Politics Analysis

Corruption-proofing the Sunshine State: There is a better way

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(Cartoon by Mark David | @MDavidCartoons)

According to Walkley Award-winning journalist Phil Dickie, who played a crucial role in the 1980s in exposing the criminality that led to the downfall of the Bjelke-Petersen regime, Queensland still needs corruption-proofing.

IT IS A SAD truth that only some sort of cataclysm gives a political jurisdiction the opportunity for wholesale and much-needed reforms.

Queensland had two opportunities — the collapse of the squattocracy signalled by the election of Thomas Joseph Ryan’s Labor Government in 1915 and the response to the report into police and political corruption by Tony Fitzgerald KC in 1989.

Fitzgerald and his Inquiry demolished the career of Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen and his Country/National Party Government.

Fitzgerald’s report did not so much lay down the law as suggest processes that might lead to better law. The road to policy nirvana lay, according to Fitzgerald, through accountable institutions, careful research and wide consultation.

Properly, Fitzgerald deferred to state parliament as the accountable institution. In the long run, parliament was influenced by party politics and an executive that frustrated many reforms. There were not enough motivated, qualified people available to rebuild a broken police force, remake an electoral system, staff the accountable institutions and do the research and consultation.

Queensland was that broken.

It's complicated

Jumping from journalism to a senior advisory role at the Crime and Corruption Commission (CCC) – then Criminal Justice Commission – in the 1990s was a revelation to me. There was scope to indulge the "gotcha" motivations of a former investigative journalist. What was new was exposure to the complexities of coming up with good policy proposals for vexed social issues using careful research and wide consultation.

Crime is a hot-button electoral issue subject to a consensus generally supportive of draconian laws and more police with more powers — without any consciousness that therein lies a path to a police state where most of the crime is committed by the state. 

With the best of intentions, police can and frequently do "organise" crime by removing the less competent (or ruthless) participants from the competition to provide illicit goods and services.

The Honest Politician’s Guide to Crime Control says there are better ways for societies to suffer less crime (organised or otherwise). The book argues we should put aside Hollywood mafia myths and look at creative ways to disrupt markets for illicit or undesirable goods and services.

I did try some collaborative initiatives along these lines while at the CJC, but they did not go further than participants getting a record of discussions.

These days I sometimes get invitations to deliver quotes or articles on how Queensland has slipped into a state of corruption worse than before Fitzgerald. I’ve declined because that would be comparing apples with oranges.

In reality, Joh was a relic — corrupt in a style similar to Premiers Askin, Bolte, Playford and Court, but notable as being among the last of his kind.

Now, at state and local government levels, Australia has impressive machinery for investigating “brown-paper-bag” or direct-favour corruption.  

Grey corruption

Coming into greater focus is "grey corruption’" the diffuse exchange of generalised favours by a self-serving elite. Backscratching, yes, but usually not in violation of thresholds of criminality. It’s difficult to prove, even where it does slip into criminality.

A better designation might be "game-of-mates" corruption, to borrow from the title of an outstanding 2017 book by Cameron Murray and Paul Frijters.

Queensland recently endured a confusion of related allegations around corruption in a council, an unsuccessful prosecution, the alleged seizure of a laptop from the Integrity Commissioner’s office and resignations of the integrity commissioner at the time and the head of the CCC. 

Tony Fitzgerald inquired into the CCC and his report found that it:

‘... still has the central role in Queensland’s integrity landscape envisaged in the 1989 Fitzgerald Report and remains fundamental to combating major crime and corruption in the state.’

One recommendation of Fitzgerald’s 2022 report was the tightening of rules around lobbyists.

I’m too far away to pass judgement on the events Fitzgerald inquired into in his second report. But I will observe that the lobbying and development game is one where the benefits of public decisions – rezonings, development approvals and enabling infrastructure – are largely diverted into private pockets. 

A better way

There has got to be a better way — and, in fact, there is. 

Some jurisdictions, such as the ACT, reserve the benefits of public decisions for public purposes and are relatively free of both development disasters and the ever-wafting smell of corruption.

Murray and Frijters say as well as development rorts and the virtual handover of our mineral wealth and water, the game of mates is in tolerated tax avoidance, the cult of privatisation, diversion of traffic onto toll roads, support of cosy oligopolies and dubious rules in banking, superannuation, pharmaceuticals, education, and aged and childcare provision. It halves the economic well-being of ordinary Australians.

Of course, we need to do something about it.

Sending in the wallopers is not the answer. What is? Rejigging systems so benefits flow to the many, not the few. Keeping public resources in public hands. Rewarding whistle-blowers. Being absolutely transparent. Broadening political participation. The formula set out by Fitzgerald in 1989 still applies — accountable institutions, careful research and wide consultation. 

We could return to the Australian ideal of a fair go for all and a desire to build a better society and help our neighbours in a world beset by looming climate cataclysms, disappearing biodiversity and increasing conflict.

With political courage, it’s still possible to fulfil that vision.

This article was first published on 'The Pineapple' and is republished with permission.

Phil Dickie OAM is a recipient of Australia's highest journalism award, the Gold Walkley. He is the author of bestselling book 'The Road To Fitzgerald: Revelations of corruption spanning four decades'. You can follow Phil on Twitter @phildickie.

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