The Sydney Morning Herald has today launched a campaign, in conjunction with the St James Ethics Centre, calling on MPs to sign a “politicians’ pledge” in the lead-up to the March 28 NSW election.

The pledge is full of fairly uncontroversial promises such as “in the exercise of power I will advance the public interest before any personal, sectional or partisan interest” and “abide by the letter and spirit of the Constitution and uphold the rule of law”.

In fact, it looks very much like the oath of office that all politicians take upon entering Parliament — and is akin to asking a doctor to sign a pledge that she will endeavour not to kill her patient. It’s a sad indictment on NSW politics that the campaign is even necessary.

There is no doubt that NSW has seen more than its fair share of corruption, from both sides of politics, and this is a blight on the state. But while the campaign is good lip service, it’s unlikely to have any material effect on corruption in that state while the root cause of that corruption remains unaddressed.

One thing makes state governments more inclined to corruption than federal ones: their role in the development approval process. When coupled with the need for political parties to raise money to run campaigns, this has become a recipe for disaster in Australia’s most populous state.

Rather than asking politicians to commit to doing what everyone knows they ought to, a smarter step would be to restructure the incentives embedded in state politics that link an ability to regulate lucrative outcomes for business with the need for political donations — preferably by radically increasing transparency for donations and limiting political parties’ expenditure during election campaigns.

Without the constant need for money, more politicians might behave in ways that accord with the better angels of their nature.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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