Corruption and atonement in NSW

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Man in a suit with dollar notes in pocketFact can be stranger than fiction. That certainly applies to the most recent revelations before the Independent Commission Against Corruption in New South Wales. Two Liberal MPs have resigned from Parliament and by-elections will be held shortly.

Andrew Cornwell, the first-term Member for Charlestown, admitted taking a total of $20000 from two property developers before the 2011 state elections, $10000 used to fund his campaign and $10000 used to pay his personal tax bill.

A second new MP, Tim Owen, the Member for Newcastle, initially lied about accepting $10000 cash from one of the developers, and allowed that developer and a second one jointly to pay the $20000 salary of his campaign media adviser. Both MPs have apologised without accepting much personal responsibility.

The developer at the centre of the scandal, Jeff McCloy, the mayor of Newcastle, was throwing around so much money before the state election that he jocularly described himself as like a 'walking ATM'. He too has now been forced from office.

All this follows an earlier string of allegations before ICAC that have brought down the Liberal Premier, Barry O'Farrell, the former Minister, Chris Hartcher, two other Central Coast MPs, and a parliamentary secretary, Marie Ficarra. The allegations have also claimed the former chairman of the official Liberal Party fundraising organisation, Paul Nicolau, and the former federal Liberal parliamentary secretary, Arthur Sinodinos.

The previous Labor Party government had itself descended into a shambles of petty corruption, musical chairs and factional bitterness. Since then ICAC has revealed major corruption inside that Labor government involving not just major figures like Eddie Obeid and Ian MacDonald but other ministers as well. The truth about Labor corruption is still emerging more than three years later, including even playing a part in defeating its own sitting member in Newcastle.

One can only conclude that such corruption, petty, middle-range and major, is business as usual at the higher levels of public life in New South Wales. There is an entrenched culture of doing political business that is not just contrary to reasonable ethical standards but illegal.

Both sides of NSW politics claim to have turned over a new leaf and support tough new lobbying regulations, separating paid lobbyists from party office-holding, and increased transparency surrounding all dealings with ministers. But at the heart of the shambles are not commercial lobbyists but personal and institutional ethical failure, often driven by the lure of self-interest and advantage whether it is in getting elected or in feathering their own nest.

The NSW example demonstrates the key intersection between campaigning and corruption. Many of the failures in NSW have involved fund-raising for campaigning. The same has been true in other states, including the activities of the lobbyist and former Labor Premier Brian Burke in Western Australia.

Some of the corruption involves party head offices, but in NSW it clearly also extends to the local level. These latest cases involve professional people, one a former veterinarian and the other a former Air Commodore, who were corrupted even before they entered Parliament.

The NSW cases show that everyday corruption of the political process is both deep and wide. It is deep in that it involves new backbenchers who are initially far from the inner circle of ministerial power. It is wide in that it involves not just major public policy issues at the heart of cabinet government but also the local implementation of rules and regulations surrounding development proposals.

The prevailing culture on both sides seems to be to get away with what you can. There is little evidence of heart-felt contrition. The Premier, Mike Baird, promising wholesale reform of electoral funding rules before the March 2015 elections, has declared that as an act of atonement the Liberals will not stand candidates in the forthcoming by-elections and so forfeit the two seats. But it has an enormous majority and this looks more like a tactic to avoid a huge voter backlash as the seats (one held by nearly 10 per cent) are unwinnable in the present climate.


John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a Canberra Times columnist.

Topic tags: John Warhurst, ICAC, corruption, New South Wales, campaign

 

 

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Existing comments

What we need now are not just revelations at the ICAC but prosecutions and convictions followed by long gaol sentences and disbarment from any further political engagement. The problem is that the penalties under the current legislation as negligible and therefore no deterrent .
Ginger Meggs | 25 August 2014


There's no doubt that NSW politics is in a parlous state (no pun intended). It's difficult to know which side of politics is worse - it's probably too close to call. The conservatives do have a huge majority but have received a wake-up call. Labor would do well to keep its own house in order rather than caving in to oneupmanship. Heart-felt contrition and politics - an uneasy alliance.
Pam | 25 August 2014


I imagine it is impossible o experience "heart-felt contrition" without possession of a moral compass, the hallmark of modern Australia.
john frawley | 26 August 2014


A sorry tale indeed John. But I fear it extends much more broadly than just the New South Wales jurisdiction. As the Federal and State political machines are 'hand in hand', I am convinced that the corruption extends to the Federal level .Sadly our society has lost its moral compass as no doubt corruption extends into the business world too. I strongly support Ginger Meggs' comment on penalties. If you or I, ordinary John Citizen behaved in this fashion , we would certainly loose our jobs and spend time at Her Majesty's Leisure .Far too many of these people simply get 'a slap on the wrist' and it back to life as usual! We certainly need am ICAC at Federal level...but I am not holding my breath!
Gavin O'Brien | 01 September 2014


Politics has always had the sales game element to it however when sales overrides genuine core values and advocacy, we end up with a corrupted 'game'. When genuine rank and file branch members from either side are thin in the parties, the self seekers prevail. We are all the poorer for this new breed who recognise each other and who are better organised. Participation by the average true believer is a must whichever party is your preferred poison.
Michael Webb | 06 September 2014


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