Utegate: Wayne Swan's 'marginal crime'

Rudd off the hook, Turnbull admits (ABC)Australian politics has at its core some ethical standards by which MPs may be judged. They include equitable representation and responsible lobbying, clean hands and the avoidance of corruption, and honest relations between parliament and the executive. How have they held up in the so-called Utegate affair?

All parliamentarians have a role in representing their constituents and, in the case of senior parliamentarians, representing wider community interests. They should do so while maintaining a level playing field. Everyone should be served equally. No one should get preferential treatment.

But some tilting of the playing field is often inescapable in life and politics, and is therefore acceptable. In this case both the level playing field (as attested to by Michael Delaney, CEO of the Motor Traders peak body) and the tilted playing field (as shown in some legitimate email evidence) have operated side by side.

How can that be? Those closer to the government of the day, in this case an acquaintance and constituent of the Prime Minister and/or the Treasurer, seem to have attracted greater official interest. But at the same time, there appears to have been no shameful neglect of other representations.

The Opposition cry foul but if they really believe anything exceptionally unethical has taken place then they are setting very high ethical standards indeed. These are standards they themselves have failed demonstrably to meet in the past, and that they will find very hard to adhere to should they regain the government benches.

Corruption in politics does not just mean money changing hands. If this is the standard then there has been nothing corrupt about Utegate (unless you count the gift of the ute itself).

However, corruption in politics is more usefully seen as a corruption of the process by which the highest standards of non-partisanship and even-handedness should be applied to the policy-making process. When this happens special interests are deliberately advantaged over others.

As revealed once again by this affair Australian politics at the federal level is not squeaky clean. Some interests and individuals do better out of the system than others. But neither is it deeply flawed and corrupt. In the rough and tumble of Australian politics government ministers sometimes do play favourites; but they do so while generally attempting to give everyone at least a basic level of service.

To put it another way, while some of us fly first class and some fly economy, most people get a seat of some sort.

That is still not fair. But nor is it corrupt. As a consequence, when the political temperature rises to unsustainable levels, as in this affair, the electorate is well served if it takes all claims and counter-claims with a grain of salt.

None of this is necessarily tied to one of the central tenets of the Westminster system, that executive-parliament relations must be based on truth and trust. If the word of a minister in parliament cannot be accepted without qualification, if a minister misleads parliament, then the system breaks down. In these circumstances the minister should resign to preserve the integrity of the system.

This is the charge against Wayne Swan that the Opposition continues to pursue.

There is some case against the Treasurer, but it is not black and white. and therefore it is not a hanging offence, at least not on what we currently know.

The stock in trade of parliament, unfortunately, is to be careful with words and to be economical with the truth. Swan has claimed that all car dealers received identical treatment. Yet what seems to have happened is that while all car dealers received identical basic service, the insider appears to have received first class, personal attention. That is the way in politics.

Swan's survival has been assisted by an Opposition that lost its focus, tempted to divert its attention by the possibility of the scalp of the Prime Minister. But essentially the Treasurer's alleged crime is a marginal one in an imperfect political world.

John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and Flinders University of South Australia and a Canberra Times columnist. He was named an Officer in the Order of Australia on the 2009 Queen's Birthday honours list.

Topic tags: john warhurst, lobbying, utegate, parliament, kevin rudd, wayne swan, Michael Delaney



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Existing comments

I support the concepts in the article but I do not believe many MPs do so. For example, experience has shown that my local MP (Kevin Andrews) does not represent me. Over many years he has not responded to my emails, letters and telephone calls. A few years ago I 'ambushed' him at a function in the Australia Club in Melbourne and he admitted that his staff decide who gets a response.
Mike | 24 June 2009

Hans Christian Anderson's tale of the Emperor's New Clothes is a fitting fable to be read parallel with John's serious and very wise disection of a long week in politics. Both Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd can be seen as an 'emperor like figure', Malcolm with his cries of victory and Kevin with his protestations of victimhood.

I must say though, I have enjoyed the saga so far,- a bit like many of Shakespeare's plays must have seemed to the masses of their day as the only way to keep abreast of the political undercurrents affecting their daily lives, except of course for the obvious distress of Mr Grech.

Mr Grech is the symbol for all of us, in the cut and thrust, the cynicism, the mirth, the mischief, there will be a price to be paid by all because, as Ned kelly said, 'such is life'. Mr Grech will be remembered like Senator Field is, like Ainslie Gotto is, as the personal cost of having a democratic system which allows moments of madness so as to preserve its ultimate worth.
Fr Mick Mac Andrew Bombala-Delegate NSW | 24 June 2009

Aside from all of the strident shouting for resignations...from both sides of the political divide...there has been a widespread concern about the Senate inquiry involving the questioning of Godwin Grech, the senior Treasury public servant. He was flanked by his colleague manager who constantly sought to put words in his mouth or to answer the questions himself. The Labor senators and the Labor chairwoman also sought...unsuccessfully at length..to assert that a question about a search for a missing document and a question as to whether Mr Grech might have even sighted such a document amounted to the same thing.

Mr Grech produced the first bombshell with his ref to the PM., and the second came with the discovery of the "missing" email and a connection to Mr Grech's computer.(Why didn't the original search produce the email...the police soon found it!)

Clearly, Mr Grech will produce the end answer...and rather than muddying the waters we should wait on the police report. Then again, an inquiry was ordered into the explosion and fire aboard a refugee boat recently..aboard which there were a number of Australians...but see how quickly that's slipped off the radar altogether. Politics perhaps? Critrics do sday pollies are opportunistic...but that's the nature of the beast!
Brian Haill | 24 June 2009

Everyone has been quick to believe Mick 'Bali Nine' Keelty that the email in question is 'fake' without any explanation. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that Mr A of the PMO sent the email from a Treasury computer in an attempt to cover his tracks.

I would like to hear A state under oath at a estimates committee that he did NOT compose the email. The simplest explanations are usually true and in this case it is extremely hard to believe that anyone just made it up to make trouble when they was already ample evidence of favouritism. Australians need to make a stand against Rudd using the AFP to silence dissenters.
chris | 24 June 2009

Whatever the end result of inquiries the residual effect of Turnbull's attacks will be to shake voters faith in politics as a whole, and to achieve what?

I may be wrong, but wasn't the end result that Mr Grant received no funding? If that's the case it seeems absurd to claim that undue influence was applied by Wayne Swan or anyone else. Either that or Ministers have no influence over the Public Service at all.
Julian | 24 June 2009

Whatever the end result of inquiries the residual effect of Turnbull's attacks will be to shake voters' faith in politics as a whole, and to achieve what?

I may be wrong, but wasn't the end result that Mr Grant received no funding? If that's the case it seems absurd to claim that undue influence was applied by Wayne Swan or anyone else. Either that or Ministers have no influence over the Public Service at all.
Julian | 24 June 2009

Quite commendable article in the spirit of countless enquiries into governance of the public service, so thankfully we are now moving away from the tendency towards the spoils system, as evidenced in upper levels of the mandarins for the last 20 years. This runs alongside what the Obama administration is doing in trying to separate the role of government to concentrate more on providing a framework for the conduct of an open and free society of true competition; rather than a tendency towards the rule of the jungle, so evident in medieval times.
Stephen Coyle | 25 June 2009

'Australian politics at the federal level is not squeaky clean. Some interests and individuals do better out of the system than others'.

The reasoning (that Swan is at fault) is appalling. It is like saying 'life is not squeaky clean - there is mud'.
cronos | 25 June 2009

Swan may have enquired as to how Grants Application was going. What was wrong with this.

No evidence of any kind has been produced that any pressure was put on anyone to ensure that it was approved. Where is the evidence Grant received first class personal attention
Bede Hickey | 26 June 2009

Marginal offence? How is misleading parliament about the favourable treatment given to a political donor marginal? Granted, Swan's crime is at the lower end, but he still misled parliament and should resign.
Sean Johnson | 26 June 2009

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