History, Politics, and Memory

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While it is a matter of public record that the Turnbull government blocked attempts to establish a royal commission into the financial services sector on multiple occasions, the question as to why the government has been so recalcitrant on this issue — especially when it expeditiously facilitated a similar inquiry into corruption within the union movement — is of more than academic interest.

Aside from the usual motivations of political partisanship, it would appear the Coalition has, ironically, learned the lessons of history and sought to put them into practice. This attempt, unsuccessful though it may have been, nonetheless reveals something important about the impact of historical memory.

In the present context, it is often — and suggestively — recalled that Malcolm Turnbull was once a merchant banker. However, what is less frequently recalled is that Turnbull was also once a lawyer — specifically, the lawyer for Australia’s then richest individual, Kerry Packer.

It was in this capacity that Turnbull called for the Costigan Royal Commission to be shut down. The Costigan commission, which began life investigating criminality within the Ship Painters and Dockers Union, ended up exposing criminality within corporate Australia’s boardrooms.

This exposure demonstrated not only that corruption was endemic within the corporate sector, but that this corruption often arose out of the links between criminally-minded business people and criminally-minded union officials.

The historical lesson of the Costigan commission is this: corruption within the union movement does not occur in a vacuum — it occurs within the context of, and often in partnership with, corruption in the corporate sector.

Tellingly, Turnbull’s call for the Costigan inquiry to be shut down occurred, not while it was exposing the criminal activities of the SPDU, but once it started asking awkward questions about what was going on in the big end of town. Turnbull was no doubt acting under instruction from his client; but the historical lesson of the inquiry would nonetheless have remained with him once he entered politics.

The narrow, union-focused terms of the Heydon Royal Commission can be put down to former prime minister Tony Abbott’s ideological determination to destroy unions as a feature of Australia’s economic landscape.

But the fact that the resistance to a commission of inquiry into the finance industry has been so marked under Turnbull’s watch as PM is undoubtedly a product of the historical memory shared by Turnbull and many of his Coalition colleagues: recalling what Costigan exposed about the corporate sector, the last thing they wanted was another royal commission doing just the same.

There is no suggestion that Turnbull — or anyone else — is seeking to protect corrupt individuals. Rather, what the present situation demonstrates is the capacity for historical memory to facilitate partisan politics and thereby distort public policy.

Australia is at present at a profound economic crossroad. Never has the union movement been weaker. Never has the influence of corporations been more pervasive. Never has the reality of work been more fragmented, insecure, and stressful. It is in this milieu that the Coalition has sought to persuade Australians that unions, collective bargaining, and even some employment entitlements are relics of an outmoded past that need to be dispensed with; and, conversely, that the future of our nation ought to be handed over to ‘market forces’.

However, the Turnbull government is also aware of the ‘kickback’, especially among educated and disenchanted millennials. They are aware that any exposure of malfeasance by the corporate sector will undermine their ideological argument and hand the initiative to their political opponents.

Informed by its historical memory of the Costigan commission and its outcomes, the government’s calling of the Heydon Inquiry, and subsequent reluctance to initiate a royal commission into the finance sector, is as much about protecting their ideological claims and political position as it is about anything else.

It is in this context that the need for an independent anti-corruption commission arises. Inquiries into corruption and criminality cannot be the plaything of political partisanship, nor can the historical memory of past scandals be allowed to distort the manner in which future investigations are conducted.

Far more than the rise and fall of governments depends on whether or not we learn the lessons of history and take the fight against corruption out of politicians’ hands.

© Copyright Brendan E Byrne 2018. Originally appeared as “History taints Turnbull’s fight against corruption” in Eureka Street.