Illustration: Simon Letch.
Perhaps the most telling aspect of the now infamous thank-you note that ended Barry O’Farrell’s premiership this week is that it was sent so soon after his bone-crushing election victory. This was a man who swept to power thanks largely to the insufferable stench of corruption that had engulfed NSW Labor. Thus was Labor’s position apparently unrecoverable, and O’Farrell apparently invincible. All he had to do was stay clean.
And yet, there he was, personally accepting an expensive gift from compromised people, marking his gratitude in ink. I’m prepared to believe he genuinely has no recollection of this. But that only underscores the fact that he saw nothing remarkable about the exchange at all; that even as he must have been hawk-eyed about anything that even remotely connected to the corruption that destroyed Labor, he saw this kind of give and take as standard practice.
And on this score, he’s probably right. It’s highly unlikely O’Farrell has a uniquely malfunctioning radar, or that he is more corruptible than his colleagues. Au contraire, the truly remarkable fact is that the Liberals to have been so entangled in this Obeidian octopus have been those widely acknowledged as the best, the straightest, the most upright of them: O’Farrell and Arthur Sinodinos.
That tells us plenty. Not so much about the character of these men, but about the nature of the world they routinely inhabit. Until now, the story of NSW corruption has been presented as a thoroughly Labor one, backed at the federal level by the spectre of union corruption so vast it now demands its own royal commission. At every opportunity, the Liberal Party has sought to make this connection. Hence its bizarre pursuit of the complete non-scandal surrounding the Australian Workers Union and Julia Gillard’s time as a labour lawyer, or its constant references to the faceless men of Sussex Street upon Kevin Rudd’s knifing. The point was clear: that the rot was Labor’s rot.
But the real world doesn’t respect such nearly confected boundaries. So we shouldn’t be surprised that this scandal has so easily escaped its partisan confines. No Liberal has been found corrupt, but this episode reminds us that the Labor and Liberal parties do not represent two different worlds. There are shades of difference but they are both ultimately similar machines directed at similar goals and subject to the same power plays and moral compromises. At bottom, they represent the same subculture that is the profession of modern politics.
That is why, away from the public show of political conflict, politicians tend to get along surprisingly well with each other, in much the same way as members of most other professions do. The professionalisation of politics does not merely mean our political class is drawn from a narrow set of backgrounds. It also means they have markedly similar experiences and move in very similar circles once they’re there. If they aren’t in parliament, they sit on similar boards and offer similar consultancy services to the same group of people. Eddie Obeid might have been Labor’s heart of darkness, but he was only ever a step or two away from the nearest senior Liberal.
There’s a self-reinforcing system at play here, of favours and networking and dealing utterly divorced from the democratic process. Worse, it seems beyond reform even when everyone acknowledges both problem and solution. Take the Labor Party, booted so unceremoniously from federal office last year in part because it looked so focused in its own internal manoeuvring.
Most recently it copped a flogging in the Western Australian Senate election. Each time this happens, sage elders talk sombrely about wake-up calls and a message from the electorate received. Each time they pledge to create a more grassroots party, less beholden to the kind of political backscratching now on display. And each time nothing happens. That’s the nature of such entrenched systems. Reform becomes too hard. You can have all the wake-up calls in the world, but you can also determinedly sleep through them.
In some ways Tony Abbott is right to describe O’Farrell as ‘‘honourable’’ for falling so readily on his sword. It is true he has acted swiftly, decisively and apparently with the kind of accountability so few ministers are prepared to exhibit when scandal strikes. In a saner world this might be a sacrificial act that rehabilitates the nobility of politicians.
But it is far from clear this will be the legacy of O’Farrell’s demise. Rather, this could become the moment that gave tangible expression to what so much of the electorate has already intuited: that there is something hopelessly compromised about the very culture of mainstream Australian politics.
They’re all bad guys now. They’re all in it for themselves to the point they don’t even know - or simply can’t remember - when they’re breaching our trust. Clearly that’s not true at an individual level, but it doesn’t have to be if it becomes received wisdom. In short, we’re witnessing the slow motion desecration of the whole idea of politics.
That’s what is behind this week’s Nielsen poll that showed voters abandoning both major parties, and seeking refuge in a resurgent Greens and a fledgling Palmer United Party. That’s why the same thing happened in the West Australian senate. Our political landscape now inspires such low esteem that the only place we can park our approval is on the margins: as far away from power as possible. The problem, though, is that no one ever governed from there.
Waleed Aly is a Fairfax columnist. He hosts Drive on ABC Radio National and is a lecturer in politics at Monash University.