05 August 2009

Is this what we pay Oppositions to do?

In all of the column inches that have been written about the OzCar affair and the sad case of Godwin Grech, one question that has not been addressed as far as I am aware is whether this sort of bottom-feeding effort to catch senior Ministers out in a big scandal, with all of the distasteful business of clandestine meetings with public servants prepared to betray their employers’ (and our elected representatives’) trust, is really what we pay Oppositions to do?

Senator Minchin asserted on the ABC’s PM program this evening that this is indeed what they are paid to do – “holding the Government to account”. But is it what they are paid for, and indeed, is this what we are to understand by “holding the government to account”?

Wouldn’t the time of the Opposition be better spent analysing and unpicking the Government’s policy frameworks and/or the quality of its service delivery, doing the hard yards of establishing that policy, administration or service delivery is defective, or the Opposition has a much better idea, or a particular Minister is not up to his/her duties for material reasons that are reasonably attributed to the Minister or the Minister’s minders?

In my forty-odd years of observing Commonwealth political processes, I have observed many Opposition members who obviously felt that, if they could just uncover a sufficiently big scandal, a horrified electorate would vote the government out of office and elect their party instead. What actually happened in every case was that, when the going got too rough, the Prime Minister appeared on prime time television, wringing his hands and saying “shock, horror, if only I’d known”, announced the departure of the Minister concerned, and the caravan moved on. Think, for example, of Graham Richardson and the Marshall Islands affair in Bob Hawke’s time.

None of this is to say that ethical and appropriate behaviour is unimportant – it is vitally important – but there is a huge opportunity cost to the distraction of running around trying to uncover scandal, to the detriment of providing the Australian public with real policy choices and in the meantime holding the government to high standards of administrative competence. The “gotcha” moment that might ensue if a Minister has to resign might make the Opposition feel good, but most of the time it doesn’t do much for the rest of us.

And what do we think of the ethics of all of the clandestine skulduggery we have seen at work here? Mahatma Gandhi used to say that right means lead to right ends. One cannot help thinking that the OzCar affair provides a wonderful negative case in support of his proposition – that the wrong means have led to a richly deserved embarrassment.

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