Michael Williamson leaves court. Independent Commission Against Corruption advocates have, at times, seemed to suggest that the venality of the NSW Rum Corp has lasted, largely unchanged, for more than 200 years. Photo: Peter Rae
An indigenous organisation finds itself plagued by problems of governance, management, transparency and accountability, and allegations of nepotism, fraud, and misappropriation of money.
Solution? Demanding recognition that the same rules apply, in practice as much as principle to everyone, and that rules once made have to be enforced. No special exemptions for any classes of people, let alone insiders at the top of organisations. Promise? The guilty will be hunted down and punished, any money lost restored, if possible, and new rules implemented.
I am not talking about the Jawoyn Association, based in Katherine in the Northern Territory, the subject of a Four Corners episode last Monday. I was thinking rather more of the affairs of the Health Services Union, which, it appears, was a giant con operated for and on behalf of the wives, children, mistresses and mates of the Williamson family. The frauds occurred during a period in which Michael Williamson was one of Australia's most senior union leaders, a serious, if not notable player, in the affairs of the right wing of NSW Labor and the NSW Labour Council, and, at one stage a federal president of the ALP.
It goes without saying, of course, that none of Williamson's mates in the union, the union movement, the councils of the Labor Party, the premiers' offices or the prime ministers' offices had any idea that he was rorting the union of millions, and placing his relations, friends and allies in jobs, one of which, by sheer coincidence, was in a prime ministerial office. Bob Carr did not know. New Senators Matt Thistlewaite and Sam Dastyari, as NSW Labor branch secretaries did not know, just as they did not know about Eddie Obeid. Nor Bill Shorten, a factional ally of Williamson. You wonder how people so blind could advance in politics.
Others in the front ranks of Williamsons' mates and allies made it into the Gillard ministry - though she, herself, could not, of course, have imagined that some of the known sponsors of her colleagues were crooks. It was not in Gillard's nature to suspect colleagues, and she was, perhaps, naive and inexperienced in the ways of union or party rorting and manipulation.
How Labor figures never have any idea that some of their mates are seriously bent raises questions about the political culture, particularly the Labor culture, in NSW. Anthony Albanese had no idea that Ian Macdonald was a crook. Independent Commission Against Corruption advocates have, at times, seemed to suggest that the venality of the NSW Rum Corps has lasted, largely unchanged, for more than 200 years. But the crookedness of the Rum Corps was primarily among its officers, and the primary victims, apart from oddments such as Captain William Bligh, were the poor but honest felonry of NSW, harmless convicted people, largely the scum of the English slums.
The descendants of those felons, not those of the Rum Corps officer class - were those who created the Australian union movement (which can almost be called indigenous), and the Labor Party (as well as the Taliban Catholic right wing of the NSW Liberal Party). So it can't have been just the DNA which made crooks of the Williamsons, Obeids and Macdonalds, and other bagmen, crooks and rent-seekers still infesting NSW Labor, or the legions of people, right up to the top who were looking the other way at the time.
There was, on the other hand, a culture among common or garden crooks, wide boys, rent-seekers and rort-artists everywhere summarised among the Mafia as omerta, and the Irish by the notion of being blind, deaf and dumb, or by the modern schoolkids' idea that it is morally OK to shoplift from Woolworths or big multinationals, a bit dubious to steal from an old widow. One doesn't dob. One didn't see anything. Didn't realise. Had no idea. It seemed odd but was none of my business.
It's an approach to life easily rationalised, and made to sound naughty but fun. Systemic rorting in a union, for example, is often seen as simply politics as played between the Left and the Right, rather than fraud on members, most of whom are far more poorly paid than officials.
And anyway, many will say, the ''others'' are doing so just as much - to an extent, indeed, that ''we'' have little choice but to copy ''their'' tactics. In Labor politics this allegation is allowed to escalate ballot stuffing, branch stacking, frauds and diversions of resources to slush funds and fighting funds, and the rewarding and punishment, by illegal means, of one's friends and enemies. Even for Tony Abbott, it's OK to rort expenses, apparently, because Labor folk do it, too.
It's the COAG system of ethics, by which one's own standards are never higher than one has alleged the standards of one's rivals to be. Many Labor politicians hop in with relish (as often as not developing their individual senses of entitlement and helping themselves to all of the perks along the way). Others view it with distaste, but affect to recognise, wearily, that it is ''the way of the world'' - a proof that one sometimes has to stand in the sewage and the gutter to look up to the heavens.
Some will claim: ''I myself am clean. I could be a factor in cleansing such a stables. But I can do no good if I am not there. And I cannot be there unless I deal with, compromise with, and kiss the bums of those people in the meantime. They, after all, control my preselection.''
By such reasoning do idealistic women and men slowly corrupt themselves and become facilitators, accessories and beneficiaries. And many politicians, climbing the greasy pole, forever excuse their failure to take action, which cannot occur, apparently, until after they achieve their next ambition.
It's quite different in Aboriginal communities. One must crack down, hard, on any evidence anyone inside the system might be motivated by personal or family interest, or doing anything otherwise than as allowed and authorised by the wise men and women in Canberra who set them such a good example. It's probably particularly necessary so as to show an example to politicians, who, left unchecked, could be capable of rorts many times greater.
A few Aboriginal crooks have robbed their state or communities of up to $1 million, or wasted that much by mismanagement. But it takes a real whiteman to steal or squander money by the billion. Mercifully, the law seems equally inept in getting either, but we can, no doubt, be all relieved that black small fry get equal opportunity for investigation as the big whales.
All too many black organisations funded by the state have collapsed because of incompetence, ineptness, inexperience, mismanagement, fraud and nepotism. In many cases, too, the fraud and impropriety is the more shocking because the crooks - typically chief executives or board members - have been clearly ripping off seriously poor, deprived and disadvantaged people in their own midst. These CEOs and others - some end up in politics - have often been good at describing, movingly, the disadvantage in their midst but have been profiteering shamelessly from it. This is hypocrisy on a grand scale.
Yes it is, and it is unforgivable. It cannot be swept aside by appeal to compassion based on education, training or background. To describe victims as complicit, because they know or sense the rorting, is quite unfair. No one knows of the problem, or the problematic people, better than the people in the communities themselves. They, after all, are the ones being ripped off. And they, too, are the ones who are still there after the latest blow-in, hectoring them about higher standards, has returned to somewhere more comfortable, so that she, or he, can lecture others about their experiences, the strange and ungrateful ways of Aborigines and the fact that nothing much seems to work any more.
But I am not doing any special pleading for Aborigines if I remark the complete catalogue of Aboriginal villainy in recent times - say in the lifetime of Tony Abbott or that of Warren Mundine - would scarcely rate a page, if waste, corruption, fraud, and mismanagement perpetrated by others on Aboriginal communities were to be added to a book. Nor would fraud in or on Aboriginal communities rate more than a page in a book describing frauds on the whole community (which, oddly enough, includes Aborigines). Aborigines, are, for example, among the victims of the crimes and the frauds of Michael Williamson, and the loot shared among his friends and relations.
But Aboriginal catalogue of wasted money is singularly short of much in the way of evidence of punishment of the perpetrators - particularly if the villains were whites. Mostly, the villainies of whites - with padded invoices, unsupplied services and failures to do what was promised - are simply written off as being a part of the price of doing business in remote and difficult places. All the more so when clients do not speak the language, or appreciate the culture, and have difference concepts of contract, time and obligation. (I refer here not to Aborigines, the ultimate clients, but the white officials encountering white businessmen farming the lush pastures of Aboriginal improvement. But it goes without saying that the gulf between bureaucrats and Aborigines is also enormous - and widening by the year.)
All too often, seeking out and punishing white fraudsters might expose deficiencies in how ministers and senior officials did their jobs. I can think of at least a dozen remote communities in which there have been long years of systemic frauds, cumulatively in the millions, perpetrated by successive store managers - all unpunished, and in each case, the impulse to sweep it under the carpet has come primarily from the bureaucracy.
One of the reasons for declining standards of Aboriginal governance has been the deliberate and conscious hollowing out and disempowerment of most Aboriginal organisations. It was part and parcel of the Northern Territory Emergency, the Intervention, Closing the Gap and such other pieces of the bossy re-bureaucratisation of indigenous affairs over the past eight years. The new paternalism - in Jenny Macklin's case the new maternalism - has produced an apathetic, unconsulted, resentful and surly audience. They are sullenly uninvolved in everyone's else plans for ''their'' liberation. Now another bunch of outsiders - some Aboriginal but all from far away, and all given to sweeping statements and generalisations - are involved in throwing out the old and coming in with new one-size-fits-all plans. Warren Mundine has, for example, noticed that there is a lot of fraud and waste going on in Aboriginal communities. The answer, obviously is new rules, more red tape and more bureaucracy. It has long been a sad joke that a third of all grants purportedly going to Aboriginal affairs are spent on accounting and auditing services in an effort to prove that the other two-thirds is being spent correctly.
Outside Aboriginal affairs, the call is for deregulation, and purposive governance. In Aboriginal affairs, as ever, we turn things on their head, as often as not to prove that it's the same rules for all. Other than for politicians, their parties and trade unions, of course.