Red Red Wine

IT’S BEEN A DAY for all of the ex-Labor staffers I know to relish. Premier of New South Wales is becoming one of those jobs you just don’t stay in very long, like the Chief Taster to the Sultan, or the coach of an AFL side coming ninth. We kept losing ‘em to the loathsome effects of Parliamentary crooks and lobbyists and it’s hard not to bleakly laugh when our right-wing friends and family complain that ‘he was one of the good ones brought down’. Yeah, aren’t they all.

There were two critical institutions in the 1990s that changed New South Wales politics forever, one temporary, the other (hopefully) enduring: the Wood Royal Commission into Police Corruption, and the Independent Commission against Corruption. Justice Wood broke the hold of the Police over corruption in the State, which had been chronic and oppressive since the first European proto-coppers waded ashore in red coats and wigs, and, as an unexpected encore, tore the mufflers off the silence around child sexual abuse in institutions. We’re still feeling the effects of those hearings today. ICAC, which still sits, was a model copied shamelessly from Hong Kong, and is a permanent institution to investigate and prevent corruption in public administration.

It’s often misunderstood. ICAC aren’t cops. They do investigate people, yes, but the point isn’t to get prosecutions or catch baddies by their collars. Their bread and butter is the institutions of power and the decisions made there: who’s favoured, who’s unfairly out of contention, and why. The classic ICAC hearing is the town planner taking kickbacks for DAs, or the railway contractor inviting juicy sole tenders from his sister-in-law, or the prison administrator who ‘arranges’ work release if the prisoners will do a bit of work on his house while they’re there. It’s an office that tries to get at the eternal problem of decision makers’ integrity with public money and assets, and the spider links of mateship and family that make them complicated.

Keep this in mind when someone you know observes how odd it is that a Premier would resign over ‘just a bottle of wine’. That it’s ordinary and banal is just the problem. If it were a mayor taking similar ‘insignificant’ gifts from a property developer, or a public sector tenderer expecting some kind of gift from every subcontractor for allocating them work, it wouldn’t be so bizarre. These kinds of relationships are what ICAC does, and is absolutely meant to do.

Alan Davies, who writes Crikey’s excellent urban affairs blog, observed yesterday that the actual artefact of a $3,000 bottle of wine is a clever variation on a customary practice. He’s right. It is customary Australian practice to give gifts of wine, chocolate, and other edible stuff, especially commemorating events—like getting new jobs, or winning elections. And when you go to your mate’s house for dinner, it’d be very bad manners of her or him to judge how expensive is the bottle of wine you brought. The choice of wine, in this case, is exquisitely ambiguous: it’s meant to send a message of financial apprecation and obligation, without looking like anything but a simple gift. Like wedding gifts of money, the point is the giving, not the sum: thinking about it as an actual cash transaction of monetary value makes it sordid.

That’s precisely why the pecuniary interest disclosure system exists, of course. It forces MPs to consider the big questions of ‘how much’ and ‘for what’.

The real problem is that these kinds of winked-at and tacitly-accepted forms of corruption and unintegrity are simply part of the way the modern State works. One person’s open society, and liberal regime of property rights, is another’s playground for doing business with your particular friends in office. As long as the State is a machine for managing public resources—mineral and natural ones, in particular—part of the attraction of office in it is making arrangements, being lobbied, rewarding your supporters and punishing your enemies. The idea of a mythological ‘private sector’ insulated from the decisions and role of the necessary State is laughable. It’s not a public sector problem, everyone’s implicated in this.

When ICAC tears strips out of people on my side, I’m glad. That the Commission, de temps en temps, drags someone in a suit in front of their bad memory pour encourager les autres, is a wonderful and laudable thing. This is an invitation for my friends and readers on the political Right to view what’s happened in the same way: the Premier hasn’t resigned over a bottle of wine, he’s resigned so that future lobbyists think twice about slinging fancy gifts at Ministers.

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