Swan song for former corruption fighter

Source:Stateline Victoria
Published:Friday, March 12, 2010 12:00 AEDT
Expires:Thursday, June 10, 2010 12:00 AEDTSTATELINE VIDEO & WEBSITE HERE

The head of one of Australia’s most famous corruption inquiries, Tony Fitzgerald, laments the lack of political accountability in modern Australian politics.

JOSEPHINE CAFAGNA, PRESENTER: I spoke with Tony Fitzgerald in what he says is his last interview.

Tony Fitzgerald, thank you for coming onto Stateline


JOSEPHINE CAFAGNA: Why has this been your swansong?


TONY FITZGERALD: I think I’ve said enough now and I’d like to go back to the private existence which I prefer. And as I understand it, swans sing before they die, so although while my health isn’t a particular issue so far as I’m aware, it’s intended to indicate that I don’t want to keep on saying the same thing. It’s very encouraging to see bodies like the accountability roundtable coming forward, but I’ve reached my used by date.

JOSEPHINE CAFAGNA: You paint quite a grim picture of politics and political life in Australia.

TONY FITZGERALD: I think that we have seen in my lifetime a couple of unfortunate developments in politics. One I think now – money is now, as in the American system, becoming of paramount importance. Two, I think that the major political parties associated with that need for money and the fact that they are financed with public funds by reference to previous election results have assumed a dominant position which is almost unchallengeable. So they just contest things amongst themselves while the rest of us look on.

JOSEPHINE CAFAGNA: Is that a breeding ground for corruption?

TONY FITZGERALD: I don’t think much about corruption these days. I think that it’s an unfortunate combination when you have political parties so dependent on money and so willing to provide access and privileges to wealthy, well-connected people. If we’re truly an egalitarian society, in my view, I shouldn’t have any more access because I’m wealthy or because I happen to know a politician personally.

JOSEPHINE CAFAGNA: Victoria doesn’t have an ICAC. How important are institutions like that to watch, keep an eye and initiate investigations where you think – where they think possible corruption may breed?

TONY FITZGERALD: We’re told these days about realpolitik, a concept that has much to offer in international affairs, but in my view little to offer in domestic politics. It’s a notion that political decisions are driven by advantage rather than by principle. So as a matter of realpolitik, it’s obvious why governments and political parties generally don’t want accountability bodies, anti-corruption bodies, independent and oversight. But as a matter of principle it seems unanswerable because human nature being what it is, corruption’s part of the human experience and bodies which can if not eliminate, at least reduce corruption, have a great financial benefit to the community. A community that has minimal corruption is a more prosperous community than a community which is bedevilled by corruption.

JOSEPHINE CAFAGNA: So do you believe Victoria should have an ICAC-style commission?

TONY FITZGERALD: I’d rather comment on the general rather than Victoria. There may be special reasons here that I don’t know about. All I can really say is that it doesn’t come as a particular surprise that any government that isn’t forced to have one prefers not to.

JOSEPHINE CAFAGNA: What about the fairly new concept of paying for access to ministers and premiers, whether it’s breakfasts or luncheons. What do you think of that concept?

TONY FITZGERALD: Look, to me those things are self-serving fallacies which are really put up to disguise the truth of what’s occurring. I cannot understand why if someone has a great project to bring to the state they need to pay to go to lunch, which is a very small thing; it doesn’t matter very much. I think much more significant is the idea that it’s possible to buy access by donations to the party. And the whole idea that these people are there to somehow gain a personal or a party political advantage rather than to exercise their authority on behalf of the public is an idea that’s crept in. Perhaps has always been there. As I say, I’m no doubt naive, but it’s unprincipled, in my view.

JOSEPHINE CAFAGNA: And increasingly governments are turning to what’s called spin, employing vast numbers of PR people to tell their side of the story. What does that do to the political system and the public information?

TONY FITZGERALD: Well, it’s hopeless in the sense that it’s like secrecy. It’s as though the information’s theirs to control. It’s public information. The whole concept of people being misinformed or uninformed seems to me to be incompatible with democracy. But again, to some extent, I think it’s part of the interplay between politicians and the media. The media is very interested to get the – what do they call it? the sound bite, the grab, and so saying something stupid but superficially attractive is a pretty good way for a politician to get on television, and so they’re inclined to oversimplify issues and present them that way because that’s the what’ll hit the news.

JOSEPHINE CAFAGNA: Tony Fitzgerald, thank you for your time.

TONY FITZGERALD: Pleasure, Josephine.

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