Rudd’s choice of September 7 for the election day was problematic for me, as that is the busiest weekend of the year for my election administration business. However, it also seemed to me a bad choice for him – being the worst possible timing in relation to the release of the ICAC report on the corrupt awarding of a coal mining license.
When the ALP comes to review this disaster fingers of blame will be pointed in many directions – Rudd, Gillard, the carbon tax etc. But from the signs so far relatively little attention will be pointed at the actions of Macdonald, Obeid and Thomson. There seems to be a view amongst many political cynics that the public doesn’t care about corruption. In one sense I think this is true. It seems that a certain amount of corruption gets forgiven by the voters all to easily, only of concern to a principled few and the ideological opponents of those responsible. But there comes a certain point where people care a lot, and NSW Labor passed that point quite a while ago.
Labor in other states is much better on this account, but one of the reasons I am involved in the Greens is that I believe we can be a check on corruption. In saying that, I am not claiming that Greens are inherently more honest and less likely to stick our fingers in the till than Labor or Liberal party powerbrokers. I’d love to believe this, but I don’t think we will know if it is true for a very long time – Greens in Australia have seldom had the opportunity to be corrupt even if we wanted to be.
Obviously no Green was ever likely to be corrupt in just this way – the granting of cheap coal mining licenses would be a move so obvious and surprising it would stick out like a sore thumb, even if a party member had not the slightest qualms about destroying both the environment and the public purse like this.
However, the key point is that a strong third party, irrespective of its politics will make corruption less likely. The old adage that power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely, is more than a little bit true. Few governments start out with pilfering the common good, but such things almost always develop with time. The character of individuals within the governing party, the nature of its institutional structures and the wider culture determine how fast it occurs, but it pretty much always happens eventually if a party stays in government long enough.
In which case, voters are left with the invidious choice of a party that has replaced acting in the public interest with divvying up the spoils for themselves and one that they may find obnoxious on principle. This gets particularly ugly when the opposition is in an extremist phase. Such was the choice NSW voters faced in 2007, and to some extent the same is true at this federal election.
The presence of a strong third party, one that people could turn to when each of the others was unacceptable, would not be a guarantee against such things, but surely it would help. Moreover, since oppositions are usually much more keen on the separation of powers than governments, having two oppositions, possibly with a parliamentary majority between them can be a powerful way to go.
Should I ever live to see a long term Green government in any state in Australia I would love to think it would not fall into benefiting its members at the expense of the wider public. However, I’d be much more confident that this would not occur if both the Labor and Liberal Parties remained strong enough to keep an eye on it.
However, such concerns are many, many years off. In the meantime, I am confident the best thing I can do to prevent the spread of corruption in Australian public life is to work to build a third force in politics. The fact that the third largest force happens to coincide so well with my beliefs makes it a particularly easy choice, but even those unsympathetic to many aspects of the Greens might want to ask what alternatives they have to a culture dominated by either an Obeid or a McIver.