Sam Dastyari

No! Not Sam Dastyari! Not the Littlest Senator! Not the guy who looks like the guy in old ’30s shop signs! (Here’s Sam in happier times. And again). Not the Hanna-Barbera cartoon version of Nick Xenophon! Not Scott Ludlam in the wrong aspect ratio, squeezed vertically like TV in a country motel! So many senators! So much cannon fodder! Why him? Surely this verges on workplace bullying?

Well, ah, Sam has no one to blame but himself. And nothing to blame but the culture of entitlement. Our Prime Minister is a man who has spent his lifetime entangled with banking interests and is said to be worth $130 million. Our previous treasurer was worth $10 million, due to his banker wife, clearly the “brains” of the Hockey outfit. The money flows into parties from corporate donors, domestic and foreign, unimpeded. Big Mining runs the Coalition. Property developers run state governments of both parties. Yet the senator who put corporate tax avoidance and evasion on the front page is going down for a $1600 travel bung.

Well, maybe not just a $1600 travel bung. Who knows what else will emerge in the coming days and weeks? Quite possibly nothing. To be hung out to dry because you got someone to cover a gap in your expenses is your typical political setback/downfall/disaster. It’s always the small things. The process is perverse. Those engaged in corruption on a wholesale and vast scale evade detection because they go about it in a businesslike fashion. There’s no ego in it. It’s just a concerted attempt to take away as much stuff as you can carry.

The small stuff is casual, thoughtless, is … “why not?” It’s always “why not?” Why not put that meal on the company card? Why not put the room on it, too? Why not the cab to the airport? Hell, why not get a limo? The trap comes not through parsimony but through the deep, deep joy of getting free stuff. The last time that happened you were a kid, and it was your birthday. Now you’re an adult and it’s like your whole life is money coming in, and money going out. PIN PIN PIN. Everything must be paid for. You feel your vital essence slipping away. The free meal, the free room … benefits rain on you. Besides, you’ve worked hard. Really hard. In a thankless, much loathed profession. You deserve this.

So across the world, it’s always the small thing. The travel bung. The bookshelves. The fake second home. The weekend with the mistress of either or any gender. The world over. But in Australia we specialise in the piss-weak. The hahahaha TV set brought in without paying duty (a Fraser government minister). And not just any TV set — a colour TV set! A Paddington Bear, brought in via the diplomatic pouch (Mick Young, Hawke government). Try that these days, and Paddington would still be on Manus, three years later, cutting himself. And my favourite, from 1954, the deal that ended the Victorian Labor government and ushered in the Bolte era — when four Labor MPs were persuaded to wreck the government in exchange for … newsagency licences. Yes, the bribe was the opportunity to spend your life getting up at 5am to sort out bundles of papers.

Piss-weak. Well, maybe. Picturesque impropriety always acts as a cover for systemic, legal corruption on a vast scale. Had Sam had his travel covered by an Australian mining concern, one doubts it would have gained much traction. The Chinese element has caused the lesser sin to be joined to the greater one: our shoddily and barely regulated donations and expenses system, reform of which has been decades overdue.

It’s because Australian scandals were so piss-weak for so long — ostensibly — that no one really bothered about them. They could be subsumed under a general cynicism about politicians. That’s one reason why such massive enterprises, such as the wholesale corruption of government process in NSW, could go on for so long, before anyone took any notice. The money sloshing around Australia in the most recent resources boom was on a scale we hadn’t really encountered for. Even the ’70s resources looks, by comparison, well, piss-weak.

Now, there’s no ignoring it. Reform has to happen. For years, your correspondent has been arguing that this needs to be a whole-of-government process. Our whole federal state apparatus, designed in the 1890s, has been subject to patches, and patches on patches, for so long that it has ceased to be fit for purpose. Political funding and donations are only the most visible examples of that wider institutional collapse. What’s really needed is a whole-of-government reform, a series of rolling conferences and commissions on the way to amending the constitution with a series of bipartisan-supported amendments, over a five- to-10-year process.

We won’t get that, of course. Or anything like it. But we might get funding, donations and expenses reform. But most likely not from the major parties, unless they have no option. The quickest way to it would be for the crossbenches to essentially go on strike — refuse, en bloc, to consider any legislation, or even meet with the government, until a process of reform is under way. Surely that would be something they could all agree on, even if they have differing ideas about which reforms should occur? If such were to take off, then Sam Dastyari — oh, I’ve got another one, he’s like the three-quarter-size pub pool table version of a full tournament-size senator — might have prompted major change in the most unlikely way. Unlikely, and self-sacrificing.