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Dodging a bullet

February 25th, 2007

Looking at the stories of pervasive corruption coming out of the Burke inquiry in WA, a point I haven’t seen noted is that Federal Labor dodged a bullet by dumping Kim Beazley just as the scandal was breaking. Beazley was no doubt telling the truth when he said he’d never spoken with Burke about the latter’s business interests. Still, given is role in WA Labor, he could scarcely have been unaware that Burke was in a position to influence ALP preselections, and that Burke was using that power for his own personal enrichment. That might not have been a crime, but it was obviously damaging to the Labor party. And given the damage Burke had already caused, having such a person as a friend was an indication of judgement so poor as to cast doubt on Beazley’s capacity for high office.

Sticking with state issues, I can’t recall such a deplorable choice as that being faced by the voters of NSW on May 24. If ever a Labor party could do with a spell in opposition to sort itself out, the NSW branch is that party. Iemma seems decent enough, but thoroughly mediocre, Carr made a dreadful mess of things but profited handsomely out of it, and the ministerial team seems On the other hand, thinking over the string of mediocrities, sharpers and no-hopers who’ve led the NSW Liberals since the corrupt but competent Robin Askin departed the scene, I can’t thing of one who’s less appealing than Peter Debnam.

By contrast with these states and with the systematic corruption of the Federal government (the fact that no-one in government can be charged with anything over the payment of hundreds of millions of dollars to Saddam Hussein indicates a situation far worse than if a single minister or public servant had acted corruptly), the problems faced by the other Labor state governments seem pretty minor. Still, I nearly spat out my morning coffee when I read that Peter Beattie was canvassing yet another canal project, reviving and expanded the Bradfield scheme. I can only hope this is some sort of diversionary tactic.

Update Not as clean a dodge as all that, as it emerges that Rudd met Burke several times. The factional system that gives power to people like Burke is a disaster for Labor. More generally, the decay of mass political parties is a big problem for Australia.

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  1. February 25th, 2007 at 17:59 | #1

    I think that the point you have made in relation to specific states and specific members can be generalized out to include all state parliaments – with the exception of a few members of each.
    In general, the whole lot is not up to much. To me, this is symptomatic of the continuing, and increasing, imbalance in state and federal power with the states gradually becoming not much more than sometimes argumentative outposts of the federal government.
    Brack’s notable stand on the Murray-Darling aside, the trend over the last 50 or so years has been a steady diminution of the power of the states over that of the federal.
    It has now reached the point where most reasonably qualified people will simply not bother with State politics and concentrate on the federal.
    The rot started with the income taxing power being transferred to meet the war emergency during WWII. The fix, therefore, is also simple – return that power to the states.

  2. Bemused
    February 25th, 2007 at 18:02 | #2

    One has to seriously question just how much the Burke affair is causing electoral trouble for the ALP, at least when there is prompt disciplinary action.

    Take the Peel By election held on 3 Feb 2007 after the resignation of Norm Marlborough.

    The WA Electoral Commission site is a little confusing, but the way I read it the ALP received 65.59% 2PP vs 63.5% at the 2005 General Election. i.e. a swing of 2% to the ALP.

    Obviously this cannot go on for ever, but Premier Carpenter’s obvious mortification and prompt action has so far contained the damage.

    Are you assuming WA voters are so unsophisticated that they cannot distinguish between Federal and State? And that they would let the ALP State Govt off the hook and punish the Federal ALP?

    Clearly the WA branch of the ALP has a boil that need lancing. And Premier Carpenter seems prepared to do so, whatever it takes.

  3. Jill Rush
    February 25th, 2007 at 21:40 | #3

    The situation in NSW offers little hope to voters as the developers seem to have connections throughout both Labor and Liberal parties. No doubt if the Green had enough profile they would win a lot of seats along with key independents.

    However the big bucks will go to the main parties.

    Kym Beazley made a poor decision when he decided to stick by his mate Brian Burke as it was just another nail in his coffin.

    The AWB cover up royal commission which seemed to promise something but months later no charges have been laid. Corrupt behaviour is not the province of one party or another although this last one takes some beating.

    That is probably why Kevin Rudd is looking good by comparison.

  4. February 26th, 2007 at 00:41 | #4

    It’s piquant that Burkie has been working in tandem with Noel Crichton-Browne, bete-noire of the W.A. Liberal Party on a number of the issues that have come to the attention of the CCC.

    But personally, I really liked Burkie’s defence to the Smiths Beach saga that kicked off this recent inquiry. Burkie used a front company to make anonymous contributions to candidates in the Busselton Shire Council elections, to candidates that he ‘just knew’ would vote for the Smiths Beach development. Because the prospective candidates didn’t know where the money had come from or why – then he couldn’t be accused of corrupt practices under the law. It’s OK if we corrupt the process as long as we’re not seen to corrupt any individual – neat or what?

  5. February 26th, 2007 at 05:09 | #5

    The claim that payments were made to a cabinet minister in Queensland by a firm with coal interests are very serious and really worse than events in WA.

    That Bracks in Victoria is sidelining the Police Commissioner while doing side deals (that support corrupt cops) with a Police Association to buy electoral support is serious too given the serious corruption issues (drug trafficking, murder etc) associated with the Victorian Police. Victoria has serious long-term management issues with a police force that is out of control.

    So too Bracks’ refusal to cooperate with the Upper House inquiry into the allocation of gaming licences which a whole set of former Labor politicians are supporting as lobbyists. Bracks supoported Upper House inquiries of this nature until he lost the Upper House! This gaming issue has the potential to torpedo Labor in Victoria – and bring down some Liberal heads as well.

    State Labor Governments have the taint of corruption about them. Why would a Federal Labor Government be different? It is a reasonable question. Have all the best brains in the Labor Party gravitated to the Federal Party in recent years? I think the reverse if anything. Federal Labor has looked like a losing proposition for a long time and careerists in the ALP have targeted State politics.

    I agree that the Liberal Party in NSW is a mess – that Labor looks like being returned there suggests the electorate have made that judgment too. In the past Nick Greiner was not a bad Liberal leader.

    To compare these actions with the culpability of the Federal Liberal Party’s claimed responsibility for the actions of a private company, AWB, who paid bribes to advance its business interests in the Middle East is interesting. The Government and DFAT were found innocent of any corrupt behaviour by the Cole Commission. No evidence was unearthed that they knew of corrupt deals and there was never any suggestion (or as far as I know even the claim) that members of the government derived any financial or other advantage from the bad behaviour of AWB. That’s not the situation in Queensland, NSW, Victoria or WA where direct benefits accrued to members of the government.

  6. jquiggin
    February 26th, 2007 at 06:23 | #6

    Why do you carry water for these guys, Harry? To start with the first sentence of your last para, your description of AWB as “a private company” is a nonsense. AWB was at all times (both when it was in fact a government agency and after its quasi-privatisation) exercising governmental functions by virtue of its status as the Australian government’s designated monopoly exporter. As an economist, you must be aware that it is actual function and not legal status that matters in cases like this.

    The evidence that came out of the Cole Commission made it clear that the government had established a structure that allowed it to ensure that wheat was sold to Saddam by whatever means necessary without ever giving an explicit order to pay bribes or being told directly and on the record that this was happening. Cole never challenged this setup or the terms of reference for the inquiry that set it up. As I say, this is far worse than if one corrupt minister had taken a backhander to subvert government policy.

    Anyone who had followed the Children Overboard and similar episodes could predict the outcome of this affair and I did so.

  7. February 26th, 2007 at 06:59 | #7

    I don’t carry water for anyone. I agree with criticisms of AWB and, as I stated, it behaved badly but it was a private firm with shareholders and, as far as I know, no-one has even claimed a Liberal MP or public bureaucrat got advantage – financial or otherwise – from this bad deal. The Cole Inquiry argued there was no evidence of corruption by government or DFAT. There was no evidence of turning a blind eye or of corruption. And different from accepting a backhander.

    AWB as a private firm (this was the established ‘structure’) would not in the course of things have been directed how to sell its wheat. That I assume is the intention of a privatisation – to remove selling powers from political/bureaucratic control. AWB abused their position and acted illegally.

  8. February 26th, 2007 at 07:29 | #8

    Setting up and preserving monopolies whether they are private or public is a bad idea and the AWB is no exception. To say that political party(s) did not benefit from the AWB is to ignore those who are on the board, those who received shares in AWB and those who ran the company. The money does not have to go directly into your personal bank account for you to benefit. Unfortunately our system, where we not only condone but seem to expect our politicians to hand out favours to electorates and individuals, needs structural reform.

    We could start with reducing the control over how money is spent by our elected representatives. We should give them power over the general policy of expenditure but divorce them from the details and certainly from the approval of details of expenditure. A simple example of something that should not be allowed is recent announcement on school grants. As I understand it if schools receive a grant for a toilet block from the Federal Government the school has to have a member of the government open the toilet block and have a plaque erected. This is wrong as it says “we the government are giving you this toilet block” and that is a lie. We the people are spending some of our own money on the toilet block and the fact that you the government now want us to agree that you have given it to us and acknowledge the fact with a plaque is an insult.

  9. still working it out
    February 26th, 2007 at 09:36 | #9

    I have to agree with you about the sorry state of NSW politics. The poor quality of the Labour party ads on tv are indicative of how bad things are. They just rubbish. Not in the sense of being dishonest or vicious. They don’t have enough information in them to do that. They come across as being done by a complete amatuer. Dodgy Brothers Used Cars could come up with something more effective. I doubt the state Liberals will be much better. If they can’t even run an ad campaign what hope do they have or running an entire state.

  10. snuh
    February 26th, 2007 at 11:20 | #10

    it’s march 24, not may 24.

  11. Hal9000
    February 26th, 2007 at 11:36 | #11

    The Bradfield Scheme a ‘diversionary tactic’? I take it this was an intentional pun, and as such a true gem, Prof Q.

    Meanwhile, I’m thinking the Bradfield Scheme’s periodic reincarnations could be mapped against El Nino events. They certainly seem to have the regularity of a natural cycle.

    On topic, I heard this morning that Iemma’s mob are promising to create new child assault and murder offences, with the usual mandatory sentences. It seems they haven’t progressed much intellectually since the schoolyard bullies they all no doubt once were. On a par with Iemma’s ‘drinking poo’ line about water recycling. At least Debnam has that right. In NSW, unless you have a good local independent, it’d be hard to recommend a formal vote.

  12. Razor
    February 26th, 2007 at 13:05 | #12

    Predictions are at least two, if not four, more WA Ministers will be shown the door in the near future.

    Shame the WA Libs and Nats couldn’t organise a orgy in a brothel.

  13. February 26th, 2007 at 13:06 | #13

    Not long ago some earnest pundits were spruiking the thesis that all the Liberal stars had gone to Canberra because that’s where they were in government. Well you could definitely trot Debnam as exhibit A in support. The other arm of the argument was that all the Labor stars were in the states because that’s where THEY were in power. One look at NSW Labor comprehensively blows that hypothesis out of the water.

  14. Razor
    February 26th, 2007 at 13:09 | #14

    Sticky n key with the indefinite article there – sorry.

  15. stoptherubbish
    February 26th, 2007 at 16:40 | #15

    The NSW State election is indeed turning into a farce. The spin being trotted out by the staffers in Tripodi Costa Roozendal and Sartor’s offices, is that they are being ‘picked on’ because they are all of non Anglo background, instead of admitting the truth they are singly and collectively, deeply unattractive on just about measure that could be imagined. If the boyos think this will ‘fly’ in NSW, they are seriously in need of brain replacement surgery.

    The choices are dire indeed, but I think there is a lot in the fact that State governments are becoming little more than large Municipal Councils squeezed on all sides by a federal government determined to reduce their scope for independent action, the reality of an economy that is now truly national, not to say global in its intergration, and huge infrastructure requirements (social as well as physical)that are beyond their ability to deal with in the absence of electorally poisonous tax hikes, or the kind of deficit budgeting that is currently unfashionabl, therefore politically impossible.

    There needs to be wholescale ‘rethink’ of how federalism might work better, to give effect to economic considerations of efficiency and effectiveness, and to equally important understandings of democratic accountability which are more sophisticated than current understandings of how that might be assisted by political institutions. This is a debate that is simply impossible to mount, while both ‘sides’ play politcs as nothing more than a contest in deeply unhelpful and antidemocratic forms of authoritarian populism.

    BTW, if anyoe thinks that any federal govenrment, any business group, let alone the electorate, would support returning income tax powers to the states, they are well, dreaming.

  16. Paul Kelly the journo, footy player etc
    February 26th, 2007 at 17:28 | #16

    The frightful Peter Coleman, who lost his seat, was surely less palatable than Debnam

  17. pablo
    February 26th, 2007 at 19:33 | #17

    The NSW choice is so unpalatable that today’s headline about sitting independents demanding cabinet positions with Iemma’s expected (hairline) return raised a glimmer of hope for some. It was quickly denied by independents but you just hope it will be a hung cause. And there is a good chance that the independents will hang tough in both numbers and political savvy. With so many popular local council mayor’s running it begs the question ..is this the surge of the third tier of government wanting a more relevant ‘regional’ governmental role versus the stagnation of Mcquarie St power as other posts have suggested? Iemma’s complete capitulation to Howard on the Murry-Darling is a good recent example of this. Other things on his mind perhaps…

  18. still working it out
    February 26th, 2007 at 20:32 | #18

    Re-working the Federal-State relations has real possibility as an electoral winner. It clearly is at the root of alot of our bureacratic inertia. I think you could sell the idea to the average punter that it needs to re-done with clearer lines of who is responsible for what. With Labour in charge of all the states it would be a great policy for Federal Labour to adopt. I can’t see any reason why the States would not like it either with the possibility of getting better control over some areas while getting rid of headaches like health that can cost them elections.

  19. O6
    February 27th, 2007 at 13:57 | #19

    Taking the “toilet blocks and plaques” discussion a little further, I have read that the Federal government is now the biggest single advertiser in Australia. The State governments spend a lot too. What is this doing to the independence of the media? And what is it doing to the supply of factual information about government policies and taxpayer-funded services and programmes?

  20. derrida derider
    February 27th, 2007 at 14:08 | #20

    I think you’ll find the States can take back their income taxing powers any time they like. But no State goverment in its right mind would want them. Far better to let the Feds incur the wrath of taxpayers.

  21. Lang
    February 28th, 2007 at 16:14 | #21

    Kevin Cox and 06, you are both so right, pity the mug tax payers aren’t a wakeup……

  22. March 1st, 2007 at 21:11 | #22

    Labor may have dodged a bullet but Rudd still seems to have copped it today. I wonder what role Burke the kingmaker had in getting Rudd the Leadership.

  23. snuh
    March 1st, 2007 at 23:10 | #23

    “Sticking with state issues, I can’t recall such a deplorable choice as that being faced by the voters of NSW on May 24.”

    it’s march 24, for the last time. also, did you read tony abbott’s column in the herald this week? it’s about the nsw election. sure, abbott wants to say that no one should vote for iemma because he’s a dirty wog, but it wouldn’t do to actually say that, so instead we get:

    “Has NSW now come to resemble Italy, where an incompetent and venal government is accepted as an unalterable fact of life?”

    the liberals have really perfected the art of plausible deniability. it’s kind of impressive, in a (venal) way. anyway:

    http://www.smh.com.au/news/opinion/a-government-so-bad-should-be-thrown-out/2007/02/27/1172338622615.html?page=2

  24. Spiros
    March 2nd, 2007 at 08:15 | #24

    “Looking at the stories of pervasive corruption coming out of the Burke inquiry in WA, a point I haven’t seen noted is that Federal Labor dodged a bullet by dumping Kim Beazley just as the scandal was breaking.”

    It looks like the bullet is magic bullet that has done a 90 degree turn and hit Kevin Rudd.

    Why Rudd would go within a million miles of Burke when he was a senior front bencher, is anyone’s guess.

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