Simon Lauder reported this story on Thursday, March 11, 2010 17:14:00

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MARK COLVIN: The former anti-corruption royal commissioner and judge, Tony Fitzgerald, has made what he says will be his last commentary on the state of government in Australia.

And it was damning.

Mr Fitzgerald says the prevailing political culture is amoral, anarchic, controlled by money and lacking in ethics, oversight and accountability.

He says too many politicians are motivated by power rather than public interest and there’s too much government by executive.

In short, Mr Fitzgerald says, our democracy is not broken but bent.

He delivered his assessment while launching an initiative of the Accountability Round Table, designed to reward politicians for honour and integrity.

Simon Lauder reports.

SIMON LAUDER: After blowing the lid off Queensland’s corruption in the late ’80s, Tony Fitzgerald went to ground, only breaking his silence last year, to accuse the state government of slipping back into the old ways.

Today he opened fire on Australian politics more generally.

TONY FITZGERALD: I’ve periodically rediscovered how easy it is to attract unwanted controversy.

(Quiet laughter)

TONY FITZGERALD: I hope to avoid that today in this, my swan song, by noting that my comments are not directed to individual politicians, a specific political party or a particular state and my opinions are simply those of an extremely fallible aging private citizen, with children and grandchildren who’s interested in Australia’s future.

SIMON LAUDER: With that the former royal commissioner launched into a speech, lamenting the dominance of Australian politics by career politicians and self interested groups with a disregard for the public interest in favour of political advantage.

He says voters are little more than observers to a substantially rule free political contest.

TONY FITZGERALD: The community is ill served by this escalating transfer of power from the public to the dominant political parties and the party’s disinterest in ethical constraints and resistance to oversight and accountability even by independent anti-corruption bodies.

Without satisfactory legal and ethical fetters, the political process like all human constructs can be and is manipulated and exploited to advance personal and group interests.

A political class has evolved which is interested in little but the acquisition and exercise of power.

SIMON LAUDER: Mr Fitzgerald says the major parties are abusing a position which is entrenched partly by wealth.

TONY FITZGERALD: It is now extremely difficult, if not impossible, for another competitive political force to emerge because of the financial advantages held by the two major parties and the critical role that money plays in political activity.

SIMON LAUDER: He says democracy is being undermined because of a disregard for Westminster conventions, an obsession with media management and the ability of well connected individuals and groups to wield influence.

TONY FITZGERALD: Decisions favouring special interests are common. Secrecy and misinformation, euphemistically called “spin” are routinely employed. Media management as it’s called insults and confuses the electorate, which is denied the comprehensive accurate information which is essential to the proper functioning of democracy.

Most if not all conventions concerning standards of political conduct, which the Westminster system once incorporated, such as ministerial responsibility are now obsolescent.

SIMON LAUDER: Mr Fitzgerald says too often he’s seen social division, populism and prejudice used a political tools and support for fundamental institutions abandoned for political advantage.

TONY FITZGERALD: The prevailing political culture is increasingly amoral with each party lowering its standards, exploiting gaps in the law and disregarding ethical standards in order to compete. You’ve heard the phrase “winner takes all” and you’ve heard the political phrase “whatever it takes”.

SIMON LAUDER: Tony Fitzgerald’s groundbreaking report on police and political corruption in Queensland ensures any comments he makes about political power will be heard – he insists this will be his last blast.

SIMON LAUDER: Tony Fitzgerald why did you call that your swan song?

TONY FITZGERALD: Well my understanding is that shortly before they die, swans sing and although I’m, not as far as I know, in imminent danger of death, this is indeed the last time I propose to speak publicly. I am a very private person. I’ve said want I want to say. I want to encourage the Accountability Round Table and organisations like that but I really have nothing more to contribute.

SIMON LAUDER: Can we assume that your comments apply to all levels of government?

TONY FITZGERALD: Look I don’t really know what happens so much at local authority levels and so forth, I think that’s a much more disparate group. I suppose my concerns are really more with Commonwealth and state governments than with local authorities; although obviously the integrity of local authorities is of paramount concern to local residents.

SIMON LAUDER: Is democracy broken?

TONY FITZGERALD: No. No it’s bent.

SIMON LAUDER: The Accountability Round Table is now taking nominations for the inaugural awards to honour parliamentary integrity. It’s not clear whether Mr Fitzgerald will be eligible to nominate.

MARK COLVIN: Simon Lauder.

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