Few people are able to claim they don’t know what corruption is or how it manifests in modern politics, even while corruption has impacted on the lives of ordinary people across the globe. It commands our attention and occasionally, our action.

To be able to fully appreciate what corruption is, it’s helpful to reflect on how corruption is measured and quantified in other jurisdictions. Professor Donatella della Porta  and  Dr Alberto Vannucci spent time studying corrupt exchanges in Italy. Their 1999 book presents a model for analysing corruption and in the publisher’s words serves as a “warning of a system in peril”. Briefly, della Porta and Vannucci found that corruption exists when:

  • There is a secret violation of a contract that … specifies a delegation of responsibility and the exercise of some discretionary power.
  • An agent who, against the interests of the principals, acts in favour of a third party from which a reward is received, and
  • The principal is the state or the citizenry.

These three steps more often than not are hidden and other methods and mechanism need to be employed to root out political misconduct. They found in Italy, for example, that:

  • For corrupt politicians, the party became the source of upward mobility.
  • Politicians entered politics with little money, prestige, and/or power.
  • The presence of corruption has been accompanied by the emergence of a particular type of politician: the business politician. In particular … they (will ultimately) become public sector bosses.
  • Political career and economic activities, in particular those rendered more “profitable” precisely through the control of public power, become intertwined. Political activity often serves primarily in obtaining a post at some level of the public bureaucracy.
  • Money from corruption is frequently invested in consultancy firms in the hope of being awarded loosely controlled public contracts.
  • These companies are useful to the corrupt politi­cian’s career in many ways: they permit the self-attribution of privileges, are used to launder the proceeds of corruption, conceal bribes and ensure material security should judicial difficulties compel a forced exit from politics.
  • In the studied population, politicians spend a great deal of time establishing and maintaining the right contacts.
  • Many business politicians had been able to construct a large network of personal supporters, constituted by clients and “friends” in local elites. In the first place, these (politicians) created exclusive relationships with groups of entrepreneurs, designed to finance their own careers and, naturally, the party system.
  • A first circle of connivance permitting the reproduction and expansion of corruption is constituted within the party system.
  • There is an absence of ideological preconceptions in the management of alliances between different political factions.

According to Transparency International, political corruption affects us all. “We elect politicians and political parties expecting them to act in the public interest and by electing them we give them access to public resources and the power to take decisions that impact our lives. Given this privileged position, immense damage can be inflicted by politicians or parties acting out of greed, or in the service of those who bankroll their ascent to power. It is not surprising that people the world over are demanding absolute probity of their political leaders.”

It is instructive to reflect on some of della Porta’s and Vannucci’s findings and the parallels that can be drawn within Queensland’s political landscape.

How many Queensland politicians currently enjoy bureaucrat status either here or abroad? How often do politicians claim they had very humble beginnings, yet retire from politics surprisingly wealthy? How often have Labor supporters been rewarded with government jobs? How are representatives appointed to government-controlled corporate boards?

Patronage and cronyism were the catchcry of the then Labor Party in opposition to Bjelke-Petersen’s effective yet ultimately doomed administration. But now, Queensland needs a Royal Commission more than ever. Might the corruption milestones of the Bjelke-Petersen era — that saw five ministers and the police commissioner jailed — be mirrored if an inquiry into the hidden links of the Beattie/Bligh governments was properly conducted?

Tony Fitzgerald’s recent comments reflect badly on the current Labor regime; comments that largely fell on deaf ears. In response to similar calls, the Premier recently initiated a tired old Westminster tradition of producing a Green Paper to canvass public opinion. Calls for a Royal Commission were met with stony silence.

The Premier and her colleagues suggest that Queensland’s Crime & Misconduct Commission, formerly the Criminal Justice Commission, should be able to investigate and report on corruption allegations. Unfortunately, the CMC enjoys limited public support and is seen to work to closely with the Premier’s own department. The Doctrine of the Separation of Powers is noticeably missing in any current debate.

The list of questions that need to be answered in Queensland is endless. It is not good enough for the government to rely on a Green Paper. What is needed is a Royal Commission to uncover the truth because, while anyone can ask questions and anyone can demand answers, only a Royal Commission can command respect.

*Donatella della Porta & Alberto Vannucci, 1999, Corrupt Exchanges; Actors, Resources and Mechanisms of Political Corruption, Aldine De Gruyter, New York.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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