they say so.

The bad press – Sydneysiders have almost been exhausted by ICACs revelations – moved the NSW Premier, Morris Iemma, to propose changes to state laws. Most of these relate to improving transparency of donations made to local government, but Iemmas plans would also ban parliamentarians from organising, collecting and controlling donations. The dirty work would be left to the parties. Be grateful that Iemma says this is but the first step: his proposals allow the corruption involved in state fund raising to continue.

The most offensive money scheme is the practice of selling ministers time. The finest expression of this in NSW is a chook auction where members of the public bid for a meal with a nominated minister, with the proceeds going to the Australian Labor Party. It is no surprise that the more senior and influential of NSW ministers attract the highest bids.

Iemmas proposal would mean that state minsters would appear to be at arms length from the ALPs money raising arrangements. But they would still be central participants. They would be selling government resources – that is how we should view ministerial time – to benefit their associate, their political party. If any non-elected official engaged in the same activity by directing the proceeds of speeches to associates, for example, the ICAC would quickly claim corruption. But the Commission has been reticent about investigating the same fund raising by elected officials, presumably because these practices have been blessed by the two main parties.

Then there is the donation itself. One Wollongong developer not implicated in the ICAC investigations declared on Sydneys local ABC radio last week that any sizeable gift from a developer to a politician was a bribe. Large donors do not give politicians their money to improve Australias democracy. It is equally true that donors persist with their generosity only because they have reaped success from past gifts.

At its worst, large donations are bribes. At its best, these gifts are an insurance payment to ensure that donors receive proper attention, the kind of treatment all applicants should receive from government. Even ministers and former ministers claim that generous donors will get particular attention and will have access to ministers. Again, this is about ministers selling their time; and that is corruption.

It is not as if the ICAC legislation is mean and narrow. It says any conduct of any person (whether or not a public official) that adversely affects, or that could adversely affect, either directly or indirectly, the honest or impartial exercise of official functions is corrupt. Selling access is clearly encompassed if only because it leads to ministers acting partially, paying more attention to some constituents because they are donors than to others.

And it is not as if taxpayers are mean in their funding of political parties. The Australian Electoral Commission paid $40 million to seven political parties and 15 candidates involved in the 2007 federal general election. The NSW taxpayer paid over $10 million to politicians for the 2007 state election. NSW politicians receive about $8 million a year for their own costs, without including treasurys contributions to them for by-elections. If that is insufficient, Iemma should propose legislation to increase taxpayer contributions. The worse option is to engage in a degrading hunt for donors.

It is amazing that state and federal governments cannot see how their grab for political donations degrades them, their government and their electorates. And it is surprising that anti-corruption agencies ignore this insidious, obscene corruption. It is time these bodies acted; politicians seemingly cant.

This entry was posted in Economics and public policy, Politics - national. Bookmark the permalink.
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
9 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
SJ
SJ
13 years ago

That was a very good column, Tony. We’re lucky to have the ICAC in NSW. The AWB thing would probably have turned out quite differently if there was an equivalent fed body.

James Farrell
James Farrell
13 years ago

I Tony put this case to Deborah Cameron on the radio. The absence of ifs and buts makes it very persuasive.

Ken Parish
Admin
Ken Parish(@ken-parish)
13 years ago

The whole thing about ICAC and the definition of corruption has a long political and legal history. Nick Greiner was the principal victim of an overly wide definition and a naive interpretation of “corruption” in the early ICAC legislation. He got zapped for “corruption” consisting of doing no more than offering a London sinecure to an inept Police Minister who needed to be gotten rid of for everyone’s good.

Imagine if Greiner (for whom I confess I have a high regard) had remained in office and in charge of the Liberal Party for a while longer. NSW may never have experienced the small-c corrupting influence of Bob Carr’s cynical, PR-driven, minimal performance, deals-for-mates style of government, and its tawdry aftermath in Wollongong. Nor might NSW have ended up having little choice but to tolerate the devil it knows because the Libs have been taken over by the religious far right.

I can more or less understand ICAC taking a cautious approach to labelling as “corrupt” behaviour which, however appalling, has for a long time been regarded by both parties as just part of the political game. If ICAC were to move without either party evincing a willingness to back its stance and condemn “cash for access”, it would simply be offering itself up as a sacrifice whichever party was in power. Then we’d all be worse off, because one of the few checks against the longstanding corrupt ethos that has always surrounded NSW politics would be further emasculated.

In that regard I have two questions:

(1) If Barry O’Farrell really does have the sort of nouse that will be needed for the Coalition to find a way back in NSW, even against sub-mediocre performers like Iemma, why doesn’t he grasp the nettle and condemn “cash for access” and thereby give ICAC the cover it needs to enforce its own legislation?

(2) If Tony Harris really cares about this stuff (as I’m sure he does), why doesn’t he take a risk of being labelled partial, and run this line much more strongly and clearly in a future column? Otherwise nothing will ever change.

SJ
SJ
13 years ago

If Tony Harris really cares about this stuff (as Im sure he does), why doesnt he take a risk of being labelled partial, and run this line much more strongly and clearly in a future column? Otherwise nothing will ever change.

Jesus, Ken, how strong do you want it, and how much “strength” do you think the AFR would tolerate?

I mean, you could write all the stern letters you want to the AFR and you surely know they just won’t get published.

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
13 years ago

He could grow a beard, look into the camera and say “Shame, Shame, Shame”.

Not sure of the point of it.

Ken Parish
Admin
Ken Parish(@ken-parish)
13 years ago

I think there’s a need to spell out the dynamics and history to put on some sort of pressure, for exactly the reasons I’ve explained. I think Tony would get a lot more latitude than most people because of his justified stature and reputation. I guess it’s a matter of whether he thinks this is an issue important enough to push the envelope on. In my view it certainly is. On issues involving as much political self-interest as this one, careful, prudent, balanced analysis may not be enough, especially when the reaction of most people to having low-key political corruption pointed out is the old “is the pope a catholic?” response.

Ken Parish
Admin
Ken Parish(@ken-parish)
13 years ago

Then again, one could certainly understand anyone concluding that people get the governments they deserve if, despite knowing all that we do about Carr, Iemma etc, we keep electing them. So why go any further than pointing out what should be obvious and see if it somehow strikes a chord? Even the cumulative effect of the Howard government’s behaviour caught up with it in the end, though it sometimes seemed that it never would. It’s just that I see little sign of that happening to the NSW Labor government at present, even though I reckon they deserve political oblivion even more richly than Howard et al.

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
13 years ago

Ken – I do think it is catching up with the NSW ALP. I think it would have already caught up with it if the NSW Coalition was electable. Same dynamic that faced the Labor Opposition Federally. Until they got a safe pair of hands they were going no-where. I’d be very surprised if a properly united and organised and led Coalition couldn’t take them out easily. Privatisation of the electricity system is an example – not the act itself, just the fact that it’s the opposite of the platform they took to the election. . . .

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
13 years ago

“The most offensive money scheme is the practice of selling ministers time.”

I don’t think this is right. Stopping this would not clean things up; it would just narrow those with access to Ministers to those with good political connections and a specific matter to discuss. Ministerial advisers often do not like functions because they cannot control access to the boss; restricting functions would increase the power of these unelected officials.