Flat White

We don’t need new ICACs. We need a new political class

8 July 2020

5:00 AM

8 July 2020

5:00 AM

Sunlight may be the best disinfectant, but an industrial solvent is even better. And keeping your house clean avoids attracting roaches and rodents in the first place.

There is evidently something wrong with the structure of Australian politics given the same scandals keep repeating. Yet these same scandals are dealt with the same treatments, which after a brief respite, lead to the repeat of the same scandals. Over and over and over again.   

Branch stacking. Abuses of parliamentary expenses. Factional manoeuvrings.  Self-dealing. Abuse of power. Abuse of process. Same issues, different parties, over and over and over again.   

Irrespective of the party or the specifics of the scandals, the response is always the same – the mow the lawn response. Lots of look at them, look at them commentary. Lots of pointing of fingers at so-called bad apples. A promise from the leadership to clean it up followed by a top-down driven purge. Perhaps a review by some eminent party elder. A brief period of quiet is followed by a return to business as usual. Until the next scandal requiring the lawn to be mowed yet again. 

Corresponding with each scandal, there are calls for sunlight through enhanced and empowered corruption commissions. The latest call is for a federal ICAC in response to state-based issues where state ICACs already operate.  Notwithstanding the specifics of the issue, corruption commissions only tend to address symptoms and never the disease. 

The original ICAC, the NSW version, did not stop the Aldi bag alleged conduct and it has not stopped the current alleged conduct exposed in the NSW Labor Party. Worse. During periods of apparent quiet, the NSW ICAC went looking for business and pursed a crown prosecutor. The Victorian ICAC, known as IBAC, did not stop the recently alleged Victorian branch stacking allegations.  But apparently, if the experts are to be believed, a Commonwealth ICAC will solve every corruption problem in Australia. 

As Albert Einstein said, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.   

Should we try something different perhaps; to address the disease and not the symptoms? Instead of a phalanx of administrative investigative agencies engaged in post-hoc probes, perhaps we change the types of people our current politics attracts. 

A key reason for repeated political mischief is that the returns from poor conduct are too high relative the risks. The mischief business case is too attractive.   

In responses, however, are generally about increasing the risks of engaging in misconduct by increasing investigations and increasing penalties. Instead, let us perhaps reduce the reward from misconduct. 

One obvious way to reduce the rewards from poor political conduct would be to significantly reduce the size and scope of government to reduce the opportunities to misbehave. Another way would be to make it harder for the wrong people to attain representative office.   

These ongoing and repeated scandals present an opportunity for the major political parties to reform their pre-selection systems to weed out the branch stackers and other hacks. The first party to do this will be at a strategic advantage to attract the members and representatives currently put off by backroom dealers and shenanigans.   

Whether this takes the form of pre-selection plebiscites or pre-selection committees chosen through sortition or other, there needs to be a change in the pre-selection systems of the major parties. 

Sunlight and industrial solvents may clean up after the fact, but it would be a lot better to avoid the mess in the first place.  

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