Ken Parish links to my post on the ethanal business (it ought to be a scandal, but it clearly isn’t) and says
I regard the Howard government as possibly the worst Australia has ever seen, certainly since the Second World War.
on account of its corruption and continuous reliance on divisive wedge politics. I’ll leave wedge politics for later and focus on corruption.
On this score, my fear is that the Howard government will turn out to be “average: worse than the last one and better than the next one”.
Standards of probity, honesty and public integrity declined markedly in the Hawke-Keating era. It was Hawke in 1983 who initiated the tradition of discovering a budget ‘black hole’ and announcing that all promises are inoperative. Howard took this one to a new level. He was asked before the election what would happen if, as everyone expected, the deficit turned out to be worse than Kim Beazley had admitted, and he said that his promises would be implemented regardless. This statement became ‘non-core’ within days of the election.
Similarly, the practice of former ministers taking up jobs that relied on their political connections became prevalent in the Hawke-Keating period. However, it was not until recently that this became overtly corrupt, with favors in office being traded for sinecures on retirement. On this score, I should note that, for his first year or so in office, Howard did raise standards of ministerial behavior, and several junior ministers lost their jobs over minor misdeeds. It was only when Howard crony Warwick Parer fell foul of Howard’s code of conduct that he abandoned it, upon which the descent was rapid and, as far as I can see, still accelerating.
The sale of political favors, for electoral donations used to be a staple of state and local politics but was, I think, unheard of at the Commonwealth level until the present government. (I admit though, that there were always well-connected people like Reg Ansett and Kerry Packer who seemed to get more than their fair share of the goodies). In addition to the ethanol business, the government has managed to set up a system through which favorable treatment of migration applications can be bought, even though plausible deniability is maintained at all levels up to and including the Minister.
Finally, the politicisation of the public service can be traced back to the Whitlam government, but has accelerated dramatically under Howard. On any controversial issue today, a statement by a senior public servant, either of fact or opinion, must be treated in exactly the same way as if it had been made by a Liberal Party official. If the truth does not serve the interests of the government, it will not be told.
The fact that Howard has merely extrapolated the trend towards corruption does not excuse him, but it does call for some explanation. In my view, the widespread acceptance of public choice theory has been a major contributor to the growth of corruption. The behavior I’ve described is exactly what public choice theory predicts, and the first step towards corruption, the treatment of electoral commitments as disposable, is positively welcomed by most supporters of public choice theory, who view elections as a dangerous distraction. If the intellectual atmosphere is dominated by the idea that politics is a matter of naked self-interest, it is scarcely surprising that reality will come to match the theory.