ALMOST half a century ago Donald Horne ironically dubbed Australia The Lucky Country, adding that it was “run by second-rate people who share its luck.” The second- and third-raters are today everywhere, especially in politics, as the political parties fail to perform an essential task delegated to them in a democracy: recruiting and training candidates for public office.
In common with other Western liberal democracies, Australia has experienced a steady decline in membership of political parties, with the Australian Bureau of Statistics putting total party membership at just 1.3 per cent of the adult population in 2006 – down from a figure of close to 10 per cent sixty years earlier.
As our civic engagement has fallen and parties have become less representative of society, the new class of professional operators has steadily become more powerful, constituting a small elite that runs the parties, raises the funds, devises the policies, crafts the messages and, most importantly, selects the candidates.
You have to wonder whether, if control were handed back to the amateurs, we would get the Craig Thomsons, Peter Slippers, Geoff Shaws and Robert Furolos thrown up by the present processes? Each of these – and the list is by no means exhaustive – has gone through a preselection process, in some cases several times, to attain what should be both the honour and the privilege of becoming a member of parliament. Yet, if allegations are correct, each has brought dishonour to the institution of parliament and discredit to his respective political party.
In the case of Craig Thomson, who is facing legal action from Fair Work Australia, some of the allegations relating to his alleged use of a union credit card were known to the party before the 2010 election, having been aired during a bitter union election campaign in the Health Services Union. There was ample opportunity for the party to investigate and satisfy itself that Thomson was not a ticking time bomb. But, no, he was re-endorsed and subsequently re-elected.
Were the allegations ever investigated? If so, by whom, and what was the outcome? If not, why not? Or was factional muscle brought to bear to keep a lid on the whole affair? Can the electorate have confidence in the candidates selected and in the process used to select them? To make matters worse, the former head of the union, Michael Williamson, who is facing charges brought by police, is a former national president of the Labor Party – not exactly an outsider.
Peter Slipper’s fall from grace was accompanied, without apparent irony, by the baying for his blood by those whose own political machinery, first the National Party, then the Liberal Party and finally the merged Liberal National Party, had endorsed, championed and promoted him for almost three decades.
Geoff Shaw, the Victorian state Liberal MP found by the ombudsman to have allowed his taxpayer-funded vehicle to be used in his private business, would cost the Baillieu government its parliamentary majority if he is forced to resign, just as Thomson’s enforced departure would mean curtains for Julia Gillard. The public is entitled to ask why the Liberal Party endorsed a candidate who appears to acknowledge no distinction between public and private – a prime cause of corruption the world over.
The case of Robert Furolo, a state Labor MP in New South Wales, is just plain silly. A former Labor mayor, he seems not to have absorbed the verdict brought down by the electorate last year, when the party suffered its worst ever defeat, having demonstrated misbehaviour, incompetence and such gross disregard for its former support base that it could be out of office for a generation. Away on his honeymoon in Greece, he posted a series of Facebook messages that boasted of being far from the action. An example: “Photos of fabulous Greek food and the wonderful sites of the Greek islands will feature prominently. To all those stuck at work, we say sorry.”
It was simply too much for his colleagues, slugging it out in estimates hearings, who drew the attention of journalists to Furolo’s travel banter. Having attracted the inevitable ridicule, he resigned his front bench position.
Far more seriously, the powerful NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption is investigating allegations of corruption involving former NSW Labor ministers Eddie Obeid, Ian Macdonald and Eric Roozendaal. Roozendaal, who is still in parliament, is a former general secretary of the Labor Party in New South Wales. And in South Australia, Bernard Finnigan, a former Labor minister who sits as an independent, has been committed to stand trial on five aggravated counts of taking steps to obtain child pornography and one aggravated count of obtaining child pornography.
It has been said that democracy is unthinkable without political parties, so if we want a robust democracy that inspires confidence and is attended by more than scant legitimacy then the health and integrity of the political parties are paramount. A recent poll conducted by the Australian National University showed a disturbingly high level of agreement with the perception that political parties are corrupt. A mere 18 per cent of respondents said they had confidence in the parties.
Political parties, like governments, need to be more broadly accountable than just once every three or four years at the ballot box; they need to be seen to be both responsible and responsive. Transparency in decision-making and policy formulation, including the touchy issue of political donations, needs urgent attention.
A useful first step would be a rigorous process of due diligence on potential candidates and a genuine attempt to attract talent – or at least candidates who take their jobs seriously. All of the above – and other cases over the past decade – suggest that this is not currently occurring, and public confidence in our key institutions is the big loser.
While he was prime minister, Kevin Rudd channelled funding into programs designed to upgrade the education and qualifications of public servants who, he said, were facing new and complex challenges at the start of the twenty-first century, and needed to be equipped to find solutions to pressing problems facing Australian society in a fast-moving environment.
What a shame this is not matched for politicians, still mired in Donald Horne’s second-rate team. We are still such a lucky country! •
Norman Abjorensen, from the Australian National University, is currently a Visiting Professor at the Graduate School of Law at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo.