Turnbull's Utegate mudslide

Utegate, Malcolm Turnbull's popularity plungesJob security seems to have been the biggest topic of discussion in the Australian Parliament over the last fortnight — namely that of senior politicians.

The casualties began earlier this month when the Defence Minister, Joel Fitzgibbon, was forced to step down after it was revealed meetings between his brother and government officials had breached the Ministerial Code of Conduct.

Then it was Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Treasurer Wayne Swan's jobs in jeopardy over allegations of impropriety under the Ozcar scheme. The mud-slinging has left no one clean. Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull began on the offensive, but has since had to defend his own position after the case against the Prime Minister fell apart.

Compare the situation in Canberra to Italy, where Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has again been embroiled in controversy, this time over the alleged use of government resources to fund a lavish party. Yet, unlike in Australia, the controversies seem to have no impact on his popularity in the electorate. Despite the revelations, his coalition recorded a convincing victory in provincial and municipal elections last week.

Obviously, there are two very different political cultures at play. Australia has inherited its cultural legacy from northern Europe. In our culture, rules are the lowest common standards by which a person needs to live in order for society to function. If our politicians are seen breaking the rules, it puts the whole system in jeopardy. Hence, the general response to controversy is for them to step aside so the system can continue to operate.

Italians have a more sympathetic view of human nature. Rules are viewed as standards to which a person should aspire. Humans are flawed creatures, and while we should try to live according to the rules, we will inevitably fall short. Berlusconi's supporters often point to his flaws as an excuse for his actions. We should not be judged on our moments of weakness, the argument goes, but also on our positive achievements.

As we've seen over the last week, both of these views of politics can get in the way of good governance. Politicians are in important positions of power, and abuse of that power is a serious issue. However, there also needs to be space for fairness and understanding, and yes, even compassion. A mature culture recognises that people are capable of making poor decisions, and are also capable of redeeming themselves.

The ongoing calls for resignations and time spent dealing with controversies in Canberra over the last week raises questions about the sort of pressures and expectations we place on politicians, and about the best way to ensure effective government.

When a single mistake can cost someone their position, there is no incentive for our politicians to be transparent and acknowledge their mistakes. Instead, the incentive is to cover up what has happened or deflect blame onto others. Politics becomes a game of whodunit, and the real business of governance is pushed aside. As the politicians engaged in debate over the Ozcar affair in the media and during Question Time last week, other important issues such as the Carbon Trading Scheme were put on the backburner.

The Berlusconi situation in Italy highlights the importance of mechanisms to oversee the business of government, and where it is necessary for politicians to be called to account. But our politicians need to understand that a mistake is not simply a sign of unworthiness. It is possible for politicians to redeem themselves and make amends for what they have done.

The public quickly tires of politics based on controversy. The biggest casualty in the Ozcar affair appears to be the person leading the attacks, the Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull, whose approval rating has suffered a dramatic fall in the latest polls.

Turnbull is learning that a politician's job security isn't just tied to their ability to play politics and handle controversy. It's also linked to their character and how they are seen to act in the public sphere. If he does come to understand this, perhaps it won't be too late for him to find redemption.

Michael McVeighMick McVeigh is editor of Australian Catholics. 

Topic tags: Joel Fitzgibbon, Kevin Rudd, Wayne Swan, Malcolm Turnbull, Ozcar, utegate, Silvio Berlusconi



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Existing comments

Is there any evidence in any of this that Malcolm Turnbull was not doing his legitimate job as an opposition leader? He may have been too quick on the draw but there is no reason to fault him for the "evidence" being a fake. Blame the faker. Anyway who was the alleged sender and who was the (presumably duped) receiver? And what was their faking strategy? The media are a long way short of giving us the simplest facts, let alone a coherent account of this matter.

Brian Dethridge | 30 June 2009  

During the 2007 election Mr Abbott remarked that Mr Turnbull had a lot to learn about the conduct of politics. The same Mr Abbott last week was trying to save Mr Turnbull from Government attack. What a job to be landed with! Australians know that Mr Turnbull is a businessman, a lawyer, and a powerbroker. But after last week's debacle, they are asking the question some of his colleagues have been asking for a while: is Mr Turnbull a politician?

Desiderius Erasmus | 30 June 2009  

It beggars belief that you would use Berlusconi as an example of a politician somehow worthy of compassion ... and redemption? One does not have to be well versed in Italian politics to know that Berlusconi is a lecherous, self-indulgent and corrupt man who, e.g. made light-hearted jokes about the victims of the L'Aquila earthquake. Indeed he sounds more like a person hell-bent on satisfying his most primitive instincts than on reforming his character. And do you seriously think that Malcolm Turnbull is looking for redemption? I suspect he's more likely to be looking for some up-skilling on smarter, success-guaranteed skullduggery.

Kerry Bergin | 01 July 2009  

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