Diligent devourers of news from far-off places may have noticed a flurry of activity recently in the South-West Pacific. No, nothing to do with a missing airliner, just a bottle of wine that went missing a few years ago. But this was no ordinary bottle of wine; it was a $3000 bottle of a 1959 vintage delivered to the home of Mr. Barry Farrell, the leader of the New South Wales Liberal Party, to congratulate him on his election victory. It came from the chief fund-raiser for the NSW Liberal Party, a Mr. Nick Di Girolamo. Strangely, when Premier Farrell (as he was until the morning of April 16) was questioned before the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), just two weeks ago, he said he hardly knew Mr. Di Girolamo and he had never received a bottle of wine from him. However, it emerged that they had had quite a lot of meetings over the years and, some months after the Liberal Government was installed, Mr. Di Girolamo was appointed to the board of directors of Sydney’s municipal water supply.
There the plot thickens, as major contracts were let that favored a tiny company with no assets which just happened to be run by close friends and business associates of Mr Di Girolamo. These people in turn had been prominent members of the Labor Party Government that the Liberals had defeated. Suffice it so say that the ICAC is delving closely into the details of the twisted dealings of these people and, to their surprise, uncovered a hand-written note from Mr. and Mrs. Farrell to Mr. and Mrs. Di Girolamo, thanking them warmly for the wine. When Mr. Farrell was told of this, he promptly resigned as Premier of NSW.
This had immediate repercussions as, half an hour or so later, Mr. Farrell had been scheduled to stand beside the (Liberal) Prime Minister, Mr. Abbott, while the PM announced a $3billion program to build roads to the new Sydney Airport. Then, he was booked to go to the Opera House to greet the visiting Royals, Prince William and his wife, Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, and their baby, Prince George. What should have been an orgy of self-indulgent photo-ops turned into a politician’s nightmare as, a few minutes before the press conference, the PM was told his close friend, Mr. Farrell, had got the chop. The PM, who has an astounding capacity to put both feet in his mouth at a moment’s notice, was flummoxed when a lady reporter asked whether the “corrupt” NSW government would be able to handle such a large infrastructure project. Muttering something through a strangled voice, and clearly barely able to refrain from leaping to strangle her, he tried (unsuccessfully) to change the subject. Meanwhile, the seating arrangements were hurriedly changed, the deputy premier’s face was washed and he was presented to the Royals in front of a large and happy crowd as though impromptu beheadings were normal fare in the Antipodes. More’s the pity, they aren’t… yet.
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What does this say? It says that the premier of the leading state, equivalent to the Governor of New York, knew that his goose was well and truly cooked when the incriminating card was found. He was done, and the ICAC hasn’t come anywhere near finishing their enquiries. With luck, a good half dozen of the Great and Good should find themselves sharing a comfy cell with a sea view in Sydney’s Silverwater Prison; Mr Farrell probably won’t be one of them, but that’s not the point. The point is that corruption is so deeply entrenched that members of opposing parties had not the slightest problem colluding together to fleece the taxpayer. And it’s not just NSW, there is not a state in the country that hasn’t had its commissions of enquiry into a culture of corruption.
Nor is it just Australia: Britain is reeling from the trials of the phone hackers; the odious people in that trial had immediate access to the very highest levels of government. Across the Atlantic, New Jersey’s Bridgegate scandal is… well, that’s New Jersey, nothing new there. Washington, of course, floats on grease and always has done. The former French president is under investigation; Sgr Berlusconi’s Italian comic opera lurches wearily on; the world’s biggest banks are under investigation for systemic corruption; arms companies continue their dirty work; food companies, oil companies, coal miners, you name it, the sleaze just never stops. But wait: it could stop tomorrow, it’s that easy. The technology is available and now, thanks to the NSA, the British GCHQ, Australia’s ASIS and the equivalent bodies in Canada and New Zealand, it’s actually in place and operating. Right now. On your computer and your cellphone.
That is not an exaggeration. We have the means of stopping corruption dead in the water, just by flicking a few switches. At present, we have a vast machinery of institutional surveillance focussed on such dangerous movements as peace and justice, environment and conservation, racial and social equality, and anybody the elite don’t like (by the way, this is the same machinery that didn’t seem to know the Russians had “designs” on the Crimea). With zero effort, this gigantic spying apparatus could be turned to focus on our politicians and senior public servants. We don’t even need any new laws, the FISA court has all the authority it needs to turn away from harmless peaceniks and greenies to throw an electronic net over the dogs who are destroying the world. The British spies, of course, don’t need authority; they’ve always done what they liked.
Let’s start with the idea that all conversations between politicians and any person will be recorded and stored for posterity. Capturing the info is nothing, our pollies will have to wear a wire, but that’s not a technical problem, only aesthetic: they’d get used to it. Storage too is a snip: out there in Utah is a vast electronic warehouse that could store for all time every written word, every wink and nod, every heartbeat of every politician, lobbyist, fundraiser and cheap crook wannabe, to be immediately available to an ICAC. After a suitable period, it should be open to any person who chooses to dredge through the drivel looking for crime. Actually, we don’t need it for all time, a couple of years would do, as each politician has enough enemies to be sure that his every word will be watched closer than a mouse in a cattery.
And that’s all we have to do: destroy the myth of the need for political secrecy with which all politicians the world over surround themselves. Accountability is the name of the game. Corruption only succeeds where people are sure they won’t be caught so, to eradicate corruption, we simply ensure that everybody who makes a crooked move will inevitably be caught. If there’s no secrecy, there’s no corruption. All it takes is the political will: I’m willing, are you?
Trouble is, the people who can make this happen are the very people who profit from the cloaks of secrecy they throw around their moves. Privacy, they say, everybody needs privacy. But no matter what the politicians and their corrupting friends say, privacy and secrecy are not the same thing. Citizens have privacy, but public officials don’t. The moment elected or appointed officials are allowed a modicum of privacy, they turn it to their advantage. But we now have the machinery to make sure they can never do it again. Thank you so much, NSA.