Review: 'Maaate! Bribe-proofing the public purse against good blokes'

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Robert Jones reviews Bernie Dowling's 'Maaate! Bribe-proofing the public purse against good blokes' — a harrowing tale of institutionalised corruption. 

WHEN amounts of money in the order of $100 million can be attained by the flick of a pen, it can be expected that there will be some competition for that pen.

The pens that hold this power are wielded by the duly elected representatives of local governance in most Australian States. This combination of power and vast amounts of money are a known magnet for corruption.

Maaate! Bribe-proofing the public purse against good blokes looks at this relationship within the Brisbane/Gold Coast regions of South-East Queensland’s local governance and makes some very worthwhile recommendations to ameliorate it.

Maaate! is not an easy book to read. It details in some depth the 2017 investigation into political donations in Queensland’s 2016 local government election, known as "Operation Belcarra". The author, Bernie Dowling, draws on around 17 years experience as a reporter in the Moreton Bay region of South-East Queensland and exposes a series of manoeuvres that – although not exactly illegal in most cases – are designed to circumvent the actual intent of Queensland’s political donation laws.

Maaate! draws heavily on witness transcripts from Operation Belcarra that detail a shifty set of financial transfers from individuals into trust funds, which were then dispensed to preferred candidates. It also exposes weaknesses and inconsistencies within Queensland’s electoral laws and, finally, provides recommendations for ways in which those laws can be improved.

One reason that Maaate! is not an easy book to read is that it tells a sad story of institutionalised corruption within the bodies created to police political donations in Queensland. Another is the legal nature of the transcripts and arguments regularly presented to the reader. A third is the depth of the information contained in the regular annotations provided by Dowling through both the preface to the transcripts and also the transcripts themselves.

I found myself having to reread numerous passages in an attempt to catch up on what is sometimes over 20 years of local knowledge. Without the benefit of having been a resident in the area or being somewhat familiar with the participants in this story, I found myself considering the construction of a mind-map simply to keep track of who was connected to whom and how. This, however, is the whole point of the book — to expose the tangled web used by those wishing to hide the source of donations from those with a legal right to know.

The book contains large amounts of information of the Brisbane area's local politics that require considerable effort to process and it tells an unhappy story that, even though important, is still unappetising to most people. I have a suspicion that this book has been produced as a public service by Dowling in exasperation at the mainstream media’s unwillingness to document and expose to the wider public the underhanded nature of these manipulations. This is the type of story that used to be covered so well by the likes of ABC 7:30, where corruption was exposed to a wider audience and action was then demanded from an outraged public.

In one particularly chilling story, Dowling recounts the then Queensland’s Crime and Misconduct Commission's (CMC) response to a complaint in 2007. It appears that the CMC delegated the investigation of the complaint to the Council being complained about, who then informed both the CMC and the complainant that there was no substance to the complaint. (If that doesn’t send shivers down the spine of every potential whistleblower I don’t know what would.) The CMC is the forerunner to the Crime and Corruption Commission that conducted Operation Belcarra. Maaate! strongly makes the case for a Federal ICAC.

Maaate! is full of instances of institutionalised corruption where the authority in charge of some important public function in SE Queensland is unable or unwilling to use its own powers to enforce its own regulations because of some other counterproductive practice. A classic example of this is a one-year time window for prosecuting corruption complaints against local councillors who have failed to complete the public register of their political donations — a truly ridiculous regulation that facilitates corruption in Queensland’s local governance. Maaate! could easily be renamed "Systemic corruption within Queensland institutions”, as it exposes so much of it.

The book provides some very interesting insights on the value of incumbency to those competing for a place within local government in this region. Dowling has obviously spent considerable time contemplating this and provides some thoughtful suggestions on how this could be mitigated. Dowling also highlights the "fierce and independent nature" the sarcasm is thick) of these councils and questions the use of closed council sessions. 

Maaate! tells a story that needs to be told but is difficult to hear. With Maaate!, Bernie Dowling is providing a public service and this book will prove to be essential reading for a Federal independent commission against corruption — if ever our political class create one.

'MAAATE! Bribe-proofing the public purse against good blokes', 2017, Bernie Dowling and Bent Banana Books (302 pages).


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Review: 'Maaate! Bribe-proofing the public purse against good blokes'

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