Corruption is the price we pay for democracy

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It's no secret that democracy can be tainted by corrupt hands, as explored by artist Elihu Vedder (Image via en.wikipedia.org)

Political corruption is rife within modern day democracy, but the destructive relationship between the two is somewhat symbiotic, writes Barry Hindess.

AT FIRST SIGHT, it seems pretty obvious that corruption damages democracy. When corrupt politicians and public servants make decisions on the basis, in part, of personal advantage, it disrupts their focus on the public interest. And the case for something like an ICAC at the Commonwealth level seems no less obvious.

The story gets complicated and analysis risks becoming dry and academic when we recognise, first, that different ideas of  both "democracy" and "corruption" are normally in play and, second, that concerns over corruption at this level have covered a vast range of issues; for example, in no particular order:

  • the ATO's focus on workers fiddling their tax returns rather than tax evasion by big corporations;
  • the impact of political donations and the broader influence of vested interests;
  • massive electricity price hikes following privatisation;
  • the collapse of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan;
  • the banks' influence over the terms of reference of the banking Royal Commission;
  • the apparent influence of mining companies over several areas of government policy;
  • the Coalition Government twice finding a job in other parliamentarians' offices for Barnaby Joyce's girlfriend;
  • pollies using official travel to go to important sporting events;
  • pollies looking after their own — for example, Joyce's own party finding a salary for him while he was out of parliament following the High Court finding that he was a dual citizen;
  • pollies getting private benefit out of official business, such as Bronwyn Bishop's use of a helicopter on the last leg of a journey to a political engagement in Geelong; and
  • relatively minor or inexpensive rorting of parliamentary travel and accommodation allowances; regular application of double standards over who counts as a partner and payments to members of parliament compared to welfare recipients, Indigenous people and other members of the public.

Overall, as Alan Austin has recently pointed out on IA, there is no shortage of incidents in the history of the current government that might be labelled corrupt. Furthermore, if we regard the Fourth Estate – the mainstream media – as an integral part of our political system, there is more than enough evidence of corruption within it.

Turning to differing views of corruption, the core idea is of some kind of decay or infection that undermines a normal or natural condition — think of a plum, nectarine, apple or pear that might go off over time or become infected from the outside by wasps or other insects. Sometimes, the core idea of corruption is invoked without the word itself, as when Shakespeare's Hamlet declares there's 'something rotten in the state of Denmark', or Australians refer to someone rorting the system. In this last case, the word "rort" refers to an area of what might otherwise be called corruption.

When the word "corruption" is used in relation to politics, it means that politics no longer works as the speaker thinks it should, for example, that politicians and public servants seem to be overly concerned with the pursuit of financial or other individual rewards, although the normal processes of careers and promotion within large bureaucracies can also have this effect.

This brings us to differing views of democracy. For most of the history of Western culture, up to at least the time of the French and American revolutions, most people who wrote about democracy thought it was a bad idea, essentially because it empowered the poor and, for the most part, poorly educated majority who were regarded as being particularly vulnerable to demagogic appeals and likely to be opposed to the interests of the more prosperous and, again, for the most part, better educated minority.

Even the great 18th century English radical supporter of American independence, Thomas Paine, was skeptical about pure democracy, preferring what he called 'representation ingrafted upon democracy'. This last is pretty much what America and the rest of us ended up with. Representative government can be found in most contemporary societies and we call it democracy, as do Western-dominated international agencies like the World Bank and IMF. In practice, democracy is understood today in two very different ways — as meaning both representative government and government by the people themselves with the Right leaning towards the one usage and the Left towards the other.


Democracy as representative government departs from the original understanding of democracy as government by the people, if only because representative government keeps the people themselves away from the actual work of government. Rather, it is a system of government by a complex network of representatives elected by the people, unelected public servants and other institutions – ABC, ICAC (in NSW and SA), the courts, ASIO, Fair Work Commission, Human Rights Commission, Productivity Commission, sundry Royal Commissions and so on – that may be nominally independent of government but are actually run by political appointees.

Active involvement by the people, other than voting, is positively discouraged under representative government, while appeals to the people – by leftist parties in Greece and Spain, by the Trump campaign and Bernie Saunders in the U.S., Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, the UK's victorious pro-Brexit campaign, Marine le Pen and other Right-wing leaders in West and Central Europe – are often dismissed as anti-democratic populism.

Peter Dutton's recent proposal that the public should be involved in the appointment of judges and magistrates is a rare exception — it was sometimes ridiculed, but largely ignored  yet few commentators called it out as populist. Overall, it would not be much of a stretch to say that democracy, in the original understanding of the term, is commonly treated as a corruption of democracy, in the sense of representative government. On the other hand, interference of unelected institutions in the work of government – for instance the Australian Constitution's section 44, which states that dual citizens are not eligible to stand for election to the Federal Parliament; the UK Supreme Court's ruling after the majority popular vote in favour of Brexit that the Brexit process could not proceed without parliamentary approval – is often represented as subverting the will of the people. In effect, as corrupting Australian or British democracy.

In an earlier piece on IA, I used the example of the British Tories pursuit of a prominent Labour Party figure, T. Dan Smith, to suggest that accusations of corruption often further a political agenda. I might have added that once talk of corruption becomes established in this way, it rapidly becomes a bipartisan affair.

Yet these comments only scratch the surface of an extremely murky history of relations between government and corruption — a history, in particular, of persistent attempts to draw lessons for the present from episodes in the history of Imperial Rome and of British imperial efforts to promote limited forms of self-government in its colonies – including its settler colonies in Australia and North America – as British administrators strove to make colonies pay for their own government and enterprising locals worked out ways of diverting funds for their own purposes. The British called this corruption. As a result, corruption came to be seen as a particular problem in the colonies and as returning to infect Britain itself.

Today, following the end of overt imperial domination, corruption is no longer regarded primarily as a problem of imperial rule. Rather, it is now seen as universal but as posing particular problems in developing societies.

It is worth recalling the existence of this murky history when we see something like a Federal ICAC – a title taken from the closing years of British imperial rule in Hong Kong – proposed as a way of dealing with political corruption in Australia.

Hong Kong's ICAC was established in 1974 by the British Governor in response to widespread popular outrage over corruption. British Hong Kong suffered most varieties of corruption with which we are familiar in Australia and one which has rarely been experienced here. What particularly infuriated the people of Hong Kong was the incidence of what we might call street-level corruption — corruption by civil servants interacting with the public. As in the UK, the Hong Kong Government employees we would call public servants were known as civil servants but, unlike the UK, virtually all government employees were civil servants.

Hong Kong street-level civil servants – garbos, school teachers, nurses and police – would demand payment from members of the public simply for doing their jobs. This was in part because the Hong Kong Government kept their salaries low in a misguided effort to control inflation. Not surprisingly, many of their supervisors would demand a cut, along with the supervisors of these supervisors and so on up through the whole chain of command so that the whole system was generally regarded as riddled with corruption. There were even stories of firefighters demanding payment from householders and shopkeepers before turning on their hoses.

The original ICAC was the creature of a remote imperial government that was barely answerable to the governed population, leaving it with an independence from partisan political interference of which the NSW, Victorian and South Australia ICACs, and any proposed Federal equivalent, can only dream.

Barry Hindess is an emeritus professor at Australian National University’s School of Politics and International Relations. You can follow Barry on Twitter @barryhindess.

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