It is a high calling to govern

AS WE watch events unfold before the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption and follow the court appearances of former Labor federal backbencher Craig Thomson and former Liberal member and independent speaker Peter Slipper, we might well ask: what motivates people to become members of Parliament?

The armchair critics have been given much ammunition for their claim: ''They're all in it for what they can get.''

And they can call on history to support their case. State governments, in particular, have an unenviable history which goes back to the days of the NSW Rum Corps, as the counsel assisting ICAC, Geoffrey Watson, SC, pointed out.

After his death, it was alleged that NSW Liberal premier Robert Askin had received payments during the 1970s from SP bookmakers and Sydney brothel owner Abe Saffron; NSW Labor prisons minister Rex Jackson was jailed for taking bribes to release prisoners; the Fitzgerald inquiry exposed corruption in the Queensland National Party government of Joh Bjelke-Petersen, resulting in Bjelke-Petersen himself being charged with perjury (although not convicted when the special prosecutor decided he was too old to face a second trial) and the jailing of two of his ministers and a police commissioner; and West Australian Labor premier Brian Burke was jailed in 1994 for travel expense rorts, exposed as a result of the WA Inc Royal Commission.

Despite all this, having associated with politicians for 30 years in Canberra, I've never subscribed to the view that they are a greedy, self-interested lot. In my experience most - but not all - Labor, Liberal, National Party, Greens and independent members come to the house with high ideals. Most have devoted many hours of unpaid work to campaigns to get to where they are. The armchair critics, on the other hand, are not inclined to spend their time and money campaigning on issues.

Members of parliament differ markedly across the chamber on their issues of concern. Some believe they can help the weak and achieve a more equitable society; others maintain that private property rights and a growing economy are what's needed; still others fight for the preservation of the environment; some think we should limit population growth, while others want a big Australia.


Maiden speeches reveal prime drivers. Prime Minister Julia Gillard spoke passionately about education and the need for a fair go in her first speech; Opposition Leader Tony Abbott wanted to change the tax and welfare system to favour families with children; former prime minister Paul Keating wanted to introduce price controls and put the working wife back in the home.

But what drove Eddie Obeid, the former politician at the centre of the NSW ICAC inquiry into the granting of coal exploration licences? As a Lebanese migrant, he offered a quote from Khalil Gibran, Lebanon's most famous poet - a quote later made famous by president John F. Kennedy. ''Are you a politician asking what your country can do for you, or a zealous one asking what you can do for your country?''

The poem's following line, which Obeid did not quote is: ''If you are the first, then you are a parasite; if the second, then you are an oasis in a desert.''

Obeid said his background had instilled in him a commitment to fight for social justice and fair play, to fight against discrimination and inequality, wherever it manifested itself. Unfortunately, the picture of Obeid that emerges from his time in NSW Labor politics is one of a man primarily concerned with power and the maintenance of power. For many years he was the kingmaker, running a faction within the NSW Right faction. As a scheming numbers man, he manipulated party members to ensure the installation of his choice of premier or minister.

It seems he was able to do this in part because the NSW Right's raison d'etre was power and power alone. Its enemy within the party, the Left, galvanised around issues - stopping the wars in Vietnam or Iraq, ending uranium mining, increasing spending on health and education, or tackling climate change.

Over the years it has become clear that the NSW Right stood for little. Studies reveal people endlessly meeting to promote their own agendas, but rarely, if ever, discussing issues.

In this respect the NSW Right was markedly different to its Victorian counterpart. This can be seen in the contrast between NSW Right powerbroker Graham Richardson and his Victorian equivalent, Robert Ray. Both may have been numbers men, but from the start Ray clearly had other concerns. As the Left's leader, Senator John Faulkner, said on Ray's retirement: ''His decision to join the Australian Labor Party and to become involved in politics was never motivated by the idea of personal gain [and he] was not motivated by the pursuit of personal comfort.'' Ray targeted those who were. One of his most devastating attacks was on former Labor senator Mal Colston, ''the quisling Quasimodo from Queensland'', who rorted his travel allowances.

Only when he became environment minister did Richardson show real commitment to an issue.

The Obeid affair has led current NSW Opposition Leader John Robertson to propose changes to the party's rules, intended to break the power of the factions. These are in addition to the decision made after Labor's defeat in the 2011 NSW election to ban formal Left and Right faction meetings in State Parliament.

But how meaningful is that ban when we know, for example, that Obeid's faction within a faction - the Terrigals - got its name from its first meeting in Obeid's beach house in Terrigal, or the fact that the NSW Labor government's leading right-wing figures frequently met together in Cafe Da Capo?

Anyway factions are not the problem. Gatherings of like-minded people out to achieve an objective are part and parcel of the political process. They exist in every party and so they should. Supporting or opposing gay rights, electricity privatisation, or actions in relation to climate change are why people should enter politics.