So now, it’s the conservatives’ turn.
This site over the last few years has been unapologetically scathing about systemic, entrenched corruption within the Australian Labor Party. Financial irregularities surrounding the Australian Workers’ Union, particularly in Victoria and Western Australia, have embroiled federal ministers, including a former Prime Minister. Misuse of union funds by two former bosses of the Health Services Union have now resulted in jail terms. And now, the upcoming Royal Commission into “registered organisations” (that is, trade unions), headed by Chief Commissioner, former High Court Justice Dyson Heydon, threatens to uncover a veritable mountain range of sleaze, stretching back over decades.
But this week, Prime Minister Tony Abbott may stop and ponder just what it is that he’s begun here. Because right now, a similarly putrid stench is starting to rise from the NSW branch of the Liberal Party. Two weeks ago, at a hearing of the state Independent Commission against Corruption (ICAC), Premier Barry O’Farrell denied under oath receiving a bottle of 1959 Penfolds Grange Hermitage, valued at about $3,000, as a gift from Nick Di Girolamo, chief executive of Australian Water Holdings, a now-notorious firm linked to disgraced former Labor politician and kingmaker Eddie Obeid. Having denied receiving it, a hand-written note from O’Farrell was produced, thanking Di Girolamo for the gift, along with mobile phone records showing several calls at the time from O’Farrell to Di Girolamo. As he had not declared the gift, as required, into the parliamentary Register of Pecuniary Interests, and had been caught out, red-handed in a lie, he had no choice but to resign.
Conservative commentators were sympathetic to O’Farrell’s “memory lapse”. As if a politician would ever forget receiving a $3,000 bottle of wine from a businessman who contracted with his own government agencies. Abbott almost fell over himself praising O’Farrell’s “utterly honourable” stand in resigning, and then monstered a journalist who dared utter the word corruption. And thereby—as he was about to discover—handcuffed himself to the whole mess.
O’Farrell’s “memory lapse” in receiving such an extraordinary gift was not only inexplicable, but an almighty coincidence. Because a few days after O’Farrell’s resignation and this press conference, it emerged that only a few months after the gift was received, this very same Nick Di Girolamo just happened to be the front-runner being considered by O’Farrell for a directorship of the Sydney Ports Corporation, a $100,000 per year sinecure requiring very little work. E-mails from staff in O’Farrell’s office appeared to indicate that Di Girolamo’s appointment was all but assured.
Pretty good return for a three-grand bottle of plonk, I’d say.
The stench doesn’t evaporate with O’Farrell’s departure, either. Environment Minister Chris Hartcher, who appeared before ICAC this week is at the centre of a funding scandal, in which it appears that a substantial proportion of all recent political donations to the NSW Liberal Party originated with illegal sources (such as property developers, who are prohibited by law from making such donations, for obvious reasons), funnelled through sham front companies. Parliamentary Secretary Marie Ficarra has already stood down from her ministerial rôle, as well as the parliamentary Liberal Party, in connection with the same scandal. Another state Minister, Anthony Roberts, has been caught out accepting graft, in the form of a holiday on a luxury yacht, from a wealthy commercial property developer. From what I’ve read of the ICAC hearings to date, it’s looking like these examples are merely the tip of the iceberg.
Excuse me for a moment while I go and stick my fingers down my throat.
As all this involves conservative politicians, the MSM in this country have abandoned their recent peculiar reticence to investigate political corruption, and are charging in with all guns blazing. And for once, I agree with them whole-heartedly. This won’t go away until all the sludge is flushed out of the sewer, and that won’t happen without a free, fearless and relentless press. Now, what do you think might have brought about their strange, though welcome conversion on the road to Damascus (via Sussex and Macquarie Streets) in the last few months?
According to Transparency International,
Corruption is the abuse of entrusted power for private gain. It hurts everyone who depends on the integrity of people in a position of authority.
A pretty fair starting point. And if anyone can show me how that definition does not apply to the current NSW government, I’d love to know. As a Libertarian, I believe the size and scope of government is one of the major systemic factors behind such corruption. If governments didn’t regulate every minute detail of our lives, into areas considered unthinkable just a few decades ago, the potential for bribery would be significantly reduced. In the case of Australia, the structure and history of party politics is also a major factor.
But is some level of palm-greasing almost inevitable? Most business leaders will admit that doing business in many parts of the world is actually impossible without some form of graft, back-handers, call it what you will. In 2004, the government-owned Australian Wheat Board, which holds a statutory monopoly on all wheat exports from my country, was discovered to have paid bribes for many years to senior members of the Saddam Hussein regime in exchange for vast, exclusive grain contracts, all in defiance of international conventions concerning Iraq, in particular the oil-for-food program. Some would argue that Australian wheat farmers, and hence the Australian economy generally, did very well out of those deals, which would otherwise have gone to other, less scrupulous nations. But if we sanction corrupt dealings with foreign governments, excusing them on the grounds of the levels of endemic corruption over there, surely we are thereby green-lighting the corruption of our own government officials by third parties overseas?
Transparency currently ranks Australia 9th overall, out of 177 countries, on its corruption index (behind New Zealand, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Singapore and the Scandinavian countries). Unless a real effort is made to clean out the rorting this time round, regardless of which side of politics is behind it, that rating—and more importantly, the international perception it represents—is sure to take a battering.