Friday, June 26, 2009

Michael Jackson

The death of Michael Jackson has swept virtually all other news stories aside, including the tragic loss of actress Farah Fawcett after her courageous battle against cancer, the ongoing “Utegate” scandal exploding in the face of the federal opposition, the state government singlehandedly suspending the democratic process by walking out of the Legislative Council, and everything else that might have otherwise captured our attention. There’s no denying that it is big news, and millions of fans around the world have been saddened. Others perhaps are not so deeply affected, remembering instead the controversies that surrounded him in his later years, including the accusations of child molestation.

Regardless of his eccentric behavior and any suspicions about his personal life, his prodigious musical talent is undeniable. He has been compared in stature to Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and the Beatles in terms of his influence on music and the entertainment industry, as well as his appeal to fans. Elvis was the “King of Rock and Roll”, and Michael was the “King of Pop”. There are also other parallels with Elvis in the way that both were increasingly isolated from any kind of normal life, loved by their fans, but haunted by the loneliness of their positions. The fact that Michael was at one time married to Lisa Marie Presley is no surprise as they would be likely to share an understanding of the dark side of fame in a way that few others could.

Some are suggesting that his life was a tragic one, and it is true that there is no shortage of sadness in his family and personal life. There are stories of mistreatment at the hands of his father, estrangements from some of his siblings at various times, and the pressures of being thrust into the limelight at such an early age. In fact, Michael joined his brothers in the Jackson Five when he was eleven, and was world famous before he was a teenager. At 21 his first solo album “Off The Wall” saw him surpass everything he had done with his brothers, and only a few years later “Thriller” made him a superstar. Through all that, it must have been impossible to have anything remotely like a normal childhood.

In later life it often seemed that Michael was trying to experience the childhood he never had. Whether it was the fantasy theme park he built for himself at the Neverland Ranch, his fixation with Peter Pan, his predilection for exotic animals for pets, or the highly controversial tendency to seek out the company of young boys, perhaps it was all simply because he had never been able to really grow up. Perhaps his sleepover parties really were innocent attempts to experience the joys of childhood, rather than something more sinister. Perhaps he simply wasn’t emotionally developed enough to understand why such a thing was viewed with so much suspicion. Many people would like to believe that, others will be much more skeptical. Either way, having been subjected to such a bizarre life of public adulation, private pain, and the power and wealth to do as he pleased, it could be said that Michael Jackson never really had a chance to be a normal person.

Despite the controversy, what can be said is that in his life he achieved things that others can only dream of, brought pleasure and joy to millions of fans, and lit up the lives of those who enjoy his music.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Government Grinds To A Halt

While we have all been distracted by the escalating drama in Canberra over a fraudulent email, a borrowed ute, and claims of corruption and intrigue, something else bizarre has been happening right beneath our noses. The New South Wales government is grinding to a halt. You might not think that is anything new, given the track record of the state government making announcements, commencing feasibility studies, outlaying piles of money, and then either abandoning plans such as the North West Metro, or witnessing them fall apart like the T-Card electronic ticketing fiasco, which is still subject to legal action in an attempt to recover around $100 million of taxpayers’ money. But no, this is not just the ordinary everyday run of the mill New South Wales government stuff up. This time the government has actually come to a brick wall.

All government legislation must pass the upper house, the Legislative Council, before it becomes law. Unfortunately for the government they do not have the majority in their own right in the Legislative Council, but must rely on support from among the Greens, the Christian Democrats, the Shooters Party, the independents, or even the opposition in order to stay in business. Now you might have heard about a rather controversial proposal from the Shooters Party to allow hunting in National Parks on the grounds that private hunters could help to keep feral pests under control. The greens are opposed to the idea, and after debate in Cabinet so is the government. But it has been reported that Treasurer Eric Roozendaal wanted to support the hunting bill to ensure the Shooters Party support for key budget measures such as the privatization of New South Wales Lotteries.

Having chosen not to support the Shooters Party bill for hunting in national parks, the government now finds itself in the embarrassing situation where nothing it puts up in the upper house is getting through either. Ironically, the Shooters have sided with the Greens to block more or less everything the government puts forward, including especially the sale of the Lotteries, leaving a $500 million hole in the Treasurer’s budget. Once it became clear that nothing the government put forward was getting through, something extra-ordinary occurred. The only Minister in the Council at the time, Police Minister Tony Kelly, moved that the house be adjourned for the winter break, but did not proceed to a vote. Instead, he apparently just walked out.

Effectively, this seems to have left the Council suspended in a political limbo where it is neither sitting, nor officially adjourned. Government legislation remains unconsidered, not debated, and not voted upon. The Sydney Morning Herald reports that “this is believed to be the first time since the Legislative Council was established in 1823 that the Government of the day has left the chamber, causing business to be suspended.” As a result, it is quite literally true that government in New South Wales has ground to a halt.

Of course, with the track record of this government it might be hard for anyone to actually notice the difference.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Politicians And Public Servants Are Paid To Serve Our Interests, Not Theirs.

What began as a simple enough attempt to catch the government out at providing a favour to a mate has become an epic saga encompassing much bigger issues, and revealing the inner workings of both the political process and the public service. If it could be proved that a favour for a mate had been done in any manner which lacked propriety it would indeed have been a serious matter. However, the subsequent events and revelations are of even greater proportions as they reflect upon the credibility, integrity, ethics and even the legality of how this witch hunt has been conducted.

The opposition has attempted to prosecute a case that there was something wrong with the provision of government assistance to a car dealer, who also happened to be a personal friend of the Prime Minister, at a time when the entire industry was being offered assistance to remain afloat in the very difficult circumstances brought about by the Global Financial Crisis. Of course there is an obligation for the government to provide such assistance fairly and without favour, but surely even the opposition would not be suggesting that having the Prime Minister for a friend should disqualify anyone from receiving help? If that was the case, how was it that Stan Howard saw his company’s obligations met by a government run by his brother John?

At this point the evidence would suggest that although John Grant was indeed the beneficiary of government representations, he was not the only one and it would be difficult to establish that his case was a special one. One way to do that would be to have evidence from the people who were given the job of carrying out the assistance program. Enter one Godwin Grech, with his hazy recollection of an email from the Prime Minister’s office supposedly providing that very proof. This was enough for the Opposition Leader to seize upon and rush into making accusations which have subsequently proven to be unsustainable, primarily because when such an email was finally located it was determined to be a fraud.

This is where the plot thickens, and also where the spotlight shifts from the conduct of the government to the conduct of both the opposition and the bureaucracy of the public service. In its haste to prosecute the case against the government, the opposition has been found to be relying on fraudulent evidence, prompting the very embarrassing questions about the source of the fraud, and the relationship between the Liberal Party and the man who apparently provided that evidence, our new friend Godwin Grech. In fact, it raises the broader question of the relationship between politicians and bureaucrats generally, and their obligations to the public who after all pay the salaries of all of them.

Malcolm Turnbull has defended the confidentiality of his source of information by claiming what would seem to be an equivalent of journalistic privilege. In the interests of freedom of information, of communication, and of the press, journalists often protect the identity of their sources of information even when it is unlawful to do so. They do this because their primary responsibility is to report, and they are accountable to their employers, who pay their wages. A politician however is not a journalist or a reporter. A politician’s primary responsibility is to represent the people who elected him. A politician should also be accountable to the people who pay his wages, in this case the same people who have elected him to office.

Are we paying our public servants in the Treasury to manage the affairs of the country according to the directions given by the elected government? Or are we paying them to act in the interests of one political party or the other? If a public servant, whether it is Godwin Grech or anyone else, is passing privileged information onto one political party or another because of his personal political beliefs, is he acting in the public interest or in his own? And if the recipient of that information is not legally entitled to it, is that not at the least a breach of ethics, and quite possibly in some cases a breach of the law? And if the Opposition Leader, an elected politician paid from the public purse, seeks to defend that unethical behavior by protecting the identity of the source of the information, is he acting in the best interests of the people who elected him, or in the best interests of himself and his party?

Which then is the greater misconduct? Allegedly helping a mate to access government assistance to which he is entitled anyway, or allegedly employing what amounts to techniques of espionage and relying on manufactured evidence to attempt to discredit the government? Malcolm Turnbull may well have been the victim of misinformation, but in his position he can’t afford to be seen to defend those who are responsible for it. And he most certainly cannot afford to be seen as being in any way complicit with it. He, like everybody else in both the Parliament and the Public Service, is paid by us to act in our interests, and to do so ethically and responsibly.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

“Who knew? What did they know? And when did they know it?”

The name of Godwin Grech appears set to go down in political history as having played a central role in one of the most bizarre, not to mention inept, attempts to discredit a Prime Minister. Only a few days ago, virtually nobody had heard of Mr. Grech. Last Friday he made the six o’clock news with reports of his hazy recollection of an email supposedly from the Prime Minister’s office, although he claimed that he couldn’t be certain. That email has been the foundation of accusations of impropriety leveled by Malcolm Turnbull against Kevin Rudd, and the revelation that the Australian Federal Police have finally located that email and determined it to be fraudulent has had a seismic impact on the whole affair.

Today, amid reports which describe Mr. Grech’s name as “Dickensian”, questions are now being asked about the origins of this fabricated document. Who was the author? Was it perhaps Mr. Grech himself? Or was it another, inside the Treasury department. Was it somebody in the opposition, something which Mr. Turnbull has denied in the strongest possible terms. But if the opposition had no hand in the creation of the email, how then were they aware of its existence before the original reports appeared in the press? This entire affair has the potential to be a mystery surpassing in magnitude the question of who shot John F. Kennedy.

Whether or not anyone in the opposition had a hand in these matters, it has left the opposition leader in the embarrassing position of having led his troops far out onto thin ice, which is now cracking beneath him. It can only be a matter of time before some of those troops retreat to firmer ground, leaving him to sink or swim in the icy depths of lost credibility. Even if he manages to make it back to shore, the loyalty of the troops may well be less certain in future. In other words, support for Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership is likely to suffer, even if he too has been the victim of somebody else’s subterfuge.

The real question, which might never be fully answered, is just who is behind that subterfuge. While Malcolm Turnbull denies that anyone within the opposition wrote or disseminated the fraudulent email, there is another explanation. One of the listeners to my program has suggested that the government has enemies within the bureaucracy. He suggests that the previous Prime Minister made many appointments to the public service which placed hand picked supporters in key positions. You might remember that when Kevin Rudd was first elected, he made a point of not having a widespread purge of the public service, in some sort of gesture of goodwill. My listener suggests that this decision has come back to haunt our Prime Minister, both with the recent events in the Department of Defence, and now in Treasury.

As far as conspiracy theories go, it is as good as any other. In a variation of the classic lines from the Oliver Stone film “JFK”, we might well ask “Who knew? What did they know? And when did they know it?” Ironically, those are things that we may never really know, at all.

Monday, June 22, 2009

My Kingdom For A Ute…

It seems incongruous that a simple ute could be at the centre of so much political controversy, and have the potential to damage or even destroy the career of one or more of the most senior politicians, including the Prime Minister. So what’s all the fuss about? Is it really such a big deal that a constituent and supporter, who happens to be a car dealer, gave the Prime Minister, his local member, the use of a ute? Of course not. But that has proven to be the catalyst for a series of events, and subsequent allegations, which could conceivably destroy the credibility of either the Prime Minister, his Treasurer, or the Opposition Leader, depending on just what evidence eventually either emerges, or fails to emerge.

There are two key matters involved in the controversy. The first is the suggestion that a benefactor of the Labor Party has received favourable treatment from the Government above and beyond the normal assistance that may be provided to the general community. The second is the accusation that the Parliament has been misled over this matter. Both allegations are of the greatest seriousness, and if either or both are sustained by the evidence it will be a devastating blow to the credibility and integrity of the government and two of its highest officers. On the other hand, if the evidence proves to be ephemeral, flimsy, or just downright wrong, then the Opposition Leader is the one whose credibility will be in tatters.

Of course, the question of whether or not special favours have been done is the heart of the issue. While it might seem to some that looking after your mates is part of the Australian tradition, and that one good turn deserves another, it’s not that simple in politics and government. If you and I are friends, and I help you out at my own expense, then at a later stage you help me out in return, there’s no problem. You are doing me a favour, out of your own pocket. If you are a politician in government however, and you do me a favour out of the taxpayers’ pocket, then that is not your favour to give. That is in fact a form of corruption. In effect, it is the theft of taxpayers’ resources for private purposes.

The Government’s defence is that the used car dealer in question, John Grant, was treated no differently than any other similar applicant for assistance. The testimony of the Treasury official Godwin Grech has been described as sketchy, because he is unsure about the supposed email from the Prime Minister’s office about this matter. Claims by the Treasurer that he did not even know of the outcome of the matter have been called into question by the existence of other emails to and from his office. This factors heavily in the second question, that of whether or not the Parliament has been misled.

What is truly amazing about the whole episode is that an otherwise competent government has somehow managed to put itself into a position where it is now open to such an attack. To be so close to being brought undone by something which has its beginnings in such a seemingly inconsequential action as borrowing a ute from a mate borders on the embarrassingly idiotic. If John Grant had never lent his ute to Kevin Rudd, he would have been just another businessman applying for assistance from the government at a time when many in business are in similar need of such assistance.
Instead, it would seem that Mr. Grant was indeed the subject of much communication between the Treasury and the Office of the Treasurer. Wayne Swan insists that Mr. Grant was treated no differently than any other constituent seeking assistance, and has effectively said as much to the Parliament. Presumably that means we can all be reassured that the Government provides the same degree of attention to all its dealings with the people it has been elected to represent. That must surely be the case, because otherwise it would seem that the Parliament may well have been misled.

Nevertheless, it remains incumbent on the Opposition Leader to demonstrate that any wrongdoing has occurred, or suffer his own loss of credibility. Either way, it looks as if at least one of our political leaders has risked his kingdom for the sake of a ute.