While Tony Abbott and Bill Shorten close ranks in assuring us that
the dealings of federal politicians are all above board and squeaky
clean, the reality is glaringly different and their refusal to realise
that reform is needed taints them both with the suspicion that they
rather like the current situation of factional groups being installed by
industry lobbyists to control our treasury.
In 1992 the former secretary to the Office of Governor-General, Sir David Smith, wrote: There
is much that is wrong with the way this nation is governed and
administered: never before have we had so many Royal Commissions and
other inquiries; never before have we had so many office-holders and
other figures in, or facing the prospect of prison; never before have
the electors registered their dissatisfaction with the political process
by returning so many independent and minor party candidates to
This quote from 22 years ago could have been written today.
In the Mackay Report of July 2001, social researcher Hugh Mackay stated: Australia’s
contempt for federal politics and its leaders has plumbed new depths.
If it (the Mackay Report) was a family newspaper, we would scarcely be
able to print the things Australian’s are saying about their politicians
… In the 22 year history of the Mackay Report political attitudes have
never been quite as negative as this.
Thirteen years on and, if anything, the situation is worse.
On 16 June 2013 in The Australian newspaper Tony Fitzgerald QC (who
chaired the 1987 Queensland Royal Commission) wrote an article The Body Politic is Rotten. He stated: “There
are about 800 politicians in Australia’s parliaments. According to
their assessments of each other, that quite small group includes role
models for lying, cheating, deceiving, “rorting”, bullying,
rumour-mongering, back-stabbing, slander, “leaking”, “dog-whistling”,
nepotism and corruption.”
He states in effect, that the dominance of the major parties by
little known and unimpressive faction leaders who have effective control
of Australia’s democracy and destiny… might be tolerable if the major
parties acted with integrity but they do not. Their constant battles for
power are venal, vicious and vulgar.
The 2010-13 Federal Parliament saw the major parties virtually
eliminate any real form of democratic debate substituting little but
character assassination of opponents. It was a three-year election
campaign of personal abuse and fear mongering. It was debased even
further with aggressive bullying by the media and special interests at
The same period saw both state and federal governments pandering to
special interests allowing massive increases in the promotion of
gambling and alcohol. Pandering to the development and mining industries
and the seemingly endless privatisation of public assets often creating
private monopolies, continued irrespective of public opinion.
Over the last 30 years politicians’ staff has increased dramatically.
At federal level there are now some 17 hundred personal staff to
ministers and members. The states probably account for over two thousand
more. Add to this the direct political infiltration of federal-state
public services and quangos with hundreds more jobs for the boys and
girls, there is now a well-established political class.
This has provided the political parties with a career path for
members. In many cases it often produces skilled, partisan, “whatever it
takes” warriors with a richly rewarded life through local state and
federal governments to a well-funded retirement. Unfortunately while
this career path, as Tony Fitzgerald states, does include principled
well-motivated people … it also attracts professional
politicians with little or no general life experience and unscrupulous
opportunists, unburdened by ethics, who obsessively pursue power, money
The taxpayer cost of federal elections has increased from $38 million
in 1984 to $161 million in 2010. Of the latter $53 million was public
funding to parties and candidates. Currently, in spite of massive
increases, public funding is less than 20 per cent of about $350 million
total election spending. We are now effectively the second best
democracy money can buy.
In an article in the Saturday Paper, Rob Oakeshott writes:
“Australia needs a royal commission into political donations.
It is not people in different clothing, of different cultures, with
different languages, or of different religions that anyone need fear. If
you look back on our political history, we have been divided by silly
suspicions before. The “fear and smear” of others has been tried on
South Sea Islanders, Chinese, Aboriginal Australians, and now women of
Islam. History shows the current debate is not new. It merely picks away
at that same old xenophobic scab our culture carries.
No, the greatest threat to Australia’s future is not among its
people. The people, when allowed to know each other, seem to get on
The real threat is within government itself. It is the increasing
corruption of our public decision-making by influence gained through
record levels of private donations. The only colour Australia needs to
fear is the colour of money in its democracy. Chequebook decision-making
is the silent killer of necessary reform.”
After the revelations from the NSW ICAC, Mike Baird
had an opportunity to lead reform. Instead, with his proposed new
legislation, as has been pointed out by Anne Twomey, professor of law at
the University of Sydney, in effect the government wants taxpayers to
give political parties millions more to campaign at election time
without curtailing their ability to raise money from private interests.
Rather than action that places the public interest first, we have a
poorly thought-out proposal arguably designed more with politics and
self-interest in mind than good policy.
Political parties as they have developed over the last century seem
like two mafia families seeking control of the public purse for
distribution to themselves, supporters, the special interests who fund
them and for buying votes at the next election. Political parties are
not mentioned in the Constitution. They are effectively unregulated
private organisations but they now control government treasuries.
By centralising power as Tony Fitzgerald puts it: The public interest
is subordinated to the pursuit of power, party objectives and personal
ambitions, sometimes including the corrupt acquisition of financial
benefit. Branch stacking has become endemic and as Fitzgerald says “The parties gift electorates to family connections, malleable party hacks and mediocre apparatchiks”.
The former Howard government minister Jackie Kelly, who has resigned from the party in protest, cited “the corrosive control that self-interested lobbyists have over the NSW Liberal Party and how yet again reform will stall after the next election” in a letter to the state director.
Kelly told Guardian Australia disenchantment with the factional
control of the NSW state executive and the stalled reform process had
caused many party members in western Sydney to “down tools”. In one
Sydney north shore branch, 80 out of 200 members have not renewed their
party membership in the past 12 months.
Critics such as Kelly and long time campaigner John Ruddick say the
Icac revelations were a natural outcome of concentrating power in the
hands of a few factional powerbrokers and lobbyists.
The two-party system stifles ideas, debate and decision-making within
the parties. The faction system often ensures minority views triumph
within both party rooms. In the case of the government, the minority
view will then be taken into parliament and become an even greater
minority law. Voting within parties is often based on what faction
members belong to, who wants to become or stay a minister or who wants
to be party leader. What the electors think is at best a secondary
consideration. Party members almost always follow the party line and are
often voting against what they really believe or what their electorates
As things stand Australian democracy consists of voting in a rigged
system every few years to elect others to make decisions for us. The
voters mostly know little or nothing about most candidates after the
“faceless men” and “branch stackers” have had their way. We are rarely
permitted to have any say on policies. Cabinet ministers, premiers and
prime ministers come and go without reference to us. We go to war and
sign treaties without even our parliament having a say let alone the
public. When the major parties agree, as they do when funding
themselves, and their mutual friends, we have no say whatsoever. It is a
pretty minimalist democracy and a long way from Abraham Lincoln’s
Government of the people, BY the people, for the people.
As Ted Mack says, we seem to have achieved “Government of the people, by the powerbrokers, for the mates”.