After so much corruption, where can NSW politics go?

This week’s revelations about electoral corruption, focussing on three Liberal MPs from the Hunter region, made me wonder how the party system will respond. So far the ICAC inquiry has removed the Liberal Premier, two of his Ministers, and six MPs. Two of the last three have resigned from the NSW Parliament, and by-elections will be held for their seats.

The next NSW election will be held on 28 March next year, a little more than seven months away. The Coalition government has a large majority, but it will suffer in every seat because of the highly publicised ICAC material. But Labor has had a battering from ICAC too, and two of its former Ministers will be under scrutiny again before very long.

John Robertson, the Leader of the Labor Opposition, took the earlier ICAC revelations on the chin, and the ALP has done some symbolic cleaning of the stables, expelling those party members deemed to have been more than normally sinful. So, without being at all smug about it, he is suggesting that Premier Mike Baird and the Liberal party get their own house in order.

It is entirely possible that one or two of the MPs from both sides will find themselves in court between now and the next elections, and the Ordinary Citizen will be wondering whether things can get any worse. Since I like to look on the bright side, I would say the that Ordinary Citizen that at least we have a system that can expose corruption of these kinds, to which OC might reply that ICAC has been there for some time, and we still have corruption.

Indeed, ICAC has been round for a quarter of a century, set up in 1989 by Premier Nick Greiner, a Liberal, after a series of unhappy incidents in the life of the previous Labor Governments. It quickly brought his Premiership to an end, too. The ICAC has jurisdiction over just about everybody in some kind of public office in New South Wales, including university staff and local government councillors. It has the coercive powers of a Royal Commission, can tap telephones, and can insist that people give evidence (they have no right of silence). But it can’t send people to jail for other than procedural offences, like refusing to give evidence or misleading the Commission. My guess is that one of the Hunter MPs, by lying to the Commission, could go to jail for that offence.

If  ICAC thinks you have behaved really corruptly, it will refer the matter to the Director of Public Prosecutions. One problem is that some of the evidence that the Commission heard may well be inadmissible in court, and in fact there haven’t been many convictions in consequence of ICAC findings.

I put all that in because I had to increase my own knowledge of the Commission, which serves currently on television news as the domestic foil for the horrors of what is happening in other parts of the world. I wrote about corruption earlier, in June. My interest now  is what will happen to the party system. Yes, the Liberals will lose electoral support, and Labor will win back some seats. But if the electorate is really concerned about all this, what are the options available to it?

First, there is no current alternative party of the centre, a role once filled by the Australia Party (remember Gordon Barton?) and the Democrats. If one existed I would expect it to do quite well, always given some quality in its candidates. I haven’t heard of any movements out there, but a new formation is quite possible by next March.

Second, while the Greens will pick up some disgusted Labor supporters, I doubt that they will be attractive to disgusted Liberals.

Third, single-issue parties might do a bit better, if they cotton on to local anxieties.

Fourth, good local Independent candidates are likely in many seats, and they will do well. If they are really good, they could win, since they should gain both Labor and Liberal preferences.

Fifth, Informal will do really well next March, as will his cousin, Did Not Vote.

I can’t see much else. It’s entirely possible that most voters will shrug their shoulders and vote for the party they voted for last time. As I keep saying, concern that our electoral democracy should be conducted fairly and honestly seems to be quite low — and we’re so used to the parties making things easy for us, by assembling the issues and giving us cues about what might happen, that we don’t know what to do when we suddenly realise that they don’t at all care what we think, as long as we go on voting.

I wrote a year ago about bread and circuses in our politics, and I feel even more strongly that most Australians have at best the most rudimentary idea of why a democracy is a good thing, and of the responsibility of the citizen to take it seriously, and act accordingly. When so many of our elected representatives behave badly, we the citizens should be apprehensive, angry and active.

Yet if improvement is to happen it  will have to start  at the grass-roots level, and then spread to the upper echelons. But who will bell the cat? Party membership seems to be at an all-time low. Well, next March will give us some indication of the real state of health of our democracy.



Join the discussion 8 Comments

  • Peter Donnan says:

    You conclude, Don, that if “improvement is to happen it will
    have to start at the grass-roots level, and then spread to the upper

    ICAC can be read as a story about financial greed, the
    surreptitious buying and selling of political influence, access to decision-making
    at the highest state levels around development, mining and infrastructure
    projects; but above all, it is a tawdry exposure of the venality and
    self-interest that motivates a small hard core group of politicians on either
    side of politics.

    You also note that “we the citizens should be apprehensive,
    angry and active”. Many view ICAC as a circus, as a cynical confirmation of the
    deepest views of politicians but the corrupt elements are a minority.

    I am curious about what should citizens be angry about?

    Paul Keating was angry about the present NSW Leader of the
    Opposition when he wrote: “Let me tell you, if the Labor Party’s stocks ever
    get s so low as to require your services, it will itself, have not future. Not
    a skerrick of principle or restraint have you shown…I am ashamed to share
    membership of the same party with you”

    Keating is acerbic in commenting on what he perceives as the
    absence of principles and values. Many people in Britain felt this about the
    Murdoch press and in Australia there is an excessive preoccupation with money
    in politics generally.

    In commenting on Andrew Leigh’s recent book, for instance, Gigi
    Foster, states that it “addresses some of the big social welfare questions of
    our time: how to reduce violence (examining recidivism, firearms access, and
    terrorism through an economist’s lens); how to understand the persistent gender
    gap in wages; how to help people in the developing world.” Is money the measure
    of everything? We can see that money
    invested in education, social welfare and indigenous affairs has not always
    borne fruit. We live in a quantitative world where if you can’t measure it, you
    can’t measure it; but there are clear deficiencies with that paradigm.

    Keating also referred to backing ‘self-interest’ in any race and
    that is largely the phenomenon with which ICAC is dealing.

    Community values, even a term such as ‘citizen’ that you use,
    seems even quaint, implying as it does some penchant for community values and
    concerns beyond self.

    In looking at reform of political processes one might think that
    ALP John Falkner’s reform ideas on opening up the party, dissipating the crude
    old factional boundaries, introducing more accountability and drawing upon a
    broader range of candidates might be accepted. Same with the LNP. No: and hence the growth of independents, pups
    and nutters.

    The theme of greed, corruption and excessive preoccupation with
    money is new: it’s there in Chaucer’s ‘Pardoner’s Tale’, it runs though epicurean
    and medieval times; to many it’s the stuff of life and a great source of amusement,
    as ICAC coverage illustrates. You are raising questions about what is
    underneath the waves.

    • Peter Donnan says:

      Hi Peter,

      You could take more care with proofing because there are at least five errors in this response that you have dashed off.

      “If you can’t measure it, you can’t measure it” should read “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it’; there is a missing ‘not’ in the first sentence of the last paragraph before ‘new’; and other sundry typos. Shame!

  • PeterE says:

    Three cheers for ICAC. At least this process brings to the mind of politicians that there is a high price to pay, IF FOUND OUT. Many will no doubt continue to take the gamble.

  • whyisitso says:

    Yes the LNP politicians broke the law, and were found out. They should be removed from Parliament.

    I don’t believe in civil disobedience. There are better ways of opposing a bad law (and the banning of donations from developers is bad law).

    This law is simply the method used by the corrupt ALP government to starve the LNP of funds while they continued to be generously funded by corrupt union officials, at the expense of the unions’ own members.

  • Mike O'Ceirin says:

    Seems to me the issue of money is just one of the concerns
    in modern politics. Currently I’m reading a book “democracy and decline” by
    James Allen. His definition of democracy is the rule of the majority which
    would be ideal. Given that it would be very cumbersome to have everyone rule on
    everything we have to have an electoral democracy. You vote for someone who you
    expect to carry out an approximation of your wishes. Instead often we get
    someone who has little regard for the wishes of the electorate. For instance
    Rob Oakeshott would have been unlikely to get a vote if it had been realised he
    would support Labor. The support of Labor during the 2010 election would have
    been significantly diminished if it had been realised they were going to go
    back on their promise to not introduce a carbon tax.

    Democracy is also being diluted by transferring decision making
    to unelected judges. For instance some years ago there was a great deal of
    pressure in Tasmania to stop the building of the Franklin Dam. The due
    democratic processes had been implemented and the decision to build the dam was
    entirely democratic. The Hawke government wanted to stop the dam being built
    but had no power in such matters to intervene at the state level. The dam was
    stopped by the federal government claiming external powers under the World Heritage
    Properties Conservation Act. Then the government used judges to enforce a
    decision that very few people in Tasmania wanted.

    Presently there is a great deal of pressure to legalise gay
    marriage. If you propose a referendum to decide on this issue the reply is no
    we wouldn’t win it. By saying this it concedes the majority do not want it. So
    what is wanted is something that is undemocratic.

  • whyisitso says:


    Nothing to do with this thread, but after watching the disgraceful Craig Emerson snarling at Andrew Bolt this morning that he is racist because he advocates “colour-blindness”, is the similar case that Bolt faced, but this time against you, still extant?

    • Don Aitkin says:

      No, the complainant withdrew the charge just before the matter went to court — in October last year, from memory.

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