Ohhhhhh boy, NSW Labor and, in particular, the honchos of the NSW right who have controlled its head office forever – it is not really possible to be damning enough. Disgraceful, unethical, arrogant. You might say “shameful”, if there were any sense that shame had ever paid a visit to the building.
The woman at the centre of last week’s mess, Kaila Murnain, now suspended as head of the NSW party, explained this week why she didn’t tell anyone about the possibility that the party had received illegal donations: she was following legal advice, and also she was scared. Why was she scared? “I was scared for the office and the reputation of the party.” That is a brutally honest and horribly revealing answer.
But here’s the thing: anyone who has worked in politics will, to varying extents, recognise themselves in Murnain’s answer. It comes from an instinct to think first of the political consequences. As a politician, or a political staffer, this seems natural: in fact, it’s right there in your job title.
And we’ve seen the results. Ministers don’t resign until public baying becomes feverish.
Political rhetoric has become dangerously unhinged. Election campaigns are now openly deceptive. All of this is disgusting – and completely predictable in a culture in which success justifies all.
This partly explains why politicos so easily take money from businesses – or countries – they suspect have dubious motives. When someone comes to them offering what our laws designate a “donation” – whether that person is a developer, or the Chinese government, or a casino, or a bank – they recognise themselves. Everyone in these worlds is just exercising whatever resources they have at their disposal to get as much of what they want as they can.
The most important fact to recognise here, without for a second excusing the individuals involved, is this was always going to happen. The phrase “whatever it takes” – the title Labor’s most famous NSW boss, Graham Richardson, gave to his memoirs – was a delayed death sentence. From the moment that phrase became the unofficial motto of the powerful right-wing of the party, this was inevitable. How could it end anywhere else?
All this reminded me of the eviscerating report from the banking royal commission. Misconduct was rewarded, as long as it delivered what it was supposed to. Individuals did what they did “because they could”. Duty and self-interest pulled in opposite directions, and duty consistently lost out.
With few words changed, the commissioner could have been talking about NSW Labor. But not just Labor, of course, because both major parties have had their share of donations scandals by now. And how many of those scandals do you remember? Very few, would be my bet. It takes a lot to stir our interest these days.
As some have pointed out, what that report was really pointing to was capitalism, or at least the way it has come to work in our country. The decades-old trend of allowing the market to run riot is slowly being recognised for the damage it has done.
But the attitudes it has helped foster will take a long time to shift – especially when our political leaders have benefited. To return to where we began, the reason the federal government has just wasted a year is because another prime minister was torn down. A whatever-it-takes tactic that originated with NSW Labor hit the Liberal Party for a second time. But a year later, who cares? Morrison won, and so we shrug our shoulders.
“Whatever it takes” has, over time, become our national motto. If only our leaders would apply that attitude where it is really needed: killing the corrupting influence of donations, stopping the relentless pursuit of profit over morality, and restoring the most basic level of integrity to our public life.
Sean Kelly is a former adviser to Labor prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.
Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald and a former adviser to Labor prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.