I have no idea how long the ICAC inquiry into corruption within the past Labor Government in NSW will continue, but its leisurely pace, and the number of those involved, suggest to me that it will still be hard at work when September 14th comes around, even though Commissioner Ipp hopes to hand down his findings at the end of July. Whatever the case, the smell of this inquiry will hang over the coming federal election. I wrote at the end of last year that, although this was a NSW inquiry, it could not at all help Federal Labor. And the links to Federal Labor are beginning to appear.
Senator Doug Cameron, he of the pronounced Scottish accent, was on stage yesterday. The former boss of the AMWU explained that he had been part of a meeting to consider Mining Minister McDonald’s pre-selection, and had formed the view that it should continue, notwithstanding all the complaints about McDonald, because he was ‘hard-working and effective’. Nine News said that it understood that Cameron’s daughter worked in McDonald’s office, which could mean that Senator Cameron had privileged knowledge about the hard work and effectiveness of the Minister. Another witness said that ‘Cameron called the shots’, so his intervention was decisive. Anthony Albanese, another Federal heavy, was also present at the lunch. It is understood that he made a written statement to the Commission.
Every day there is a new surprise, this time concerning the former Independent Northern Tableland MLA Richard Torbay, who quickly resigned from the Legislative Assembly, and disappeared from sight, once it was learned that the ICAC was interested in him. He also vacated the Chancellorship of the University of New England, and the pre-selection he had won to contest New England for the Nationals in September against another independent, Tony Windsor MP. Torbay, it is coming clear, had links to Eddie Obeid. Now the ICAC has raided Torbay’s Armidale office and home.
What is it looking for, and what does all this mean? Torbay had been the Speaker in the Assembly from 2007 to 2009, although Labor had at the time a comfortable majority in the lower house. That was odd enough, and was said to be so at the time. And there are stories that he was prepared to ‘rejoin’ the ALP if he could be guaranteed succession to the Premiership. What his sudden disappearance means is that Senator Barnaby Joyce is very likely to become the endorsed National candidate for New England.
Labor and its supporters love to deride Joyce, because of his outspoken style and his penchant for playing the unregenerate ‘bushie’. But Joyce is no fool at all, he has strong New England connections and, like Torbay, is a graduate of UNE. He is going to be a strong opponent for Windsor, and everything will depend on whether or not Windsor’s constituents respect the role he has played in Parliament as an Independent MP keeping the Gillard Government alive. I expect Joyce to win if he is pre-selected, and he will be a force in the House of Representatives. He knows his own mind and he speaks it. How he will adapt to Ministerial life is another question.
The Joyce story is fascinating, but incidental. The ICAC inquiry, and its unfolding tale of deep corruption, knowledge of it that is waved aside, and unpleasant tendrils that move in unexpected and unwelcome directions, tells us that long-lived governments are likely to develop a ‘gravy-train’ mentality, a culture on which people put their hands up for ‘my turn’. It was instructive to me that at the now famous lunch where his own preselection was discussed McDonald argued for it to continue because he wanted to go to the Beijing Olympics! You get not only an indifference to the real task of a Minister, but the feeling of a club, where all present are mates, and personal desires like this are treated seriously.
The Labor Party is particularly prone to this culture, because so much within the ALP rests on deals of various kinds. But it can occur anywhere. Such a culture developed in Queensland in the long-running Country-Liberal Government led by Joh Bjelke Petersen from 1968 to 1987, as a Royal Commission into police corruption made clear. That Royal Commission was initially supposed to report simply on allegations of corruption into the police force, but went on, with wider references, for two years, which is why I wouldn’t be surprised if the ICAC inquiry doesn’t have its term extended.
There is a obvious but difficult remedy for all this, which is to ensure that governments rarely, if ever, have more than three terms. Inasmuch as I have a rule about my own vote, it is to think carefully about how long this particular lot have been in, and wonder if it isn’t better for everyone if the other side weren’t given a go. I haven’t see much difference between the parties when in government, and thank our lucky stars that we have a competent public service. Yes, it’s hard luck for the up-and-comers who see their turn coming, if their party is turfed out just as they were getting close to being a minister.
But that is a small price to pay for honest government most of the time.