The ties that bind

Tuesday, 22 April 2014 

Cutting funding to ICAC would be a coward’s response to the most important accountability mechanism in the state.

John Kaye, Greens Upper House NSW MP

It’s perhaps understandable that an Upper House MP may be unaware, relying as they do on the benefice of party machines, that the “most important accountability mechanism” in NSW remains the electorate, which in the last election did a pretty good job of making a tawdry and corrupt Labor government accountable by removing not only the Premier, but the entire Ministry and over half of the government MPs from their jobs. Beat that ICAC!

Actually it’s pretty easy to do, since, as has been pointed out, ICAC has all the overweening powers of a Star Chamber but rarely gets an actual result – making it a particularly ineffective body for legally dealing with corruption. But, of course, that probably wasn’t what Kaye meant by accountable. He was more likely referring to the job ICAC does within the political system, by replacing that other “accountability mechanism” – a political opposition.

This was why O’Farrell had to go. Having come to power on little more than leading the party “that’s not the corrupt one”, lying in front of the Commission (intentionally or not) made O’Farrell’s position untenable. It was a rational response to the emptiness of his mandate, but there have been few others since it happened.

The O’Farrell resignation has come as a palpable shock to many, especially on the right, summed up by the histrionics of Gerard Henderson the other night. Having just discovered ICAC’s existence, Henderson was so upset that he not only forgot his manners, but his homme du peuple pose by talking about tucking into a $3,000 bottle of wine with all the casualness of the most effete inner city elite.

Partly the shock comes from the weakness of tenuousness of a Premier’s hold on power, even after an historic landslide. However, the turning of ICAC from Labor to the Coalition side of politics in recent weeks has revealed that the problem goes much deeper than the way that it was discussed when ICAC was investigating Obeid and pals.

Both sides are grappling with their ties at the moment. But because the attention has been on Labor and its relations to the unions, it has been conducted in a way that has allowed it to be distracted from the deeper problems underneath.

An example of the useful scapegoat role of the unions for Labor was the fall-out from its historically disastrous showing in the WA Senate election. The common verdict was that it was largely a result of the ham-fisted comments made by Labor’s lead Senate candidate, union shoo-in Joe Bullock, on the second runner Louise Pratt’s sexuality and the sanity of Labor party members, that led to a loss of votes to the Greens. Yet there are some reasons to doubt that this was the real reason behind Labor’s poor showing.

Not least because Labor didn’t think so itself. At the time, Labor didn’t feel the need to repudiate Bullock’s comments, but shrugged them off, with Pratt making what she must have thought was the politically expedient display of unity with Bullock before the vote. It was only when the actual numbers came in on the night that Sam Dastyari decided to blame it on Bullock and the union stitch-up that brought him in, and disown the comments. It was a line eventually followed by Pratt herself in what no doubt she thought was a principled stand against Bullock’s “homophobic” comments, but the less kind might regard as rank hypocrisy.

Secondly, a study of the votes cast in WA suggest that Labor’s votes didn’t just go to the Greens, but to Palmer’s party as well (offset by votes coming in from the Liberals) – something hard to explain from simply a reaction to Bullock’s comments. In a way, Bullock’s comments provided a useful way of detracting from the more difficult questions a poor showing against an unpopular government may have caused.

In this way, Labor’s whole debate about party reform and the role of the unions, is a useful distraction. Party democracy has little relevance to anyone else. Indeed to those outside Labor, opening up to anybody, than a particular social group, is the opposite to what had been the basis of representative democracy for most of the last century. But internally it has allowed Labor to grapple with a more fundamental problem of what it is about these days, in a language that ALP members can get their heads around.

This is why the turn that the ICAC has taken is so unsettling for the right, more than the Obeid revelations were for Labor. It is effectively criminalising what would be regarded as a normal means of operating (in both parties) with lobbyists buying influence, but in a way that leaves the Liberals with no scapegoat than the politicians themselves.

It is the obliviousness to this read across that was evident in an interview with ICAC’s previous victim, former NSW Premier Nick Greiner, when he saw nothing wrong with what most people now would, using gifts to buy political influence. It was also apparent in O’Farrell’s replacement, whose car crash first interview revealed that the idea that there might be a problem replacing a Premier who received gifts from Di Girolamo with someone who had personally given him a plum board job had not occurred to neither Baird, nor the party that appointed him.

And, as usual, that obliviousness was fully on display by Abbott when he decided to make an example of a News Ltd journalist for daring to call the NSW government “corrupt”, so pinning himself for the evening news with whatever comes up in NSW. There might also be more disquiet over his calling a Royal Commission into union corruption. Even leaving aside that past Commissions have a history of going horribly wrong, what might have been a splendid political ruse a decade ago, may not look so good now. The problem these days is not so much what used to be known as corruption, but the whole political process of lobbying and winning favour with whoever is in power.

It is this idea that there is something more rotten in the state than just normal corruption that is picked up by Waleed Aly, arguing that this sense of a problem with the nature of politics is why voters are turning away from both parties in droves. But there are a couple of important qualifications that should be made.

The first is that the the public’s problem is not with buying influence as such. When the major parties regularly attracted over 90% of the primary votes, the financing role of the unions and business in political parties was much more direct and open than it is today. The difference was that in those days unions had some social meaning, and business backing the Coalition to oppose the unions and their state spending agenda meant something as well. It is the lack of any social significance of such influence, beyond narrow self-interest of the business/union, that annoys the public today.

This distinction is important as it is not the case that the “stables are being cleaned out” to restore the way things once were. This is moving towards something new: cutting any overt links to social groups and special interests and formalising the detachment of the political system from voters that is already there.

This leads to the second point that is implicit in Aly’s piece but becoming more explicit with social commentary elsewhere. While there is a strong anti-political mood now more openly recognised, it is hardly new. Politicians have long been held in low regard in Australia, and it has shaped the major parties even when they were riding high (the conservatism of Labor, the weak authority of the right).

The decisive change in recent years has been less in the electorate but in the parties themselves. After having grappled with their loss of social bases for the last twenty years, ignoring the attitude of the electorate has become harder – especially since Rudd brought that anti-political mood into the centre of Australian politics to support the popularity of his Prime Ministership and to regain it later on.

As we have seen in the last few years, the convolutions of the major parties to deal with this problem have often had little to do with electoral reality. Nevertheless there is a trend amongst some social commentators, especially “new thinkers” on the left, to directly read these convulsions on to the electorate at large. We saw it early on with the rise of One Nation being seen by some as a racist shift in the electorate rather than saying more about the dilemma faced by a Liberal party losing its rationale – just as in the UK today where the rise of UKIP has had more to do with the problems of the Conservatives than signifying a shift in voter mood towards a party that is little different to what the Conservatives ran on a decade ago.

In Australia, a current example of this reading the parties’ mess back onto the electorate is the fuss around former Queensland LNP big-wig Clive Palmer and what is little more than an expensive personal spat with his former colleagues. Before the WA election, the Coalition was making grave warnings of the dangers of Palmer buying votes with a massive spend. Leaving aside the irony of either major party making this claim, the picture of the electorate is that of gullible apathy swayed by the latest ads. The success of the joke of the Palmer party is seen as a verdict on the electorate, rather than what it really is, just the latest opportunity for the electorate to give a long-held verdict on the political system.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Tuesday, 22 April 2014.

Filed under State of the parties

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14 responses to “The ties that bind”

  1. F on 22nd April 2014 10:05 am

    Where are we going with all this? What’s the end game?

  2. Riccardo on 22nd April 2014 12:16 pm

    That the political class will become completely unrecogisable as having been drawn from the Australian electorate.

    Football teams without an amateur league or clubhouse. You can still cheer for them, but won’t see your sons playing for them.

    Two large consulting firms, selling back to their clients what the clients already owned.

    Coke and Pepsi. You might drink your favourite, but you don’t know the recipe and can’t make either at home.

    No different from the USA – it is widely know n how Washington is not a process that ordinary people participate in, and not just when they made West Wing, but long before.

  3. Paul of Berwick on 22nd April 2014 1:33 pm

    And were are we headed? The answers, I believe, can be found in the concepts behind Beck & Cowan’s “Spiral Dynamics”.

    And the political party that can establish meaningful connections with this “fractured collective” will dominate.

  4. Gongite on 22nd April 2014 9:52 pm

    How can voting for Clive Palmer, who was until recently a major and quite prominent LNP backer, and is now a person with a transparently self-interested political agenda, possibly be taken to represent an informed ‘verdict on the political system’? That makes no sense.

    Clive Palmer plays the same games as the major parties – big promises, populist gestures, demonising the other players – and is clearly not an outsider to politics. A vote for him is not so a verdict on the entire Australian political system as an announcement to the effect that “I’m bored, let’s see what’s on the other channel”.

  5. Doug on 23rd April 2014 2:21 am

    Read the story of Jeff Connaughton in George Packer’s book “The Unwinding” (summarised here:
    and you will see where this is all going.

  6. The Piping Shrike on 23rd April 2014 7:07 am

    On Palmer, I don’t think there’s much profound going on. He’s just seen as a trouble maker against the major parties, who in turn are not taken very seriously, that’s all.

  7. Tony Gurnett on 24th April 2014 1:46 pm

    “We the voters are f…wits!

  8. Riccardo on 25th April 2014 7:55 pm

    Nothing to be frightened of. Politics was always thus. If anything, the minor reversals in the system in favour of the citizenry will be seen to be reactions to bigger crises of legitimacy. The ALP prevented the emergence of more extreme parties on the left, concessions won reinforced capitalism rather than weaken it.

    Palmer plays his political hobby for sport. His real source of income is obviously secure enough for him to do so. But this is not new. The parliamentary system has its roots in bored aristo wanting some involvement in the King’s government, even if just to legally criticise it.

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    […] Piping Shrike: The ties that bind […]

  10. John McCombe on 28th April 2014 11:48 pm

    How about this: The current voting system protects the 2 major parties, much like the 2 airline policy protected Ansett against real competition from TAA or Aus Airlines. Preferential voting in single member electorates funnels votes to the two majors, those least disliked (the most disliked being eliminated and having preferences distributed) making it a contest for the “middle” 10 or 20%, say (although over 30% voted for other than a major party in the September Senate vote). Thus Palmer, the Greens, the Motoring Enthusiasts Party, and previously Pauline Hanson, represent a reaction to the majors and a search, such as might be allowed by the system, for an alternative, for a way of sacking both of them and finding someone, anyone, to replace them. The real problem is that getting rid of one of them just gets us the other one. Ya can’t sack’em both under our voting system.

  11. Riccardo on 2nd May 2014 1:12 pm

    Very true. And the media are there to remind you why you don’t want an end to the 2 parties. They profit from the outcomes, but also the sport, of our current political system.

    I guess we don’t want the Egyptian system, with mass death sentences for the opposition party.

    Maybe the Singaporean outcome, while it has its downsides including running the country as a giant money-laundering device, is still better overall. One major party, where the certainty of winning means they can take some long term views, but enough democracy to remind that party it still has to be competitive.

    I don’t think electoral systems matter that much – the population adjusts its voting behaviour accordingly. Sure in NZ you get these grand coalitions, but they are only coalitions of the sorts of members of parties who would be in one party in another system. The system still requires coalitions.

    In the UK there is first past the post, but that is in a system where party discipline is a fair bit weaker than here. In fact preferential voting may have strengthened party discipline in Australia – enabling coalitions of diverse interests to brought ‘inside’ the party room/caucus.

  12. Dianne on 9th May 2014 7:43 am

    PS – would you be kind enough to define ‘anti politics’ for me.

    Does it describe the ‘pox on both your houses’ feelings I have for both major parties?

    Maybe so?

    However my personal disgruntlement has left me more interested in politics than ever before so ‘anti-politics’ confuses me.

    It is as if some sinister noise has interrupted my Sunday drive in the once purring Vauxhall and I have pulled over to look under the bonnet.

    A lot of important stuff goes on under the bonnet. We take it for granted until something jams or springs a leak.

    I am beginning to wonder if we are the democracy I thought we were or if we are morphing into a plutocracy.

  13. The Piping Shrike on 15th May 2014 9:41 am

    Interesting question.

    I think at one level it is the antagonism to politics in general, that they are all in for self interest or ideology and not the national good.

    But I think it is the broader feeling of detachment to the political process. I think it has always been present but harder to ignore now. Especially since Rudd brought it into the political mainstream.

    I think that’s now the question that’s being posed: the nature of politics and whether society is being served by it.

  14. F on 16th May 2014 6:31 pm

    Central to your blog is the idea that the two party system has run its course: both parties now no longer have a ‘supporter’ base to advocate for(or be supported by), or a coherent policy message aimed at garnering support from this base. Both parties became clones of each other (pre 2007) as they sought to capture the middle ground.They had nothing relevant or new to offer. But what happens when one side of the two party equation decides that many of the policies of the last 30 years are wrong? That the agreement( or grudging acceptance) over an ‘Australian Compact’ is now over?

    I think the ‘revolutionary’ aspects of this governments budget are doing exactly that. As an example even Howard and the British Tories shied away from touching the universal nature of healthcare. As small as this co-payment may be(to some, remember, lets not forget life goes on outside our gilded cages) , it is purely ideological, it has absolutely nothing to do with maintaining or increasing the health outcomes of Australians(in fact it will probably be shown to erode health outcomes). Charging people for ER visits is even more extreme in its ideological bent.

    This isn’t incremental change, in line with previous regimes; this is a complete reorientation of the whole health system.

    You made some broad predictions of how an Abbott government would behave. One was that he would be an un-eventful leader, who be populist, and wouldn’t rock the boat too much. However, this is clearly not the case. In fact he has set out, for whatever reason, to stir up a hornets nest of opposition against his government. I very much doubt that this was what Abbott had planned, but it’s pretty clear that his backers have confused the result of the last election as a ‘mandate’ to enact sweeping changes to the fabric of the nation. I do not think this is what the vast majority of voters expected post September 2013. If anything Abbott was elected to repeal two pieces of legislation that had come to be seen as attacks(however weak and marginal) on the ‘Australian Compact’ : the carbon tax and the mining tax( I’m aware that one was far more unpopular than the other)

    The Abbott tax rises are almost irrelevant, they are a smoke screen to the real issue here. Focusing on them(whether from political parties or bloggers) is wrong-headed. It is the changes to the social welfare state that are the main game. None of this was even mentioned pre election. Cuts? Yes maybe. Complete reconfiguring of health, education, welfare, and the relationship with the states? No, that was not even remotely suggested or even imagined. The Coalition have basically stated that vast areas of the Australian social compact are kaput, finished, O-V-A-H.

    Is this really ‘business as usual’?

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