06 March 2007

Much slinging of mud, but what are the consequences?

All the mud slinging and abuse in the wake of the revelations about the lobbying activities of Brian Burke have produced a lot of comment, yet surprisingly little discussion of how best to manage situations where lobbyists appear to pull the wires. Honourable exceptions include Christian Kerr in Crikey, who sums the situation up pithily: "all the major parties are not just very, very busy operating in an ethical grey area.They’re also actively engaged in a process that is profoundly anti-democratic."

Surely, given the rise of lobbyists to positions of influence and, as the Burke affair suggests, power there needs to be a more transparent regulatory regime, with information about who is lobbying whom much more freely available. A public register of some kind would be a good start, though no doubt any attempt to introduce one would require bipartisan support, which means that it would almost certainly be watered down. As with so many other matters in the body politic, I won't expect too much too soon.

That said, the last few days have elicited some vintage comments from key players and interested bystanders. Yesterday Paul Keating on ABC Radio's The World Today gave his own party a rap over the knuckles on what he described as the "more technical issue"of superannuation. He then switched to attack dog mode, turning on the government , or more precisely the Prime Minister:

ELEANOR HALL: Okay, you're clearly unhappy with the Labor leader, Kevin Rudd, on this issue of policy. How do you think he's handling the politics, with this attack that he's facing from the Government over his contacts with Brian Burke?

PAUL KEATING: Oh, look, it's just Howard being Howard, isn't it, you know. The little desiccated coconut's under pressure and he's attacking anything he can get his hands on.

You know, I mean, look, Brian Burke and Julian Grill, they're the Arthur Daley and Terry of the Western Australian Labor Party, you know. They're like the wallpaper over there. You can't visit Perth without running into them, you know.

It's a bit like Kevin Rudd coming to Sydney, somewhere you're going to meet Johno Johnson who runs the raffle tickets and things. I mean, it's just part of life.

And the idea that … I mean, what are they? They're are a couple of small-time lobbyists. So what, you know, so what?

ELEANOR HALL: Was Kevin Rudd, though, naive to meet Brian Burke at that dinner in 2005?

PAUL KEATING: Well, he was the shadow minister for foreign affairs talking about China and what have you. I think, you know, you can't apply … I mean if, have a look at all the bagmen in the Liberal Party, for God's sake. I mean, if you applied a sanitary test to those guys, I mean, no minister would do any business in this country.

ELEANOR HALL: He's said, though, that he didn't know that Brian Burke was off-limits for state ministers.

PAUL KEATING: Well, look, the real problem about Western Australia is this - look, I haven't seen, myself, seen Burke for 20 years, but the fact is Burke is smarter than two thirds of the Western Australian Labor Party rolled together. That's why he keeps bobbing up. And instead of leaving him out in the cold, what Gallop and Carpenter should've done was bring him in simply as a lobbyist and legitimise him like all of the other lobbyists over there, so all this nonsense goes away, you know. Instead of that they leave him out there so he turns up at these various things or tries to, you know, get himself a quid doing one thing or another.

Now, you know, I mean, Burke was Richardson's candidate against me for the prime ministership, so I'm not a Burke barracker, you understand, but the idea that someone as clever as that is going to be sat on forever by a Carpenter or a Gallop is of course nonsense. And that's why he's been friendly with Beazley for years, you know.

Another trenchant comment, from a somewhat surprising source given its propensity to support the government come what may, was yesterday's Australian
editorial "Campbell sacrificed in pursuit of Rudd":

THERE appears to be only one standard of ministerial accountability in the Howard Government: you may remain as a minister until the political advantage of your departure exceeds that of your retaining the job.

Human resources minister Ian Campbell did nothing which, by the standards the community is entitled to expect of its politicians, could be considered a hanging offence.

John Howard himself described Senator Campbell's meeting with Brian Burke and racing industry representatives as "benign". No favours were asked for and none were delivered. His sin, Mr Howard said, was exercising poor judgment in meeting Mr Burke, given "the circumstances" surrounding the former West Australian premier.


The circumstances of both Senator Campbell and Kevin Rudd's meetings with Mr Burke in 2005 do not include any knowledge of the corrupt dealings that it took the extraordinary phone-tapping powers of Western Australia's Crime and Corruption Commission to uncover. It would be unreasonable to retrospectively judge meetings held two years ago in the light of revelations of the past six weeks.

A criminal conviction punishable by imprisonment is a bar to parliamentary election. But politicians are not prevented from meeting people who have been imprisoned. It is a healthy element of Australia's culture that someone who has completed a prison term has expunged their debt to society and is entitled at least to a hearing.

It was no more a gross error for Senator Campbell to meet the delegation of racing officials assembled by Mr Burke than it was for Mr Rudd to accept an invitation to meet a group of businesspeople Mr Burke had invited to dinner.

The worst that can be said is that it was naive at a time when the West Australian premier had banned his colleagues from meetings with Mr Burke. It is ludicrous to suggest that Mr Rudd was enlisting Mr Burke's support for a leadership tilt, given that the leadership was held by Mr Burke's good friend, Kim Beazley. It is perfectly normal that a frontbencher with leadership aspirations should tour the country, accepting invitations to meet and greet coming from all quarters. It should be noted that Mr Burke did have extensive contacts in Perth with business leaders and other people of influence, including the editor of the local paper.

Mr Howard's burst of rectitude over Senator Campbell is all the more extraordinary for the slack approach he has shown to ministerial accountability over the past nine years.

Mr Howard came to office promising a much higher standard than that of his predecessors and introduced an extensive guide on ministerial responsibility. It covered such matters as share ownership, employment of family and using ministerial office to obtain favours.

Within the first two years, it cost seven ministers and parliamentary secretaries their jobs. Assistant treasurer Jim Short, parliamentary secretary Brian Gibson and small business minister Jim Prosser were all fired for investments and business interests conflicting with their responsibilities. Four others - John Sharp, Peter McGauran, David Jull and Bob Woods - were caught in a scandal concerning abuse of travel allowances.

And then the spotlight fell upon minerals and energy minister Warwick Parer. He held an investment of more than $2 million in the coal industry. Was not this a clear breach of the code? "At the end of the day, they are guidelines, they are not a death sentence and you do have to look at the totality of his behaviour," Mr Howard said, explaining his decision to keep Mr Parer in the job. From that day until this, no minister has been held to account for breaches of the code.

The code was updated in 1998 to include a section on lobbyists, requiring that public duty not conflict with private interest. But when the parliamentary secretary for regional partnerships, De-Anne Kelly, hired former National Party secretary and lobbyist Ken Crooke and subsequently approved a $1.2 million grant to one of his former clients, no action was taken.

The code says that ministers should not accept any benefit which might give rise to an appearance of improper influence. But former immigration minister Philip Ruddock accepted political donations from Lebanese groups in Sydney whose visa applications he was favouring with ministerial discretion.

As forestry minister, Wilson Tuckey was able to use his ministerial letterhead to plead for his son to be excused a traffic fine, in breach of the code's requirement that ministers not use their position to gain any improper benefit for themselves or anyone else.

The code holds ministers responsible for failings about which they knew or should have known. Both Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and Trade Minister Mark Vaile should have known about the Australian Wheat Board's dealings with Iraq. Mr Downer personally approved the contracts that shamed Australia.

The sacrifice of Senator Campbell has nothing to do with the code. The only reason for his departure is to further the attack on Mr Rudd. As Mr Howard put it, Senator Campbell has behaved with integrity, so what about Mr Rudd?

It could have been hoped that 2007 would bring the Australian public an election fought on ideas. Let people decide on the basis of education, industrial relations, national security and economic management. True, the character of leaders must form part of the judgment. But the opportunism displayed in the dismissal of Senator Campbell reflects poorly on the judgment of the Prime Minister.

PS The Oz's second editorial " Monument to crime: ACT's grotesque decision to honour Al Grassby" is also worth reading.:

THE proposed erection of a monument to the Whitlam government's immigration minister, Al Grassby, borders on the grotesque. Grassby, who died in April 2005, was an associate of the Calabrian mafia and its Australian connections based in Griffith, NSW. He tried to spread the fiction that anti-drugs campaigner Donald Mackay was not murdered in 1977 by the mafia, alleging that Mackay's wife Barbara had been responsible, an attempted smear that brought charges of criminal defamation. Yet the ACT Government led by Chief Minister Jon Stanhope plans to honour Grassby with a $72,325 bronze statue to adorn the foyer of a multicultural centre in Canberra....in the ACT, rusted-on multiculturalists cling to the tattered reputation of Grassby as if he was the saintly embodiment of inclusiveness. The fact that the Stanhope Government has overlooked, or forgiven, his extensive contacts with criminals and his use of political influence to avoid investigation of those links is a cause for great regret.

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