A lifetime of observing politics in action offers no inoculation against being disappointed by the actions of politicians. The regional projects rorts revealed by the National Audit Office is the latest in a saga of corrupt actions by politicians.

The theft of taxpayers’ money to assist a politician’s re-election may be as old as elections but it remains theft. It is ingrained in a system which lauds the merits of the “good local member”. This character is someone who gets local roads built, has public funds put into community halls, sports grounds and ethnic cultural centres.

Nobody reminds people that all the “good local member” is doing is transferring money from one set of citizens to another. Because those paying are dispersed, the politician hopes and expects that they will not notice the loss of money and because the recipients are concentrated they are expected to be grateful and repay the politician with votes.

De-Anne Kelly, the Minister in charge of handing out “Regional Partnerships” money is the inheritor of a tradition by her eponymous Ros Kelly under Keating. Ros Kelly actually admitted to using a vast whiteboard to facilitate allocations of funds to the constituencies where a political payoff was most likely. Overwhelmingly, the funding went to sitting ALP members’ seats. Ros Kelly’s name is forever linked with the corruption of the “whiteboard”.

Not long ago Paul Austin of The Age was critical of the then Victorian Transport Minister Peter Batchelor in not following established practice by ensuring bus subsidies went to areas where the ALP would gain an electoral advantage. Perhaps Batchelor was a political rarity in not using public funds to corruptly advantage his own party. But the latest rort at the Federal level illustrates only too vividly that we cannot rely on politicians’ integrity overpowering their self interest.

Most government spending is not corruptly inspired and having a watchdog to audit such decisions is helpful in maintaining political honesty. But the latest case shows this is not sufficient. We should recognise the corrupt use of public funds to bring about an electoral advantage for the criminal activity it is.

The prospect that politicians could face jail as a result of them corruptly assigning public funds would concentrate their minds. Such measures are readily applied to Directors of companies. If a firm were to favour a company owned by a Director, the activity would be recognised as theft from other shareholders. The Director would face jail as several have done in recent times.

Politicians readily agreed to such provisions being imposed on business leaders. They should legislate for them to be applied to themselves.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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