May 11, 2004

Action learning of ethics

Ethics as a formal part of corporate governance is a “growth industry”, so perhaps no-one should be surprised that the Queensland Branch of the Liberal Party has decided to form an ethics committee. Given the recent history of the party, some might even argue that this is an overdue innovation and that the most recent review of the party’s constitution was remiss in not including one. Others might take a more cynical view, particularly when they look at the membership of the committee.

One would expect members of an ethics committee to have a few attributes. Given that ethics is a formal discipline, some expertise in the area might be a pre-requisite. As it is likely that the committee will be called on to adjudicate in contentious disputes it is also probably best not to appoint very active members of the party who may end up with conflicts of interest. Nothing demonstrates more how the party appears to have ignored these two simple considerations than the identity of the chairman of the committee: one Russell James Galt.

Galt is Chairman of the Ryan FEC, and as a close supporter of Ryan MHR Michael Johnson has been accused of participating in rampant branch-stacking. This stacking may be legal under the Liberal Party’s constitution, but legality is just one of the issues with which ethics deals. What Galt has participated in may be legal, but that doesn’t mean that it is ethical. So much for avoiding conflicts of interest. But the case against him is more interesting than that.

A couple of examples demonstrate this. I'll start with the easier one first.

Applicants for Liberal Party preselection are required to state their academic qualifications. What ethical standard would Mr Galt apply to this? Say for instance an applicant said that they had an MBA. Should this be from the equivalent of an Australian accredited university? Or would it be enough that it was gained from a university which advertises that it gives candidates credits towards their degree based on their life experience? Would it be material that the person claiming these qualifications was a director of the body conferring the degree at the same time as he was a student at that institution? (Readers interested in how they too might get a similar qualification to the one described should check out these websites: Revans University – the University of Action Learning and IMC Association).

Of course this is a purely hypothetical question for Mr Galt, because he would be forced to stand aside from this issue as he is the person in question.

He would also have a conflict of interest in looking at the events surrounding the Moggill pre-selection where he was the losing candidate. Galt challenged the result of the preselection (which he lost by three votes) on the basis that a number of preselectors who had voted were ineligible to vote, and that there was sufficient of them to have changed the outcome. In doing so he relied on the case of Gail Creighton-Barr. It transpired in the course of cross examination that Galt’s numbers man, and Michael Johnson staffer, Bernie Mack, had recruited Ms Creighton-Barr in November 2003 as part of a branch stacking exercise and had driven her to the preselection in the hope (fairly strong, one would have thought) that she would vote for Mr Galt. Mack knew Ms Creighton-Barr because she was his neighbour from across the road and one would think would have had a good idea as to when she joined.

So, another question for the ethics committee, again unfortunately sans Russell Galt. Is it ethical to try to over-turn a preselection on the basis of an irregularity caused by you or your supporters? Mack admitted to doing a lot of canvassing for Galt based on a delegate list that Galt gave him. This raises another issue which the ethics committee should deal with. Candidates routinely do hand over delegate lists to supporters for canvassing purposes, but when they are given these lists they expressly undertake not to reveal the contents to anyone. Should the rules be changed, or candidates disciplined?

The Moggill preselection also raises other questions of a more difficult nature. When Galt challenged the result, instead of suing the Liberal Party, which was the body at fault in the sense that it allowed the irregularity to happen, he sued the successful candidate. Is this ethical? What about the question of the Liberal Party funding his case? What are the ethics of that? Should a body be able to fund the suing of itself by proxy in the person of the successful candidate? Isn’t this an abuse of process?

Now, I am not saying that Russell Galt is an unethical person as I am not in full possession of the facts and haven’t heard his side of the case. That is not the point. What I am saying is that he is an unsuitable person to head up such a committee because he is the center of so much controversy. No wonder so many are cynical about the establishment of the committee in the first place. Yet it does demonstrate one thing –the Liberal Party State Council as a body has a need for a better understanding of ethics, because if they had any idea of the basics of the subject they would not have selected such in inappropriate person as chairman in the first place. Perhaps if Russell could convince the Action Learning Institute to provide a course in ethics they could all get themselves some better understanding of the matters, and of course, a few extra letters after their names.

Posted by Graham at 11:51 AM

May 10, 2004

"Can Do" contagion?

There is a theory that ideas are like infections. That very small building blocks of ideas, called "memes", spread in a similar way to viruses, by fitting into the idea structures that we already have embedded in us. So it doesn't mean that the ideas that spread are the most accurate, just that they happen to have the right shape to fit the form.

This theory has the virtue of explaining fashions and fads, as well as the memnonic qualities of poetry and music, and why English speaking orators at least tend to group things in threes.

My favourite example for demonstrating this sort of infection at a political level is the slogan "Jobs not GST", which I think did most of the damage to John Hewson in the 1993 election. (Hewson was running with a package called Fightback! which featured direct income tax cuts coupled with the indirect Goods and Services Tax, while Keating was running on jobs, jobs, jobs). I credit the invention of this phrase to Wayne Swan, but I have never been sure if that was the case. Can anyone fill me in?

"Jobs not GST" was almost perfect, except that as history has subsequently proven, it was a non-sequitur. Otherwise it had it all - cadence, alliteration, juxtaposition and compression. You could write it on a beer coaster yet it summed up perfectly what the election was supposed to be about.

Campbell Newman's "Can Do Campbell" is another one of those phrases. It's so good that it has apparently infected political campaigns on both sides of the Pacific. This link (courtesy of Michael Lee) demonstrates that either US Presidential Candidate John Kerry has been paying close attention to Australian elections, or that "Can Do" is a phrase on the way to being in plague proportions.

The question is, will the infection prove fatal to George W Bush as it did for Tim Quinn?

Posted by Graham at 11:40 AM

Politically arrogant and extremely foolish

THE Australian electorate has a well deserved, and practised, reputation for dealing swiftly with governments, politicians and political parties who treat it with arrogance and contempt.

Judging by the comments over the weekend from Senators Brandis and Mason, among others, there remain some politicians who have yet to get the electorate’s message.

The presumption contained in their comments about a transition in the Liberal leadership, and the Prime Ministership, after the elections is that the result of those elections is a forgone conclusion, so much so that the taxpayers might wish to save themselves the bother of going to the polls (not to mention the cost).

Nothing could be further from the truth, and I don’t need opinion polls to tell me that.

Federal elections in Australia are generally close, with 1996 being an obvious exception.

When one looks on a seat-by-seat basis at the forthcoming poll, it is possible to see how Labor could win with a marginal nationwide swing because of “local factors” – especially in regional Australia.

It is equally possible to see how Labor could lose ground, notwithstanding the apparent improvement in its base vote under Mark Latham.

Even in 1972, with the Liberals led by the hapless (and electorally hopeless) Billy McMahon, the election of the Whitlam Government was somewhat diminished by losses by Labor in Western Australia.

Since then, the Australian electorate has become even more volatile, and certainly less trusting of politicians, and governments.

But back to the weekend comments. The one question that needs to be asked is this – why?

I suspect the answer lies in the pomposity of the Senators concerned, and their remoteness (like that of most of their Senate colleagues) from the electorate. It may also lie in their impatience for promotion and recognition.

If the Coalition allows itself to go into an election campaign debating “when” not “if” Peter Costello will replace John Howard as prime Minister, then it will be courting the kind of electoral retribution inflicted on Leaders such as Nicholas Frank Hugo Greiner, Wayne Keith Goss and Jeffrey Gibb Kennett.

I well recall being in Sydney in the final days of the 1991 NSW State Election, a poll in which the Greiner Government was widely presumed to be heading for a landslide re-election victory. Having read the Sydney papers on a daily basis in the run up to the election, I had my doubts.

The daily media was giving Greiner a tough run for moving into the VIP suite at the Regent Hotel during the campaign, and for restricting public appearances, and press scrutiny, during it.

I tried the “taxi driver test” and my doubts were quickly confirmed. I recall word for word what one cabbie told me “Greiner has done a good job but the c… is too far up himself”.

The result changed the course of NSW politics – Greiner lost most of the seats he had won in the 1988 landslide, paving the way for his inglorious exit a year or so later.

The two Queensland Liberal Senators, and their merry little band of followers, should take note. The electorate is not impressed by politicians who take it for granted; and politicians musing about a change in the Prime Ministership next year (even before a general election is held) are surely taking it for granted in spades!

Senators Brandis and Mason have put the Liberal leadership and “transition” on the public agenda on the eve of the last Budget before the election. Their sense of timing could hardly have been worse.

Posted by Jeff Wall at 10:54 AM
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