With a federal election approaching, the issue of political corruption is shaping up to be a key issue. Labor have committed themselves to a National Integrity Commission and, after sustained pressure from Labor and the Greens, the Liberals eventually announced a similar Commonwealth Integrity Commission. These Commissions sound like a nice idea, but rather than being a solution they are a justification of the root issue: political power.
The leader of the opposition, Bill Shorten, claims that such a Commission is necessary to “restore people’s faith in their representatives and the system”. This is a feel-good line from a power hungry politician, a characteristic shared by all parliamentarians who call for this type of anti-corruption body.
It’s time for a quick history lesson.
Friday marked the 330th anniversary of the birth of Montesquieu, the great political thinker of the 18th century. The occasion marks a perfect time to remember his enduring contribution to modern political theory: restricting power is the only way to avoid its abuse.
For Montesquieu, this meant that the legislative, judicial and executive branches of government must be separated. Only by each being independent can it provide checks and balances on the others, facilitating an orderly and responsible system of government.
While separating power is goes some way in avoiding its abuse, it is not enough to prevent it. The best way to avoid abuses of power is to remove, or at least heavily restrict, the power itself.
This brings us to the question of the proposed Commission and the ‘problem’ it will supposedly solve. For those in favour, politics would be better if those in charge would simply act morally. Billing the taxpayer to fly around the country for dubious reasons or doling out favours to buddies would cease to be an issue if only representatives would be nice, virtuous people.
This thinking harks back to Plato, who supposed that if those in charge were just virtuous enough, if they were just benevolent enough, if they were just wise enough, they would be fit to lead.
Our broken system can be fixed with a Commission. That’s the claim from those who support these bodies.
This is a serious mistake. As Montesquieu pointed out, virtue will not constrain abuses of power.
Australians seem to have lost faith in the political system. They complain about policies that favour the rich and powerful, about corporatism and unfair political favours.
Rather than being frustrated at those who seek favours from government, seen in the anti-capitalist movement, this anger is better directed at those who hold the power to dish out these special favours as they see fit.
A Commission isn’t going to fix these issues because Australian politics isn’t broken. It’s not a flaw of the system that governments can give privileges to certain people in order to win votes, that is precisely how the system is set up.
Promises of an anti-corruption body are not promises to avoid abuses of power, they are simply an election pledge designed to win votes. If political parties wanted to stop abuse of power they wouldn’t call for an anti-corruption watchdog, they would simply revoke legislation and stop creating it. Rather than wasting taxpayer dollars on whale-watching trips or nefarious grants to organisations, they would use their legislative power to lower the tax burden.
Commissions will do nothing to stop abuse of power. They will simply justify politicians holding so much of it by trying to net out the particularly bad cases. The only real solution is to remove the excesses of power currently held by Australian politicians.
Politics isn’t broken, but it can be fixed. Trusting a class of individuals under the guise of representation is dangerous, and it’s no wonder that these individuals act with self-interest. There is only one fix: to severely limit the power that these individuals can wield.