Jackals new, but same old carrion
NSW powerbroker Eddie Obeid used his power ruthlessly. Photo: Dean Sewell
Most come to understand that the ability to do that depends primarily on having power - belonging to a party that has it, and having the favour within that party. That requires compromises; half of something is better than all of nothing, and sometimes one must crawl sideways or backwards towards the prize.
Perversely, however, a good many with noble ideals and infinite optimism in the perfectibility of the human condition develop a low view of the motives actuating their colleagues and enemies, and are rarely surprised when this is confirmed. There are always some susceptible to blandishments, capable of misusing or abusing power for personal or family ends, and, amazingly, with only vague ideas of what the standards are, or ought to be, at least in respect of themselves. What prevent many from being worse is fear of being discovered; and, experience has shown, what they fear most is not the clink, or the cancelled parliamentary pension, but the public exposure and humiliation.
So why, then, does no one seem to ever learn?
In NSW and Queensland, Labor has been recently annihilated. Voters divined, rightly, that they had become too comfortable and smug in power. Some had become criminally corrupt: buying and selling government favours and dispensations, and treating public money as if it were their own.
Other ministers and party officials - and indeed party officials who were to become ministers - were ready to accept favours, and discounts on cars or houses from people asking for favours from government. The what's-in-it-for-me approach extended to the expectation that those who stepped down from power were handed jobs in the Senate or state upper house (except for Queenslanders, poor things), or helped into private sector jobs selling insider knowledge, and ready access to their old mates, for a lot of money to all comers - including people whose interests were entirely different from Labor's.
Even Bob Carr could not resist taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in retirement from businesses with whom he had had dealings as premier. His greed and misjudgment is, to this day, the lasting question mark on his character and public record: perhaps underlined by the way, when, he unexpectedly got another chance, he immediately sought to appoint an array of old mates to grace-and-favour jobs.
A rorting mentality applied to jobs on government boards, authorities and, sometimes, even the courts. This led inevitably to a marked politicisation of senior levels of the public service, as ministers selected advisers and chief executives whom they felt to be personally loyal and with whom they felt comfortable.
Thank heavens it is all over now and could not happen again.
Meanwhile, it is happening all over again inside their replacements.
The smouldering issue in the Barry O'Farrell coalition government in NSW and the Campbell Newman government in Queensland is the insider access of lobbyists to ministers. Some powerful party officials are actually registered as lobbyists, and are selling their access to power, even as they manoeuvre in party councils on a pretence of serving public interest. Others do not declare obvious interests.
Queensland at least has an array of controls over lobbying activity, including a duty upon ministers to record occasions in which they have met lobbyists. But a senior minister has already been forced out for failing to disclose meetings with lobbyists, including his son.
Other Newman ministers - with no practice of being in the lolly shop - are pretty much showing the same approach to taking power as from ministers in the 1972 Whitlam government. The Premier, himself having cultural problems, seems more preoccupied with destroying potential Labor redoubts than in disciplining his own enormous backbench, or in imposing any standards.
All the seeds of destruction are there. Almost any Labor reformation, however inadequate, may have it perceived as less worse than the Coalition within less than a decade. Neither party shows any inclination to do any of the more obvious things to prevent, deter or detect corruption before it is uncovered by police or press. That would require reforms inside the parties themselves.
The running Obeid-Macdonald ICAC drama is a miracle play of of the million different ways by which Labor's 1995-2011 reign in NSW became increasingly enmired in corruption, political and administrative incompetence and lost opportunities.
Eddie Obeid, pictured, and Ian Macdonald may have be spectacular thieves, even by NSW Rum Corps standards, but what enabled them was Obeid's control over numbers and preselections in the subfaction which (narrowly) controlled the leading faction of politics in NSW.
Obeid had real power over preselections, and over election to the ministry, and he, and his acolyte Joe Tripodi, exercised it ruthlessly, and for personal as much as professional ends. Obeid may himself have seemed so obviously crook that premiers such as Carr could pretend to be reluctant, for a while, to have him in Cabinet. But in or out of the ministry, his voice had to be heard, usually for his personal financial interest.
Those who suspected his motives and venality had to rationalise deals with him as part of the price of having and exercising power. Perhaps a little evil might be done so that great things could be achieved, they might comfort themselves.
Federal politicians pretend to be above personal aggrandisement, temptation, or corruption by those dubious deals with alcohol, gambling and development lobbies that have characterised modern Labor sleaze. Yet almost all federal Labor politicians in NSW (and, in a mirror way, almost all federal Liberal politicians) are personal hostages to a faction system run by the same people who have corrupted state and local politics. Even the Labor Left has joined in the spoils system - as demonstrated by the imposition of Laurie Ferguson on the hapless voters of Werriwa.
How can one be sure our representatives can resist improper pressure when some of those piling on the pressure have the power to take away their jobs? Why should the public be confident their representatives can choose between the venial and the mortal? Why should they trust parties unable or unwilling to reform themselves? Which do not care that documents are forged, branches stacked, people stood over, and the till - even party and union funds - looted? Which acts only after the stench of obvious impropriety by people such as Michael Williamson, and his many friends and relations, some inside Parliament, is overpowering?
Perhaps it's because of a bipartisan approach to abuse of power. It has been a long time since a Liberal leader at state or federal leader has risen above factions to concern himself much with the scandals-in-waiting of those openly jostling around, hustling their influence, wherever power is being exercised in party councils. Yet rorting in the Coalition parties is increasing. Perhaps they imagine the viciousness of politics shows a healthy democratic spirit - rather than jackals fighting over the taxpayer's corpse.
Jack Waterford is Editor-at-Large.