Our Golden Age of Corruption, by Bruce Buchan

I. Our Golden Age of Corruption

In 1842 the prominent colonial barrister Richard Windeyer wrote inaccurately, but with greater prescience than he knew, of the ‘grand fundamental law’ among a people he abused with the epithet ‘savages’: ‘…that those should take who have the power and those should keep who can.’ Windeyer’s mendacious rhetoric is a prime example of the perversity of the colonial imagination. The ‘grand fundamental law’ he ascribed to the ‘savages’ was in fact an apposite description of precisely what the ‘civilised’ had been doing in Australia since 1788. Reading his words in the early twenty-first century reveals just how prescient Windeyer was. Not only did he disclose colonial rapacity, his adage resonates as a neat characterisation of the corrupting privileges of power in our own day.

There is a new ‘savagery’ afoot in our Commonwealth implementing its age-old ‘grand fundamental law’. The scramble is on for the taking and keeping by those who can. As in the days of our colonial past, the savages are not the powerless and dispossessed but those endowed with wealth or entitled by power to act with impunity.

Ours is a golden age of corruption whose ironies are fit to make us weep, or laugh. For all the homiletic verities of our pious discourse of ‘good governance’, corruption flourishes as never before. Foreign bribery scandals, gangrenous political donations, the odour of lobbying for contracts, the sale of the public for private profit, the systematic creation of rents in the place of public services, the gravy train of private profiteering driven by the manufacture of war and insecurity, the sudden transparency afforded by the ‘Panama Papers’—each reveals new dimensions of the sordid corruption that passes for neoliberal government the world over.

There is nothing new in corruption; it has been the steady companion of our noblest aspirations throughout the human historical record. Bribery has sat companionably beside benevolence, venality with virtue. What is new today is the degree to which corruption enacts a world view of entitlement embodied in the wealthy and governing elites of nations the world over. Two features of this sordid corruption should give us pause to consider its novelty. The first is that it long ago cast off its cloak of secrecy. The corruption of our age is no longer just of the sneaking variety but proudly carried on in the full glare of public policy. The devastation of public institutions, from education to aged care, in the name of efficiency, and their replacement by cut-price scams that serve private interests creates unheralded vistas for rent-seeking, lobbied for and foisted upon the public in the name of good policy. The mechanisms of government, none more obvious than taxation, are used to engineer loopholes or incentives to favour private interests at the direct expense of the public goods rendered unaffordable by this massive graft. Golden-age corruption is something we have not seen before in its sweeping ambition, in its magisterial presumption to dignify itself in the public eye.

The second feature of our golden-age corruption that is entirely new is an irony that would not be lost on the Romans who surveyed the ruins of their once-mighty empire. Assailed from within by its own corruption and from without by the hordes of nomads they deigned to label ‘barbarians’, the inheritors of empire awoke to a slow-dawning realisation that the barbarians were no longer hammering at Rome’s gate but had been ruling Rome for some time. For the Romans, what had masked this realisation was a fatal presumption that they were the possessors of a sedentary ‘civilisation’, in contrast to the savage wandering of nomadic barbarians. As we too slowly awaken from our dazed slumber to dawning revelations, the lineaments of our own presumptions are taking shape. We too thought we inhabited a civil state, only to realise that a new kind of nomadism has taken hold. Corruption has flourished in this new world where money and privilege are detectible in flight. Flight is the sovereign metaphor for our age: flight between accounts, flight between nations; flight over borders, flight beneath the radar. This is the gift of globalisation: a world of emancipated finance where those with the wherewithal are enabled to opt out at will.

II. The Politics of Flight

Globalisation has given us a world of circulations. People, goods, ideas and cultures circulate in ebbs and flows across the random borders of states. Money also circulates. We all know the benefits of these circulations, as we know its costs. Where once career and home were the goals of aspiring classes around the world, now it is mobility. Mobility brings opportunity, for those who can seize it. For others it heralds loss—of jobs, of industries, of careers, of communities. We’ve lived in this world long enough to know its effects, and to know the politics of flight.

The politics of flight is the cold comfort of the neoliberal state. The ever-eager agents of financial globalisation have used the politics of flight as a tool of government. Flighty global finance is the capricious goddess Fortuna, risen again. Her arrival heralds victory (investment) and glory (re-election). She must be seized by her forelock and captured for a time or she will elude the eager grasp and move on, leaving us to rue defeat and ignominy. This is the moral cycle of the politics of flight. In order to prosper, global finance must be attracted and won, but its stay is not assured. To woo it, we must be lean and mean. We must eschew our old illusions of a popular sovereignty founded on a common good, and put away the cherished goods, whether public health or education, as relics of a time too expensive for our austere age. Now capital is queen, and we live and die by her circuit through the airy realms above.

To all this we have grown accustomed, but though we’ve known it we have not wanted to own the politics of flight. Now we must own it, or change it. This is the burden of the Panama Papers. They show us how globalisation has enabled those with power or with wealth to opt out. This they have done in droves. One of the analytical advantages of the Panama Papers is that they throw a spotlight onto a fraction of our ruling class. They are the ones who have opted out. They are the hawkers of austerity feathering their own nests. They are the savage slashers and barbarous burners of the public whose sole guiding principle in political life is to keep their runway clear. They are the ones in flight.

III. The Novelty of Corruption

As the billions have been launched into the firmament, their searing trajectory has been ephemerally illuminated, like the demented blush of fireworks. The heavenly arc of tax evasion has captured our attention, but our focus should remain on the politics of flight. The opting out of our wealthy and governing classes has been the hitherto largely unseen sinkhole into which our public goods have vanished. This flight of capital has enabled neoliberal governments, in differing ‘ideological’ hues, to beat the drum of advancing austerity. The public goods that adorn a society committed to justice and fairness—health, housing, education, transport—have each been emaciated or starved entirely because the wealthy and governing classes have opted out. Justice is a right of all, but equally it imposes a burden on each. Justice is meaningless if it is not embodied in the right of all to a decent life and to human dignity. The neoliberal sleight of hand is that dignity and decency are rights won only by privilege, and the highest form of it is flight. The neoliberal acolytes of finance are no longer members in a meaningful sense of any recognisable terrestrial community. Their wealth and privilege has given them access to a global polity in eternal flight from justice.

The Panama Papers have so far revealed that twelve national leaders and 143 politicians from around the world are implicated in tax evasion involving the salting away of hundreds of billions of dollars. This activity is nothing short of a massive corruption of government, in which this private gain is paid for with public money. The Panama Papers have sounded a warning for what lies ahead. There is a very large iceberg lurching ominously toward our leaking, creaking ship of state. Mossack Fonseca, the law firm outed by the Panama Papers as the enabler of a global industry of tax evasion, is at the tip of that iceberg. It is only the world’s fourth-largest offshore law firm, and one of an estimated 140 offshore firms whose sole purpose is to service the industrial-scale avoidance and evasion of taxation. According to the Panama Papers, Mossack Fonseca services around 214,000 companies and 14,000 individual clients worldwide. The costs of this scale of tax avoidance and evasion are enormous. In Australia, the Taxation Office is investigating up to 800 ‘high-net-worth individuals’, of whom 120 have been linked to just one offshore service provider in Hong Kong. The Statistics Office in Canada has estimated that about $199 billion has been invested from that country alone in offshore-tax-haven investments. Canadian tax experts, however, say that this is only a fraction of undeclared, evaded tax, which in total has been estimated to cost the Canadian government between $6 billion and $7.8 billion in losses each year.

This is the corruption that lies at the heart of the politics of flight. It is not just that individuals or corporations have evaded paying tax, or even that they have minimised it. It is that they have opted out of the public altogether; indeed, they have opted out of all publics anywhere. In their airy realm of flight they have escaped the costs of the debilitation of the public by the neoliberal acolytes of austerity. These sorry enablers of the politics of flight have scammed the public with a shabby huckster’s deal. They have foisted an imposture on the public, mercilessly slashing public goods, replacing the common good with merely private goods, because this is the price of a ticket to the politics of flight. The privileges of the few must be paid for by the costs imposed upon the rest of us. It is the incarnation of corruption, a debasement of justice and of fairness.

IV. The Political Art of Corruption

This is the modern art of politics: to govern by corruption. One of the distortions perpetrated by the discourse of ‘good governance’ is the comforting illusion that corruption is a perversion. It is as if the pious mouthpieces of this discourse imagine that corruption is an aberration from an otherwise un-corrupt normality. If the right measures are in place, and the enforcement is made to match the penalties, then corruption may be eliminated. It’s a fine thought, but it’s also a deception. The truth is that corruption is normal; far from being an aberration or a perversion, corruption is ubiquitous. If the Panama Papers have revealed the extent to which the globalisation of finance has enabled the systematic fraud perpetrated on the public worldwide, more humble tales of corruption at home reveal how, in the full glare of public policy, corruption flourishes in the Commonwealth.

The most recent scandal to be brought to public attention is that of political donations. Despite laws passed and the shame of publicity, still the scandal continues. In recent years, nine members of the New South Wales parliament were forced to step down for receiving donations from a property developer that were clearly illegal under existing statutes. So brazen was the gift that, in at least one case, the MP himself did not think it was wrong to personally take possession of a brown paper bag full of cash. The symbol was so apposite that the property developer in question pictured himself on Instagram celebrating his birthday with a cake in the shape of a brown paper bag spilling banknotes. The scandal has now taken a different twist, as the NSW Electoral Commission has withheld $4.4 million in public funding from the NSW Liberal Party for failing to disclose the identity of donors who gave $693,000 to the party through the Free Enterprise Foundation (FEF), an entity established for the channelling of funds, before the 2011 state election. According to the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), the NSW Liberal Party sent illegal donations from property developers to the FEF in order that they could be channelled back to the party.

This scandal symbolises the mounting concern about Australia’s complacency on the part of international agencies that monitor corruption worldwide. Anti-corruption officials at the OECD and the World Bank recently criticised Australia’s lax anti-corruption measures that make it a ‘dumping ground’ for laundering ‘dirty money’ from across our region. The same officials have pointed out that the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) was ‘well placed to do more’ to combat corporate corruption and bribery, but ASIC claims that it continues to lack the resources and the ‘mandate’ to do so. As if in confirmation of the fact are the recent Unaoil revelations, widely reported in the media, that major Australian corporations paid millions of dollars in bribes in 2010–11 to buy favour from government officials in Iraq in the form of lucrative contracts. This scandal follows earlier revelations that two Australian companies, Securency and Note Printing Australia (both subsidiaries of the Reserve Bank of Australia), also paid millions of dollars in bribes between 2007 and 2009 to secure foreign contracts.

Perhaps we should have more faith. After all, these scandals have been brought to light. Perhaps the measures to ensure the integrity of our Commonwealth are keeping us safe from corruption after all? Perhaps we should only be grateful for small mercies and worry more about the scandals that have not been brought to light? Perhaps we have become inured to our golden age of corruption? Perhaps we can no longer tell the difference between corruption and its absence?

As we attempt to navigate this age of austerity, we grow accustomed to loss. Services decline, amenities dissipate, the common good withers as private goods are carved from it for sale. All governments, and each governing party, have been complicit in this deal. We have grown so accustomed to it that the scandalous revelations of laundered political donations, of rampant tax evasion or of illegal corporate bribery merely heighten our indignation at the extraordinary frauds while dulling our perception of the ordinary corruption that passes for the everyday management of government. Have we noticed the neoliberal perpetration of the heist of public wealth, accrued by generations of struggle, to benefit private vested interests? This has been no overnight ‘smash and grab’, a crime of opportunity. It has been a carefully planned operation carried out in the full public glare of the media, meticulously conducted for at least thirty years. So public, so enduring has it been that many of us who stood to become beneficiaries of this national endowment have become complicit in its dissipation. We no longer seem to care that public schooling has been systematically starved of funds, while public monies have been invested at ever-higher levels in private schooling. We don’t seem to mind that public health care has been run down, while public funds have been used to subsidise private health schemes that fail to deliver value for money. We don’t protest that public institutions of tertiary education and professional accreditation are debilitated, while public funds are awarded to private adventurers who have perpetrated a monumental fraud upon the public. Nor do we bat an eyelid at the record investments by our Department of Defence in a non-existent fighter aircraft, in a deal so beyond exorbitant it has been likened to a Ponzi scheme.

Let the non-existent fighter stand as a token to remind us of the politics of flight. Those of us still part of this Commonwealth have become landlocked, while our ruling elites have taken to flight. We are about as able to follow them as our non-existent fighter is to fly. In this, our golden age of corruption, let us have the courage to acknowledge our political reality. Our Commonwealth has become a cartel, governed by third-rate idealogues in the interests of the few. Public policy has become a scam run by governments for the benefit of vested interests. Government has become an excuse for the prerogatives of spivvery, and justice traded in a political marketplace of lobbyists on the make. In this our golden age let us proudly proclaim our credo of corruption to the world. Let’s replace our nation’s heraldry with more fitting symbols: two spivs rampant, beneath aircraft rousant, holding an escutcheon emblazoned with a national motto suited to our times: ‘that those should take who have the power and those should keep who can’.

* With thanks to Associate Professor Mary Heath of Flinders University for her notes on Windeyer.

About the author

Bruce Buchan

Bruce Buchan is an Associate Professor of History in the School of Humanities, Languages, and Social Sciences at Griffith University.

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Thank you Bruce for expressing my feelings exactly. Corruption has become a social norm. It includes the lobbying efforts of big coal, the alcohol and gambling industries, among others. The stakes have never been higher, and the dice never more loaded.

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