Systemic corruption and corrupted processes are hardly a problem confined to the Liberals. Lord Mayor Jeff McCloy Photo: Ben Rushton

Clive Palmer this week accused Tony Abbott of “deserting Australia” on an unwarranted overseas trip, and of abandoning Joe Hockey in his struggle to produce any sort of a budget that can get through the senate. Perhaps instead Abbott and Hockey were putting on an act to distract attention from the systemic mess that is now the Liberal Party of NSW.

It’s a mess that has, so far, enveloped only state ministers, but can it be long before the whiff is discernible in Canberra?

It’s pretty difficult to imagine either Abbott or Hockey as mere political hacks, up for sale to the highest bidder, prepared to accept brown paper envelopes stuffed with cash, or willing to do anything to go behind both the letter and the spirit of the law, so long as it benefited their party or themselves, or both.

Like them or not, each is a conviction politician of character. Yet each is also an inveterate player in party factions (different ones), and party rulemaking and governance, whose political power and reputation has turned, at least in part, on their capacity to mix it in the bruising struggles for control of different branches of the party, and the organisational leadership of the party.

The same applies to a good number of other members of the Abbott ministry and government. Some have friends, relations or factional colleagues in arms among whose conduct is coming into question before the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption, whether from elected positions in state politics, or in positions of power, or as bagmen for the organisational side of the party, or providers of illegal and improper donations.

Sooner or later, one might think, people are going to wonder whether the NSW disease affects Sydney politicians sent to Canberra in much the same way that it seems to affect Sydney folk elected to Macquarie Street.

Just as important a question – one that applies equally to essentially honest men and women in NSW Labor – is whether they have the guts and the patience to tackle the cancer that is killing their party, their country, trust in the honesty and integrity of politicians and the political process, and even their own reputations.

It is a measure of the size of that task that there has not been a senior political leader, even an honest one, in either the Labor or Liberal parties who has been up to the task since the 1960s. Even great names – in NSW, Wran and Carr, Keating and Latham, Greiner and O’Farrell, Howard and Abbott – have been conspicuously missing when they had a chance to do something about it.

Systemic corruption and corrupted processes are hardly a problem confined to the Liberals. Only a year ago, ICAC was conducting an inquiry that was uncovering (revealing would be too kind a word) systemic corruption in NSW Labor, affecting unions, factions, and the organisational side of the party as much as elected members.

By then, NSW voters had tired of blatant NSW rorting and the rapacity of Eddie Obeid in particular, and had thrown Labor, long the natural party of government in the state, out. The intention was that they would be gone for at least a decade or so, until all the old rorters had been worked out of the system.

It has taken epic and spectacular mismanagement by the NSW Liberals, including some now in Canberra, to show themselves as equally unworthy of the public trust in so short a time. Indeed, there is a good chance, likely to be magnified by a host of corruption-caused by-elections caused by resignations from the NSW Parliament this week, that Labor could return to office at the next election.

If so, it would be essentially unreformed, and subject to the same sort of crooked influences, secret deals and studious ignorance, as at the height of the era of Obeid. And here in Canberra, those whose careers came from those days will have their power increased, if only from the capacity to raid the NSW cookie jar.

Those considering this would do well to remember that ICAC has no remit whatever to look at the structures of the NSW political party system, how power is exercised within it, or the merits or demerits of any of its players. It certainly has no remit over federal politicians, or what they do, why they do particular things, or with what money and resources.

ICAC can never substitute for a royal commission, or standing inquiry, into the mechanics of politics as such. What it is about is safeguarding the government of NSW, at municipal as well as state level from improper decision-making of a sort that can be called, under a wide but not unlimited definition, “corrupt”.

If the activities of a federal minister, say Arthur Sinodinos, have come under the ICAC purview, it is not for anything he has done as a federal minister, nor, strictly about his stewardship roles in the NSW Liberal organisation, first as treasurer, later as president.

He has been before it over allegations that a company with which he was associated attempted to exercise improper influence over ministers in NSW governments, as it happens ministers of both Labor and Liberal persuasion. The real question that ICAC is considering is whether the cause, and the means used to promote the cause, could be said to have been corrupt.

A good many people who have listened to the evidence have already made up their minds about that in advance of formal ICAC findings, but it is perfectly possible that the behaviour of some of those promoting the cause will be found to fall shorty of being corrupt.

One of the things underlined by the inquiry was the number of NSW Liberal Party power players who were actually in the business of being lobbyists, boasting about their access to ministers, about their power in the councils of the organisation, and, implicitly, of their power to affect preselections, to organise rewards and punishments.

In that cosy world it seemed that power in Macquarie Street also extended into power over appointments, and disappointments, in the public service, in a way one would hope was never possible in Canberra. (If it were possible, we would probably never know, because there is no Commonwealth-level ICAC, and most of the watchdogs and guardians do not regard themselves as publicly accountable about senior public service dispositions).

The danger of this had been obvious and much commented upon. Indeed, Abbott, fairly soon after being elected, declared that Liberals could be party office bearers or lobbyists, but not both. A number of people grumpily stood aside from elected posts, though it was not obvious that any – experienced players in the factional systems, and numbers men above all – had surrendered any power within the Liberal Party. Instead, in the manner that happens so often with political “reforms”, the smarties simply worked their way around it, not least with proxies, third parties and technicalities.

This is, of course, the method long used on both sides of the street, and at federal level as much as state level, with political donations. Whenever some would-be reformer makes changes to the donations system, one can be sure that organisational people will have worked out, in advance, how it can be rorted.

Periodic changes designed to raise the level before which donations must be publicly declared are designed to make it a bit of a free-for-all at the bottom, but the big money is generally washed, with the knowing complicity of scores of people.

A sure sign of rorting is the prevalence of donations at the $9900 level if the reporting threshhold is $10,000. So, on models adopted largely from the US, is the multiplication of donations from individuals and companies, sometimes public ones, closely associated with them. Australia, of course, also plays the US rort of regarding corporations as citizens, entitled to the same free speech and right to make political donations as anyone else.

Most likely, the first signs that the hand grenade has reached Canberra will be with individual and organisational rorts over donations. Alas, absent a Commonwealth-level ICAC or royal commision, the public will be looking only through a keyhole: the Australian Electoral Commission has neither the resources nor the inclination to police the integrity of a system that politicians have deliberately made weak and difficult to enforce.

The peddling of influence, and the corruption of political donation laws, goes hand in hand with branch-stacking, winner-takes-all approaches to the exercise of power, and the “whatever-it-takes” mentality that has some political players lionised as hard men, in much the same way (and for much the same reason) that prominent crooks, standover men and wide boys are.

There are people who get into politics conscious of a good deal of dirty business going on in the background, but thinking themselves rather untouched or unaffected by it. Yet, as a straight federal ALP secretary once observed to me glumly, how long can it be before the public realises how much the hard men (they are nearly always men) have their knees across the throats of even the principled and naive politicians.

There is not a winnable seat – Labor or Liberal – in NSW that cannot be stacked. There are not many that are not. Factional chiefs, including supposedly virtuous ones such as Anthony Albanese, have no compunction whatever in overriding local party members if it suits some higher interest of a faction.

Those who want preselections must generally be beholden to one faction or another, and, if they stray, they will be punished. Among the fierce punishers will be parliamentary colleagues, many of whom are ruthless players even as they parade their virtue, churchgoing habits and idealism.

Periodically, some celebrity will be given a seat, or some player – an ex-party secretary such as a Sam Dastyari or a Sinodinos – will gouge out a winnable place in the Senate without having to do much to actually face voters, or the critical scrutiny of any but the faction that has put them up.

But few beneficiaries of this sort are naive about what happens; indeed, many have played the game far harder than most, with the safe seat as a reward.

Disraeli (or Twain, or Bismarck) once observed that people who like sausages and respect the law should never see either being made. In NSW, by contrast, a good many modern politicians have grown up in a system they had to understand pretty well, by experience, before they could hope to win out in a dirty no-holds-barred preselection battle.

Perhaps it hardens the soul, and shuts the eyes and the ears to what follows after. Baby kissing is a doddle compared with the kissing and kicking of arses.

From time to time a politician emerges for whom it is all too much, or who has reached the stage where he, or she, no longer has anything to fear or to hope for. John Faulkner, for example, has been preaching fundamental reform of Labor for quite some time.

John Howard, as a grand statesman of the party (albeit a hammer-and-tongs player all of his life) may have a similar instinct for the need for NSW reform – although the cynic can observe (and has) that the direction of the reforms he is promoting have the no-doubt accidental benefit that they would serve the interests of the presently-out-of-power faction with which Howard has been associated.

Real reform is necessarily hard work because real power is involved. Those who have that power (and who fought long and hard for it) will not lightly give it up, nor readily forgive anything among those who benefit from their power who desert them.

For a good many NSW federal politicians, there is no immediate upside to being with those who want a reasonably pure and transparent party system, and plenty of obvious downside. But that is serious short-term thinking, because the public is getting sick of all of the sleaze. And, every now and again, unpredictable things occur, and careers and reputations, and, probably, positions and pensions are suddenly out the door.

It’s hardly a surprise that an Abbott, or any other politician, will claim to have been looking the other way at the time, or away on urgent national business thanking hearse drivers in Holland.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on 老域名.