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The different standards Labor and Coalition MPs face

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Cartoon by Mark David/@mdavidcartoons

Labor politicians are held to a higher standard than their Coalition counterparts, writes Peter Wicks.

THE OTHER DAY, a tweet caught my attention.

It was from former Labor Senator Sam Dastyari, who I normally wouldn’t take the bait and promote.

Dastyari was likely attempting to portray himself as some kind of martyr to the cause who fell on his sword for the good of the Labor Party, but Dastyari of all people should know there are sides in politics. It’s not just Liberal versus Labor, there are also sides with foreign influence.

If Dastyari had said, for example, that Israel should just take over the whole of Palestine, it may be contentious, but it would be considered a legitimate point of view in a debate. Expressing a view about the South China Sea, however, warrants getting pushed out of your cosy Senate seat and resignation was soon forthcoming.

To take donations through the China lobby and express a view is a ticket to oblivion. But to take donations from the Israel lobby and have that influence your political agenda, they’ll give you a standing ovation.

In Victoria, where China lobby donations have not been an issue, Prime Minister Scott Morrison is intervening to try and shut down a trade deal. However, a pro-Israel advocate who also happens to be one of Australia’s largest dollar political donors can have the school curriculum altered to include his propaganda and nobody bats an eyelid.

The sad thing about the tweet though was not just the river of tears we were supposed to weep for Dastyari, but that it's not even clear which controversy concerning the Morrison Government it referred to. There have been so damn many.

I don’t think it was "sports rorts", Great Barrier Reef Foundation grants, "Watergate", the Sydney airport land scam, AWU raid leaks, Robodebt or any one of the countless travel rorts. However, it might may have been in relation to a Federal Court Judge describing Federal Immigration Minister Alan Tudge’s actions as "criminal" conduct.

Dasyari’s tweet led to several theories on his question. Some included:

  • Murdoch’s media minions;
  • The numbers in parliament;
  • Claims of a lack of integrity of the Coalition; and
  • Labor being held to a different standard

It is the different standard point that is the most interesting and which has the most merit.

It’s easy to point the finger at News Corp and say they are to blame and they deserve some of the blame for the differing standards. But there is more to it than that.

Back in NSW when Dastyari was giving out $5 memberships for every branch-stack in town and State Labor MPs like Eddie Obeid, Joe Tripodi and Ian McDonald were being dragged through ICAC everyone was talking about Labor corruption. It was Labor’s last major corruption scandal.

Let’s not forget the Liberals set up a Royal Commission in a desperate search for more scandals, with their hopes pinned on Shorten or Gillard scandal, however it was not to be.

Two years after the Obeid scandal in NSW it was the Coalition's turn to be dragged in and out of ICAC.

There were tales of dodgy developers and brown paper bags in car parks. Operation Spicer, as it was called, was breathtakingly widespread, at times farcical, and saw 10 Coalition MPs lose their job or leave the party. During the investigation sitting, Premier Barry O’Farrell resigned for reasons he claimed had nothing to do with his evidence at ICAC or the bottle of Grange he received as a gift.

What was interesting though is that the public didn’t view the saga as a "Coalition scandal" as they had viewed the Obeid saga as a "Labor scandal". This was a plague on both houses in the public’s mind with the apparent consensus being "it’s all politicians".

The main reason Labor figures resign after a scandal is that the Party itself has higher expectations of its MPs, not just the public. Labor MPs are quick to condemn the behaviour of another Labor MP caught misusing travel, for example. 

They may say "it should be paid back immediately" and call the behaviour irresponsible, unethical or foolish, whereas a Liberal MP would say a colleagues dodgy travel was "within guidelines". They just keep kicking the can down the road until one scandal rolls into the next. They usually don’t have long to wait.

When Coalition MPs and senators do resign, it’s usually only from a ministerial position to the sin-bin of the backbench and they’re usually back in another portfolio reasonably soon after they’ve "taken one for the team". Sussan Ley is an example. I can’t think of a single Federal Coalition MP who resigned and left parliament immediately after a scandal.

The Coalition like to talk about accountability coming via the ballot box, but we all know that’s a crock. In some marginal seats perhaps, but in safe seats, the only threat to an MP is via internal party procedures such as a pre-selection being thrust upon them. For senators, it’s a choice for the factions and the public have about as much of a voice as someone with laryngitis trying to talk on the phone next to a speaker stack at a Metallica concert.

The only way to address the imbalance Dastyari points out is, of course, with a Federal ICAC or something similar. But that is not all we need. It will be a toothless tiger without a prosecuting body that follows up the findings with rapid legal action.

As Dastyari insinuates, a scandal may be enough to see the back end of a Labor MP, but it will only cause a Coalition MP to put up a bigger front. Just ask Bridget McKenzie how she’s dealing with life after resigning, or check in with Angus Taylor about how the draft of his valedictory speech is coming along. 

Only being convicted of a crime will force out a crooked Coalition MP, a red face ain’t gonna cut it.

Unfortunately, tweets from fallen senators aren’t going to change didley squat. If we want to see a change it’s going to have to come through a change of government.

Peter Wicks is an Independent Australia columnist and a former Federal Labor Party staffer. You can follow him on Twitter @MadWixxy.

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