After Greiner, ICAC next to go?

Issue 

By Steve Painter

SYDNEY — In the tumult surrounding the Metherell corruption scandal and the June 24 forced resignation of NSW premier Nick Greiner, Michael Yabsley, the loudest of several loose cannons crashing about the deck of the NSW Liberal Party, landed one shot on target.

Yabsley said that he found it impossible to continue as a minister while the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) retained its present powers and terms of reference. Resigning from his ministerial post in solidarity with Greiner, Yabsley joined the chorus of calls for changes to ICAC, or even its abolition.

Yabsley and others, including Greiner, have declared that ICAC's standards are too high, that Greiner was just carrying out political business as usual when he offered former Liberal turned independent Terry Metherell a high-paying public service job in return for his resignation from his normally safe Liberal seat in parliament. If ICAC was correct in judging Greiner corrupt, say the fallen premier's supporters, nothing less than the Westminster system as it operates in Australia is in jeopardy.

In this they are correct. Capitalist politics in Australia floats on a sea of corruption. In Queensland, former members of the National Party government are serving jail terms and others, including former premier Bjelke-Petersen, are just managing to stay ahead of the courts. In Western Australia several former Labor ministers, including former premier Burke, could face jail sentences, and the states of Victoria and South Australia have been brought to the edge of bankruptcy by shonky business dealings. Corruption was a factor in the replacement of Tasmanian Liberal leader Robin Gray.

Greiner's biggest mistake was his failure to understand the role of corruption in parliamentary politics after coming to power in 1988 on the heels of a scandal that destroyed the career of Labor premier Neville Wran and continued to hang over his successor, Barrie Unsworth. Seeking to emphasise its cleanskin image against the very seedy Labor Party, the new Liberal government set up ICAC, the corruption watchdog that four years later was to tear the seat out of its pants.

It's a fair bet that there will now be moves to dump or at least hamstring ICAC so the politicians can go about their inherently dirty business in relative security.

The eventual end of Greiner probably went as most Liberals in the parliament wanted it to, and certainly as the three independents chose. The independents were desperate not to bring down the Liberal government, but to preserve some degree of credibility by forcing Greiner out. Most Liberals were probably relieved at this, as Greiner has been an electoral liability for some time, and has become even more so in recent months.

Already, new Premier John Fahey has made some adjustments, in particular freezing public sector job cuts, a move that also seems to defer the hot issue of hospital privatisation, a potentially important one in his own seat of Southern Highlands. In doing this, Fahey may also be reflecting an international conservative retreat from some aspects of Thatcherism. It is certain that Fahey will project a more populist image than Greiner, though the overall direction of Liberal policy is unlikely to change much.