We have become resigned to the fact that we have lost responsible government in Australia. Ministers no longer resign when someone in their charge does something wrong. They sack the wrongdoer. On a very good day you might get an expression of regret. You will not get an apology – and of course resignation is entirely out of question. It has only taken about a generation to wind up that part of what used to be called the Westminster System.
There appears to be a new and possibly more insidious invasion of ministerial responsibility. A suggestion has been made that a federal government minister has not complied with some written standards. The Prime Minister says that he has referred the issue to a senior public servant.
There are two things here. First there is apparently some written code that someone has prepared – I’m not sure whether it applies just to this government or all members of this party or what its standing is; I am accordingly even less sure of whether its prescriptions would accord with what members of the public might think should be standards of decency to be expected from their elected representatives who happen also to be ministers of the Crown. That is one issue – our legal system has not always got on well with codes.
The other question is why the Prime Minister, or any minister, or any Member of Parliament is referring an issue of their conduct in office to a civil servant. Judges do not ask their clerks if they have done something wrong; generals do not ask their valets if they have buggered something up in battle; doctors do not ask their receptionists or even their nurses whether they have got something wrong. Just who, then, is in charge?
The accused minister is happy to describe the civil servant as ‘the highest public servant in the land’: golly, should we curtsey? I had assumed that this personage would merely offer some report or advice. Perhaps we could live with that level of intervention, as long as the decision is ultimately taken by those who should take it, namely, the relevant ministers or members of Parliament.
But that view does not appear to be shared by all of the press. The senior political reporter for the AFR yesterday said that the fate of the accused minister ‘now rests with senior public servant Martin Parkinson who is deciding whether Robert [the accused minister] breached the ministerial code of conduct. If he finds he did, his future is grim.’ That report does suggest that this civil servant has received some kind of high judicial appointment.
Well, these things happen in the press, but other suggestions in that report of Phillip Coorey are a lot more disturbing. The article says that in June 2013 a Chinese billionaire attended a dinner at Parliament House. So also did Tony Abbott, his chief of staff Peta Credlin, the then Shadow industry Minister Ian Macfarlane and the Shadow Minister for defence Stuart Robert – who is now the minister the subject of the enquiry. The article then goes on to say that the Chinese billionaire gave each of these people ‘designer watches… as a goodwill gesture…’ In addition, watches were provided, the article says, to the wife of Abbott and to the wife of Robert who were not there. It must have been quite a night at Parliament House – did the bountiful Chinaman turn up with a big sack of gifts like Santa?
Mr Macfarlane then went and saw the clerk of the House of Representatives to declare his gift. So here we have another case of politicians referring to civil servants for advice on their professional conduct.
But then Mr Macfarlane made a very serious mistake. He ‘reasoned’ that his ‘designer watch’, a Rolex, was a fake. Was the then Shadow Minister an expert in watches, fake or otherwise? Mr Macfarlane, whose star has fallen, comes across, with some effort, as a plain man from the sticks – but that did not stop him estimating the value of the ‘fake Rolex’ at between three hundred dollars and five hundred dollars. This was, I gather, beneath the value in which he had to make a public declaration relating to the gift.
The article appears to me to suggest that the clerk of the House was a party to this exercise in assessing the value of the gift. If so, both of those involved were making a very serious error. It does suggest, to put it at its lowest, a cavalier regard for determining the value of gifts for determining how someone in a position of public trust should respond to them. Getting a fake Rolex might be one thing; getting a real one is altogether a different thing.
And the problem is worse for Mr Macfarlane because his thinking was apparently predicated on the assumption that the Chinese billionaire who made the gift was a crook – a crook who could not even give a proper watch, but had to give a fake one. This is hardly a good position to start from if you have two come to explain later on why you get accepted a gift – that you thought that the donor was a crook. You may be able to dismiss a fake as a bauble, but no one is naive enough to think that Chinese businessmen are handing out real Rolex watches to Australian politicians for nothing. I’ve had some difficulty in following the current allegation against Mr Robert, but I doubt whether it is as serious as suggesting that he received a gift worth tens of thousands of dollars from a Chinese businessman.
But then apparently Mr Macfarlane ran into a colleague who had a real Rolex and who compared the weights of the two watches. On the basis of that show of expertise by another MP, the two of them concluded that the gift was a genuine watch. Golly – what will we do now? Mr Macfarlane then had the watch valued – which he should have done in the first place if he was serious. He was then told it was worth $40,000! And he was also told, again according to the article, that his watch ‘wasn’t as flash as those given to Abbott, Margie Abbott, and Credlin’. Was even the sky no limit to this bounty from the Orient?
What should Mr Macfarlane do then? Well of course he should go back to the clerk and be advised what to do. He told the clerk that he thought he should hand it back. The clerk said he was entitled to keep it – which is an interesting proposition of either propriety or law – but that giving it back would be a good idea. It would be interesting to know how the return of the gift was worded.
The article then says that Mr Macfarlane informed Mr Tony Nutt who is now the federal director of the Liberal Party of the problem. Mr Nutt then ‘ordered the immediate collection of the watches so they could be given back… Robert like his MP colleagues complied. There remain suggestions one watch was not returned.’ The word was ordered. The scene may have been more interesting if Mr Nutt’s predecessor had issued such an order to Ms Credlin.
So here you have a whole group of politicians who should know better behaving in a very curious way in response to gifts of Rolex watches by a visiting Chinese businessman of great wealth. Whoever else the arbiters of ministerial conduct may have been, they appear to be here the clerk of the House of Representatives and the director of the Liberal Party. We are told how Mr Macfarlane blithely accepted these gifts of great value – but we are not told how the other donees pacified their consciences.
I happen to know something about Rolex watches. One thing I know is that Rolex watches of the kind apparently being handed out here are worth many times the value of a bottle of Grange Hermitage.
Those who want to condemn footballers for the way that they accept what their employer tells them would presumably be horrified at the conduct of these leaders of the nation with a Chinaman on the make. Who do you think behaved more irresponsibly – the footballers who accepted what is alleged to be Flyaway X, or the political grandees who accepted actual Rolex watches worth $40,000 each or more?
But, whichever way that you look at this report, there is some absolutely prime bullshit here.
When I said in my previous note that Essendon lied to the players, I should have made it clear that that allegation is predicated on the assumption that the relevant finding by the CAS Panel was valid. I was saying, or meant to say, that if you accept the decision of the Panel, then the other propositions followed.
Poet of the month – Philip Larkin
Long Sight in Age
They say eyes clear with age,
As dew clarifies air
To sharpen evenings
As if time put an edge
Round the last shape of things
To show them there;
The many-levelled trees,
The long soft tides of grass
Wrinkling away the gold
Wind-ridden waves – all these,
They say, come back to focus
As we grow old.
Movie – Steve Jobs
This film is brilliantly written. It is put together like a top West End play. Fassbender and Winslett look perfect in the lead roles. (I did not think she had it in her.) The only problem is that the hero, who is rarely off the screen, at a personal level makes Hitler look like an avuncular softy. Jobs has a manic need to hurt those closest to him, and to insult and bulldoze people, especially the weak. Is it something in his past that makes him degrade people in a way that makes us wince? He is what we call ‘damaged goods’ – he has a maimed psyche. (There is a lot of the revenge of Heathcliff and Gatsby in this character, but more of that later.)
At his best, Jobs was like Wagner – a rolled gold shit who thought that the world owed his genius obeisance and that it also owed him a living. There is no genius here. Jobs says that he is not the musician but the conductor. He is no more a genius than the Madam of a high-class knock-shop, if a bit better paid. The film is often painful, but it is well worth it – even if the end is tartly mawkish.
This film is as good in its own way as The Big Short. After you have seen both, you might conclude that the big winners in big business are crooks, nuts, or psychopaths. Well, is this what Shakespeare may have called the ‘promised end’ of capitalism? Was Karl Marx right after all?