“There’s a growing political movement for anti-corruption,” someone said at an event your correspondent was speaking at last week. Really? In Australia? Where exactly is it? Where are the street marches and public rallies, the organisations, the pressure? Far from being seen as pressing, the issue is treated by many Australians with a type of fatalism. The manifold evidence is that the political system is riddled with active and passive corruption, from party donations for presumed policy shifts to outright payments to individual MPs and all points in between. The Greens and some crossbenchers have advocated for a federal ICAC, or corruption tribunal. The major parties will not go near it.
With good reason, in terms of their own survival. Every time someone starts a state ICAC, state governments fall, and MPs go to prison. There are backbenchers, ministers and shadows who are pissing razor blades at the possibility that either Turnbull or Shorten will weaken — or strengthen, depending on your view — and establish one. But such people can rest easy. There’s little chance of it. The truth is that the Australian political system can tick over indefinitely with very little regard to the stated wishes of its populace, so long as those stated wishes run against the interests of politicians as a group. The Australian federal system reproduces a system as resilient against real reform as a cockroach against nuclear war.
The MPs within it are helped immensely by the clueless left-liberal discourse that issues from what remains of the press gallery and the Fairfax commentariat (let’s not even get into the News Corp commentariat). Such groups enjoy promoting the myth of the fall, in which the poor state of Australian politics is due to the poor state of Australian politicians. In this myth, there was a time when gods strode the earth, and lo, they came to Canberra, and there they did exercise power. But the gods died away, and those that have come to replace them are puny mortals who can give us no leadership and guidance. Thus the crops die and there is ruin across the land. The gods are Hawke and Keating, and Costello, and even Howard. The magic they wielded was “reform”, neoliberal state reconstruction presented as non-political “common sense”. And so on and so on.
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There isn’t much doubt that many in the gallery and the op-ed pages actually believe this. For decades, political reporting in Australia has been set up this way: to report on politics you have to pretend that Australian democracy is the envy of the world, a wholly transparent and self-chosen system that perfectly reflects the wishes of the people, etc, etc. You can’t, in Australian political reporting, comment on the structure of the system itself, because political reporting is modeled on reporting of sports, our true national passion. It would make no sense to question the rules of AFL while reporting on the semi-final, and that logic is carried over to politics.
Once you rule out institutional and structural explanations, the myth of the fall is all you have. It has the added advantage of allowing press gallery journalists to put on their Midwinter Ball Woodward-Bernstein masks and play at being fierce advocates of speaking truth to power, etc, etc. In reality, Australian political reporting, with its endless, breathless commentary on micro-deals and personalities, subfactions and “is it on” and “who’s up who” is simply an extension of the system. Which is one reason why no one is reading it in enough volume to make their products profitable. Hence the lobbying for federal subsidies for print, or ex-print, media, which would make the system total: gallery journalists would be reporting on the doings of politicians on whose vote the survival of their publications would depend. But if that’s what it takes to preserve democracy …
The myth of the fall is the exact reversal of what has occurred. Australian federal politics has become more petty political, responsive and corrupt not because the people have got worse and corrupted the system, but because the system, disconnected from any substantial political struggle, offers a sinecure to second-rate people and elevates them to a position practically beyond recall. The last generation of “impressive” major party politicians — Hawke, Keating, Howard, Costello, etc — all entered politics during the years when right and left marked a genuine distinction, a cause to be fought, inside the parties and between them. Australia’s tight political institutional system — the form of politics — was less important than the ideas and issues, the content of politics.
When the right won control of the public sphere in the 1980s, after the collapse of the post-war socialist wave in the 1970s, political division became a matter of relatively minor differences, a left and right of neoliberalism. In Australia, the form of politics came to the fore. What was that form? Our quintuple lock, a system designed to cater to a permanent political caste. Compulsory voting marches the populace to the polls. Exhaustive preferential voting gives them a choice, in most seats, between the two major parties and voting informal. Matched public funding per primary vote favours established parties and is slanted against new entrants. An absence of bans on political donations allows major parties to ignore the electorate entirely and cater to powerful moneyed interests. The managerial nature of such politics allows MPs, after a tour of duty, to slide into boardrooms of banks, super funds, oligopolies, lobby groups and the like.
This is one of the tightest and most anti-democratic parliamentary systems on the planet. The two major parties form the two wings of a single party whose first task is to ensure that this system reproduces itself indefinitely — since there are always people joining it who want to do their 12 years until the lovely gumment super kicks in. To presume that this system can be changed by anything less than major disruption — by the action of conscience and good people and demand — is illusory. Politicians know how hated they are. They know what a rort the system is. By now, many of the players in the major parties have known each other 25 or 30 years, having come up through student politics together. Many of them lost whatever shred of political feeling they had long ago. They know, from left or right, that the best thing would be a thorough overhaul of Australian political systems. But they won’t advocate it. Why? Because they’re clinging to the handlebars as the chopper flies down the hill, thinking “oh, please please please stay upright long enough for me to get that super, get on the board of BOGUS or Shitbank, please let me get that big house, please let me get that beach house, please let me fly first class to Europe, please this was all shit, all a terrible mistake, please let me cash out …”.
The only way in which we will achieve institutional change in Australian politics, and hence be in a position to attack corruption, is if the system is unable to reproduce itself. One way for this to occur would be for the broad Senate crossbench, including the Greens, to simply refuse to pass any legislation — of this government or the next — until there is established a process for rethinking Australian “democracy”, a new convention in which all such political institutions could be debated, and some sense of popular desire established. I am pretty sure that would consider voluntary voting, alternative voting forms, foreign and domestic donations, a federal ICAC, and much more. However, I doubt very much the ability to persuade enough of the crossbench to pledge to that to make it a success.
The alternative process would be have a hung Parliament in the lower house, with the swing votes refusing to endorse any party for government until such was established. The Greens, Andrew Wilkie and the McGowan-style independents might be relied on to do that; Bob Katter less so, I imagine.
But the ranks could be added to by running Labor or Liberal independent candidates in selected seats the Greens cannot win, but where the solid major-party vote could be split in two by a high-profile candidate — actual former MPs, or culture “heroes” of one sort or another — running on exactly this sort of program, and with something of a movement behind them. In other words, don’t ask a Liberal electorate to vote for a left candidate in order to do something about corruption and institutional decay; offer them a true-blue Liberal candidate, who is nevertheless independent of the party fix. Such a candidate, if they can split a solid party vote down the middle, can win with 25% of the primary vote.
That would work. It could be done, with co-operation across the political divide to make it happen. It probably won’t be. The system will chug on, our political institutions will remain largely unexamined, the cosy relationship of politicians and journalists — quite literally making and breaking bread — will continue, even as the latter write endless features about the decay of good government, absence of purpose, integrity, etc, etc. The politicians will welcome such features, because they direct attention away from where the problem lies: institutions and structures that could be transformed in a relatively straightforward fashion, if the will was there, and a focus kept on the real issues.