With a string of financial and sexual scandals affecting State Labor governments, and “corruption” being listed as one of the factors contributing to the Republicans defeat in the US, it’s worth thinking about whether issues of this kind are ephemeral events, making the headlines and then disappearing, or whether they have longer-term implications. It’s possible to point to examples going both ways. The British Conservatives acquired a reputation for sleaze in the declining years of the Thatcher-Major governments, and it took them at least a decade to recover, even up against a government that is scarcely an exemplar of probity. On the other hand, the Howard government hasn’t suffered much from a string of scandals, of which AWB is just the most recent.
As regards financial scandals, a crucial factor is whether they are seen as examples of individual wrongdoing or of systemic corruption. If the former, a resignation or sacking will usually solve the problem. It’s generally worked for Beattie in Queensland, who’s certainly had quite a few such cases to contend with – the latest allegedly involving a former minister trying to blackmail him. Howard has managed to brazen out quite a few scandals without resignations, at least in part because no-one suspects him of personal financial impropriety. But a reputation for systemic corruption, like that associated with WA Inc, or the enmeshment of the US Republicans with corrupt K Street lobbyists (of whom Jack Abramoff is just one example), is much harder to shake.
Looking at WA, the decision by incoming Premier Carpenter to revoke the ban on dealings with Brian Burke imposed by Geoff Gallop, and to appoint Burke crony Norm Marlborough to Cabinet has come back to bite him. He’ll need to do more than restore the status quo ante to fix this. Burke clearly exerts a lot of power in the Labor Party, and unless it’s attacked root and branch, the problem is unlikely to go away.
The corruption of the US Republican party is so systematic, it’s hard to see it being reformed any time soon. The intertwined network of lobbyists, corporate-controlled thinktanks, party machinery and personal trafficking in favours has spread so far that, if it were cut out, there would be nothing left.
As regards sexual scandals, the crucial factor is hypocrisy. Conservative parties have suffered most from this, given that they have been most vocal in attacking those who deviate from traditional mores. But allegations of sexual offences against children, such as those made against sacked minister Milton Orkopoulos in NSW, are equally damaging to either party. At the moment Orkopoulos is proclaiming his innocence and the two parties are making claims and counterclaims about who knew what when, so we should probably wait for more information about this.
A deeper problem in NSW, reflected in a string of apparently unrelated scandals, is a party culture that promotes hacks and rewards factional machinations and dirty tricks. The fact that the NSW Liberals suffer from much the same problem does not make matters any better.
Looking at the decay of the party system in Australia, I’ve often thought we might be better off with a US-style primary system. But then, looking at the Republicans, it seems that such a system might create more problems than it solves.