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Cleaning up political corruption

October 1, 2013

By Barry Tucker

I’ve been working on an article about the need for a third political party in
Australia. Beyond that, we need to get more people involved in politics. I
think that may be the solution to cleaning up politics and the political news
media.

The national political scene suffered a minor tremor last week when The
Sydney Morning Herald revealed that the Attorney-General, Senator George
Brandis, and the deputy leader of the parliamentary National Party, Barnaby
Joyce, claimed parliamentary expenses for attending the wedding of their
friend, former radio journalist Michael Smith, two years ago. The two
politicians were in the Opposition at the time and their titles were different.

It’s not unusual for politicians to be caught, sometimes innocently, with their
hand in the expenses till. On this occasion, Senator Brandis claimed the
expenses were legitimate because his trip involved parliamentary business.
The business was a discussion with Smith about the progress of the Liberal
party Opposition’s allegations of professional misconduct against the then
Prime Minister Julia Gillard when she was a lawyer working for the Australian
Workers Union (AWU). These allegations, which raged in parliament and the
news media for three years, are still unproven — untested in court.

The expenses affair would be unremarkable (the amounts involved are less
than $3,000) except for one thing. Earlier this year Senator Brandis bypassed
the usual parliamentary procedure of referring an expenses claim of former
Speaker Peter Slipper to a parliamentary committee and referred it directly to
the Australian Federal Police instead. The amount involved was less than
$900. Slipper has appeared in court on related charges and the matter is not yet settled.

The shenanigans outlined above are the latest outcome of two complicated
affairs, known as the AWU Slush Fund Affair and Ashbygate. You can Google
both for a comprehensive list of further references.

Public outrage (well, on social media at least) was largely directed at
Senator Brandis because he is one of the new Liberal National Party Coalition
government’s most grandiloquent spokespersons on legal and moral
behaviour. Debate on the matter was pretty much ended when Senator
Brandis announced he had made out a cheque to refund his expenses.

But does the matter end there? If the expense claim was legally and morally
justifiable, why issue a refund? There’s no doubt that comparisons between
how Senator Brandis viewed his claim and how he behaved in regard to
Peter Slipper’s claim is a factor. Hypocrisy has been mentioned, frequently.

Senator Brandis has excellent law degrees and practical experience across
commercial law, trade law and defamation. In moral terms, his different
approaches to his claim and Slipper’s claim speaks for itself.

The matter probably will end without any political or legal repercussions. For
one thing, Liberal politicians rarely have to answer for scandal or crime.
They merely get a talking to or a slap on the wrist and a compliant news
media sweeps the matter under the rug.

It is little wonder that there is despair over the state of our news media, in
all its forms, and of Australian politics and politicians. This is not a healthy
situation but it persists because there seems to be little anyone can do about
it.

Call me dumb, stupid, childish, naive, immature, unsophisticated or some
other thing, but I’m puzzled by one aspect of this. Most parents will tell their
children don’t tell lies and don’t steal. And I guess some of those kids grow
up to be parents who tell their kids the same thing. Religions have failed to
instill decent moral behaviour in adults in general. So where does the
corruption in politics originate?

It probably originates in opportunity. If so, it should be eliminated by
removing the opportunity. When Australia’s federal politicians were granted a
pay rise a few years ago there was a particularly loud protest. There usually
is anyway. But the reaction on that occasion was a deal that certain polly
perks would be eliminated and compensation would be built into the next
wage increase. Obviously, it hasn’t stopped the fiddling.

Can it be that to be adult is to be corrupt? Surely not. It must be that
opportunity to fiddle is weighed against the likelihood of getting caught. And
when they’re caught they say they’re sorry — which always sounds like “I am
sorry I got caught”.

Consider also the Australian Wheat Board scandal, the Children Overboard
affair and last night’s ABC Four Corners’ allegations of lies and cover-ups to
hide bribery to secure overseas sales of Australia’s bank note printing
services by companies associated with the Reserve Bank. Could it be that our
leaders in commerce and government simply take us for granted? They can
get away with it because our voices are not strong enough, or loud enough,
and the political and business news media has simply lost interest?

Did we ever have a strong voice? How did we lose it? If we never had one,
how can we get one, given today’s technology — it’s not hard to imagine, is
it?

One way to improve the accountability of our politics and our political news
media may be to get more people involved — many more people; many more
thousands or hundreds of thousands. I was surprised to learn that the
Australian Labor Party has only 44,000 members, plus another 2,000 who
joined since the 7 September, 2013 election. I would have thought, for a
party created some 122 years ago (1891), its membership would have been
400,000 by now, or even four million. According to http://www.liberal.org.au, the
Liberal Party of Australia has more than 80,000 paid up members.

It’s easy for me to say get involved. I no longer have to front up for work
every day (I spend at least eight hours a day on my computer, dealing with
various aspects of politics and news media anyway). I don’t have
responsibilities to a partner to fulfil, or kids to wrangle, organise
and otherwise cope with either. People are busy, probably too busy merely
coping and have no energy to take on more responsibility or activity.

I encourage people who complain to me about the state of the political news
media to complain to the newspapers, radio and tv stations or the Australian
Press Council, the Australian Communications and Media Authority or the
Free TV organisation. I have provided a web site (Truth in News Media) that
is a resource centre for people who want to see improvements in our news
media.

If you think political news media stinks and politics sucks, you won’t
improve the situation by going out of your way to avoid it. You will only
bring about change by getting involved.

You can listen to a recent (29 September, 2013) ABC Radio National
Background Briefing report by Di Martin on The Narrowing of Politics, read
the transcript or download the MP3 audio file. The program deals with some
aspects of our present malaise and includes the opinions of politicians from
the Left, the Right and the Independent centre.

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