The story of how a Minister in the former NSW Labor Government was able to buy a new car for his wife at a $10,000 discount, with a little help from his friends, has begun to unroll, and there is more to come. Waiting in the wings are three former Premiers, and no doubt some other senior people as well. The saga will play out for months, take pressure off the O’Farrell Government, and add to the woes of Labor federally, which will be dealing at the same time with the Craig Thomson case, another example of alleged corruption.
The corruption of public officials occurs everywhere, not just in NSW, and is one of the reasons that poor countries stay poor. It is a betrayal of trust, and the antithesis of good government, which is why we have ICACs and their equivalents.We do need to remember that in origin public servants and Ministers were expected to feather their own nests. Tax-gatherers, for example, could rake off as much as they liked providing that the King got what he needed. (An ostentatious style of living on the part of the tax-gatherer, however, was not recommended.)
But, you will say, that was long ago. In a system of responsible government like ours, now well over 150 years old, and with Ministers well paid, why does it still occur?
My tentative answer goes something like this. Like the demon drink, an essay postponed until tomorrow, corruption comes gradually. Politics is about compromise, and deals. I need your support in caucus, or elsewhere, and I get it; I then owe you one, and in time you will want to collect. Private interests of all kinds want certain outcomes, and so do you. They will help you, but in return they will want you to help them. Good government requires an understanding of what people want and don’t want, and of who has power to block what ought to happen, and of what they are about.
Corruption comes when what you have done, or being asked to do, is associated with some kind of personal benefit. There are rules about ‘presents’, and each of us ought to be able to tell when anything offered to us could be seen as an inducement. I’ll give a personal example. I became the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Canberra on 1 January 1991, and a few days later I received an apologetic letter from Ansett Airlines saying that I had been overlooked in their previous letter to vice-chancellors about the 4th Test at the SCG. The Ansett private box would welcome me, and a ticket would be available when I wanted to travel. How nice! I would meet some of my new colleagues. How good of Ansett to get us all together on such an occasion.
So I went, and enjoyed myself watching David Gower trying single-handed to defeat Australia in the fourth innings, and making a good fist of it until he got out. Oddly, there were no other V-Cs there. It was not until I received my first agenda papers from the Australian Vice-Chancellors’ Committee that I discovered that the AVCC made a decision each year about which airline to use for AVCC travel, and that each airline put in a bid. Oops! Thereafter I became highly sensitive to the implications of every invitation.
I think that corruption, for most, anyway is the classic slippery slope, in which one error, quite small, leads to another, a little larger, and a third, until one becomes enmeshed in it, and then begins to cover one’s tracks. The powers that the NSW ICAC has makes it difficult for anyone to cover those tracks adequately, and I expect a major unrolling of a pattern of deals that ran through the last Labor administration.
One reason the pattern could occur was that the Labor Government stayed in power so long. In general, I am in favour of a regular turnover in power, and upsetting patterns of expectation is one of my principal reasons.