Time to break corporate power over governments

The Sydney March in March on March 16. A follow up rally is happening in May.

"Money speaks” is the message we should be taking from the last few weeks of state politics in NSW.

Inappropriate and undeclared financial dealings and interests are being found at every level of Australian politics. The parliamentary parties are riddled with factions, controlled by powerbrokers who promote the careers of their own base of loyal supporters. This undemocratic concentration of power leaves the parties unable to resist corruption.

As one corrupt politician is dispatched there are always plenty more to take their place.

The federal Coalition government has called a royal commission to investigate corruption in the trade union movement, but the resignation of NSW premier Barry O'Farrell after he lied to the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) has made it clear corruption is not confined to one side of politics.

ICAC revealed O’Farrell accepted a vintage bottle of wine valued at almost $3000 from the head of Australian Water Holdings (AWH) Nick Di Girolamo, who was lobbying for a lucrative state government contract at the time.

AWH is accused of inappropriately billing Sydney Water and using the money for political donations while lobbying for a public/private partnership with state-owned Sydney Water to build Sydney’s water infrastructure.

O’Farrell did not declare the wine on the parliamentary pecuniary interests register or the ministerial declaration of interests.

At first O’Farrell categorically denied receiving the wine to both the media and to ICAC but in the light of a paper trail — including a Vintage Cellars invoice, a delivery invoice to O’Farrell’s home, telephone records showing that O’Farrell phoned Di Girolamo on the evening of the delivery and a handwritten thank you note in O’Farrell’s handwriting — he finally admitted a “massive memory fail”.

O’Farrell has been replaced with former treasurer Mike Baird — a fiscally conservative right-wing Christian who has voted against same-sex couples’ adoption rights. Baird is also connected to Di Girolamo; he appointed him to his position on the board of State Water Corporation in July last year.

ICAC is investigating dealings with AWH from both major political parties. Former NSW Labor minister Eddie Obeid testified last week that he did not know his family secretly owned 30% of the company, or that his son worked for the company, and said he did not lobby on behalf of the company out of greed.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has hailed O’Farrell’s resignation as an “act of integrity” but the incident is further proof that the government rules for the corporate rich.

NSW Greens MP John Kaye said this is indicative of a deeper problem: “What has happened is bigger than ICAC and Australian Water Holdings. It goes to the heart of the political system in NSW where major parties do the bidding of the big end of town.”

Kaye has called for all meetings between businesses seeking to influence government decisions to be publicly minuted, and for all MPs to declare any potential personal interest in any decision in which they are involved.

Such a solution, however, assumes that corporate stakeholders should be seeking to influence government, and that the problem lies in the secrecy and mendacity of the way this is done. However, it does nothing to establish the ability of ordinary working people (who are unable to give $3000 gifts to politicians) to exercise an equal, democratic say in pursuing their own political objectives.

Peter Boyle, national co-convener of the Socialist Alliance, agreed that the Greens’ proposed reforms would allow more public scrutiny. He also said: “In order to break corporate power and influence over our government, communities must be given direct power to have a real say in all important decisions.

“The drive to privatise public assets must be reversed and the privileges of being a politician have to end. We would like to see all politicians put on an average skilled workers’ wage as part of a broader plan to deal with what is clearly bi-partisan and systematic government corruption.”

Extraordinarily, the incident has been treated as not unusual, and the premier has been defended as an honest man, despite his resignation over alleged corruption.

The corruption for which NSW Labor was well known, and which was a big reason they were thrown out at the last election, is not confined to one political party but is the usual way politics is conducted.

Judging by the recent WA senate by-election, next years’ NSW election could result in even greater rejection of the major political parties and their policies than we have previously seen.

O’Farrell’s “memory lapse” is yet another reason for us to stop relying on representatives in parliament and find ways to create the change we need. One alternative is to strengthen the power of movements that exist outside of parliament.

This year has already seen a revival of mass rallies such as the March in March, which mobilised more than 100,000 people nationally against the Abbott government.

A follow up rally to the March in March is happening in May. A demand to break corporate power and influence over government would be a good issue for the rally to take up.

[The March in May will be held on May 18 at 1pm in Sydney’s Belmore Park.]