Only a Democratic Overhaul Can Put an End to the Corruption of Australia’s Political Class

Every month, it seems a new corruption scandal emerges in Australian politics. These improprieties are not exceptions to the norm, they are the natural outcome of a two-party system that serves the wealthy elite.

Former New South Wales premier Gladys Berejiklian walks to speak to the media as she departs the Independent Commission Against Corruption on November 1, 2021, in Sydney, Australia. (Mark Kolbe / Getty Images)

For years now, Labor, Green, and independent MPs in Australia have been calling for a federal anti-corruption body. Even Scott Morrison’s Liberal government has agreed that Australia desperately needs such a commission, but it has thus far refused to table a bill. As the pressure mounts, the Coalition’s opposition to this proposal appears increasingly self-interested.

But it’s not hard to see why Morrison is worried — the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) has derailed multiple high-profile careers. Most recently, it was that of celebrated conservative premier Gladys Berejiklian, and before that, the former Labor ministers Ian Macdonald and Eddie Obeid were investigated by the commission. Macdonald and Obeid ultimately received prison sentences after being convicted for conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office. Meanwhile, senior figures from the Victoria branch of the Labor Party are facing their own corruption allegations in the state’s equivalent integrity body.

A serious political crisis has confronted Australia’s political class. The frequency and scale of corruption — affecting all major parties — is clear evidence that the problem is not one of a few bad apples. This widespread political misconduct forces us to wonder whether it is possible to clearly draw a line between corruption and business as usual.

It’s Something That “Every Government Does”

Although Berejiklian has not been formally accused of corruption, the evidence before the ICAC has left her reputation in tatters. Secret recordings of telephone calls between Berejiklian and the disgraced former MP Daryl Maguire, with whom she was in a clandestine affair at the time, reveal that Maguire and Berejiklian discussed the kickbacks the the ex–Wagga Wagga MP received on property deals he set up.

In response to these revelations, Berejiklian claimed that she had not “listened properly” to what Maguire was saying. She has admitted that while overseeing Maguire’s electorate being awarded multimillion-dollar government grants, she did not disclose her involvement with him or the conflict of interest that arose from it. When asked whether her personal relationship drove her actions, she deflected and replied that she was “quite offended by the question.”

Berejiklian has previously claimed it is standard behavior to misuse public funds for political gain. “It’s not something the community likes,” she conceded, but it is something that “every government” does. This cynicism is dangerous. It both undermines any notion of political accountability and closes off the possibility of criticizing the involvement of money in politics.

Such criticism is, however, desperately needed. On some analyses, Australia has the highest per capita gambling losses in the world. At the same time, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation estimates that over the last twenty years, the Liberal, National, and Labor Parties have received just under $82 million in gambling-related contributions.

Similarly, the fossil fuel lobby holds significant sway with the government. This influence is bought by political donations tallying close to $2 million annually, a figure that has been growing at a fair clip. This helps explain why Australia’s pavilion at the recent COP26 summit in Glasgow brandished the logo of the oil and gas company Santos in prime position.

Take Australia’s lucrative military contracts. Multiple weapons manufacturers have engaged the lobbying firm set up by former defense minister Christopher Pyne. They know very well that doing so will help win them a slice of Australia’s hefty defense budget.

Although political elites pretend that their cozy ties to big business are in the public interest, it is hard not to see the transactional relationship between capital and the state as anything other than corruption, at least in the everyday sense of the term.

Governing for the Rich

In a 2015 study of US politics, researchers reviewed nearly 2,000 polls and surveys about proposed policy changes and tracked whether those policies were, in fact, implemented. The study concluded that “economic elites and organized interest groups play a substantial part in affecting public policy, but the general public has little or no independent influence.” In other words, elected politicians do the bidding of the rich, and the rest of us don’t seem to matter. Although similar research has not been conducted for Australia, it’s almost inevitable that the same holds true here, because of the way our party system works.

We are entitled to expect better. Trust in politics is at an all-time low, and it can slip further. While there are serious structural problems with representative democracy, nihilism about our electoral system is more likely to feed conspiracy theories and alt-right narratives than bolster leftist movements.

To dismiss our electoral system and political class as inevitably corrupt might ring true on one level. However, it is a dangerous game to play. Paradoxically, this kind of cynicism can pave the way for rehabilitating politicians like Berejiklian. She may end up being remembered as a competent person doing her best to operate in a system in which corruption is normal and unremarkable.

Mere months after she voluntarily resigned, Scott Morrison said that what had been “done” to Berejiklian by the ICAC was “an absolute disgrace.” The former MP had, Morrison said, been “chased out of office” before the commission had even made any findings. Berejiklian only recently quashed rumors of a planned return to politics by running as the Liberal Party’s candidate against an independent for a federal seat. Morrison could not have been more desperate for her to run, suggesting that her appearance before ICAC was not the reputational albatross that many assumed.

A federal anti-corruption commission may provide opportunities to highlight and address the limitations of Australia’s system of representative democracy. The findings of such a body could serve as a basis for the Left to make more immediate, practical demands. These would include far more restrictive rules around donations and laws guaranteeing increased transparency.

These kind of corruption scandals give the distinct impression that politics is for the political class to take care of, and no one else. They actively repulse people from the practice of politics, which is perhaps why the most corrupt politicians see nothing out of the ordinary.

By exposing the seediness of business as usual in politics, however, we could also open space to discuss alternatives to our current two-party duopoly. These could range from grassroots campaigns for independent candidates to experiments with more inclusive and collaborative forms of policymaking, like citizens’ assemblies. Whatever the case, the only lasting antidote to corruption is to build participatory politics that can revitalize democracy.