Some might argue that the pack instinct of the political punditariat is its greatest failing. Others might point to the short-termism of political analysis. Both, are of course, related. And both are exemplified in the strange dichotomy between “mud slinging” and “positive policy” currently obsessing pundits.

Although the sheer excess of the “character” attack on Kevin Rudd has few precedents at this stage of the political cycle, Labor’s only alternative is not to sit back and watch the government implode, giving it only a subtle nudge or two in questions and the press. Though that wouldn’t be bad political strategy.

Labor has another option – to seize the chance to address two long term trends which are both shaping the government’s current woes, and to do so in such a way as to transcend the failings of individual ministers in an old and tired government to put forward an alternative for genuine systemic change.

And it’s not necessarily a bold Latham-esque political play. Quite the opposite, in fact.

The missing link between the controversy swirling around both Santoro and Burke is that both are essentially state level politicians. Burke’s influence, and business, derive from his ability to parlay power in Western Australia into commercial advantage. Santoro’s investments were largely in Queensland companies, and the summit of his ambition has always been monomaniacal dominance of the Queensland Liberal party.

Some of the allegations which tie Printgate together with Santoro’s various schemozzles are that Liberal Federal MPs were engaged in practices which created private campaign funds which were directed to factional not party advantage. The state Liberal party, which has an almost unbroken record of electoral failure, is hardly an entity on which business wants to lavish donations. The question is whether Santoro’s fundraising, and the functions which he hosted featuring John Howard, were about channelling funds to subsidise state campaigns of his factional allies, and consolidate his factional position. But, as Peter Beattie has just discovered, these fall outside the jurisdiction of the state CMC. Nor is the Shane Stone audit of the Queensland Libs looking at the state level of the machine.

But there aren’t two Queensland Liberal parties. It’s just that there is no federal body analogous to the CMC able to investigate alleged malfeasance.

Lurking behind Santoro’s activities is the allegation that some of his fundraising and investment plays might have been related to concrete favours to businesses. As blogger Kim Jameson argues at Larvatus Prodeo, the fact that service delivery, and thus the potential for dodginess, has traditionally been centred on state politics, has cushioned federal pollies from scrutiny.

While federal pollies have either been responsible for highly bureaucratic services for individuals (like Centrelink) or high policy, all the many areas of state responsibility such as land use, planning, zoning, and so on have created enormous scope for decisions favourable to individuals or industries. Hence the unsurprising propensity of property developers to channel huge donations to state Labor parties.

Santoro has taken this mode of operation, still directed largely at his state powerbase, and transformed it into the federal arena. And the Howard era centralisation of government, and the increasing role of the Feds in service delivery, have increased the scope for dodgy links between cash and decision making. But at the same time Howard has effectively dismantled ministerial accountability, just when it’s more necessary than ever.

As Jameson also argues, Labor could transform the whole debate by promising a permanent investigatory commission at federal level. Santoro-gate is probably too small for a royal commission, but similarly a political investigation by boy wonder Christopher Pyne is not going to inspire public confidence. Particularly in a climate where the Senate’s power of scrutiny is much reduced, Labor has the chance to turn the mudfight to its advantage by establishing an independent commission. That really is an alternative and positive policy proposal.

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.