NSW Labor, the Catholic Church and the ADF: institutions eating themselves alive

Since its nineteenth century birth, the Australian Labor Party has helped to define the country’s institutional landscape.

But according to one of its most respected members, party grandee Senator John Faulkner, the very institution of the ALP, and the structure that has underpinned its health, is at risk of becoming fundamentally corrupted.

Arguing in a speech yesterday that the concentration of power in “the stunted perspectives of just a few” has created an “inherently undemocratic” situation, Faulkner highlights a status quo where internal decisions are opaque and corruption can flourish.

But is the decline of the ALP, especially in its troubled NSW branch, currently undergoing the humiliation wrought by daily revelations at the Independent Commission Against Corruption of Tammany Hall style deal-making, indicative of a wider problem in Australia’s great institutions?

As months go, it’s been a bad one for the organisations that have traditionally characterised Australian society. Facing allegations varying between systemic indifference and active corruption, three of our oldest and most socially entrenched organisations, the NSW Labor Party, the Catholic Church and the Australian Defence Force, have each found themselves at the centre of enquiries into serious bureaucratic failure.

But what unites the ICAC hearing, Royal Commission and Ministerial apology isn’t simply their uncanny timing; what unites these stories is their insight into the very nature of institutional life. Whether based on the covering-up of cronyism, pedophilia or sexual assault, the three scandals tell a story about the tendency of public organisations to undermine their original goals, to cannibalise their reasons for being, all in the name of self-preservation and the status quo.

Or to put it more succinctly: in order to keep their organisations superficially healthy, leaders disregarded the very reasons those organisations exist.

Cardinal George Pell has shown great difficulty in responding to allegations of sexual abuse within his organisation. AAP/Paul Miller

Take, for instance, the allegations of corruption directed at the New South Wales Labor Party. As the Independent Commission Against Corruption has heard, the party’s sixteen year reign was mired in cronyism and the use of public office for private gain. Both Morris Iemma and Nathan Rees have testified that the government was effectively run by Eddie Obeid’s “Terrigal” faction, a group that enjoyed as much influence over Cabinet positions as it did the state’s mineral sector. In one accusation astonishing in its brazen magnitude, the Commission is examining whether Obeid sought to gain $100 million from a conveniently granted mining license.

Like the Catholic Church’s handling of pedophilia, the existence of corruption in the ALP is worrying because it wasn’t simply the product of a few bad apples; instead of exposing the rot, the institution served to the hide it from public view. As both Premiers admitted, members of the government, once presumably idealistic people, remained quiet in order protect the party and their place within it. This got to such a point within the NSW party that, more than being merely tolerated, the bad apples were actually running the orchard.

The result of this silence, this overwhelming loyalty to institution, was that a progressive party was complicit in the damaging of its own ideals. An organisation designed to give the broader citizenry, rather than economic elite, a voice, and to preserve the role of the state in creating a fairer society, left office with that voice muzzled and trust in government shredded.

In a similar way, we can see this pattern playing out in both the Royal Commission into Catholic child sex abuse and Stephen Smith’s apology to victims of ADF sexual assault.

In order to remain fittest in the Darwinian jungle of public opinion, the two organisations also prioritised survival over their founding moral principles. Whether it was the Catholic hierarchy, as Julia Gillard put it, “averting their eyes from evil”, or the ADF establishment, in the words of Stephen Smith, “turning a blind eye” to instances of sexual abuse, both enquiries are the product of an institution losing sight of its ethical reasons for being. With the former, Catholic leaders ignored Christ’s emphasis on the meek and vulnerable, and the need to protect them from exploitation at the hands of the powerful; with the latter, the military establishment disregarded its desire to instill the values of “Courage, Initiative and Teamwork”.

Like with the NSW Labor Party, the logic of preservation helped to overturn the reasons why preservation originally mattered.

NSW powerbroker Eddie Obeid has come under sustained attack at recent ICAC hearings. AAP/Paul Miller

But why exactly does this occur? Why did the three orgnisations ignore their original goals, their moral purposes, all in order to protect their reputations? There are a number of factors of play, but most seem to revolve around the nature of hierarchy and the place of the individual within it.

On one hand, there’s a clear incentive for those at the top of the tree to defend its structural integrity. After all, to admit institutional failure would be to also admit a failure of leadership. At least sub-consciously, Morris Iemma, George Pell and successive leaders of the armed forces must have all felt this instinctive desire to save face.

But perhaps more importantly, the rigid hierarchy in each institution serves to quell the discontent of those on lower branches. Because progression tends to be primarily internal, solidarity and loyalty to the institution, rather than its principles, is often a prerequisite to promotion. Frank Sartor, Sydney’s former Lord Mayor and a Labor minister, told ICAC of Obeid imploring him to be a “team player” in approving his commercial development in Balmain. Playing out at a number of levels in each institution, this logic of internal promotion means dissatisfaction is likely to remain dormant: if a priest wants to become a bishop, if a back-bencher wants to become a minister, or if captain wants to become a major, it pays to be loyal.

Finally, and more nebulously, there’s the role of identity in institutional solidarity. Beyond being purely a question of rationality, this evokes the way that an individual’s self-conception can begin to merge with an institution’s. As members spend so much time within these organisations, expending so much of their hopes and energies in the process, it’s natural that they begin to see an attack on the institution as an attack on themselves. Whist, again, this is harder to quantify, it’s also crucial in building a culture of reflexive self defence, rather than scrutiny.

But for whatever combination of these and other reasons, when viewed together, the three enquiries do paint an overarching picture of institutional failure. Indeed, it’s also a picture that can be extended to other examples of organisational corruption, such as the degradation of freshmen at St John’s College in Sydney.

In each case, it would serve an institution well to ask itself one clear question: beyond the need to survive, why, again, was I born?