MP scandals undermine democracy from within
Former assistant minister Andrew Broad will leave parliament next May but, like other scandal-prone MPs before him, he will leave a legacy of deeper distrust and cynicism about politicians. His alleged conduct — flying to Hong Kong to meet a young woman from a website aimed at “sugar daddies”, sexting her and promoting himself as a big shot — is private only in a narrow technical sense. It is rightly seen as damaging to a government struggling to accentuate the positive and rally morale as it approaches a potential thumping in next year’s election. We are in the midst of a cultural shift, making it likelier that bad behaviour will be outed and judged. MPs and parties have to lift standards.
Populism is on the rise because the political class is seen as self-serving and aloof. Globalisation brings many benefits but it also can destroy familiar industries and jobs, casting ordinary people adrift. Yet they see a political establishment able to safeguard its privileges even as the system of government contends with its own form of disruption. We don’t support a star chamber but it is striking that, under the government’s proposed Commonwealth Integrity Commission, suspect politicians would not have to undergo the public hearings to which an accused Australian Federal Police officer, for example, could be subjected.
Again, it’s the perception that political insiders benefit from insiders’ rules. And mainstream parties wonder why voters are so disengaged and untrusting. Mr Broad’s case is not simply a sex scandal in the pages of New Idea magazine. Those elements are tawdry enough — a married man allegedly sending texts of low-grade sexual innuendo to a young woman with the online alias “Sophia Rose” — but the clueless self-importance brings it to another level. Reportedly posing as a member of the governing elite abroad, complete with a 007 licence to kill, he had in fact a modest but genuine role back home as the member for the seat of Mallee with its population of 138,592 people and land area of 81,962sq km. That should have kept him too busy for ludicrous escapades. And while some are laughing at his antics, don’t underestimate the anger. This is what depletes the political capital needed to run government.
Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack has offered one sensible remark about the scandal: “These sorts of things, they take away from the good message that we are selling.” So, why did Mr McCormack, who appears to have known about Mr Broad’s “online date” as far back as November 8, do nothing to hold his assistant minister accountable to decent standards of behaviour until Monday when New Idea published? Only then did Mr Broad resign from the ministry. And so the story broke the same day the government wanted its future budget surplus to hog media coverage.
Mr McCormack did say he had prompted Mr Broad to report “Sophia Rose” to the AFP. This shift of focus from an erring MP to a possible police investigation also was convenient for Mr Broad, allowing him to say on Monday: “This matter has been reported to the AFP and I will not be making any further comment.” No great surprise that later that day the AFP announced it had found no evidence of any broken law. Yesterday brought allegations from three other women of inappropriate behaviour by Mr Broad, who bowed to the inevitable and declared he would not recontest his seat of Mallee in May.
Now the question turns to Mr McCormack: will he consider his own position? His job was to protect the Prime Minister and the government, not Mr Broad. And in February it was Mr Broad’s pious quotation from evangelist Billy Graham — “when character is lost, all is lost” — that triggered a collapse of support for Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce, whose own sex saga had brought the Turnbull government weeks of turmoil. Thus Mr Broad’s hypocrisy helped to clear the way for Mr McCormack’s rise to the positions of Nationals chief and Deputy Prime Minister. The Nationals drive a hard bargain before signing a Coalition agreement but now, once again, it is a scandal of their making that erupts when the government is busy cleaning off the barnacles and desperate to make headway against the political tide.
In happier times politicians make speeches about how humbled they are to be chosen to serve electors. When an MP features in another scandal, it taps a deep vein of popular cynicism. Many people believe that for all their lofty statements, politicians are in it for themselves — for trade union cronies or the big companies they will go on to represent as lobbyists. The people take note when MPs put their selfish interests ahead of even their own families — why, then, would such politicians hesitate to sell out voters they hardly know? And if one MP stands accused, how many others have yet to be exposed? This mindset, drip-fed by scandal after scandal, corrodes political confidence. It becomes that much harder for true leaders to persuade voters to sacrifice something short term for reforms that serve an enduring national interest. And in this way we and our country are the losers.