Big and little crooks of politics


Eddie Obeid's face on a bad appleUnethical misconduct by public figures, proven and alleged, is in the public eye almost daily. No one is above suspicion, including Prime Minister Tony Abbott and former Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

The last term of Federal Parliament was dogged by the charges against former Liberal Peter Slipper and Labor MP Craig Thomson. Since the election there have been various matters including wedding attendance on the public purse, extravagant expenditure and unexplained travel. In most cases lack of transparency and defensiveness by those implicated have fuelled media-driven public irritation.

Is it a case of a few bad apples or are there systemic problems? There are levels of seriousness in these cases and it is helpful to disaggregate them to keep a sense of perspective. First there are the big crooks. They would include the New South Wales Labor MP Eddie Obeid and the NSW Health Services Union leader and former ALP national president, Michael Williamson. Both were shameless in enriching themselves to the tune of millions of dollars.

Secondly, there are the little crooks, those who allegedly have cooked the books to deceive authorities about the true purpose of travel expenditure. While in both cases investigations have not concluded, Slipper and WA MP Don Randall are probably in this category. Slipper allegedly concealed the true purpose of private trips around Canberra, while Randall claimed 'electorate expenses' for a trip from Perth to Cairns with his wife.

Finally, there are those MPs who attended weddings, of colleagues and shock jocks, at public expense. Some might also include apparently loose expenditure under the parliamentary library allowance.

To be fair to the MPs involved they are held to a high standard. They live in a society in which fudging expenses and arranging affairs to minimise taxation is widespread. Perhaps we shouldn't rush to judgment.

However when MPs repay disputed funds they often do so grudgingly, rarely admitting wrongdoing or even a mistake. This aloofness only exacerbates mistrust. Partial and shallow apologies are next to worthless.

Once individual cases have been resolved administratively or by the courts two bigger questions remain.

The first is 'what can we do about it?' The short answer is to demand higher standards of our elected representatives. Tighter mechanisms of accountability must accompany this aspiration. A few big crooks will still escape the net as they do in many areas of private and public life. We have to expect that.

A more promising approach is to minimise grey areas and discretionary expenditure as recommended by the Belcher Report commissioned by the previous Labor Government. This approach seeks to simplify matters by moving expenses across into direct salary so MPs can manage their affairs themselves. Life becomes easier for most busy MPs trying to manage paperwork and harder for the few who are deliberately trying to rort the system.

The second question is 'what causes the ethical misconduct?' Here a deeper understanding of parliamentary life and the psyche of MPs is required. Many elements are involved but three points can be made.

Some MPs, like some citizens, have a sense of entitlement to a comfortable life. They are not particularly interested in choosing the cheapest option when spending public funds on themselves. Their sense of self-importance is encouraged by having government cars, access to the Chairman's Lounge at airports and having their daily life managed by others. They are not the only ones in this situation but they are our elected representatives.

Secondly, MPs are surrounded by a culture of deference, in parliament and elsewhere. If they don't fight against the natural consequences of this milieu it is easy to come to see yourself as a cut above the rest, deserving of special treatment.

Finally, the idea of being hardly done by has taken root among some MPs. They do work hard, keep long hours and often are surrounded by people who are actually better off. But if MPs feel that their salary is insufficient then squeezing the lemon as far as entitlements are concerned comes too easily.


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

Bad Apple image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Julia Gillard, Craig Thomson, Eddie Obeid, Peter Slipper, Tony Abbott



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Existing comments

Thanks, John - a helpful analysis of the ethical challenges involved. As you infer, some of these challenges are common to many areas of society, e.g. the dangers of being "surrounded by a culture of deference" and the need to "fight against the natural consequences of this milieu . . . com(ing) to see yourself as a cut above the rest, deserving of special treatment" - other institutions also should note carefully, including corporations and the Church.

Peter Johnstone | 01 November 2013  

If a person was overpaid by Centrelink and the act was deliberate they would not be given a chance to repay the overpayment - they would face a custodial sentence but in the case of our "leaders" they just simply return the money with a lame excuse.

nick agocs | 01 November 2013  

The vast majority of Australians who voted for Tony Abbott know Mr. Abbott to be above suspicion and also know that he is honest, humble, generous, trustworthy and reliable when it comes to do a task be it political for the nation, the family or the people. To say that that the Prime Minister Tony Abbott is not above suspicion does hurt many people who know Tony Abbott to be the preferred Prime Minister of Australia.

Ron Cini | 01 November 2013  

Nicely balanced article by J Warhurst is so deceptively cutting edge when we are asked to be accountable, to be honest. It's the way our world is now, isn't it? There's the Law, and there's the law. No reason to suppose it will ever be any different. We each make our choices based on what we 'know', and what we think we 'know'. And that changes with our experience of life, and our 'getting' of wisdom. Observation is that most of us learn our most cogent lessons from experience. Persons in the public eye are in a difficult position - mistakes are public. And those that are of a narcissistic inclination are likely to be less able to recognise where the line is, unless it's written bold by draconian measures of moral judgment, or by being enlightened to public expectations by a Belcher Report. There's no escaping the necessity of Law. Thank God, we have also a culture and teachers behind us that inform us of more.

Mich Cook | 01 November 2013  

Addendum - Peter Johnstone's warning goes beyond institutions. It is a warning that my 'tendency to be complacent' self also has to acknowledge. Too easy to be self congratulatory on having received some Good News along the way, and then forget that it has to be exercised every day. John Warhurst very ably states the case for not being too savage on our pollies. I'll say it - let's extend them some empathy, and make sure that they know they also need to measure up and to be accountable.

Mich Cook | 02 November 2013  

yes and please speak loudly on this topic.......There is a point of leniency in Australia that leaves one dismayed....

yvonne | 02 November 2013  

I believe that the reason for this culture of unethical misconduct with parliamentary representitives is that we live in a society where the majority of people have low standards of moral and ethical behaviour. The philosophy of most Australian people is that unethical behaviour is acceptable if it avoids scrutiny. The reason for this culture is that we do not have a tradition of teaching philosophy in schools, especially moral philosophy and ethics. Also, most Australians are not great readers of classical fiction, by authors such as Jane Austen, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Charles Dickens, that has a theme of moral philosophy.

Mark Doyle | 03 November 2013  

If Queensland's new anti-mafia(bikie) laws were applied in NSW - the NSW Government would be disassociated! Go the maroons!

AURELIUS | 04 November 2013  

@Ron Cini seems to have been living in a vacuum if he hasn't heard about Tony Abbott taking his daughters to the football, races and so on at the public's expense. If Ron considers Abbott being generous by going in charity rides why does Abbott make the tax payer pick up his transport and accommodation bills? I thought Chritians knew that charity begins at home - not at the taxpayers expense.

John | 04 November 2013  

In response to Ron's glowing reference for Tony Abbott I think of comments attributed to Rob Oakeshott who rode in the same charity bike rides as Tony Abbott and said claiming expenses fir them never crossed his mind. Clearly a different view about taking from the public purse. Tony Abbott should not be "above suspicion" just because he is Prime Minister - the opposite in fact. Subject him to the same degree of scrutiny that Julia Gillard suffered if you want fairness.

Brett | 05 November 2013  

Surely we don't deal with these matter based on "suspicion". Would there not be laws and processes?

AURELIUS | 06 November 2013  

here's a thought. Why can't they pay for their own expenses and claim them back on their annual tax return just like every one else has too. That should save us a lot of money.

paul brown | 28 November 2013  

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