Somebody wrote a few weeks ago how shocked many Americans had been to realise that shame was the only thing that had been protecting them from political tyranny.
The writer meant that the only reason, until now, that no US president or political party had pulled the stunt of stacking the Supreme Court with a last-minute appointment, as Donald Trump has done, was that they feared the shame it would bring on them.
Same with all the voter-suppression dodges the Republican Party pulled out of the hat this year. While voter-suppression isn’t new in the USA, this year’s efforts took it to a whole new level that past administrations might well have been too ashamed to risk.
You can easily find a dozen other outstanding examples of a similar ilk in Trump’s administration. And the point is, these terrible, anti-democratic actions were easily performed. The only thing that had prevented them occurring before now was fear of shame, and since the fear of shame has been slowly dying as a factor in American politics, the shocking fragility of what passes for democracy in the US is now appallingly clear.
Remembering Joe and Eddie
But Australians can’t point fingers in this regard. For years, Australian politicians and political parties have been moving rapidly towards shamelessness, and democracy has been dying as a result. It can be argued that shameless politicians have long been common in Australia, and that is true enough. You only have to recall the NSW Labor government under the thrall of Joe Tripodi and Eddie Obeid to realise how little protection Australian democracy really has when blatant corruption is so readily able to thrive for long periods with no effective check.
Ultimately, the ballot box is the only weapon the aggrieved and afflicted voters have at their disposal, but this is little use in a country dominated by two parties both equally resistant to shame. There was a time, not so long ago, when a politician caught lying in parliament – federal or state – would be finished. It was accepted that lying to parliament was simply not done, and being caught was always a sacking offence. Not any more. The Morrison Government is riddled with members who have lied to parliament with no trace of consequence other than shame, which means nothing to them. Ministerial codes of conduct are unenforceable, but also so weak as to be pointless. Government and opposition alike are desperately opposed to any meaningful corruption watchdog, and the only reason that can be so is that both parties know all too well how deeply corrupt some of their members are.
But if Scott Morrison is the present-day poster-child for shamelessness in Australian federal politics, it seems that the one-time cleanskin Premier of NSW, Gladys Berejiklian, wants to give him a run for his money. She can’t get near him, of course. He has Angus, Barnaby and many more in his star-studded ministry of shamelessness. But Gladys has done more than any other Australian politician in recent days to spell out precisely where this nation’s democracy has managed to arrive.
For those of us who thought she was somehow outside the nasty shenanigans of politics, the past few weeks have been a rude awakening. First it was her secretive affair with her dodgy darling Daryl Maguire, who was allegedly a nothingburger in her life when ICAC asked her about him, but who rapidly became the man she had hoped to marry when the Murdoch Liberal Party PR machine wanted to put a schmaltzy spin on the seedy story.
Then there was the issue of her shovelling $250million in taxpayer money to targeted electorates, irrespective of need or funding guidelines, to help the Coalition win the 2019 election. No less than 95 per cent of this money went to Coalition seats. Next, staff were instructed to destroy evidence linking the premier to the grant approval process – surely an instruction that reeks of guilt. Then, when the evidence was recovered, Gladys’s last resort was to assert that there was nothing illegal in what she did.
Pork-barrelling for fun and profit
Let’s not even think too hard about what happened when Gladys felt the need to get a test for Covid-19 but decided not to follow the public health guidelines that require self-isolation after getting tested. Suffice to say her reaction seemed rather shameless, and it was hard not to think about the probable media reaction if a Labor premier had done the same thing.
In some ways it’s almost as if the politicians find it liberating to admit their lack of shame. Like Gladys admitting what she did was pork-barrelling (read a good definition of that expression here), it’s like they enjoy the freedom of doing what they want and defying anybody to do something about it. Because they know there is no punishment for misdeeds.
The point of all this is to draw attention to the rather frightening fact that – like our friends in America – our fragile democracy (such as it is) depends too much on our politicians and bureaucrats having a sense of shame. Now that more and more of them are making it clear that shame is not something that bothers them, Australia seems set to accelerate more rapidly than ever towards the banana republic status that some of us fear beckons.
Shame might have been a useful protection in times gone by, but it’s clearly not enough any more.