ICAC, Obeid and the criminality that is Australian politics

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Eddie Obeid (image via abc.net.au).

'Obeid’s gaoling is an example not of a rotten apple but of a rotten barrel. The political system is by its very nature, corrupt.​' 

~ John Passant

EDDIE OBEID, former New South Wales MP and Labor Party kingpin, has been gaoled for five years, with a non-parole period of three, for misconduct in public office.

Basically, he lobbied a senior public servant over cafe leases at Circular Quay in Sydney, without disclosing that he and his family had an interest in the entities on whose behalf he was lobbying.

Kate McClymont provides a good short summary of Obeid’s corruption and the ruthless exercise of his extensive power in this Sydney Morning Herald article:

At one stage the richest man in the NSW Parliament was also the most powerful man in New South Wales politics. He made and unmade Labor Party premiers and ministers, and determined many preselections.

Without McClymont’s investigative journalism over the last 17 years, it is possible Obeid’s corruption would have remained buried in the cesspit that is NSW Labor politics — and NSW politics more generally.

Prompted by McClymont’s ongoing work, the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) investigated a number of Obeid’s deals, not just the café leases, for which he is now in gaol. It is not over yet for Obeid. His trial over mining lease deals related to his own property begins next year. 

Is Obeid a case of just one bad apple? If you believe that I have a harbour-side café lease in Sydney to sell you. Let's not forget Chris Hartcher, Joe Tripodi, Ian Macdonald, the eight Liberal members who evaded electoral laws and the list goes on. 

Federally, let's not forget Senator "I don’t remember" Arthur Sinidinos. And what about the revolving door of those Federal politicians who have gone from being ministers to cushy jobs in business, often related to their former government roles? Martin Ferguson, Andrew Robb and Stephen Conroy come to mind.

Obeid’s gaoling is an example not of a rotten apple, but of a rotten barrel. The political system is by its very nature, corrupt.

We elect a virtual dictatorship for three or four years. We pay them exorbitant salaries. They have almost untrammelled power. They are divorced from the lives of the millions of workers who elect them.

Institutions like ICAC can put some constraints on politicians and their use and abuse of power.

In response to ICAC making adverse findings and some prosecution recommendations against Liberal and National Party politicians – as well as Labor Party ones – the Baird Government in NSW has effectively sacked the ICAC Commissioner and will water down ICAC’s powers. The fact that politicians from both major parties are constantly falling foul of ICAC is the real reason for gutting it.

Malcolm Turnbull will not introduce a Federal ICAC. His Finance Minister Mathias Cormann rejected calls for such a body, including from Labor MP Anne Aly and from the Greens because, he said, at a Federal level there was a robust framework to address corruption. Ha!

The Turnbull Government does not want to open up the sewer that is the criminality of the Australian political system to scrutiny. It might lose its one-seat majority in the House of Representatives.

After Eddie Obeid’s gaoling, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten reiterated Labor’s recent election commitment to re-establish a corruption watchdog Senate Inquiry:

" ... if Malcolm Turnbull is interested to work with me on that."

The Inquiry would look at:

" ... the efficiency and effectiveness of what already exists at the national level and what improvements need to be made".

This is all about Labor covering its backside in light of the revelations about their man, Obeid — and the fact they know there is a whole swathe of his Terrigal faction just waiting to get their claws into the public purse. It is also unlikely there will be an effective Federal ICAC under Labor.

Both Labor and the Coalition fear a powerful Federal ICAC because it would expose so many as systemic rorters and criminals.  

How are they systemic rorters and systemic criminals? First, the capitalist system they manage is a system of exploitation, expropriating the value workers create based on their unpaid labour.

Second, politicians receive massive salaries and perks that remove them from the economic life and pressures of the millions of workers and their families they rule over.

Who can forget the double dipping of Ministers Cormann and Frydenberg at the same time the Abbott Government was attacking women for double dipping the paid parental scheme?

What about former prime minister and current backbencher Tony Abbott, lining up for another go at being PM, and then a few years down the track enjoying his $300,000 a year pension after he has completed his messianic destruction of Australian society? 

Mr Sensitive said:

"We are far too ready to put people on the DSP [disability support pension] with bad backs, a bit of depression and so on."

Blame the victim rather than the rotten and economically corrupt system that cannot give adequate support to people with disabilities.

Bronwyn Bishop, a former politician on a pension of $255,000 a year, rails against those who are supposedly rorting the pension by "claiming" to have depression. Blame the victim rather than the rotten and economically corrupt system that cannot provide adequately for pensioners, over one-third of whom live below the poverty line in Australia.

Bishop is the former speaker of the House who lost her job (but not her pension) for hiring a helicopter to fly from Melbourne to Geelong and charging taxpayers $5000 — all to avoid a one-hour train trip that costs $24.40 one way.

The then Treasurer Joe Hockey railed against the "leaners" in society and wanted to end the so-called "age of entitlement". He can access half of his potential $180,000 parliamentary pension on top of his $360,000 salary plus rent-free accommodation as the Turnbull-appointed Ambassador to the United States. Entitlement for them; poverty for many Australians.

Some politicians rent properties in Canberra from their spouses and pay them with the $273 per day Canberra "hardship" (AKA travel) allowance they receive. 

What about paying politicians the full-time female average weekly wage of $1,370.10 a week or $71,245 a year? This would give them some idea of how working class women have to live. In fact, given that many women do not work full time, the average weekly pay for working women is only $925.10 a week, or $47,205 a year.

What about putting politicians on a rigorous and carefully scrutinised travel and accommodation regime, like the one for public servants?

The current political arrangements deny us real participation in society. Democracy should not be limited to voting every few years. Real democracy is citizens participating in the political process directly every day.

A Federal ICAC would help us understand the reality of the systemic crookedness of our Federal politicians. It would expose the deep underbelly of their use and abuse of their positions of power, their perks and the deals they do to stay in power. We could see what is hidden — that is why most politicians oppose such a body.

To really reform a political system that is a structure of corruption we must agitate for root and branch change to that system and fight for a more democratic society.  

John Passant is a former Assistant Commissioner of Taxation. Read more by John on his website En Passant or follow him on Twitter @JohnPassant.

Signed copies of John Passant’s first book of poetry, Songs for the Band Unformed (Ginninderra Press 2016) are available for purchase from the IA store HERE.

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