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NSW Labor's diseased ethics

  • 06 February 2013

When the latest round of investigations began into alleged corrupt conduct by former state ministers in New South Wales, counsel assisting the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) inquiry described the worst case of rorting since the days of the Rum Corps.

While such comparisons seem extreme, they raise the possibility that Sydney's frontier style colonial history so riddled the state with corrupt cultures that the political disease remains debilitating after two centuries.

As former ministers front an inquiry into decisions allegedly taken to favour political friends, the corruption disease seems to be confined to the NSW Labor Party. Such unethical behaviours led to the routing of Labor at the 2011 election. But a federal Labor MP from NSW has been arrested amid allegations of abuse of power both as a parliamentarian and as a union official. So, are other states immune?

Research suggests that voters in NSW, more than in other states, trust federal rather than state government. This implies a greater mistrust of state politicians in NSW than elsewhere. However, it should be remembered that while specific acts of maladministration might be punishable in law, much of the behaviour that sustains corrupting cultures is not.

Too many politicians act without conscience by lying, rejecting fair criticism and using insulting language. They generate public cynicism, make public affairs distasteful and encourage cultures devoid of ethical understanding. These characteristics are not confined to NSW Labor politicians.

Parliamentary scholar John Uhr in his book Terms of Trust noted that governments see ethics narrowly. Their priority is to ensure that the behaviour of parliamentarians is disciplined enough to guarantee that citizens trust them. Uhr says a political ethics regime should foster personal responsibility, and only when responsibility fails should accountability mechanisms be used.

In his Quarterly Essay 'Breach of Trust: Truth, Morality and Politics', moral philosopher Raimond Gaita draws a similar distinction. It is not that we need a little bit of ethics enforcement occasionally; we need to demand that politics be treated always as an activity of honour and that honourable behaviour is essential. Managerialism and the separation of ends and means are not conducive to honour.

The Labor Party's ethical problems are deep seated. National Executive member Tony Sheldon criticised the 'cockroaches' of the NSW Right faction who thrive on corruption and blamed a culture of managerialism. NSW parliamentary leader John Robertson's response to the ICAC proceedings was to propose a tighter income disclosure regime for Labor MPs.