A Conversation with an Australian Living Treasure (Part I)

Anti-corruption fighter John Hatton AO is a former politician, and a National Trust nominated Australian Living Treasure. He was an Independent member of the Legislative Assembly of the New South Wales Parliament from 1973 to 1995 and was instrumental in instigating the Wood Royal Commission into police corruption in New South Wales. When I stood as an Independent candidate at the 2011 NSW election I proudly accepted John’s unsolicited endorsement of my candidature.

John Hatton is an insightful critic of modern society and politics and still a committed social activist. Modern democracy, according to John, “consists of a series of political parties to which the citizenry are not invited”. I caught up with him recently on the NSW South Coast. I didn’t need to ask searching and probing questions: I merely pressed “record”. Here’s what he had to say.

At Wollongong University I conceived the idea of having a summer school in which we invite the leading activists (as many as we could get) from around Australia to appear.

Now we started that at the end of 2009 and the beginning of 2010. We got some astonishing people and the way the police reacted was really wonderful but again, you have a problem in that the people involved with academia are either not interested, constrained by time or not visionary enough to go into the open learning mode.

Now that’s the next major move that’s got to occur in education at a tertiary level.

Now the input of the public, as a reaction to these lectures, was really wonderful and people walked away from them feeling empowered because they had met important people, listened to important people.  It was free. They were attending university for the first time, many of them, in their whole lives. The students had follow up lectures and tutorials and that was a stimulus for them in their paths.

Out of that we hope that a “how to, we can, we must” online education program where activists would exchange experience on how they dealt with their particular struggles.  And of course, the vision is too limited within the universities to embrace that.

The system of funding universities prevented us from getting it started at Wollongong University and I understand that that system is going to change.  Professor Stephen Hill knows more about that than I do.

My frustration is how to get someone to take up those ideas and have some influence.

My latest project is to try and get the International Cooperatives Alliance, of which there are a billion people on the planet who own and operate businesses through cooperatives and mutuals, to team up with the International Labour Organisation and the United Nations to work together to bring about structural reform in decentralisation of power so that people can realise their dreams and ambitions and be players at the local level and be encouraged and financed and legislated to facilitate what they want to do.  So that’s where we’re going.

I’m sick of fixing holes in roads.

I’ll tell you what forty years of interest in politics has taught me about the political system.  I’m happy to do that in steps.

In the 1980’s I wrote a paper for the Australian and New Zealand Law Students’ Association called ‘The Myth of Democracy’.  In that paper I was able to show, at least get people thinking about the fact that, you do not elect your parliamentarians.  Your parliamentarians and the parliament don’t do except by accident, and occasionally design, any of the things you expect the parliament to do.

The parliament doesn’t make laws, the bureaucracy makes the laws, under the influence of the executive, and if you’ve got the majority then the parliament is irrelevant.  Draft legislation is usually formulated by the public service and by Cabinet, and may be determined by a party caucus, faction or special interest group.

Then of course the most compelling thing is the hundreds of thousands of pieces of regulations and legislation which are not examined, not repealed and of enormous influence on everybody’s lives. And the parliament is irrelevant to that process, almost.  Of course it has to be totalled, of course it’s open for debate but very seldom is it debated. So there’s grossly inadequate notice given; debate truncated; detailed information not available; people affected are not consulted; and legislation not analysed.  Legislation, by and large, is not rationally debated with in-depth knowledge or careful analysis.

In the first ten minutes you’re governed.  When the speaker stands up calls for papers to be laid on the table, to start laying down regulations for the parliament – theoretically to explore – and they then become law and they can do that when the parliament is sitting or it’s not sitting.  People are governed by regulations which are tabled in considerable numbers in Australian Parliaments. The practice is for the parliament to pass umbrella legislation giving executive government the power to make regulations.

When either party has a majority in both Houses, executive government (through the leader of the Lower House) has prevented and terminated debate on any subject at any time even when in essence there has been no debate.  Under all governments, legislation is gagged and guillotined through the House – in the first term of the Greiner Government, thirty bills were passed in thirty hours, and the Greiner Government had a much better record than most.

The party system inhibits a member of parliament from asking a question without notice on controversial matters, without risk of party sanction.  It is standard practice to “clear” questions with the party.  Dorothy Dix questions formulated by ministers, and departments, are rife.

The parliament doesn’t safeguard free speech.  We know that. What is interesting is that it is a crime to prevent a member of parliament from exercising the privilege of free speech and action as an elected member of parliament.  The many restrictions placed on the dominant party on MPs rights to speak in the parliament affect free speech within the parliament and some of the most repressive defamation laws in the Western world severely limit free speech outside of the parliament.

The public service has no legislated right of free speech, and whistle-blowers are dealt with ruthlessly, even though they may be exposing corruption, wastage, nepotism or gross mismanagement.

But neither side will do anything about the fact that they rigidly control their members.  So in fact, they broke the law. If not a written law, the convention.  So they’ve destroyed the parliamentary institution. Oppositions are reformist until they gain power.

You do not elect your member of parliament because a small number of people within a faction of a political party decide who is going to get pre-selection.

There is no external choice, as there is in say Tasmania, where you might get two or three candidates and you can choose which one.  In Tasmania there are multi-member constituencies and a Hare-Clark system of voting, with votes counted proportionally and giving party voters a choice within the Party group at the polls, and Independents a better chance of election. Preferential voting counted proportionally makes the Tasmanian electoral process arguably the fairest in the world. Anyway, you only get one and that’s why they’re prickly about Independents, because they have no control over them.

So if you don’t like candidate A, B or C representing the three major parties you have no say.  But the corrupt process by which that pre-selection process occurs prevents the members of the parliament from being members of parliament.  You do that and you will not get pre-selection next time.

Ninety percent of members of parliament throughout Australia are not elected by the people of Australia. The party pre-selection process guarantees that small, powerful and usually factional groups determine who the candidates are, what electorates they will represent and, in large measure, what the party parliamentarians will say and do.

And so consequently you do not elect your Member of Parliament and your Member of Parliament doesn’t represent you.  I’m précising this.

I also looked at the Swedish model as to where do judges come from.  The myth is that they arrive from heaven onto the bench with a clear mind and as Justice Moffatt said to me – a person for whom I had extraordinary admiration – “Well, my mind is like a lake on a winter’s morning without a ripple and I am there to accept or reject the logic of the argument before the Court.” Now everyone knows that’s rubbish.

Where do judges come from? How are they appointed? I looked at this in Sweden. Most judges come from well established law practices.  If you’re up against a judge that came from a particular firm and you’re up against them a nod is as good as a wink on some occasions.

The recent case about Keddies exposed by journalist, Richard Ackland, is a classic example of how the system is fixed.

Judges get appointed because they get a good run through a firm whose practices may well be restrictive and sometimes illegal.  They get the good briefs, get a name for themselves and decide they’re going to become a judge. A politician makes the decision.

The method of selection of SC’s has been up for question recently.  How do you become a SC?

The very basis of a justice system where I’m entitled to know the case against me doesn’t apply when you face those who judge you on whether you ought to be granted silk.

In Sweden, the unions have a role in terms of judges and experience.  Judges in Sweden have a number of different careers in the public service prior to getting to the bench.  They come through with some experience of the bureaucracy at least and some experience of day to day activities that aren’t adversarial.  Then of course you have the rules of evidence and all that sort of stuff.

The fact is the method of selection of judges in Australia has to be carefully looked at.  How the legal profession deals with judges is not adequate and it needs to be looked at.

Judicial appointments depend on political support and career opportunity.  Career opportunity comes via large legal firms.  Can we guarantee judicial independence in some cases in Court where the source of the political patronage or the source of the career opportunity is under question or threat?

Parliament doesn’t represent you, you don’t elect parliament, parliament doesn’t behave as a parliament, it doesn’t control the finances.  It doesn’t even closely examine finances.

When was the last time a budget was rejected? If can be debated for weeks, never, ever amended except by the executive.  So it’s a talkfest.

The parliament doesn’t monitor your tax dollar.  The most important financial document each year – the budget – is a fait accompli and was never amended, except by executive government, in my twenty years as a member of parliament.

We have an amazing convention in the Westminster system that the public service works for the government but it’s paid for by the population.  If in the case of the first time Hawke was elected or the first time that Howard was elected they were elected by less than half of the population of Australia.  The minute they get elected, they get 99% of the resources.

Why is it that the public service doesn’t work for the people through the parliament? That is, Treasury except in matters where you’ve got to protect the coin of the realm and sensitive financial matters that are going to prevent people from taking unfair advantage, why aren’t all the Treasury documents available to the leader of the Opposition. Why aren’t all the security documents available to the leader of the Opposition, under binding law if necessary.

This is one of the reasons why the level of debate in the parliament is so risible for the simple reason that they don’t know and they can’t find out. And yet they may have been the opposition even though they got the majority of first preferences across the country.

I haven’t struck any person in any of the political science schools even address this question.  It’s accepted.  It’s accepted that the executive controls the parliament and if they’re not in control the parliament is a mess, the whole world is going to fall in, because they haven’t got the parliament in the palm of their hands.

They accept that Treasury documents aren’t public.  All of these givens.  I’m just amazed and the reason.  I’m almost unique because I come in from outside with a concept in my mind of what parliament is and within a very short time of sitting in the chamber realise that it’s a lot of rubbish.  This institution called parliament has got no relationship to democracy at all.

How do you define democracy?

The best definition is John Ralston Saul’s book ‘The Unconscious Civilisation’: ‘true democracy is a system that facilitates the obligation to dissent.’ Every word of that has great meaning.

If it doesn’t facilitate dissent you haven’t got democracy.  If the people do not feel that it is their obligation to dissent when they feel that something is wrong, then democracy cannot work.

What we’ve got is a political party oligarchy working with a contained and instructed bureaucracy.

Now we took a very serious right hand turn in the post Thatcher era.  She was the one who really set about destroying some of the key planks in the Westminster system.  This idea that not only do public servants work for the government but they will be on contract and therefore obligated to tell the minister what he wants to know rather than what the minister needs to know and to give fearless advice.

When Greiner adopted that in NSW it put the perfect weapon in the hands of the Labor Party which caused it to become extraordinarily more corrupt than it was before.

I’ve been lucky enough to be in the parliament; even though I was really ignorant when I first went there, I did by observation learn quite a lot.

For example, when Jack Renshaw spoke in parliament people listened because he was a man of substance and a man of principle and even people who did not have a high reputation in those days would have an extraordinarily high reputation now for their behaviour.  Like Pat Hills, for example.  They were people who understood the importance of basic democratic principles.  Some of the people in the National Party who’d fought in the war, like Crawford, understood the importance of what they’d fought for.

Obviously politics is full of tricks and lies, as it always has done, but even under Askin there was a certain rubicon that you would not cross.  There were certain rights that were recognised.  One of which was, for example, the relationship between parliamentary staff and elected members.

When I first went there I was really frustrated because I wanted to change the world and my entitlement was to share one secretary between five members of parliament of which I was one.  That was an impossibility for me.  We didn’t have an electoral office, didn’t have electoral staff. That’s good and bad.  Once you’ve got electoral staff, research officers, theoretically you could be better prepared but the party political system used it then as a device to get re-elected.  It’s very clear that almost all members of parliament abuse the privilege of their office to get re-elected.

Take a look atPolitics and Money’ by Joo-Cheong Tham. It clearly delineates how the system is fiddled by agreement by both sides.  To the extent that, if you become elected, and you’re a non-government member, and especially if you become elected as an Independent, you must be extraordinarily lucky or your opponent must be in extraordinary difficulty because you cannot match their resources in any way, shape or form.

Tham’s book examines the amount per voter that is pumped in by the established political parties.

The parliamentary institution has been bastardised.  Very, very seriously bastardised and I haven’t even looked at the shock jocks or media and relationships.

Under Tom Lewis – people thought he was a bit of a fool but he wasn’t actually, he was a very good Minister for Lands and he was briefly a Premier –  he started this idea of playing the press gallery like a piano.  It was taken to new heights by Wran to the extent that if you didn’t play ball you didn’t get the occasional exclusive.  You didn’t get the information.  You couldn’t satisfy your boss for the first 10 seconds of the 6 pm news.  You were frozen out.

Pre-conditioning the press over weeks if necessary.  If the press behaves the way the press behaves, you’ll know when you look at the whole picture, why that is so.

One of the great forces we had to contend with  – Peter MacDonald, Clover Moore and I – in the balance of power is that we were so absorbed in the parliament, we’d have to sit there all the time, we’d have to know what was going on (even if we were in our office we’d have to know what was going on in the house).  Meanwhile the minister’s minders were telling everyone in the press gallery what bastards we were, how we were doing this or that, attributing wrong motives to us, and this is the game.

When you did get to a press conference all these loaded guns were there and you were targets and you had to be extremely skilful and knowledgeable and hardworking to get out from underneath that.  That was my primary role because I was the senior person and I used to say to them, “Listen mate, this is what’s happening…..”, “Before we go down there, this is what’s happening, be ready for it…”

The day Greiner was sacked and we went down to meet Moore and Greiner over that sacking, before the sacking happened, we were marching down the street, three of us, so therefore you’re the posse that is shooting the premier.  A guy comes up to us and says we’ll go this way.  I said, “Stop there”. I turned to Peter and Clover and said, “We’re going through the front door.  What this bastard is doing is to get us to go through the backdoor, they’ll film us going through the backdoor and that will be rubbish for us.  We’re going through the front door, that’s where the press is and we’re going to go straight through the whole lot and into the Minister’s office and we’re going to come out the same way.”

They’re up to that sort of trick all the time.  Not part of the time. All of the time.

What’s your definition of corruption and how does the public know that corruption is at play?

There’s a difference between criminal and civil.  It’s a distortion of the system which knowingly prevents that service or that resource from being used for the benefit of the public in terms of the reason why that policy, law, regulation or in fact department was conceived to operate.

So it’s a deliberate frustration of the purpose of the law or the regulation or the structure or the power so that the benefit is directed away from the audience it was designed to serve.

How do you recognise corruption?

If we’re going to educate the public what do you regard as a fair go? What would you regard as preventing you from getting a fair go from a representative that you elected, or a public servant that you pay? That’s all you need to say.

Is it a fair go? If it isn’t why isn’t it? How is the system not serving its purpose? Who’s responsible for that system? How did that person get there and how do they exercise their power? And who is it around them that helps them to exercise that power improperly?

Ask that and you are on the road to discovering what corruption is and how it works.

If you’ve got a Minister for Housing and that Minister for Housing is not delivering affordable housing, forget all the bullshit that they go on with, you haven’t got a Minister for Housing.

Unless we train the populace to think that way they keep getting misled.  Diverted.  Diverted with the word play and excuses and the failure to answer questions.

The essence of a telling politician comes right back to “What the hell are you there for Minister?”

What do you think makes a good politician?  Are the criteria different for what makes a great leader?

It depends more than anything on life experience.  The people who have experienced hardship in their lives, either in the workforce or in the family and have learnt to be well adjusted people, survivors, will often make very good politicians.

So their experience in the real world is very important.

For example when Jack Ferguson as Deputy Premier to Wran stood up to speak, people listened, because he said it exactly the way it was.

I remember when the Opposition asked a question about moorings in Sydney Harbour….it’s a wonder those moorings float because they’re all made out of solid gold. Jack Ferguson gets up as Minister for Public Works and he says, “I know exactly what the Members are on about, there’s an extraordinary fiddling going on with the moorings in Sydney Harbour and I’m going to get to the bottom of it”. Then he sat down. The parliament just sat there with their mouths open.

Finally a minister had got up and instead of protecting the department in a symbiotic relationship, he was right on the nail.

I sat at a table with him one day and a new member was complaining about the food.  He turns around and says, “Listen mate, it beats the hell out of sandwiches in the brickpit”.

That’s a basic attitude of politicians from both sides, who say have had experience in small business or experience in the law where they have done pro bono work, or they’ve done legal aid work, where they’ve actually seen the street scene and understand to some extent the street scene.

There’s luck.  Luck is quite extraordinary at times.   I could tell you some stories where I have been saved by luck.

It’s an ability to think laterally almost all of the time even when you are being overwhelmed by what the press are saying and your advice, and the enormous compulsion to react.

And that’s where the instantaneous nature of media is killing democracy.  You didn’t have to have an immediate because there isn’t any immediate answer.  So you make one up.  Or, you listen to the advice of the person who has had time to think about it but doesn’t have the experience; you’ve got to think about it in the same way as you have coming from the street scene.

You need a radar.  It’s an indefinable thing.  I know, when I’m speaking to an audience, whether that audience is believing what I’m saying and I’m in tune with it.  I know instinctively.

Being able to play the devil’s advocate in your normal every day way of thinking is absolutely vital.  It’s not the way it’s affecting you.  It’s not the way it’s affecting the government.  It’s not the way it’s affecting a whole range of things.  What the hell do the people out there know about it and what do they think about it? That’s what matters.

So you have to have a mechanism for keeping in touch.  The further you get up the ladder the more difficult it is.  One of the ways you can do that is that you must never appoint somebody to that panel who hasn’t got the sort of experience you want on them.

Now Alan Barry worked with me.  He had been a bus driver, he’d been a prison officer, he’d been a driver examiner and he was a whistleblower.  That’s reality.  That made him important.  He wasn’t an academic  – and I’ve got nothing against academics because there are some extraordinary good people – but you need people who can look at the context in which the event is happening.  Many politicians do not see the context.

Obviously your thinking and your rhetoric is going to be influenced by the need to survive.  So how your words are being interpreted by the electorate is something that is a gift.  The gift is: how do I separate the metal from the dross and how do I make the metal ring true?

I didn’t find, for example, even in unpopular situations, that it was a disadvantage to tell the truth.

I voted for decriminalisation of homosexuality between consenting adults. My former headmaster, very conservative church person, came to me and said, “You can’t do that, it’s against the teachings of the bible and so on.”

You then have to cut through and I said, “Look, the situation is this, you have the freedom to have that point of view. I don’t. I’m a legislator.  I have to look at the next step.  I’m asking you now, what would you do? Would you gaol homosexuals and expose them to an even worse environment? Would you fine them? How do you define what the fine is? If they don’t pay what happens then? What do you do in terms of policing the act? Do you give police powers to go into a person’s bedroom? To invade their civil liberties?”

At the end of the discussion he was convinced – he was still of his view – but he knew my position.

Always look at the metal.  Why do we need the law? How is it going to work? How is it going to impact?  The modern day politician is inbred and pre-selected, so that it’s impossible for them to have that skill.

A modern day politician wants to be a member of a political party and he or she wants to get elected. They play the game of the party, with all its subterfuges, with all of its false fronts, with all of the chopping down of mates and undermining, to get where they want to go. They are programmed not to understand the public.  They’re programmed to control the public through their position and the abuse and exercise of their power and the staff that they have at their disposal, the press coverage that they get and the allegiances and alliances with those people who are in the studio or the press gallery.

We have arrived at the situation in modern democracies all around the world where in actual fact the birth of the politician is an unnatural birth and consequently the system is unnatural.

To the extent that people now feel so powerless.  They feel they cannot change things, except every four years, they often don’t know why they’re changing it, they’re unhappy and they’ve been programmed.

We cast things aside because of scandal.  We elect a leader who either doesn’t know or will not tell us where he or she is going and a Treasurer who makes it up as he or she goes along. Within that ignorance of the population, the manipulation is in the hands of those programmed politicians who are skilled in manipulation.

Add to that the fact that market concentration have got the muscle power to elect and to distort, then it’s no wonder the person in the street feels powerless, is powerless, is ignorant and easily manipulated.  People think they are in control because they can change the government.

Let’s look at this truism from my point of view.  I have lived through Askin, Willis, Lewis, Wran, Unsworth, Carr, Greiner and Fahey.  Nothing changed.  On each occasion the Opposition mounted an attack which created a climate that we can do better, they are not fit to govern, they’re misusing their power and they’re bound up in secrecy, they’re out of touch.

The minute they become elected it adopts exactly the same practices of the previous government.  Nobody has said, “We will from today forward legislate the right to know.  Enact a law that makes it compulsory on a Department head – in their contract – that they will facilitate whistle-blowing after a certain process is gone through and failure to facilitate it is a contract termination”.  Then you would see open government.

In the Westminster system the minister was responsible for the actions of public servants within their departments. Department heads were responsible for giving free, unbiased advice to the minister and being sufficiently independent to do that. They had to have discipline within the department forced on them by the fact that if the minister of the parliament was misled the minister and the head of the department have to resign.

That’s how it was designed to work.  So you had a compelling discipline that went from the top to the bottom.

We need the reintroduction of that sort of accountability.

How is the system being distorted? First of all, particularly during the Howard regime, he actually said and it was developed as practice that it was impossible for the minister to know what’s happening within the department.  It’s too complex now.  It’s impossible to make the minister responsible.

So then you say, well then who is?

Does that rule then apply to the head of the department? When was the last time the head of a department was fired directly?

Now the survival of heads of departments depends more and more on the minister.  It didn’t before because the public service was so strong as an independent public service.  In Sweden it is a criminal offence to interfere with the lawful, proper and efficacious duty of a public servant in the office for which they are employed.  It’s actually an offence.

There is no ministerial accountability.  The children overboard issue.  Peter Reith misled the Parliament.  Any inquiry on that was shut down by the Executive, under the instructions of the Prime Minister.  He came very close to involving directly our armed forces in politics.

People don’t understand that that was a critical point in our democratic history in Australia. The navy was asked to involve themselves in supporting a prime minister in a lie. They were directly political tools.

What makes a good politician?

Go back to basic principles.  Be polite. Treat everyone with respect.  Every question you ask every reaction must face the test: Why am I employing you? How are you employed to service me? What are my rights?

Voters don’t elect the party room they elect a person.  They should ask that person: what’s your view? I’m paying your wages, I elected you, express that view, I’ll disagree with it or agree with it.  I’m not interested in what your party room tells you what your view is.  It’s got nothing to do with me.

I’d like to be able to start a school to teach people how to think.  Do you know that a basic subject say twenty years ago in universities was logic.  It’s not taught anymore.  They don’t even know what a non sequitur is anymore.

Another economic reason we’re going bad is greed.  I’m not talking about corporate greed, or exploitation, I’m talking about individuals.  I must have a seven or eight room house.  The minute I get that house I’m working in the southern cotton fields in the USA and my slave masters are the banks.

And I have to work and my wife has to work, and the kids have to be subjected to all of that discipline because I have a mortgage I can’t compete with.  Because I’m in that environment and because that environment overloads me with useless information from a multiplicity of sources, I have not the time to think, I have not the time to get involved in my community and I have not the time to connect and in any event I don’t matter anyhow.  The bastards are reinforcing me to vote.  That’s not just Western Sydney, that’s North Shore.

The Australian public is going to have to go through a 1930s depression before they recognise how the system works.  Unfortunately my view is that a lot of people through ignorance, or through no fault of their own or because of fault of their own because they’ve been persuaded by the market to be greedy and not able to be satisfied and the debt load is too great and they can’t participate in society and their happy life, they’re going to have to go through abject misery before things change and that’s the history of democracy wherever you find it.

You are your background.  My father used to say, “When the god-botherers come down, don’t bother with religion, I’m too busy with Christianity.”

We must help the less fortunate than ourselves.  That is our obligation.  Look for solutions to decentralise power.  The crunch will come but I’m an optimist, in the long term.


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