To all appearances, my grandfather was a respectable man, a pipe-smoking elder of the Methodist church. It was only after his death that my mother told us the family secret.
Grandpa Porritt had worked at a fruit importers on England’s Teesside. And all through the war, had been a black marketeer – diverting fresh fruit to rich people while ordinary folk grew hungry and thin. It must have been more than a few bananas because at the war’s end, stern faced men in gaberdine coats, straight out of an episode of Foyle’s War, showed up at his house.
He was charged, convicted, and only avoided prison by paying a fine of a thousand pounds. To give that perspective, he had to sell three terraced houses to raise the funds; the financial impact affected generations of our family.
Corruption has always angered me, because its at the heart of what is wrong with our world, and we all pay a terrible price for letting it go on.
The real reason we don’t have climate action is the influence peddling, and outright ownership of politicians by the mighty fossil fuel industry. They literally endanger us all.
In Tasmania last year, an election that was strongly tipped to swing back to Labor, was slimly lost because the company with the poker machine monopoly poured money into a scare campaign based in pubs and clubs, and donated funds to the Liberal party directly, which in this country is totally legal, though in more advanced countries is banned as being undemocratic.
A group of concerned Tasmanians has formed to get to the bottom of what has come to be called “The Bought Election”. Amounts donated for Tasmanian elections do not appear on the record for at least a year, and even now several million dollars are unaccounted for.
The campaigners are asking for all future donations to be put online, in real time, so we can know who and why before we vote.
They also want all meetings held by government ministers and MPs to be diarized online, for their constituents to see who they are associating with. We pay these people handsomely, they work for us, and we have a right to know.
Tasmania has long been wracked with vested interests hijacking democracy.
In Launceston the city’s leading businessman, owner of the newspaper, TV station, and board member of the infamous Gunns Limited, was sent to jail after he tried to bribe an MP to cross the floor.
Not long after, influence peddling, this time on the Labor side, brought forestry to its knees in the Pulp Mill debacle. We could have had a modern, clean, modest but sustainable industry like better governed countries overseas, instead vast plantations of the wrong kind of trees in the wrong places rot where they stand, and many timber jobs are gone.
Another symptom – also outlawed in countries with good governance, is the practice of MPs or public servants, being rewarded with corporate jobs with the companies they once regulated. Examples of this abound in Tasmania.
This state of affairs is sad for politicians of all stripes because instead of respect for their long, hard years of public service, they end up being remembered as a bunch of spivs. Its in their interests to clean things up, and regain the respect of ordinary people.
Premier Will Hodgman, who always seemed like a decent person who had fallen in with the wrong crowd, these days looks anything but triumphant. By passing transparency laws some respect can be regained across the political spectrum.
If a corporation wants to affect government policy – its CEO, its board members, its shareholders can vote just like the rest of us.
That should be the end of it. But if they lobby and worse, influence by payment or favour the decision makers, that is wrong. It means they have more power than is their right, more than ordinary citizens.
Corruption is so normal that it skews every law we have – it delayed by thirty years proper tobacco controls, causing millions of deaths, it weakens health regulations and pollution laws, diverts money to the wrong things, builds roads where they shouldnt go, cuts taxes to the wrong people.
Corruption in the Pacific Rim countries was named by the UN as the leading factor behind the failure to thrive of a dozen nations. According to Transparency International’s report this year, Australia has seen a “serious decline” in the past 10 years.
My grandfather, when confronted by his wife as the raincoated men left his house, had a reply which has gone down in family legend. My mother actually heard him, as she and her sisters clustered on the stairs to listen.
“What can you say, he shouted, when someone puts a ten pound note in your pocket?” Who knows the pressures he felt, but I wish he had been able to say “Sorry, that isn’t right. I can’t take your money”.
It would have changed history.
On Sunday March 3rd a public meeting will be held at Hobart Town Hall, at 11. a.m. There are wonderful speakers including James Boyce, and Michael West. Join them for what promises to be a vital discussion. And to demand that our state be run democratically.
Steve Biddulph AM is the author of 10 Things Girls Need Most, Raising Girls, Raising Boys; Complete Secrets of Happy Children, and The New Manhood. Visit Steve’s website www.stevebiddulph.com for details.