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After so much corruption, where can NSW politics go?

By Don Aitkin - posted Monday, 18 August 2014

This week's revelations about electoral corruption, focussing on three Liberal MPs from the Hunter region, made me wonder how the party system will respond. So far the ICAC inquiry has removed the Liberal Premier, two of his Ministers, and six MPs. Two of the last three have resigned from the NSW Parliament, and by-elections will be held for their seats.

The next NSW election will be held on 28 March next year, a little more than seven months away. The Coalition government has a large majority, but it will suffer in every seat because of the highly publicised ICAC material. But Labor has had a battering from ICAC too, and two of its former Ministers will be under scrutiny again before very long.

John Robertson, the Leader of the Labor Opposition, took the earlier ICAC revelations on the chin, and the ALP has done some symbolic cleaning of the stables, expelling those party members deemed to have been more than normally sinful. So, without being at all smug about it, he is suggesting that Premier Mike Baird and the Liberal party get their own house in order.


It is entirely possible that one or two of the MPs from both sides will find themselves in court between now and the next elections, and the Ordinary Citizen will be wondering whether things can get any worse. Since I like to look on the bright side, I would say the that Ordinary Citizen that at least we have a system that can expose corruption of these kinds, to which OC might reply that ICAC has been there for some time, and we still have corruption.

Indeed, ICAC has been round for a quarter of a century, set up in 1989 by Premier Nick Greiner, a Liberal, after a series of unhappy incidents in the life of the previous Labor Governments. It quickly brought his Premiership to an end, too. The ICAC has jurisdiction over just about everybody in some kind of public office in New South Wales, including university staff and local government councillors. It has the coercive powers of a Royal Commission, can tap telephones, and can insist that people give evidence (they have no right of silence). But it can't send people to jail for other than procedural offences, like refusing to give evidence or misleading the Commission. My guess is that one of the Hunter MPs, by lying to the Commission, could go to jail for that offence.

If ICAC thinks you have behaved really corruptly, it will refer the matter to the Director of Public Prosecutions. One problem is that some of the evidence that the Commission heard may well be inadmissible in court, and in fact there haven't been many convictions in consequence of ICAC findings.

I put all that in because I had to increase my own knowledge of the Commission, which serves currently on television news as the domestic foil for the horrors of what is happening in other parts of the world. I wrote about corruption earlier, in June. My interest now is what will happen to the party system. Yes, the Liberals will lose electoral support, and Labor will win back some seats. But if the electorate is really concerned about all this, what are the options available to it?

First, there is no current alternative party of the centre, a role once filled by the Australia Party (remember Gordon Barton?) and the Democrats. If one existed I would expect it to do quite well, always given some quality in its candidates. I haven't heard of any movements out there, but a new formation is quite possible by next March.

Second, while the Greens will pick up some disgusted Labor supporters, I doubt that they will be attractive to disgusted Liberals.


Third, single-issue parties might do a bit better, if they cotton on to local anxieties.

Fourth, good local Independent candidates are likely in many seats, and they will do well. If they are really good, they could win, since they should gain both Labor and Liberal preferences.

Fifth, Informal will do really well next March, as will his cousin, Did Not Vote.

I can't see much else. It's entirely possible that most voters will shrug their shoulders and vote for the party they voted for last time. As I keep saying, concern that our electoral democracy should be conducted fairly and honestly seems to be quite low - and we're so used to the parties making things easy for us, by assembling the issues and giving us cues about what might happen, that we don't know what to do when we suddenly realise that they don't at all care what we think, as long as we go on voting.

I wrote a year ago about bread and circuses in our politics, and I feel even more strongly that most Australians have at best the most rudimentary idea of why a democracy is a good thing, and of the responsibility of the citizen to take it seriously, and act accordingly. When so many of our elected representatives behave badly, we the citizens should be apprehensive, angry and active.

Yet if improvement is to happen it will have to start at the grass-roots level, and then spread to the upper echelons. But who will bell the cat? Party membership seems to be at an all-time low. Well, next March will give us some indication of the real state of health of our democracy.

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Hugh Flavus, Knight was published in 2020.

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