A new disease, corruption anaesthesia, has afflicted the Australian political landscape.
Essentially, this is the inability, whether willful or unwitting, to digest unpalatable information about those in power and hold them accountable.
While this is prevalent among politicians and the mainstream media, it is certainly not restricted to these groups. However, as corruption anaesthesia is systemic, nefarious acts do not only often go unnoticed but they also thrive and, in many cases, are even rewarded. Think of the criminality of bank CEOs and their exit bonuses.
Undoubtedly, there is an overload of corrupt deeds among our politicians, institutions and corporate entities. So much so, that we can hardly have enough royal commissions to deal with them. For example, the Banking Royal Commission, the NT Children in Detention Royal Commission, the Child Abuse Royal Commission and on and on.
What then, is the catalyst that leads to diminishing this behaviour, certainly among our political class, to the point where it becomes normalised?
There is a tendency to blame the mainstream media but while it is often complicit, it is not the root cause. The series of political scandals in recent days is breathtaking. Some of these have possibly been covered up or at least ignored by elements of the media, but they were also, in fact, often exposed by the mainstream media.
No, it is not the fourth estate in itself that is to blame.
THE CANBERRA BUBBLE
When PM Scott Morrison refers to the “Canberra bubble”, which he tends to do often, he is trying to downplay the activities of our politicians as not important enough to warrant attention. He is saying, effectively: Nothing to see here; no need to worry your pretty little heads.
In order to get an exclusive comment, or any comment aside from the carefully crafted media releases sent to the masses, it is necessary to "buddy up", to break bread together, even to become close to those on whose activities you are meant to report. In this insulated chamber, to which you have been granted access, the power belongs to the stars of the show — who are just ordinary politicians in the real world, but who wield all the power here. It becomes normal, intoxicating even, to gravitate to these stars, to those who command this power.
NORMALISING NEFARIOUS DEEDS
As a consequence, politicians’ behaviour is no longer seen through the objective lens of the outsider, it is coloured with emotion – the normal emotions and loyalty that informality and friendship bring – and is thus also normalised.
There is no example which epitomises this camaraderie influencing the facts more than in the recent comments of political commentator Annabel Crabb, who, when asked about the unfolding events of the Helloworld scandal on the aptly named, Insiders program, said:
I don't think that you could really make the point that there has been, you know, formal corruption or anything like that. The issue with this story is that it exposes a network of relationships that make anyone in the street go, 'Oh, is that how it works?' ... I mean that is the bit of the Canberra bubble that people do legitimately find a bit 'irky'.
This process of diminishing criminal behaviour on the part of politicians is well documented in the annals of IA. In many cases, criminal behaviour has been completely ignored in the mainstream media, even after it has been investigated and exposed, such as with Ashbygate, Jacksonville, the adventures of Gold Coast Mayor Tom Tate and the Barnaby Joyce Affair.
THE CASE FOR A FEDERAL ICAC
In the latter case, former Deputy PM Barnaby Joyce was not thrown out of Parliament after his personal rorting of the system to benefit his staff member and mistress was exposed, he was temporarily set aside and then promptly promoted to the position of Special Envoy for Drought Assistance and Recovery. In this role, his clear negligence of the Murray-Darling's ecosystem, which threatens the water supply of three states, has not led to an investigation of his conduct but to rumblings of further elevation for the "retail politician".
To name but a few astounding cases that stink to high heaven, we have the GBR Foundation, Parakeelia, Paladin and the Indue and Helloworld scandals. These have often been exposed by a member of the mainstream media and proven in Senate estimates hearings, in government inquiries and in royal commissions.
In just the past 12 months, politicians' rorts, clear corruption and blatant disregard for their positions of power have not been dealt with in any meaningful way. Indeed, they are forgotten as quickly as they arise and the perpetrators often become more emboldened. This is the case with Senator Michaelia Cash, who refused to give evidence to the Australian Federal Police and has even gone as far as to feign outrage and demand an apology that anyone should dare question her behaviour.
But question the behaviour of our parliamentarians and make them accountable is what we must do.
We cannot keep instigating royal commissions, the powers of which are constantly watered down and recommendations eventually forgotten. Only a Federal ICAC with truly independent powers can hope to effect meaningful change.
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Independent Australia presents Julian Burnside AO QC — Australian barrister, tireless human rights and refugee advocate, and author. At this special Melbourne event on 6 March 2019, Julian will expose the truth about Australia's border protection policy. Proceeds will be donated to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC). Book tickets HERE.
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