The Stephen Conroys Of The World Harm Democracy More Than Any Refugee Protest


Faith in democracy is not low because people have disrespected institutions, but because those who fill them have disrespected the people, writes Max Chalmers.

Former Labor Senator Stephen Conroy has taken the next step in his life of public service and factional skulduggery. Having retired from the senate in mid-September, the right wing powerbroker is heading up an online gambling lobby group.

Online wagering, i.e. betting on the outcomes of events like sporting matches, is booming. The regulatory environment is being set around a developing market. There’s plenty to play for – and plenty to lose.

As Public Health academic Charles Livingstone has noted, online wagering can enable the kind of behaviour that is most likely to result in problem gambling. A 2015 report by Financial Counselling Australia is littered with examples of what that kind of addiction can do to people. Important reforms are now on the table, including a ban on credit betting.

With the rules being set, it’s an ideal time for companies to shore up their relationships with the government. Aside from luring Conroy, the Responsible Wagering Australia group has also taken on ex-Liberal Senator Richard Colbeck. Don’t let anyone tell you partisanship trumps self-interest.

However these two conduct themselves in the employ of a group that could rightly be described as ‘Big Wagering’, it’s clear why they were hired. Their relationships with those in power promise access. They may not be able to stop laws entirely, but they’ll have a better shot than the rest of us.

Despite a momentary fuss, interest in Conroy’s new job quickly subsided. A few people tweeted in anger but no-one was too surprised. A politician used his public office to enrich himself shortly after leaving, in the service of an ethically dubious cause. That’s how it is.

And that’s why Conroy’s colleagues still in Canberra should be hounding him out of the Labor Party and refusing to take his calls.

As when Barnaby Joyce feathered his own electoral nest (while undermining other regional Australians in the process), the unexceptional nature of an MP taking the revolving door exit straight into the world of special interest lobbying is what makes Conroy’s feat so dangerous. BuzzFeed Australia recently compiled a list of similar instances, in which former MPs took cash from the industries they had, in some cases, been charged with regulating. You can add to that list the former Labor and LNP staffers who, as Ben Eltham noted, now work for Adani. It’s hardly rare.

Barnaby Joyce
Vegetable enthusiast, tomato cousin and Lover of pork, Nationals MP, Barnaby Joyce. (IMAGE: Apple and Pear Australia Ltd, Flickr)

Such engagements are distinct from outright corruption thanks only to the passage of time. Even so, they are undeniably corrupting. In the first instance, they slant the political field towards interests sufficiently wealthy to lavish former MPs or insiders with salaries. That perverse impact is then doubled thanks to the way they undermine faith in democratic institutions and conventions.

In the last few months, the urgency of that second problem has been thrust into sharp relief. In some places – particularly the US, where life expectancy has gone backwards for the first time since 1993 – there are material conditions accelerating the collapse of the democratic consensus.

Yet there is another reason people are now turning to parties who speak the language of authoritarianism. They believe that the hollowed out bodies of democratic institutions have already failed. The backdrop is alarming: a long-term decline in the portion of the population who believe it is essential to live in a democracy.

It’s arguably less advanced in Australia but has undeniably been manifest in the growth of ideologically diverse minor parties. The outsiders are in. Let’s hope they’re not fascists.

This is a problem that is weighing on people inside and outside of Canberra, including Labor’s Member for Gellibrand Tim Watts.

“So much of our democracy relies on respect for basic conventions,” he tweeted recently. “Allowing the Parliament to meet in civil debate is surely fundamental.”

But it was not the chamber’s regular inhabitants fleeing a vote or posing fatuous Dorothy Dixers that had gotten Watts down. As his previous tweet revealed, the Member for Gellibrand was ruffled by a refugee protest.

“Preventing elected Members of Parliament from meeting is a poor form of democratic protest #qt,” he wrote.

new matilda, tim watts
Labor MP Tim Watts.

Watts’ left-leaning followers were not impressed and he subsequently published a short piece fleshing out his thoughts. Faith in democracy is low, he noted, so we should support democratic and parliamentary institutions now more than ever. In other words:

“Around the world, representative democracy is being actively attacked by newly emboldened fascists; neo-Nazis who hate diversity and hold our plural democracy in contempt. The next group to decide that they are entitled to shut down the Parliament could easily be fascist thugs doing it in the name of banning Muslim immigration.”

Ignore for a moment that Watts greatly exaggerated the impact of the protest, which was in fact an interruption rather than, as he put it, a gagging. The real problem was that the MP understated the impact the behaviour of MPs and major parties has. “Some of this is a product of the behaviour of MPs,” he said. Just some?

Politicians, along with journalists, are in fact reviled in Australia. Ask people why and they regularly give an answer that goes beyond ideological frustrations. These people are in it for themselves, they will tell you. It’s often tied back to avarice: journalists hunger for a monopoly on truth, politicians for wealth and power. They’re self-serving.

Refugee protests do not fuel these beliefs. If Question Time was not a joke, if the people in parliament were respected and avoided conflicts of interest, slights on the institutions they represent would provoke anger and prove counter-productive target for activists. As things stand, that is not the case.

Too bad the refugee protesters can’t do things the regular way and hire an ex-Labor senator to hook them up. It’s not the people with banners who need to be kept out of parliament. It’s the Stephen Conroys.

Max Chalmers is a former New Matilda journalist and editorial staff member. His main areas of interest are asylum seekers, higher education and politics.