Sent: 29-05-2012 13:39:03
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Craig Thomson, Lord Justice Leveson and the US Congress
Craig Thomson's tortured personal circumstances have taken a stranglehold on the Australian parliament, potentially affecting national decision making in a way that would not be possible in legislatures elsewhere.
At one level, the Craig Thomson affair is a seedy sideshow salacious enough to add some spice to the generally mundane goings on in the Australian parliament but otherwise of little consequence to the serious policy maker. It should not be the concern of someone interested in Australia's investment markets.
At another level, the Thomson discussion diminishes the quality of the Australian policy debate. One ABC television commentator reported recently that Craig Emerson, the minister for trade and competitiveness, has appeared on television eleven times in the past month without once being asked about his direct portfolio responsibilities in favour of questions about Craig Thomson, notwithstanding the importance of the policy issues for which he is nominally responsible.
Thomson's much anticipated statement to the parliament last week was a robust defence of the charges that had been levelled against him and a vigorous attack on those he saw as the perpetrators of an injustice directed against him and his family.
In mounting his defence, he made some assertions that were immediately contested by those others supposedly involved. This included, for example, the threat in front of others to destroy his political career by framing him for the use of prostitutes.
Thomson's statement also called into question the integrity and competence of Fair Work Australia, a government agency charged with oversight of workplace relations.
Meanwhile, in London, Lord Justice Leveson is taking evidence from a range of public figures about the relationships among politicians, police and the press. The immediate catalyst for the inquiry had been the phone hacking scandal that engulfed News Limited publications in the UK as well as politicians and senior police figures. The motivation for the inquiry also reflected a long simmering anxiety among politicians about how UK press barons used their power to influence voters and, possibly, to extract favourable consideration for their commercial interests.
A specific subject of the inquiry has been whether one minister, in particular, had compromised his quasi judicial obligations while coming to a view about the News Corp bid for the shares the company did not already own in British broadcaster BSkyB.
The Leveson inquiry has come after a separate parliamentary committee inquiry covering similar ground but which, many felt, could not delve as deeply into the cesspool as truth required.
The connection between Thomson and Leveson is that Thomson has remained a festering sore for many years because the Australian parliament has lacked the institutional arrangements through which to deal with issues affecting individual members. The Australian parliament is also relatively weak in dealing with issues outside the purview of the criminal justice system and not, strictly speaking, within the normal partisan political debate about policy. This is the crack into which Thomson has fallen.
Leveson, on the other hand, is a sign that the UK parliament actually has mechanisms to release some of the pressures that can build. The parliament, meanwhile, can go about other matters while those with the skills to determine facts can ply their trade, report back to the politicians and let them have the final say about what, if anything, should change as a result of the findings of the inquiry.
The US Congress undertakes much of its day to day role through standing committees of senators and members of the House of Representatives, including a senate committee on investigations which can interrogate those appearing before it on almost any matter of its choosing.
Although there has been no allegation of illegality in the recent JP Morgan Chase trading loss, for example, Senators have flagged that CEO Jamie Dimon will be hauled before the appropriate committee to explain the bank's activities. There was no sense that this was an issue that was going to lie festering because politicians were unable to get at the nub of the underlying problems.
On Thomson, or UK press conduct or J P Morgan trading activities politicians could hold diametrically opposed views about the remedies that should be applied but both the UK and US parliaments have means through which they can get at the facts. This is a failing of the current Australian parliament.
This failing hinders good public policy from two directions. It prevents Australian parliamentarians from getting at the truth. It also distracts the attention of Australia's parliamentarians away from more constructive activities until enthusiasm for a potentially endless partisan war wanes or another meatier scandal comes their way.
To the extent that this predicament casts doubt on the capacity of the Australian government to look like it is on top of its job, it affects the well being of Australians. One way this happens is through the perceptions of overseas decision makers looking at where to place investment funds and among whom there is an increasing anxiety about the effectiveness of government processes in Australia.
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