I used to argue that Australia was relatively free from ‘corruption’ — that was the sort of thing that happened in developing countries. Now I’m not so sure. The ICAC inquiries in NSW, and the claim that if there were an ICAC in Victoria its inquiries would be no less sensational, plus the Royal Commissions into child sex abuse and into the insulation troubles all point to something being badly wrong in our politics and society.
Corruption is not new, and in NSW it goes back at least to the time of the Rum Corps and the coup d’etat that got rid of Governor Bligh in 1808. But every colony had corruption scandals, and although reforms of all kinds have been instituted at every level of government, what we have at the moment is a worrying picture of a society where corruption seems to be somewhat widespread. Churches seem to have been corrupt in their dealings with those in their care, while governments have been careless of of their responsibilities, and Ministers have acted to feather their own nests and those of their mates. The most recent exposes show those active in politics on the Liberal side bypassing the laws in order to make sure that their side is elected to office. Whatever it takes is the title of an autobiography of a Labor politician, and you can draw the inference that breaking the law, or ignoring it, might be a necessary cost for whatever had to be done. It seems to apply to both sides.
‘Corruption’ comes from the Latin word ‘corrumpere’, meaning to destroy, or break. What is it that is destroyed or broken when we experience corruption? I think it is trust, and with it the feeling that all’s right in our local world, so that we can get on with our lives. In a corrupt society everything is more complicated; we can’t be sure what is the real state of things. Whom do we know? Who will tell us what we have to do, how to get what we need, how to avoid trouble? We have entered another kind of world where there is a surface set of rules which don’t operate as they ought.
Our kind of Western society is based on a wide-ranging set of assumptions about honesty, trust, rules, and decent behaviour. Families are important, but they too are expected to behave properly and observe the rules and assumptions. That is the way we bring up our children. The revelations of these inquiries are unsettling to say the least. The recent ICAC exploration of the NSW Liberal Party’s approach to the elections which saw their access to power tells us that winning the elections was so important that the rules about election funding were simply ignored and bypassed.
The Catholic Church and the Salvation Army seem to have seen their own worlds as somehow distinct and different from the society in which they operated. Bad things were being done, and some in charge knew this, and occasionally did something that reduced the evil that was occurring. But the notion that what was occurring was criminal, and that those acting criminally should be handed over to the criminal justice system, seems hardly to have been contemplated. The public standing of the church was far more important.
The pink batts business comes across as the relevant politicians’ avoiding responsibility, by not knowing, not wanting to know, and being preoccupied with something else. The Obeid business with respect to the former Labor Government in NSW seems about as grubby as po litics can get. And what do we the citizens do? For some it’s exciting stuff on the evening news bulletins. For others, it’s just what you’d expect from that lot. For others still, it is a real worry: whom can you trust?
Some have proposed that election funding be taken away entirely from the possible donors, and replaced by public funding. That won’t work, because people can offer their services in various ways. Others have suggested that we need new parties full of honourable people, who wouldn’t do bad things. Yes … I think we’ll be waiting a long time for them. My suggestion is that elections be declared null and void in particular cases where there is prima facie evidence that corruption has occurred. I don’t think my suggestion will be taken seriously.
As for the child-abuse perpetrators, many have died, and many are very old. I do think that senior people within the churches need to be seen to be accountable. So far, nothing much has happened. As for the pink batts, nothing will bring back the dead young men, and the politicians have either retired or been displaced. What is to prevent these things happening again? Nothing that I can see other than a change of culture within the political parties brought about by the electorate demanding such a change. But I don’t see that happening at the moment either.
Am I despondent? Yes. As I have said before, our politics is a contest between the equivalents of two professional football teams, intent on winning and on little else. Our society is changing, but not (in this domain) in a way that fills me with satisfaction.