I recently visited my old country, Argentina. It wasn’t a pretty picture.
Not for the first time, the country is run by a presidential couple — this time it’s the Kirchners. At least in the 1950s Juan Peron stopped short of letting his wife, Eva Duarte (Evita), occupy a formal position in government. But when he died 20 years later he left his Vice-President, and third wife, Isabel Martínez de Perón in charge of the country. She was manifestly unqualified to hold any public office, let alone the presidency.
Last year, President Kirchner made his wife the frontrunner in that year’s presidential elections. Against a divided opposition Cristina Kirchner easily won the presidency. Her Government now stumbles from one crisis to the next.
Many Australians will say, rather despairingly: "Oh, well, that’s Latin American politics for you…" But is it really just them?
What I found on my return to Australia a few months ago was not that different. The party in power at every level of government — the Australian Labor Party — is hardly a paragon of institutional propriety. I read about the "power couple" involved in an unsavoury scandal at a provincial night club. One is a minister in the country’s largest state. His wife (surely a coincidence) is a federal Member of Parliament and part of the ruling government.
Now I read that a former state minister in NSW, praised some time ago for giving up her post to look after her young son, recently returned to cabinet as the Deputy Premier. It must have been hard making sure the boy spent enough time with a parent, since her husband is also a minister – in the federal cabinet.
Then there is a gentleman who was appointed as a director general of one of the largest State Government departments. He is married — again a coincidence — to a federal cabinet minister. Not even his rather colourful record was an obstacle to his appointment.
There are more coincidences. There is another state minister who is married to the sister of a federal minister. The brother of that federal minister heads one of the most powerful unions in Australia.
I could mention a few other coincidences, and then also wonder aloud whether many former union officers or party staffers really possess the best qualifications to hold the positions they occupy in Parliament or hold executive power. However, there is no need to do that. We all know.
Nepotism — let’s call a spade a spade — is rampant in the Australian Labor Party. Nobody could accuse Labor of running a meritocracy. It is becoming more open and shameless. Worse still, it has become acceptable. There is hardly any criticism anywhere in the media any more. Don’t they think twice before appointing the spouse of a minister as a candidate in an election? Or when they parachute an unknown but trusted staffer of some apparatchik into a safe seat?
This is not just a matter for the ALP. As the party in power at almost every level in our country, their nepotistic selection practices are affecting directly how Australia is actually governed. Nepotism stops advancement and frustrates achievement. Nepotism affects people who, in most cases, won’t even know that have been directly affected. The spouse, girlfriend, or mate who occupies a position in power they could not have on merit victimises another individual who is properly qualified.
There is an established rule, unwritten but often written too, in our best professional firms and across the corporate sector that the employment of relatives and mates of the principals and directors is not allowed. This is done to ensure that candidates are hired on merit so that only the best people occupy positions of responsibility. When that sacred rule is contravened, organisations suffer as a whole. Second-rate people end up in charge and good people leave after realising that their credentials and achievements will not lead to advancement.
The old rule of "it is who you know, not what you know" has wrecked not only many companies and institutions, but also many countries. We need to face the fact that Australia is running a serious risk of falling into that very trap since the party in power at almost every level conducts itself as a private club run by mates for the benefit of the mates’ mates and their relatives. It is not just bad practice; it is a corrupt practice and it is eroding our institutions.
The lamentable and shocking spectacle recently put on by the NSW Labor Party when it chose a new premier was the kind of disgrace I haven’t seen since I left Latin America two decades ago. A new head of government has been appointed who is virtually unknown to anybody. His track record as a politician is alarmingly short and undistinguished and his accomplishments in the private sector are simply non-existent. His own website did not list a single one. His chances of being considered for, let alone holding, any equivalent senior executive position in the private sector on the basis of his current qualifications and experience are nil.
Yet this individual was selected unanimously by the ALP caucus as the most qualified individual to run Australia’s most populous state.
The question to be asked is this: of all the people in NSW, was this individual the best-qualified person to take on this enormous responsibility? The objective answer is No. So, how did he get there? The conclusion has to be: because the process is so wrong that it produces mistakes of this size. The responsibility lies at the feet of a system which must be revamped in its entirety.
But will it? Don’t hold your breath. There is not a single voice being heard from anyone in power who dare say so or is prepared to do anything about it. Are you listening Prime Minister?
The point is that our best and brightest minds do not have a hope of being considered for any political office on merit. They are shut out of the process. Unless you are a relative, mate or partner of a political apparatchik, or you become an apparatchik yourself and wait for your turn by aligning yourself with a particular faction within the party your chances of joining the political debate as a participant is virtually nil — celebrities excepted.
Within our Westminster-style system, the talent that makes it into parliaments is the talent you’ll end up having to work with — you can’t go appointing good people to cabinet just because they’re the most talented in the country, as you can under a presidential system. So while a presidential style of government may be arguably even more prone to cronyism, it at least offers an enlightened leader a way out when all his or her options would otherwise be mere party drones. This serves to highlight the crucial importance in our system of getting the best people into parliament in the first place, which we’re simply not doing.
One must accept that in any society or organisation, a dose of cronyism will always exist. But we run into serious danger when we accept it, when cronyism becomes the norm, and people of ordinary ability effectively end up running Australia.
I wish the whole system could change, so that the process is opened up on both sides of the political divide to our best people in much the same way private sector appointments are made, openly and transparently. Because if we continue in this way, I may well end up feeling that, after leaving Latin America so many years ago, I have travelled a long way only to have arrived at the same place.
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