The ever-widening electoral rorts scandal seems set to dominate politics for the first half of 2001 with every major political party now caught in the dragnet of separate Queensland and federal inquiries, and Parliamentary witch-hunts.
While no party can expect to escape an exposure of the dark side of branch stacking and electoral manipulation unscathed, the Beattie Labor Government in Queensland is fighting for its political life, and the Beazley-led Federal Labor Party is crippled while a corruption audit into all its MPs is carried out. Branch stacking and the provision of assistance to minor parties is hardly a new phenomenon in Australian politics, but some of these practices have developed into an artform particularly in the Queensland ALP where fake names, false addresses and mythical “numbers” paid for in cash by the powerful unions became part of the party culture.
It seems any ambitious young Queensland ALP member had little choice but to excel in this shady form of political activism in order to rise through Labor ranks. Former Communist turned senior right-wing organiser Lee Bermingham, who decided to blow the whistle on Labor’s dark side, was actually recruited by the powerful Australian Workers Union faction because he was known for his skills in this department. Premier Peter Beattie, who faces an election in March, has so far managed to distance himself from the affair, and the polls show him maintaining a high standing in the community despite the biggest scandal in Queensland since the Fitzgerald era.
However, while Beattie rose to power in spite of rather than through the patronage of the AWU, he was State Secretary and Campaign Director for almost a decade in the 1980s, and it is difficult to believe he had no knowledge of these problems until the shock revelations were made late in 2000.
Beattie’s survival tactic might be to request an interim report from the Shepherdson Inquiry so he can be seen to take decisive action during the state election campaign. But he has no control over the tandem Federal electoral inquiry, chaired by South Australian Liberal Christopher Pyne, and Coalition members of that Committee will try and keep electoral issues bubbling away right through any Queensland poll.
In the Federal sphere Kim Beazley has already lost one of his most important lieutenants in Wayne Swan who has stepped down pending an investigation into an undeclared payment of cash to the Australian Democrats, and the future of others, is under a cloud.
Beazley’s initial response to the revelations was to go into denial declaring that cash-for-preferences was nothing new in Australian politics and part of the political process. But as the extent of the Queensland corruption was revealed Beazley took more decisive action internally while launching a counter attack on alleged rorting within Coalition ranks. By trying to spread the damage Beazley is hoping that the rorts affair will remain largely confined to Queensland and that the voting public will dismiss it as a “typical politicians” rather than Labor scandal, while ultimately returning their minds to issues which effect them directly such as the price of petrol, taxes and schools.
The Australian Democrats have come out of the affair very badly, and despite being pilloried by sections of the media for his Parliamentary tactics, Tony Abbott, has been right to expose the hypocracy of the supposed honest broker of Australian politics.
One of the more damning revelations from Mr Bermingham was that the Australian Democrat officials in the seat of Lilley were receivers of up to $1,400 in cash on behalf of Mr Swan in the 1996 election in a desperate but ultimately futile bid to save his seat.
The officials in question have confirmed they received the cash and Swan himself has not contested the event took place, although he has strenuously denied the money was given in exhange for favorable preferences. The Australian Federal Police are now investigating the matter. After days of silence over the allegations, Democrat leader Meg Lees expressed mortification that the “good name” of the squeaky clean Democrats had been dragged into the taudry cash-for-preferences affair.
Lees claimed all preference deals by the Democrats were done at the national level and that an intensive internal investigation had uncovered “no records” of cash payments in exchange for preferences. Fortunately, the general public is not as naive as Senator Lees thinks, and school lunches are not what springs to mind when Queensland politics and brown paper bags are mentioned in the same breath.
The use of cash in brown paper bags or other under-the-counter payments are the very vehicle used so that no record either in the party or the Electoral Commission will show up. If there is anything good that has come out of this whole murky electoral fraud affair, it is that the Democrats will be shown to be just as interested at carving out their own political constituency and open to manipulation as any other political outfit.