I’ve been stunned at how easily the national media has adopted the KRUDD line on the controversial ‘gift’ he received from his car-dealer neighbour – a fully registered and insured vehicle used for electioneering purposes.
The ABC’s National Political Editor, Chris Uhlmann, declared in his 7pm political wrap last night that there was "nothing improper" about the PM’s decision to keep the car as he had declared it on the Pecuniary Interests Register – the list designed make political donations transparent.
Technically, Uhlmann is correct: while there are caps on donations to political parties, there are currently no regulations preventing or capping ‘gifts’ to individual politicians and Rudd has denied doing favours on behalf of his buddy, the used car salesman. However, what journalists of his calibre should be asking (in addition to "Did the dealer receive any benefits in recognition of his gift?") is, ethically, how appropriate was this act and is it time for a review of standards? (Sidebar: They should probably also analyse the strategic mistake made by the Opposition in dumping the ute-controversy on the media in the midst of such a news day. "Bugger".)
Significantly, a similar scandal recently erupted in South Africa when it was revealed the Transport Minister in the newly installed Zuma government was ‘gifted’ a Mercedes Benz. While he was also technically in the clear, he elected to return the car in the wake of a public outcry. If this was the approach adopted in a country scandalised by political corruption, under the leadership of a President pilloried by the international media for questionable conduct, how can Australia justify such a passive stance on a related issue?
I raised these concerns on Twitter yesterday, suggesting journalists were being too easily diverted from the story by the (very effective) PR tactics of the Rudd spin machine that went like this: Bombshell – “Look, Fitzgibbon!” - and comedic sidebar – “Those naughty Chaser boys!”
Speaking from experience as a former ABC press gallery journalist, I know it’s very hard to find the time and resources to properly follow leads and alternative angles when you’re being thrown curve-balls on a very big news day. But it must be done - you need to take five minutes to remove the blinkers and think outside the spin, to consider the bigger implications of issues like this. And that’s what remote editorial supervisors are for: to offer perspective outside the hothouse and assign other reporters to the issues as required, to ensure comprehensive coverage.
As I asked on Twitter – why are there no caps on donations or gifts to individual politicians? Where is the line? What’s to stop a politician receiving a fat account from a bank in the name of his or her child’s education? Could he or she accept a house built by a construction company to use for personal or political purposes? And what are the implications of such policy absences?
Kevin Rudd's neighbour: Car dealer, John grant who 'gifted' an electric ute to the PM. (Pic. courtesy Brisbane Times)
My proposal in response to Rudd's donated ute – three parts serious and one part wit: suggest the Prime Minister might consider donating his ‘gift' to the Starlight Foundation. That’s a suggestion now being peddled by Greens leader Bob Brown: "It's a terrible look," Senator Brown told AAP "I think the prime minister would have been very wise to give that car to charity years ago."
He’s also proposing a cap on donations to individual MPs of a few hundred dollars. “But when it comes to gifts worth thousands, or tens of thousands of dollars, they should be unavailable to individual MPs, let alone MPs who then become prime ministers,” Senator Brown said.
I’d go even further and suggest that to avoid the appearance of impropriety in an age where political cynicism already sees the community rating politicians' integrity very poorly, it would be wise to recommend against receiving any personal gifts from constituents or lobby groups. These are the protocols guiding the public servants working under Rudd and the journalists who report his government. For bureaucrats and reporters the implication of favours expected in return for gifts makes receipt of them verboten according to ethical codes of conduct and established protocols.
I’d also suggest journalists investigate this issue further – it’s much broader than a second hand ute being donated to the PM. How many politicians on both sides of parliament have profited from such questionable ‘gifting’? And what favours have been done or implied in return?
Politically, this is indeed a very bad look for Rudd – particularly coming, as it does, hot on the heels of his lame defence of the policy which allows his ministers AND their staffers to fly first class on the tax-payer’s purse. His argument? “John Howard did it”. Hardly the stuff of social-justice oriented politics for one elected on the wave of a backlash against the self-centredness of ‘Howardism’.
The car dealer at the centre of the controversy clearly doesn’t get it but Kevin Rudd and his strategists should be able to see through their own spin to the potential damage of ongoing perceptions of conflicts of interest and vested interests. They have an opportunity to take the moral high ground and institute genuine reform to help restore public confidence in political institutions. It’s time to “back up the truck”, Kev. And it's time the rest of us started more closely scrutinising what falls off the backs of trucks into our elected representatives laps.
05 June, 2009
Posted by J-scribe at 4:45 pm