In 2012, former judge and anti-corruption campaigner, Tony Fitzgerald, wrote an article titled The body politic is rotten in which he espoused the view that “ethics, tolerance and civility are intrinsic elements of democratic society and that the politicians’ mutual contempt and aggressive, “end justifies the means” amorality erodes respect for authority and public institutions and compromises social cohesion.”
He called for greater scrutiny of candidates and more rigorous preselection processes to find the best person rather than “professional politicians with little or no general life experience and unscrupulous opportunists, unburdened by ethics, who obsessively pursue power, money or both.”
“Populism, paranoia and unrealistic expectations are encouraged and the naive and gullible are made envious, resentful and disdainful of fellow Australians. Financial backers are provided with special access and influence and supporters are appointed to public positions. Information is withheld, distorted and manipulated and falsehoods and propaganda are euphemistically misdescribed as mere “spin”.
Opposition, dissent and criticism are discouraged by personal abuse, often protected by parliamentary privilege, and unwelcome ideas are condemned as “elitist” or “un-Australian”. The public interest is subordinated to the pursuit of power, party objectives and personal ambitions, sometimes including the corrupt acquisition of financial benefit.
The huge gulf between governance principles and political practice can be directly traced to the calibre of those whom parties select to represent them. Unless and until that improves, the present national embarrassment will continue.”
I would add that the quality of political debate sunk to gutter level with the Bradburyesque victory of Tony Abbott in the Liberal leadership ballot in 2009 and his subsequent unholy alliance with Peta Credlin who wrote “the brutal reality is that negative works.”
A few days ago, Tony Fitzgerald again spoke of the sorry state of politics in this country where “many politicians regard ethics and empathy as barriers to success.” Peter Dutton, Scott Morrison and Mathias ‘deal-with-the-devil’ Cormann immediately spring to mind.
“Politics today is a clash of interests, not ideas. The established parties, which receive large sums of public money to finance their campaigns, are controlled by professional, “whatever it takes” politicians driven by self-interest and ideology and addicted to vested interest funding.
To them, political ethics is merely an amusing oxymoron. Power provides a rich opportunity for personal and political advantage: cronyism, the sale of access and influence and the misuse of public money are now scandalous.
The “winning is all that matters” conduct from politicians affects community attitudes. Australian society is gradually becoming less egalitarian and more cynical and self-centered as economic policies redistribute wealth upwards, widening the gap between “haves” and “have-nots” and producing a largely powerless underclass.
In the circumstances, community unrest and political instability are inevitable, as is the eruption of disruptive ultra-nationalist groups which promote sham nostalgia, foster prejudice, rebrand ignorance as common sense, encourage resentment toward an educated, progressive “elite” and mislead the gullible with crazy theories and empty promises. They thrive on the anger felt toward the political establishment by ordinary people who see themselves as outsiders.”
Cue Pauline Hanson’s One Nation.
We have a right to expect that politicians behave like normal, honourable people: treat everyone equally, tell the truth, explain decisions, disclose any direct or indirect benefits for themselves or their allies. We have a right to expect decent candidates chosen on merit rather than talentless party apparatchiks gifted positions in reward for blind allegiance to factional powerbrokers and unquestioning support for the party line.
Our elected representatives should be role models for ethics, integrity and altruistic public service. Parliament should be a forum in which they identify and prioritise the challenges facing our nation now and into the future and, using all the expert advice available, honestly discuss the pros and cons of viable alternatives.
Without oversight, and a big stick, it seems this will remain an unattainable dream.
Instead, we are subjected to a “venal, vicious and vulgar” power struggle where so much time is wasted on denigrating each other as important decisions are ignored.
Fitzgerald advocates for the establishment of an effective national anti-corruption organisation, an independent parliamentary integrity commissioner with investigative powers and a multi-party parliamentary committee to penalise breaches.
For our part, it is up to all of us to inform ourselves about candidates and to know who we are voting for. If the party can’t field a decent candidate then don’t blindly give them your vote. Make them preselect worthy people rather than puppets.
For the sake of our children and our planet, we must demand better.