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NSW Labor's diseased ethics


Daily Telegraph front page featuring ObeidWhen 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. Unfortunately this post-hoc approach is typically managerial.

Sheldon suggested that Prime Minister Gillard was loyal to Labor values and that she could lead genuine party reform. Again it is unfortunate that Gillard's tenure has been characterised by the very managerialism Sheldon says is Labor's problem. Labor has managed policies formulated by its predecessor in numerous areas including Aboriginal affairs, importation of labour and incarceration of asylum seekers.

While some Liberal parliamentarians refused to support some extreme Howard Government policies, Labor MPs have accepted meekly the basing of American weapons here and a minister's insult to welfare recipients when she claimed that she could happily live on the allowance paid them.

Sheldon blamed the NSW Right for Labor's woes. The Right has appealed to the party's head by reasoning that ideological purity is useless without electoral success. Once the party adopted pragmatism as its first principle — possibly at the 1984 National Conference — policy debates lost meaning.

The ideological vacuum was filled by enslavement to poll driven politics and media images. The Left struggled to retain its influence and Labor's heart vanished.

The architects of this approach might claim that the party had to change or face disaster. But under their influence, Labor embraced economic restructuring, the privatisation of the Commonwealth Bank, deregulation of telephone services, emasculation of the CSIRO, exportation of jobs, abandonment of free education, destruction of railways, and de-unionisation of both the party and the general workforce.

When public assets are alienated, the public has good reason to feel betrayed.

When Gillard announced that a federal election would be held in September, Opposition Leader Abbott said that the campaign would be about trust. One third of the House of Representatives seats are in New South Wales, so federal Labor will hope that local troubles do not influence voters unduly.

The ethical credibility of the Coalition parties is also questionable. For example, the O'Farrell Government's decision to allow recreational shooting in National Parks is a cynical manoeuvre to secure upper house votes. It seems unlikely though that voters will punish mere cynicism when they have the sitting ducks at ICAC available.

It will be an interesting contest as luminaries of the Labor Right try to convince voters that they should reject Abbott, despite their growing affinity with his policy leanings and political style. 

Tony Smith headshotTony Smith holds a PhD in political science. He has taught at several universities including the University of Sydney. 

Topic tags: Tony Smith, NSW Labor, Julia Gillard, election 2013, ICAC, Tony Sheldon, John Robertson, ICAC, Tony Abbott



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Existing comments

Sadly, NSW Labor and Ethics seem to have parted company. There is the odd ethical person involved with NSW Labor: his name is John Faulkner. I think the public are rightly sceptical of most Australian politicians whatever flag they fly. It will take politicians a long, long time to gain most people's respect.

Edward F | 05 February 2013  

It all smells political by the liberal party to me. If they had evidence of any criminal behaviour why go to all this expense, just charge them. AFter all they charged Craig Thomson for buying an icecream and paying for it and called it fraud.

Marilyn | 05 February 2013  

Lest we forget the corruption and organised crime rife during the grubby decade of the Liberal Askin government.

Vacy Vlazna | 06 February 2013  

It is interesting you mention the Moral Philosopher, Raymond Gaita, Tony. Sadly he is less well known in Australia than if he would be if based in France or Germany. There he would be feted. We tend to be overly pragmatic. We often don't think the consequences of our political actions through. That facile pragmatism leads to the moral disasters you write about.

Edward F | 06 February 2013  

It has become fashionable to criticise politics generally but those who do so should be asked what interest and action have they taken to help ensure something better. Factions have been allowed to take over. Sadly, some Catholics - by way of the once-secret Santamaria Movement - showed how an organised minority could exert undue influence. Others followed suit by concentrating on 'organising the numbers'. If we want a higher standard of politics, criticism is needed but this must be accompanied by greater participation by individuals rather than leaving it to the factions. Australians have struggled hard to achieve votes for all but the democracy we enjoy, like a garden, needs continual interest and attention.

Bob Corcoran | 06 February 2013  

Gillard, while having positioned herself as a nominal member of the Left, has only ever been aligned with the Right, and today, of course, it is the Right who holds her in the cup of its hand, so this "Sheldon suggested that Prime Minister Gillard was loyal to Labor values and that she could lead genuine party reform" is rubbish. The Right are always on-the-take in NSW but let's not think corruption is a characteristic of the ALP. NSW in particular has long suffered a corrupt Coalition crew too. Today, as ICAC goes on exposing the era of Carr onwards to the full gaze of the public, we have O'Farrell doing private deals with the Packers, gifting massive profits without any form of process. Sound familiar?

janice wallace | 06 February 2013  

This is not accurate. The Alp has alwayds been a practical party - often termed 'civilising capitalism'. The founders in the 1890s especially and Whitlam used to make that point repeatedly when he sought to reform the Victorian ALP in 1970 and the Federal structures. He especially bagged 'ideological purity'. How could this writer miss Whitlam?

peter gavin | 06 February 2013  

A country gets the politicians it deserves. Who has the time to give to politicking? I was an executive member of a professional organisation's staff association (SA). The organisation offered the SA a seat on its board. To accept or reject the offer was put out to a plebiscite of members. I campaigned against accepting arguing that the rep would be sucked into the managerialism of the organisation. Others campaigned for acceptance on the basis of being inside the tent. 80% voted in favour of taking the seat. All subsequent SA reps became managers. Staff wages and conditions fell behind the national average. Selfish ambition, 8 times out of 10, will always trump otherworldly altruism. The pursuit of power, property and prestige brooks no obstacle.

Uncle Pat | 06 February 2013  

After reading the above comments, it appears that the left is good and the right is bad and the Liberal and National Parties are the worst. Yet there is a small minority of voters who support the Left Wing ideology. The vast majority of voters can't wait for September the 14th for a change of government.

Ron Cini | 06 February 2013  

To sheet the corruption in NSW back to colonial days - come on! And to say alleged fraud is an abuse of power - if the allegations are proved it will be corruption - so Mr Smith stop wrapping corruption up in abstract waffle and call a spade a spade

Colin McKenzie | 06 February 2013  

And what Ron Cini do you think the liberals will do now that they have never done before - build things?

Marilyn | 10 February 2013  

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