Dire need of a political fix

The Obeid-Macdonald saga is an extreme case of the way money and networks interact in dollar-driven politics

Systemic questions should be asked about the Eddie Obeid-Ian Macdonald scandal being played out before the NSW Independent Commission against Corruption. The same is true of drug abuse and match-fixing in sport and of child sexual abuse in institutions such as the Catholic Church. We can legitimately do that even before we know the final outcomes of the inquiries in train.

By systemic questions I mean those that concentrate not on individual personal criminality or failures but on systemic factors that have allowed or caused the individual cases. This is already being done in the case of professional sport and the church.

All the indications are that former Labor MLC Obeid and former minister Macdonald have corrupted and manipulated NSW government policies to their own financial advantage. We await the final ICAC conclusions.

There can be no doubt that this scandal, coming on top of many others associated with the former NSW Labor government, has damaged the Labor ''brand'' and is likely to adversely affect the Labor vote in NSW at the September 14 federal election. These are important consequences in themselves but Obeid-Macdonald raises deeper questions about the Labor Party, the whole political system and Australian society as a whole.

The difference between individual wrongdoing and systemic abuse of the system is important. There have been plenty of recent examples of rorting the system by parliamentarians for personal advantage, including travel rorts of the type with which former Speaker Peter Slipper is charged. As criminal as such rorting is, it does not have the same systemic implications as Obeid-Macdonald.

Obeid-Macdonald is not an isolated incident. Modern politics thrives on money and access. Eddie Obeid, a personally wealthy powerbroker within NSW Labor, has claimed that his networks gave him access but denies any influence. It will be up to ICAC to demonstrate that he bought influence through Macdonald.


Access to politics is lopsided. It can be bought through donations to political parties and through hiring professional lobbyists. The political system has tried to bring transparency to these activities through regulation. Donations are reported and lobbyists are registered. These advances are a step forward but they really do little to provide a more level playing field in politics. Political parties rely on the dollars that come from the corporate sector, pushing development, alcohol and gambling.

What cannot be regulated at all are social networks and party powerbrokers such as Obeid. These networks and powerbrokers can be found on all sides of politics. Large corporations and business tycoons such as James Packer have access to government in bucketfuls. On occasions such as weddings and funerals for the A-list, the intermingling of business and politics is on show for all to see.

Access for a small minority is embedded in politics. Money buys access and in some cases influence. The Obeid-Macdonald saga appears to be a particularly blatant example, but it is just an extreme case of the way money and networks interact in dollar-driven politics.

The whole political and social system, business and labour, should reflect on these questions and take some responsibility for the personal corruption that is being revealed. The record shows that no one is exempt from fault.

What goes on in the political system often takes its cue from the prevailing culture in society. That's where the individual politicians and powerbrokers are drawn from and where they learn their ethical standards.

Labor is the party that should be under particular scrutiny itself at the moment. The question has to be asked whether modern Labor is more corrupt than the Coalition parties, though I don't know the answer. History suggests, however, that both sides of politics are equally culpable. Think of the Bjelke-Petersen years under the Nationals in Queensland or the Askin years under the Liberals in NSW when corruption of due process was widespread, often under the guise of economic development. The Fitzgerald Inquiry opened the lid on political corruption during the Bjelke-Petersen years.

But there is no avoiding the fact that state Labor's recent record is appalling. Former Western Australian Labor premier turned lobbyist Brian Burke corrupted the democratic process in his state with some assistance from a Liberal accomplice, former senator Noel Crichton-Browne. Burke used his political power and experience within Labor circles to corrupt the system. It was their activities that forced the revived interest by governments in lobbying regulation.

Queensland premier Anna Bligh had to deal with similar systemic corruption. She had to clean up improper lobbying practices and social networks involving former Labor ministers embedded in the dollar-driven development industry. One of her ministers, Gordon Nuttall, was jailed for accepting bribes from business acquaintances.

The simple explanation may be that political corruption is especially located at the state level and Labor has been the overwhelming party of government at that level in recent times.

So it is not that Labor is more corrupt but that it has just happened to occupy most of the government benches around the Australian states. Corruption and power go together.

If that is the case it doesn't let Labor off the hook. It just means that the systemic factors are not restricted to Labor. It should still be cleaning up its act while it is relatively powerless at the state level.

If power and corruption inevitably go together, then it is the Coalition governments down the east coast and in Western Australia that should now be under attention. If this is the case then it is dollar-driven politics across the board, not a few criminal individuals, that corrupts democratic politics. Individuals have to be held responsible but in addition we should ask the bigger systemic questions.

John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University.