I’ll let the non-public servants amongst you into a dirty secret.

Government backbenchers and mates of the Government get preferential treatment from bureaucrats, at the request of Ministers.

One of the worst fates that can befall a public servant is to have to administer a program that backbenchers want to get their grubby little mitts on. You will spend half your time having to talk to Government backbenchers and their staff, answering their correspondence and representations in behalf of people or businesses within their electorates, trying to explain to ministerial advisers why what they want is outside the rules and offering alternatives that are within the rules.

You’ll go along to meetings with backbenchers, where you’ll be hectored and abused for your bureaucratic intransigence, with no help or even a request for common decency from the ministerial staff accompanying you. You’ll spend hours on the phone to businesses that benefit from the program and have managed to get the ear of a Minister’s or backbencher’s office.

Opposition backbenchers, however, get short shrift. They’ll be lucky to get a pro forma acknowledgement that their query will be looked into. Heaven help a business that is in an Opposition electorate, unless it’s a marginal and there’s an election approaching.

It gets worse. I’ve seen backbenchers not merely try to influence government programs, but government policies. I’ve seen backbenchers demand, and get, significant changes to major government policies, changes that cost businesses millions of dollars, because it benefits them politically.

And here’s another dirty little secret — it’s all entirely appropriate. Not merely legal, but appropriate and proper. Governments, be they Coalition or Labor, have every right to favour whomever they see fit. They’re the ones who’ve been elected. Not you or me. Not public servants, not journalists. Looking after government backbenchers is one of the privileges of Government. Ultimately they answer to voters. Don’t like it? Vote ‘em out. But the other mob will do just the same.

It’s like those complaints that John Howard was usurping the role of Governor-General, which I always found bizarre. Howard was the elected leader of the country. Australians wanted him there. The G-G is an appointee, a glorified public servant. Howard had every right to.

When Godwin Grech, a man who has now entered the annals of Australian political history with his performance on Friday, said that it was made clear to him that John Grant was not just another constituent, he was only explaining something that many public servants understand perfectly well: if a Minister’s office tells you to look after someone, you look after them, to the extent the law and your obligations as a public servant permit.

Grech had also told Estimates hearings a fortnight ago that he had received a wide variety of representations both from within Parliament and without, about car dealers and all of them had been proper and normal. He noted that the car dealer on behalf of whom Kay Hull made representations “contacts me almost every week”.

That’s life in the bureaucracy and, frankly, he’s lucky it’s only once a week.

Where Wayne Swan is being less than truthful is in trying to pretend that this wasn’t the case. Of course Grant was looked after. He may not have received any financial assistance either from OzCar, which doesn’t even exist, or Ford Credit, but he had consumed quite a bit of Grech’s time. He had been referred by Labor MP Bernie Ripoll. He was always going to get more attention than the car dealer on behalf of whom Nationals MP Kay Hull made representations.

All this stuff about what went to Wayne Swan’s home fax and what his staff said or didn’t say are all complicated efforts to prove from first principles that 1+1=2.

For the Coalition to dress all that up as corruption by the Prime Minister, the Treasurer, and senior public servants — for that is exactly what the Coalition has claimed — is a huge beat-up. For Swan to deny it, however, defies basic bureaucratic reality, the reality that Grech gave a rare insight into on Friday.

But the breathtaking hypocrisy is this. The Opposition and the media have worked themselves into a lather over the John Grant business — when the bloke got no financial assistance — but where’s the outrage over far more appalling examples of the Government looking after its mates and donors?

In the last twelve months one of the great heists of taxpayers’ money has been perpetrated by Big Carbon. Resources companies and heavy energy users, many of them major donors to the ALP, have extracted billions in assistance from the Government. Bugger lobbying backbenchers, these scum-sucking low-lifes with their forecasts of doom and their bullsh-t modelling have directly lobbied senior Government ministers and for their efforts obtained massive handouts that will have highly-damaging long-term implications for our economy and our climate. The Government’s mates in the union movement have been in on the giggle as well.

If you want corruption of the worst kind, it has been on display since the ETS Green Paper was released last year. Right out in public sight.

Where’s the outrage over that from the Press Gallery? Where are the furious editorials and mocked-up emails from News Ltd papers? Where’s the harassment of public servants at their homes on this? Only a couple of Gallery journalists have reported it. Many others have actively served as an echo chamber for the rentseekers.

No one will remember OzCar in five years. Unfortunately we can’t say the same about climate change. Our capacity to lose perspective is remarkable.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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