Australian Republic & indigenous Sovereignty

Two things worried me while reading Mark McKenna’s powerful Moment of Truth. First is that he, along with others writing in The Monthly & The Guardian, brings together the issues of an Australian republic and of a settlement with Aboriginal Australia, arguing that Australia will soon have the opportunity to become a republic and also “to achieve a meaningful constitutional settlement with Indigenous Australians. If these changes are to have any realistic prospect of success, we need to articulate a more cohesive and unified vision, one that understands the crucial importance of truth-telling” In this process, “acknowledging the past … will not weigh us down. It will liberate us.” (pp.16-17).

Second is the Uluru Statement’s view of Aboriginal sovereignty– quoted with obvious approval at the beginning of McKenna’s essay – as “a spiritual notion: the ancestral tie between the land … and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who were born therefrom”. Here, sovereignty is not used in the conventional sense that most of the world has inherited from the territorial settlements of sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe: sovereignty as tied to a specific territory, with the sovereign – a state or Royal of some kind – holding supreme power within its own territory and acting independently outside. (This formulation suggests that sovereignty in the conventional sense must be exclusive but the reality is not so tidy.) To note that the Uluru view of sovereignty is unconventional is to say no more than that there are differences to be explored and, hopefully, understood & respected. Sovereignty in the conventional Western sense involves a legal & military/political link to the land – which both Britain & Argentina appealed to in the 1982 war – but not a spiritual tie in the sense stressed by the Uluru statement. Nor is this spiritual tie just an Australian version of nineteenth century European – and recent American – racist appeals to blut und boden (blood & soil)

Well before I finished McKenna’s Essay, I had put these two worries behind me. To explain the worries and why they no longer bother me in the same way, I should begin by confessing that I write as a recovering academic, that is, as suffering an unhealthy – and certainly unAustralian – addiction to identifying the steps in an argument and establishing how well they work. Since crucial steps are frequently slipped over in silence or buried in a maze of chatter that, however engaging it might be in other respects, is hardly consequential to the issue at hand, this can be both challenging & time-consuming.

When I finally settled in Australia in 1987, I was already a British anti-monarchist. I hardly needed persuading to support Australian republicanism but it took me a while to appreciate the importance of a Settlement with Aboriginal Australia and even longer to grasp why anyone would put these two issues together.

My main problem with Australian republicanism was that too many of its supporters favoured a minimalist republic, one that would change as little as possible outside the formal break with Britain – trying to sell the republican idea as if the break with British Royals would leave Australia much as it had been before. Writing in The Monthly (‘The republic is an Aboriginal issue’, April 2018), Megan Davis asks “whether the Australia on the other side of a successful referendum for a republic [would be] the same as the Australia on this side. Lipstick on a pig …. If Uluru had zero impact on Australian republicans… [H]ow can [indigenous Australians] rely on the reassurance of the political elite who say, “Let’s get a republic up and we will deal with your issues later.” It ain’t gonna happen.” Of course it ain’t.

I have never been impressed by the argument that Australia needs an Australian Head of State instead of the British Monarchs we seem to be stuck with. The problem with having British Monarchs as Head of State seems to me less that they are British than that they are Monarchs. We could dissolve the British connection simply by adopting, say, a junior member of theThai or Japanese Royal Families, assuming they would have us, and avoid dependence on foreigners altogether by adopting a Packer, Rinehart, Downer, Turnbull or even a repatriated Murdoch dynasty – but who would regard any of these as improving on the Windsor/Saxe-Coburg-Gotha model? Monarchs on the British mould are no mere symbols, as Australians realised in 1975. They are capstones holding up ugly & divisive hierarchies – various kinds of honour & prestige, landed property and other kinds of wealth, etc. The UK has more complex & elaborate hierarchies than Australians have yet had sufficient time or imagination to establish.

Well before the end of McKenna’s Essay, I was persuaded of the need for a Settlement with Aboriginal Australia and I also found myself agreeing that the two issues – Republic and Settlement – belong together. Yet the argument for this last point is not easy to identify and this was one of the things that made me uncomfortable. How could people I respected be persuaded of something in the absence of formally compelling argument?

One way to approach this question would be through the archaic notion of a self-evident truth which appears in the final draft of the American Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Self-evident here means something like ‘so clear or obvious that no proof or explanation is required’ This works for me. Before I even finished McKenna’s Essay, I needed no further proof or explanation.

Yet, there were clearly other things going on among the Americans. If a truth is self-evident the opening ‘We hold’ adds nothing. The sentence might well start “These truths are self-evident” or even “It is self-evident that all men…” Alternatively, turning the issue around, we might ask whether the opening ‘we hold’ is actually doing any real work. I suspect that it is saying something about who belongs in the Declaration’s collective “We”, meaning we who share a common set of beliefs (an important part of what social scientists would now call culture.) So, it means roughly “We, people like us, believe… Others (who are not like us, Native Americans, say, or Black Slaves) believe differently.”

If this is a useful way to look at the case for placing Republic and Settlement together, then we – who need no persuasion – have to admit that there are Australians, including many Coalition parliamentarians, who would not be affected by reading Moment of Truth, The Uluru Statement or Megan Davis’ Monthly article quoted above. Acknowledging the past is one thing; facing up to its contemporary ramifications is something else. Perhaps teaching more honest Australian history, which many of our historians are now busy writing, would do the trick. But, perhaps not. Perhaps this is just another illusion of the intellectuals, the belief that people will admit the truth when we present it to them. Perhaps, Howard knew what he was doing when he launched his History Wars.

Turning now to the issue of sovereignty, if the sovereign is seen as holding supreme power within its own territory and acting independently outside then sovereignty will be regarded as exclusive in the sense sovereignties cannot overlap in a territory. Give or take uncomfortable complications, this implication of the conventional Western view of sovereignty is rarely questioned. Partly for this reason, many commentators are uncomfortable with the proposal that Jerusalem should be the capital of both an Israeli and a Palestinian State – but their discomfort is not a good reason for abandoning an otherwise promising proposal.

Among these complications, two are particularly worth noting here: first, nineteenth-century European powers & the USA imposed concessions on imperial China and the Ottoman Empire which ensured that American, British, French or Dutch commercial law operated in limited regions in or near Shanghai & Istanbul; second, the diplomatic convention that selectively insulates many Embassy staff & their buildings & grounds from the laws of the host country, in part by treating the latter as belonging to the territory of another independent state. This diplomatic pretence enables Julian Assange, for example, to safely ignore many British laws as long as he stays within the Ecuadorian Embassy. Such complications are worth recognising as precedents showing the possibility of overlapping sovereignties whatever we think of the manner in which it was achieved. I noted earlier that the sovereignty asserted in the Uluru Statement’s sense seems to be radically distinct from the conventional account of sovereignty as a political/territorial notion. The Statement also insists that “[i]t has never been ceded or extinguished, and co-exists with the sovereignty of the Crown.”

So, from the perspective of Aboriginal sovereignty, there is no reason it cannot coexist with a different sovereignty in the conventional sense. The question is whether the conventional understanding of sovereignty could be equally accepting. The examples of diplomatic convention and concessions imposed by Western powers offer precedents of a kind but we should be wary of accepting them. The Aboriginal sovereignty we are invited to recognise today is not like the limited sovereignty we accord to the Chinese or American embassies in Canberra – there is no independent Aboriginal state of which the tent embassy in Canberra could be regarded as an extension – nor is it a concession imposed on the rest of us by Aboriginal Australia.

Another precedent we would do well to avoid is the notion of domestic dependent nation developed in a series of judgments by US Supreme Court Justice Marshall in the early nineteenth century. Marshall’s conceptual innovation proved to be a mixed blessing for native Americans (See Patrick Wolfe’s useful discussion in Traces of History). On the one hand, it gave (some) American tribes legal standing in the USA, allowing them to enter legally-binding agreements and to bring cases to court. On the other hand, it recognised (some) tribes as distinct but not independent nations: they were not sovereign bodies with which US Governments could make truly international treaties, of the kind it made, for example, with Britain, China, France, Germany & Japan; & earlier treaties between USA and native tribes no longer had the legal force of treaties with sovereign independent states. A Treaty between Australia and a domestic dependent indigenous nation would be worth little more than the paper or bark on which it was written.

While it is easy enough to find precedents for the possibility of overlapping sovereignty, the examples noted here all present unequal relationships in which the dominant party concedes, voluntarily or under threat of force, a partial sovereignty to the other. If this is the best the conventional understanding of sovereignty has to offer indigenous Australia, it is unlikely to be acceptable.

Does this mean that a Settlement with indigenousAustralia is too hard to even contemplate, that we need to aim for a different – some would say a lesser – outcome? Not necessarily. What we desperately need is the jurisprudential creativity – of the quality we saw, for example, in the Uluru Statement, for that matter, the High Court’s Mabo judgment – to rework the conventional understanding of sovereignty so that it could recognise indigenous Australia and the Australian state as formally equal parties – much as it enables USA and Mexico to treat together as formal equals. Fortunately, there are outstanding constitutional lawyers in Australia, one of whom appears to have been involved in drafting the Uluru Statement.

We also need a Government willing to turn a sympathetic ear – unlike the wilfully tin ear the Coalition Government turned to the Uluru Statement. The polls suggest we may be lucky enough to get one before too long.

Three short pieces on corruption: 3.

I suggested in earlier pieces on IA, using the example of the British Tories pursuit of a prominent Labour Party figure, T. Dan Smith, that accusations of corruption often further a political agenda; and further that different ideas of democracy and of corruption itself often get in the way of clear analysis.

Where does this leave the case for a Federal version of ICAC? The main point is that we should not expect too much from whatever is finally established. The I (for ‘Independent’, in the english-language title of Hong Kong’s ICAC) aimed to assure the people of Hong Kong that ICAC was not part of HK’s regular civil service and, in particular, that it was independent of HK police. Yet when the NSW Liberals picked up the ICAC title in the late ’80s, the I indicated little but the word ‘independent’ itself, which functions in Australian political debate as an obstacle to critical thinking. What can you say when a Coalition Government appeals to a decision of the independent umpire – in this case The Fair work Commission whose members were appointed by a Labor Government – to support its decision to cut penalty rates?

To be sure, the NSW & SA’s ICACs are not the only models proposed for attacking corruption at a federal level. In practice, calls for a Federal ICAC reflect more the magic of the I-word than any real desire to model the desired Federal arrangement on the specifics of NSW’s, SA’s or HK’s ICACs.

A Senate select committee is looking into the possibility of forming a National Integrity Commission, where the word integrity indicates that the focus would be more on promoting norms of good conduct than simply penalising the bad. The ALP has already proposed such a Commission, drawing on a detailed proposal from the Australia Institute, which is itself based on the work of a National Integrity Committee consisting of former senior judges and corruption fighters. Its design principles

“include the need for the commission to be an independent and well-resourced agency, with a broad jurisdiction and the strong investigative powers of a Royal Commission, including the ability to hold public hearings.”

Here, too, we see the magic word ‘independent’ but there is relatively little detail on how the desired independence and resources required to make it meaningful are to be secured. An NIC Briefing Paper from November 2017 notes that “NSW ICAC has faced funding cuts over consecutive years, resulting in the loss of 17 staff including an entire investigative team. This occurred after ICAC exposed corruption in political donations involving ten members of the Liberal Party. The NSW Public Service Association has said that the funding cuts are an attempt by the NSW Government to diminish scrutiny. Former NSW DPP Nicholas Cowdery AM QC has raised concerns about the resources made available to NSW ICAC and a future federal anti-corruption commission:
NSW ICAC has been faced this year with a funding cut. It is an easy way for government to impair the effectiveness of such a body and steps would need to be taken to ensure that adequate resources continued to be allocated to a national integrity commission.”

Sounds good – but can we seriously expect a Commonwealth Government or Federal Parliament to actually ensure independence and sufficient funding? Starting with independence, the AI proposal envisages that the Integrity Commission will be an independent statutory body (the statutory character ensuring that it cannot easily be shut down by a Government) and that it will “be governed by one Chief Commissioner and two Deputy Commissioners, appointed by the Minister on recommendations from a bipartisan Parliamentary committee”
Here independence seems to be interpreted as meaning little more than non-partisan, suggesting that a Committee to appoint the first Commissioner/ President of the Commission would have members drawn from the Coalition, ALP, Greens and possibly other parties. The alternative to an appointment committee of pollies would be a committee of the great and the good, which is unlikely to include readers of or contributors to IA & only a few from the IPA.

To ensure Commissioners’ independence, an independent process of appointment would have to be complemented by provisions to protect Commissioners from arbitrary dismissal. Accordingly, there are likely to be provisions making it difficult for the Government to dismiss Commissioners, as there normally are for Senior Judges and the President of the Australian Human Rights Commission. The Coalition clearly hated Gillian Triggs while she held this last position, but could find no easy way to get rid of her. Even so, continual harassment by senior political figures would still have taken its toll: security of tenure is essential but it is no defense against bullying.

Once we have sorted the question of independence or given up on it, first question to be addressed is how can the new body’s budget to be secured. Nicolas Cowdery’s point, noted earlier, about the need to secure resources for a Federal ICAC or Integrity Commission, is an important one. Funding cuts, insufficient allowance for inflation & efficiency dividends are easy ways for Governments to limit the effectiveness of independent agencies, and it would be foolish to imagine that future Governments will hesitate to use them.

Three short pieces on corruption: 2

At first sight, it seems pretty obvious that corruption damages democracy. When corrupt politicians & public servants make decisions on the basis, in part, of personal advantage, it disrupts their focus on the public interest. And the case for something like an ICAC at the Commonwealth level seems no less obvious. The story gets complicated and analysis risks becoming dry and academic when we recognise, first, that different ideas of both ‘democracy’ and ‘corruption’ are normally in play and, second that concerns over corruption at this level have covered a vast range of issues, for example, in no particular order:

the ATO’s focus on workers fiddling their tax returns rather that tax evasion by big corporations;
the impact of political donations and the broader influence of vested interests;
massive electricity price hikes following privatisation;
the collapse of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan;
the banks influence over the terms of reference of the banking Royal Commission:
the apparent influence of mining companies over several areas of Government policy;
the Coalition Government twice finding a job in other parliamentarians’ offices for Barnaby Joyce’s girl-friend;
pollies using official travel to go to important sporting events;
pollies looking after their own, eg. Joyce’s own Party finding a salary for him while he was out of parliament following the High Court finding that he was a dual citizen;
pollies getting private benefit out of official business, eg. Bronwyn Bishop’s use of a helicopter on the last leg of a journey to a political engagement in Geelong;
relatively minor (ie. inexpensive) rorting of parliamentary travel and accommodation allowances; regular application of double standards over who counts as a partner and payments to members of parliament compared to welfare recipients, indigenous people & other members of the public.

Overall, as Alan Austin has recently pointed out on IA, there is no shortage of incidents in the history of the current government that might be labelled corrupt. Furthermore, if we regard the fourth estate – the mainstream media – as an integral part of our political system, there is more than enough evidence of corruption within it.

Turning to differing views of ‘corruption’, the core idea is of some kind of decay or infection that undermines a normal or natural condition – think of a plum, nectarine, apple or pear that might go off over time or become infected from the outside by wasps or other insects.

Sometimes the core idea of corruption is invoked without the word itself, as when Shakespeare’s Hamlet declares there’s ‘something rotten in the state of Denmark or Australians refer to someone rorting the system. In this last case, the word rort refers to an area of what might otherwise be called corruption.

When the word ‘corruption’ is used in relation to politics, it means that politics no longer works as the speaker thinks it should, for example, that politicians & public servants seem to be overly concerned with the pursuit of financial or other individual rewards (although the normal processes of careers and promotion within large bureaucracies can also have this effect).

This brings us to differing views of democracy. For most of the history of Western culture, up to at least the time of the French and American revolutions, most people who wrote about democracy thought it was a bad idea – essentially because it empowered the poor and, for the most part, poorly educated majority, who were regarded as being particularly vulnerable to demagogic appeals and likely to be opposed to the interests of the more prosperous and, again for the most part, better educated minority. Even the great eighteenth-century English radical supporter of American independence, Tom Paine, was sceptical about pure democracy, preferring what he called representation ingrafted upon democracy.

This last is pretty much what America and the rest of us ended up with.Representative government can be found in most contemporary societies and we call it democracy, as do Western-dominated international agencies like the World Bank & IMF. In practice, democracy is understood today in two very different ways – as meaning both representative government and government by the people themselves with the Right leaning towards the one usage and the Left towards the other.

Democracy as representative government departs from the original understanding of democracy as government by the people, if only because representative government keeps the people themselves away from the actual work of government. Rather, it is a system of government by a complex network of representatives elected by the people, unelected public servants and other institutions – ABC, ICAC (in NSW & SA), the courts, ASIO, Fair Work Commission, Human Rights Commission, Productivity Commission & sundry Royal Commissions, etc. – that may be nominally independent of Government but are actually run by political appointees.

Active involvement by the people, other than voting, is positively discouraged under representative government, while appeals to the people (by leftist parties in Greece and Spain, by the Trump campaign & Bernie Saunders in the US, Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, the UK’s victorious pro-Brexit campaign, Marine le Pen and other Right-wing leaders in West & Central Europe) are often dismissed as anti-democratic populism. Peter Dutton’s recent proposal that the public should be involved in the appointment of judges and magistrates is a rare exception: it was sometimes ridiculed but largely ignored yet few commentators called it out as populist. Overall, it would not be much of a stretch to say that democracy, in the original understanding of the term, is commonly treated as a corruption of democracy, in the sense of representative government. On the other hand, interference of unelected institutions in the work of Government – eg. The Australian Constitution’s section 44 which states that dual citizens are not eligible to stand for election to the Federal parliament; the UK Supreme Court’s ruling after the majority popular vote in favour of Brexit that the Brexit process could not proceed without parliamentary approval – is often represented as subverting the will of the people, in effect, as corrupting Australian or British democracy

In an earlier piece on IA, I used the example of the British Tories pursuit of a prominent Labour Party figure, T. Dan Smith, to suggest that accusations of corruption often further a political agenda. I might have added that once talk of corruption becomes established in this way, it rapidly becomes a bipartisan affair. Yet these comments only scratch the surface of an extremely murky history of relations between government and corruption: a history, in particular, of persistent attempts to draw lessons for the present from episodes in the history of Imperial Rome; and of British imperial efforts to promote limited forms of self-government in its colonies (including its settler colonies in Australia & North America) as British administrators strove to make colonies pay for their own government and enterprising locals worked out ways of diverting funds for their own purposes. The British called this corruption. As a result, corruption came to be seen as a particular problem in the colonies and as returning to infect Britain itself. Today, following the end of overt imperial domination, corruption is no longer regarded primarily as a problem of imperial rule. Rather, it is now seen as universal but as posing particular problems in developing societies.

It is worth recalling the existence of this murky history when we see something like a Federal ICAC, a title taken from the closing years of British imperial rule in Hong Kong, proposed as a way of dealing with political corruption in Australia. Hong Kong’s ICAC was established in 1974 by the British Governor in response to widespread popular outrage over corruption. British Hong Kong suffered most varieties of corruption with which we are familiar in Australia and one which has rarely been experienced here. What particularly infuriated the people of Hong Kong was the incidence of what we might call street-level corruption – corruption by civil servants interacting with the public. As in the UK, the HK government employees we would call public servants were known as civil servants but, unlike the UK, virtually all Government employees were civil servants. HK street-level civil servants – garbos, school teachers, nurses & police – would demand payment from members of the public simply for doing their jobs, in part because the HK Government kept their salaries low in a misguided effort to control inflation. Not surprisingly, many of their supervisors would demand a cut, along with the supervisors of these supervisors and so on up through the whole chain of command so that the whole system was generally regarded as riddled with corruption. There were even stories of fire-fighters demanding payment from householders & shopkeepers before turning on their hoses.

The original ICAC was the creature of a remote imperial Government that was barely answerable to the governed population, leaving it with an independence from partisan political interference that the NSW & SA ICACs and any proposed Federal equivalent can only dream of.

Three short pieces on corruption: 1. The Pub in the Field

Australia is consistently ranked among the least corrupt countries – 13th place out of 175 in 2016, its lowest ranking for many years and some way behind Singapore (at 7th place) – on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. (Singapore’s ranking will surprise those who have any experience of Singaporean politics.) Yet, within Australia, pressure is building for major reforms: The Greens, Labor and several Senate Crossbenchers favour a Federal version of NSW’s ICAC while Bill Shorten, taking up elements of an Australia Institute proposal, has promised that his Labor Government, which he hopes to form after the next election, will establish a National Integrity Commission. To understand this discrepancy between Australia’s good international ranking and internal perceptions of a serious problem of corruption, we should recognise that corruption is not an easy idea to pin down: TI’s index is based, not on the realities of corruption within different countries but on perceptions, mostly by international businesses, of corruption as an obstacle to doing business while what concerns many Australians is what they see as endemic political corruption; and what is seen as corruption varies over time and from place to place. This is the first of what I hope will be several pieces addressing the complexities of political corruption in Australia.

My first intimation of what would now be called political corruption came when I moved to Liverpool (UK) in the late 1950s and heard the story of The Pub in the Field. The story came in different forms depending on who you spoke to, but the basic elements are as follows. Like other large British cities, Liverpool faced a massive building task in the aftermath of WW2 – dealing partly with bomb damage and partly with slum clearance. The Pub/Field story went that a local Brewer, closely linked to the Liverpool Conservative Party, built a pub at what would have been a prime location in a substantial public housing estate on the outskirtsof the City, the plans for which were never made public. Zoning regulations would have ensured that this pub had no serious competition. Plans change and, for a time, Labour took control of the City Council. (There are no direct parallels between City Councils in Australia and Britain. Liverpool City Council managed local infrastructure, public transport and planning, including zoning regulations which restricted the locations of new businesses, including pubs, for a population of close to a million, much larger than most Australian City Councils. Brisbane City Council is probably the nearest Australian parallel to a British City Council)

The estate was not built as originally planned, except for the road on which the pub stood, which was constructed pretty much on schedule. Meanwhile a perfectly serviceable pub was left looking for business in the middle of a field. I also learned that there were close ties between the Brewer and the local Tories and that whoever became leader of the City Conservatives would normally be appointed to its Board of Directors. The Brewer was not happy with the delay in building the estate but, while it clearly favoured the Conservatives and the small anti-Labour Protestant Party, who always voted with the Tories, it had limited influence on the outcome of local elections. While newspaper columnists and letters to the editor argued that the Brewer had been badly treated, Labour took the view that it served them right.

I don’t recall anyone at the time describing the cosy relationship between the Tories and the Brewer in terms of corruption. It was dreadfully unfair, of course, but most of us on the Left took it for granted that the political odds would always be stacked against us, a perception that has since been powerfully reinforced by experience. I had already learned that many MPs, even in the Labour Party, retired from politics owning two or more homes – one in London, another in their electorate and sometimes a farm in the Home Counties – but nobody referred to this as evidence of corruption

The first memory I have of corruption being raised as an issue in contemporary British politics is of the Tories going after T. Dan Smith in the early 70s. Smith had been born in Wallsend, next to Newcastle-upon-Tyne on the north bank of the river, and grew up to become a major figure in the Labour Party in North-East England. He was both leader of the Newcastle Labour Party and, from 1960 to ’65, Leader of Newcastle City Council. In this last position, he talked of turning Newcastle into ‘the Brasilia of the North’ and became known to his political opponents, inside and outside Labour, as ‘Mouth of the Tyne’. Smith presided over massive redevelopment of the city and was admired and loathed in roughly equal measure for building many blocks of public housing apartments and for demolishing fine historical buildings and destroying long-standing working class communities in the process.

In 1962, he established his own public-relations business, subsequently forming a semi-professional relationship with the architect John Poulson who designed serviceable but architecturally unexciting apartment blocks. Smith sent work worth over a million in fees in Poulson’s direction and Poulson gave him several thousand in return. Smith’s PR firm was caught up in a minor scandal in the London Borough of Wandsworth, which lead to Smith being charged with bribery. On this charge he was acquitted but later, in connection with his Newcastle dealings, Smith was charged with corruption and finally sentenced to six years imprisonment. His Labour supporters argued that Poulson’s payments to Smith were small & inconsequential and that what the Tories really hated was that he got results, that large numbers of new homes were built. His Tory critics cited the example of Smith’s dirty hands to show that Labour, unlike the independently wealthy Tories, could not be trusted in Government. There is more to be said for and against both these views than I have space for here.

Since the Smith affair, I have never been able to take politicians accusations of corruption at face value: there always seems to be an unstated political agenda in play. Thus, when the Dyson Heydon Royal Commission was established in 2014 by the Abbott Government, it seemed clear that it had been designed to damage the Labor Party.

I had settled in Australia some years earlier, after arriving just in time to see John Dawkin’s disastrous neoliberal reform of Australian Higher Education and the Liberal Premier Nick Greiner’s Government establish the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption in 1988. While the magic word ‘independent’ in its full title was clearly intended to suggest that, although it was funded by a vote of the N SW parliament, ICAC was above politics and in no way dependent on the Government of the day, it was clearly designed by the Liberals to hit the NSW Labor Party while it was down. That Greiner himself was one of ICAC’s first major victims was a kind of poetic justice. For a time, it looked as if the NSW Liberals would be ranked alongside NSW Labor in the Australian political corruption stakes – but neither of them came even close to the record established by Bjelke-Petersen’s National Party in Queensland during the ’70s and ’80s.

Today’s take-away is that in Britain and also, I suspect, in Australia mutually beneficial arrangements between pollies and local businesses were not widely regarded as corrupt but this changed when a prominent Labour politician got in on the act. Of course, the details of the Australian history were different, but in both cases, what was once seen simply as the way of the world is now regarded as corruption. Or, turning this around, what we now see as corrupt was once regarded as normal: who knows how much of what we now take for granted will one day be seen as corrupt.