Why scotching scandal is a political must

Peter Beattie has shown that scandal need not be the death of a government. The trick is to cauterise it fast.

Who is Peter Beattie? The ebullient, media-savvy Labour Premier of Queensland who in Saturday’s state election survived an election enrolment rorting scandal in his ranks that makes small beer of Phillida Bunkle.

Mr Beattie got rid of transgressors ruthlessly and smartly, regardless of party and ministerial standing. Thus having allegedly cleaned the stables, he ascended to the high moral ground, while his conservative opponents ripped each other’s votes to pieces for reasons that had nothing to do with the rorts. Labour’s vote went up 10 per cent to 50 per cent and it has three-quarters of the seats.

Australians are more used to scandal than we are and so more inclined to a resigned shrug of the shoulders. Nevertheless, Mr Beattie’s triumph reinforces a reliable rule of thumb: that voters vote on the beer, not the froth. And scandal is froth.

Unless, that is, it is left to fester and multiply. Which was Jenny Shipley’s mistake in 1998-99. She prevaricated when, as a new-broom Prime Minister, she might have won votes as Honest Jen. By election time Helen Clark was able credibly to run a line on “sleaze”.

Hence Ms Clark well understands the value of scotching scandal. This is most of the reason she so quickly and unforgivingly dumped Dover Samuels. It is why drink-drive Ruth Dyson had to go speedily.

And it is why Ms Clark needs Ms Bunkle out, even if she escapes from the two investigations now in train. The Bunkle debacle is not just a matter of legal technicalities or administrative rules. It is also a matter of political morality.

Ms Clark could tough it out. It is still more than 18 months to the election. Neither Ms Bunkle nor Marian Hobbs is a core minister — and Ms Hobbs’ case appears different on the facts.


Ms Clark’s anti-sleaze credibility already sports a dent from having mimicked Tony Blair’s 1998 promise of reinstatement to his disgraced favourite, Peter Mandelson, in foreshadowing Ms Dyson’s return to the ministry — and a second dent when Mr Mandelson recently re-offended and again resigned.
Four of her ministers have been caught offside in only 15 months. That’s an awful score.
nd Ms Clark has before her the contrasting lessons from the victorious Mr Beattie, whom she much admires, and the once-defeated Mrs Shipley, whom she despises.
National ministers defended Mrs Shipley in 1998-99 on the grounds that the scandals were “sideshows” when the truly important issues were the likes of the economy and social policy.

The National ministers were right: the scandals, taken one by one, were sideshows, not substance. But the ministers were also wrong: in 1998-99 the sideshows mutated into substance. First, too many sideshows can so bedazzle voters as to obscure the main event. Second, too many sideshows can undermine trust in a government’s overall competence.

Trust is a slippery but important commodity in politics.

Pauline Hanson’s re-emergence in the Western Australian and Queensland state elections these past two weekends is not important for its size: 9-10 per cent (matched by the Greens in Western Australia). Ms Hanson is important for giving anarchic voice to a corrosive belief of rather more than 10 per cent of Australians that governments cannot be trusted to look after their (widely disparate) interests. Scandal feeds that belief.

We know the Hanson syndrome. For a quarter of a century a seismic segment of voters, waxing and waning with changes in economic and social conditions and in political rhetoric, peopled the rises of Social Credit (1978-82), the Alliance parties (1989-94) and New Zealand First (1996).

The Hansonite tremor in Australia is a reminder that our similar voter seismic field is dormant, not dead. Scandal could set it off, even if the economy is running smoothly.

And, just as Australia’s curious preferential voting system, introduced in 1918 to glue up splits in the conservative vote, is now wrecking that vote instead, our proportional system, too, can make 10 per cent perversely pivotal, as 1996 showed.

Whom would such an tremor shake in 2002? The incumbent Ms Clark. That is the electoral importance of Ms Bunkle.