Six degrees of Kevin Bacon is a fun game but who’d have thought it could be the basis for an entire approach to political journalism.

Today News Ltd continues its campaign against Queensland Labor with “revelations” about the involvement of trade union figures in a superannuation group and investments in firms that hired Labor lobbyists.

“Mr Ludwig, the long-time boss of the Australian Workers Union — and mentor to Mr Elder, the former deputy premier — was one of three union members on the investment committee of Sunsuper, Australia’s third-biggest superannuation group by membership with $13 billion under management.”

Scary stuff. Now the Labor Maaaaaates are running your superannuation. Which is, strangely, because that super fund is sponsored by the Queensland Council of Unions and the AWU, which appoint board members.

There’s little that’s pleasant about the likes of Ludwig or the extensive network of Labor mates in Queensland. They deserve all the sunlight the media can shed on them. But the News Ltd strategy of throwing a bunch of faintly-connected Labor names into a story without identifying what the actual impropriety is deflects from the real problem of how crony capitalism operates in a political context.

There’s also a howling double standard at work here. It’s taken as a given that Liberal Party figures will enter business. Many are appointed to plum government roles by their own side while maintaining their business activities. Many lobby on behalf of their companies or boards. The world of agri-business is even more incestuously linked to the National Party.

The media outrage meter barely flickers over that. No one expressed any concerns about Liberal Party mate Steve Vizard being appointed to the Telstra board by Richard Alston and continuing to lobby the Howard Government on behalf of his own companies, until he faced insider trading charges. Howard crony Michael Baume, whose one-eyed drivel can still be endured by AFR readers, scored some plum government appointments and was a lobbyist for Jackson Wells. Not to mention one of Jackson Wells’s original principals, Grahame Morris, Howard’s former chief of staff who continued to lend a hand with Liberal campaigns.

As we’ve previously pointed out, this is an occupational hazard of long-term governments. The number of former MPs and staffers and party mates accretes with time, and business values their network of contacts still within government — and not just at the political level, but with senior bureaucrats, many of whom also end up in business. You also have to wonder whether a lot of former MPs suffer from limelight deprivation syndrome and simply enjoy remaining close to the power they once wielded.

But it’s peculiar that we never see headlines about “Liberal mates”.

For example, News Ltd has been strangely silent about what’s been happening at Brisbane City Council since Campbell Newman — the second-highest elected Liberal official in the country – was re-elected last year. Current LNP vice-president and donor Gary Spence and former Federal MP Gary Hardgrave are among the LNP figures who been appointed by Newman to Council positions. Most appointments were never announced publicly.

Political mates are everywhere.

That’s why the regulation of all contact between Ministers and groups – businesses, unions, peak bodies — who could positively or negatively affected by a ministerial decision is where the guts of this story is: that and the capacity of groups who could be affected by a decision to give money to the decision makers under the guise of a political donation or give them a job after politics.

In that regard Anna Bligh’s government is now the strictest in the country, especially given she has now banned all office-holders from engaging in lobbying. In fact the Bligh reforms — retrospective lobbyist register, two-year cooling off period for Ministers, success fee ban, ban on buying Ministerial access, mutual exclusivity of lobbying and office-holding — provide a template that other Governments — including Kevin Rudd’s — should look at.

Bligh has released a Green Paper on further reform, including banning political donations outright and, importantly, public probity audits on all major tender processes, which is an excellent idea — although one likely to be expensive.

The opposition Liberal National Party, however, is demonstrating an almost Barry O’Farrell-like incapacity to take advantage of Bligh’s problems. Yesterday LNP leader Jean-Paul Langbroek had to sack his chief of staff for doctoring an email authorisation to use taxpayer funds for billboards promoting Langbroek. The staffer, Paul Cormack, had added a reference to billboards to the subject heading of emails from the head of Ministerial Services Branch in the Department of Premier and Cabinet, Mike Goodman. Goodman had apparently thought he was approving a newspaper advertisement.

Several sources have told Crikey that a staff member in a shadow minister’s office was responsible for drawing the attention of the media to the issue.

It’s just over two and a half years until the next Queensland election. Anna Bligh isn’t travelling all that well but it’s Jean-Paul Langbroek who may not last the distance.

Peter Fray

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