Just returned from some R & R in my old adopted home of Queensland. Back in the 80’s they used to brag it was the State where the weather was “fine one day, perfect the next” – which is pretty much how you’d also describe corruption in The Sunshine State.
Like the weather, political corruption there seems to stay the same.
Twenty years ago Queenslanders saw the seamy side of their state in a ground breaking Royal Commission of Inquiry into Corruption headed by Tony Fitzgerald QC.
I covered the last 6 months of that Inquiry for the ABC. Day after day cops turned state’s evidence and politicians squealed in what, for a young journo, was the gig of the century.
And the Inquiry set standards and results; it saw four then-National Party Ministers sent to jail, the state’s Police Commissioner jailed for 12 years and Premier Joh Bjekle-Petersen tried on perjury charges that a jury was subsequently unable to agree on.
A Crime and Justice Commission was set up to ensure corruption on that scale never happened again.
So far, it hasn’t, although in the past couple of months there’ve been some signs it’s emerging again. In July Queensland Government Minister Gordon Nuttall was jailed for seven years for receiving secret commissions worth about $AUS 360,000. The former Minister is now also facing more criminal charges relating to corruption and perjury.
Not long after that revelation, Tony Fitzgerald QC gave a speech at a function marking 20 years since his report to again shake the Queensland government from it’s lethargy and force Labor Premier Anna Bligh to face the issue of cronyism and corruption.
He placed the blame directly at the feet of Bligh’s predecessor Peter Beattie.
Fitzgerald said that when the Beattie-led Labor Party won government in June 1998, it decided there were votes to be obtained from Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s remaining adherents “in glossing over his and his cronies’ repressive and corrupt misconduct.”
Beattie won that election only with the support of an independent. Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party shook the voting tree with many former National voters turning to her. The party won 24 percent of the primary vote, earning Hanson 12 seats in parliament.
Beattie’s response to that was simple; take that 24 percent of the vote that was unattached to any major party.
How? By portraying himself as the great social healer and publicly cosying up to Bjelke-Petersen.
Beattie pursued photo-ops with an increasingly frail Joh. He was seen wheeling the former Premier around the newly built Lang Park stadium. Fitzgerald was aghast but said nothing. Until recently.
“Despite their protestations of high standards of probity which personally might well be correct, and irrespective of what they intend, political leaders who gloss over corruption risk being perceived by their colleagues and the electorate as regarding it of little importance. Even if incorrect, that is a disastrous perception.”
He went on; “ Access can now be purchased, patronage is dispensed, mates and supporters are appointed and retired politicians exploit their connections to obtain ‘success fees’ for deals between business and government.”
Meanwhile Beattie – who responded from his comfortable $490,000-a-year sinecure as Queensland’s LA-based trade commissioner – vehemently denied the charges without providing any evidence of why Fitzgerald is wrong.
Premier Bligh said she’d issue a “green paper” on the future role of lobbyists in Queensland. If she’s serious she’d say that no business will be conducted by any member of her government with any organization using a former MP or government staffer as a consultant or lobbyist.
And if she was to show true leadership she’d pull Beattie back from LA. But don’t expect that to happen anytime soon. Corruption will continue to exist because Bligh’s government isn’t prepared to shake the voting tree. As Fitzgerald said in his speech, “unfortunately, cynical short-sighted political attitudes adopted for the benefit of particular politicians and their parties commonly have adverse consequences for the general community.”