I have absolutely no idea what Gladys Berejiklian is like as a person. Nor can I possibly form any sort of concrete view about whether she engaged in corrupt conduct or not. What I do know, however, is that the nearer you get to what you think might be the "truth" about any public figure - what they are like, the sort of person they are - certainty quickly evaporates into mist and fog.
We simply don't know. Berejiklian's resigned, which at the very least suggests she must anticipate some difficulty explaining what happened once her actions are placed under scrutiny. And those many tributes to her "character"! Scott Morrison, whose office was one minute briefing against her, was suddenly all praise and positive statements the next. And NSW Labor leader Chris Minns; why did he praise her?
He, like Morrison, is focused on the long game. It's the next premier he needs to tear down now, not the past one, so everything pivots on a dime.
The political world is like that.
It's a very long time, now, since I first worked in Macquarie Street and began learning about the flow and ebb of power. Politics is different. The cardinal rule, the single law that remains forever fixed and sacrosanct, is understanding what needs to be traded in order to get ahead.
What is success? Well, just as in any work environment, everybody in politics has their own objectives. Most quite genuinely enter for idealistic reasons, but quickly learn the art of compromise simply to get ahead. What is, ultimately, so very different from any other profession is that there are no barriers to your ability to getting ahead apart from your own ability to navigate a path forward. There are no exams to pass and few guidelines (apart from "don't get caught"). Because everything is about power, all that's required is the subtlety to be aware of what others want and the ability to suggest that the fastest way to achieve their ends is through you.
Everything revolves around the power to make things happen.
As the political world has grown in size, the rewards on offer have taken on a new heft, driven by the sheer scale of the gifts on offer. All one has to do, it seems, is reach out and take them; oh, and by the way, not get caught. The crimes are, after all, victimless, simply allocating money to one cause rather than another. Everything can so easily be justified, from using knowledge that others lack to the hint at preferment in exchange for personal favours. It's all there and the risk of exposure so slight.
Journalism certainly isn't any protection.
Three weeks before the last election I shared a (relatively brief) conversation with a senior Coalition figure. The discussion quickly became a rapid, visceral, and caustic dissection of Scott Morrison's personality, political acumen, and integrity: no assessment was flattering. I exchanged insight for keeping quiet. Subsequently I heard the same person insisting they'd "always known" Morrison would win. The Prime Minister had defeated Labor precisely because his unique personal attributes had given him the edge. "Nobody else could have done it."
Both times they meant every word. The only thing that had changed was the audience and the flow of power since Morrison had won. The politician knew I wouldn't report their acerbic appraisal but would report the other, key point: that despite Morrison's personality, Labor's path to victory was far from apparent. And that was what I wrote the week before the vote: the opposition was on track to lose. I traded silence for a brief glance behind the curtain; they traded their insights for, well, what exactly I'm still not sure. I accepted the bargain, because what someone thought about Morrison wasn't a "story". That was just detritus to be discarded on the way.
So don't think journalism will reveal the world to you. If you want to discover corruption, you need a corruption commission. That's exactly why politicians don't want one.
It takes a long time to work out how the world works. That's because, no matter what we might like to think, there are no universal rules. Different working environments evolve their own norms.
We like to think that simply because we see politicians on the box each night, or watch them answering apparently idiotic questions thrown up during long televised press conferences during the day, we "know" who they are. We form views about their honesty and intelligence when, in reality, we know nothing about them. We accept them as they appear, even though if we think about it we must instinctively realise that making it to the top of any profession, particularly one as treacherous as politics, demands a remarkable ability to dexterously wield the knife; a self-belief verging on megalomania; and a unique ability to justify every action as appropriate, no matter how outrageous.
No matter how normal somebody might seem as their career is beginning, things change rapidly on the way up. The political world does not obey the same rules as the rest of society. Everything is always fungible, and can be traded for the power to achieve something else. It quickly becomes a heady cocktail for any politician, particularly when the media is telling stories about how wonderful you happen to be and everybody seems to be in agreement. Until they're not.
Eventually I wrote three books, 300,000 words, about Kevin Rudd - before, during and after his time in The Lodge. The more I knew, the more dissatisfied I was with the result. Not simply because I couldn't speak to everyone I wanted, but because it was impossible to compress so many discrete perspectives and slivers of reality into a (readable) political biography.
We live in a world of myth.
Annika Smethurst's biography of Morrison is a brilliant beginning at unravelling this, but we urgently need a federal ICAC if we want to force our politicians to behave appropriately.
Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.
Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.
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