My earlier piece, (A way forward for Tasmanian politics, HERE) identified independent political representatives as a possible cure for the ailments of our body politic.
To add to the conversation which includes Andrew Wilkie’s thoughts on whether or not politics had failed us (Has Politics Failed Us?: No, but there’s a lack of authenticity, passion and leadership), Brian Austen’s proposal for change to the Tasmanian Parliament (Tasmanian Parliament – proposal for change), other articles such as Lara’s Metaphor by John Biggs, and numerous comments, I offer the following which considers the nature of the illness and uses a current issue to illustrate the impact of allowing this illness to progress.
Mb>Conflict of interest: The cancer within our public life
It is clear that the body politic in this state is seriously ill. If it were human, it would be wasted, under-weight, riddled with tumours, and obviously in need of serious medical intervention. Let’s consider the nature of the illness, and its cure.
We elect members of the House of Assembly to represent the concerns of the electorate. As party members, these MHA’s pledge allegiance in some form before standing for election; the allegiance of these members is divided by that pledge. The electors’ concerns cannot be represented when they are in conflict with party objectives. Our party politicians are pretending it is possible to serve two masters at the same time. The parties employ Whips to ensure their interests come first. The greens make a virtue of allowing a conscience vote on every issue, but I wonder how many times a green MP would get to buck the party line before the message was delivered loud and clear. What value in being a party otherwise?
Different audiences note the splitting of allegiances and respond to the duplicity in different ways. Some observers develop a lack of trust, and become disinterested in political conversation, dismissing politicians as dishonest. Some who seek to influence policy for their own ends recognise the cracks in integrity which give opportunities to manipulate and corrupt. Hence lobbyists can offer as inducements numerous perks including plum jobs on retirement or campaign donations. This standard of behaviour becomes normalised; our public services and government owned business enterprises respond by emulating it. It was not always the case, but many of the principled (perhaps) career civil servants of old have been replaced by a new echelon.
Job prospects now seem tied to neither demonstrated competence nor delivery of service to the public. They are best served by ensuring that the minister’s wishes are divined, and satisfied, regardless of impact on the public good. As a one term issue this would be bad enough, but this is an ongoing and growing problem that gets worse with every political cycle. Essential Learnings, anyone? The farce that is the growing number of Dr. Michael Pervans in the health system? Spreyton Racecourse?The builder’s insurance debacle? Any departmental community consultation?
The audience of most concern to a concerned electorate are those potential political representatives who observe the system and decide not to accept the diminished ethical standards required. They remain on the side lines, wisely daunted by the prospect of fighting a battle in which the odds are stacked against them. With these individuals we see the greatest damage, the loss to our polity of potential leaders of moral and ethical stature above that served up by the party system. In support of this point I ask “Does anyone doubt there are more capable and competent individuals than those governing us today?”
Sump oil is a well known carcinogen. Casual, infrequent exposure is not a serious concern, but repeated contact will cause cancer. Leadership acceptance of conflicts of interest as the normal state of affairs is similarly carcinogenic in nature. Constant exposure to the carcinogen has rendered our public institutions almost completely blind to its nature of conflict and the dangers. This engenders all manner of ills, from the tolerance of unacceptable behaviour in the workplace, to outright corruption. I can think of no instance where allowing conflicted interests to exist within leadership serves the public good.
It has got us to the point where there is evidence pointing to the possibility of serious Dioxin contamination in the public arena; it has been ignored. Les Baker (Gunns: Do they deserve public funds and Gunns: No way to establish emails’ veracity. Les Baker: I wrote some; they are ancient history ...) has admitted to writing an email while employed by Gunns, instructing others to suppress reporting of dioxin levels at unspecified locations around George Town.
That suppression, in my view, may well be the most serious breach of duty of care this state has ever seen.
What has been the response from our elected representatives?
That response is a clear demonstration of either ignorance of, or indifference to, the glaring public health issue hiding within Les Baker’s instruction to persons unknown.
For those not up to speed, this is what Les Baker admitted, in an interview with the Examiner, to writing emails concerning dioxin on, or around 03/04/2006. At the time he wrote them he was signing under the position of General Manager, Bell Bay Pulp Mill Project, Executive Director- Gunns Plantations.
“table 9.2 has dioxin concentrations for various areas around Georgetown. For God’s sake what are (blanked out) trying to do, bring down two governments plus our company. This is no different to the contour maps, they have totally missed my point. Pls. give them some background on Wesley Vale and then redo this report“
To amplify his position he writes, on 06/04/2006 at 12:18pm
“3. I have not looked, but if the Dioxin concentration chart is there it will need to go.”
In a parliamentary democracy with a functioning public service a leaked document of this nature would be front and centre of the news and would remain there until the issue was resolved.
Opposition politicians, especially the Greens who used the issue of dioxin to such devastating effect to stop the Wesley Vale Pulp Mill, would be publicly outraged. Public servants, particularly the head of the EPA and the State Public Health Officer would have used the media to alert the public to the risk of contamination and the measures needed to avoid exposure. The police would have ensured preservation of computer records and that people involved make themselves available to assist with the investigation.
Has anyone noticed this activity in Tasmania? I have not, and if anyone else has, please let me know. Nothing has made the web pages of Tasmanian media, and given the steady diet of Greens’ press releases since, they are obviously not media shy.
The only visible response has been three articles in the local press, noting their leaking, but ignoring the content and implications of the emails. Not one single political representative addressed this issue; it appears not to be in any party interest to do so. The Liberals, who accepted Gunns’ donations and participated in the prostitution of democracy that was the PMAA are wedded to the pulp Mill vision. Likewise Labor. The Greens, their eyes on the locking up of forests via an undemocratic forestry peace process and its associated IGA, have, but only recently, and only when asked directly, twice. Cassy O’Connor responded that Baker was saying nothing unexpected. That is a very strange response from a member of a party dedicated to stopping a pulp mill whose dioxin emissions Baker appears to be referring too. It is an even stranger response if the dioxin levels are pre-existing ones.
Business communications pointing to information capable of bringing down governments are serious evidence of something out of order. Especially when those communications are around the approval process for a massive chemical processing plant which is delving into the impact that plant will have on its neighbours. Casual dismissal of them as “expected behaviour” reveals a nonchalance that should, in this voter’s view, be considered neglectful of the public good, if not downright negligent.
The Green response shows tacit acceptance of risks to public health, the pulp mill, and the topping up of Gunns’ wallet with our money in order to nail down their ideological target of ending native forest logging.
Have the decision makers of all parties considered the possible consequences of ignoring Les Baker’s emails? How many people are or will be exposed to the most toxic substance on the planet? How many babies are to be born deformed? How will the health budget, already projected to consume the entire state budget, cope with an increased work load? What is the potential for collateral damage to Brand Tasmania and the values it represents? What of its threat to the integrity of our food industries? Surely these are issues that must be addressed forthwith, not least to protect public health? Did you elect our representatives to ignore issues like this? I most certainly did not!
Using the cancer analogy, this one incident is a tumour. There are many obviously present throughout our public service and within our body politic. None make life better; most clearly make it worse. The cause of a tumour is cancerous cells within the body. Those cells are produced by the action of a carcinogen. The cells in this analogy are individuals who do not understand or are wilfully ignoring conflicts of interest. The carcinogen is the acceptance of conflict of interest inherent in being a political party candidate.
Make no mistake, the current paradigm advantages party candidates over independent candidates at election time. They have safety in numbers, well organised media commentators primed to attack opponents, experienced mentors, and an electorate trained over generations to expect and tolerate their inanities and “core and non- core promises” as an integral part of the process. They also have a media trained to defer to them as the rightful contenders in the battle for our votes to the extent that even established third parties are excluded from leaders debates.
Ultimately the answer lies with us, the voters. If we continue to accept and elect flawed representatives we will continue to get corrupt and dysfunctional government and a sick public sector. The failures will become more and more egregious until serious public disorder is the response, and then the authoritarian that dwells within in all government will kick in to compell us to accept their enlightened behaviour. We are witnessing glimpses of this response globally as I write this. These failures also serve a globalist corporate agenda as bankrupt governments are forced into selling public service monopolies and privatising government services.
Unless we, collectively, stop repeating the past, wise up to the carcinogenic nature of party based political representatives and start electing individuals who demonstrate a basic understanding of what a conflict of interest is and the very real dangers those conflicts of interest present to competent management of all enterprise, we are doomed to further tumours on our body politic. It is inevitable that eventually those tumours will kill their host. They may well kill some of us.
The medicine that will cure this cancer, kill the tumours, and allow the return of a healthy, functioning public sector is the election of ethical, competent, independent political representatives. They constitute our political immune system. The example above demonstrates the toxicity of party politics and the threat the conflicts of interest it engenders poses to our physical and democratic health. We will get the government we deserve. If we do not act to cure the cancer further pain and suffering will follow. As an electorate we will deserve it. Of that much I am certain.
To respond to Andrew Wilkie: Has politics failed us? I think not. We have failed politics. We have not been vigilant. We have allowed our body politic to bath in the sump oil that is conflicted interest.
The good news is we can change this. Find good independent representatives and vote for them. If some get elected we may experience a healthy, vibrant and representative democracy.
In response to Brian Austen, before we engage in structural change with its inherent risks I think we need to look to the nature of those involved. If we change the structure and leave the party dominance in place we change nothing. As I commented to your article, perhaps before we overhaul the engine we should check the fuel quality.