Those who subscribe to Winston Churchill’s dictum that "democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time" will only be confirmed in their pessimism by developments in Australian politics in recent weeks.
It hasn’t been a banner week for our Parliamentary representatives. (Indeed, as far as State politics is concerned, it’s been a dismal past couple of years.) But it’s far from just Belinda Neal MP whose recent actions have — in Kevin Rudd’s words — formed a "pattern of unacceptable behaviour". There’s been unacceptable behaviour from politicians across our wide, brown land.
This week, for instance, we saw another aftershock from the Peter Beattie-Merri Rose affair. "Affair" seems to be the operative word in this unseemly imbroglio, which has already resulted in the jailing of Rose and may even have contributed to the death of one of her senior staffers.
Rose was convicted of blackmail following the messy end of her political career. The rumour of her romantic affair with former Queensland Premier Peter Beattie is a common subject of political scuttlebut north of the Tweed, and the supposed cover-up of this affair and its effect on Rose’s staffers is the chief subject of National MLA Rob Messenger’s complaint to Queensland corruption watchdog, the Crime and Misconduct Commission (CMC). It should be stressed that both Rose and Beattie have always denied the rumours.
Rose lost her Gold Coast seat in 2004, spitting the dummy in Kernot-like fashion on TV. Her volatile reputation ensured she found it tough finding a job post-politics.
But unlike most former politicians, Rose decided to take matters into her own hands and went to see Beattie and his razor-sharp deputy chief of staff Damien McGreavy, begging for a job. When Beattie said no, she resorted to blackmail via a note sent to Beattie’s office. The substance of what she held over Beattie was never explicitly stated, but it doesn’t take a lurid imagination to fill in the details. The actual quote from the court hearings is that it was "very damaging about a person and would cause him to suffer and lose everything personally".
The CMC dismissed Messenger’s complaint this week. History will show Peter Beattie got out of politics at the right time.
You have to hand it to Queensland’s elected representatives — ever keen to show they are tough on crime — they’re well represented in the criminal population themselves. Who can forget National Party Minister Don "Shady" Lane, a man involved in corruption at the highest level in the Moonlight State? Or Gordon Nuttal, Beattie’s Minister for Health when Dr Jayant Patel was wreaking havoc at Bundaberg Hospital? Nuttal is currently awaiting trial on corruption charges following a secret $300,000 cash loan from mining magnate Ken Talbot.
Last year there was former Queensland Emergency Services Minister Pat Purcell, who narrowly escaped jail after being convicted of physically assaulting his two ranking public servants. The post-Fitzgerald era of course saw the jailing of five former National Party Ministers (including Lane) for rorting their expense accounts.
The most horrifying examples of political criminality were also Labor politicians: the child sex abusers Keith Wright, Bill D’Arcy and Bob Collins. Wright and D’Arcy went to jail; Collins committed suicide while awaiting trial.
Of course Queensland is not the only State with problems — as West Australians well know. Even a relatively clean State like South Australia has an occasional Peter Duncan, although his charge of making a false statement relates to events after he left Federal Parliament.
Compared to this motley crew, the moral panic Federal Parliament has gotten itself into over Belinda Neal seems completely out of proportion. A few harsh words at a nightclub and a medieval curse upon a Liberal’s unborn child is scarcely the stuff of jail terms or party expulsions — although threatening to use your elected position to shut down a restaurant just might be.
No, the real problem for Belinda Neal is that not even her own Party colleagues like her, or seem willing to support her. A politician of legendary ambition and viciousness, even for the NSW ALP, Neal has crossed many fellow members in factional warfare on her way to filling a Senate spot and winning pre-selection for the Central Coast seat of Robertson. Few seem sad to see her raked over the coals for her latest indiscretion.
Focusing on the personal failings of our elected representatives probably does sell newspapers, but it doesn’t do the institution of parliamentary democracy any favours in the popular imagination. There’s been plenty of policy-making this week — including details of the Government’s new industrial relations system — but you wouldn’t know it from looking at the TV news.
Sometimes, politicians can make terrible personal mistakes but redeem themselves. In the current Cabinet, we have a Minister, Nick Sherry, who tried to kill himself after a particularly bad day in question time. Sherry went away, got professional help, and is now Minister for Superannuation and Corporate Law. We should feel nothing but admiration for a person who can surmount personal issues such as these and continue to serve the people.
It’s time we let Belinda Neal get the help she needs.
Queensland Politicians in Jail
Merri Rose: Labor Minister. Jailed for 18 months (out
after 3) for blackmail
Brian Austin: National Party Minister, jailed for 15
months for misappropriation
Leisha Harvey: National Party Minister, jailed 12 months for rorts
Don Lane: National Party Minister, jailed 12 months for rorts
Geoff Muntz: National Party Minister, jailed 12 months for rorts
Keith Wright: Labor Party MP, jailed 9 years for raping an 11 year old School girl
Bill D’Arcy: Labor Party MP, jailed for 10 years for child sex abuse