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A growing body count by ICAC hasn’t hurt the NSW Liberals – yet

NSW premier Mike Baird’s government remains resilient despite a growing body count as a result of revelations at the state’s ICAC. AAP/Nikki Short

The New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) is the state’s most popular institution. If you need proof, ask yourself: just how many other government bodies have members of the public independently produce and proudly display “I love them” stickers?

Unlike other agencies, ICAC has a high public profile and kicks a lot of goals. It has ensnared ten Liberal MPs, two of whom – Andrew Cornwell and Tim Owen – resigned from NSW parliament last week. Premier Mike Baird announced the Liberals will not contest the resultant by-elections later this year.

For a government of fewer than three years, this should be devastating; not least losing a first-term premier in Barry O'Farrell, who had – some criticisms about effectiveness aside – retained strong approval ratings and a solid edge over the opposition.

Yet the NSW government remains resilient. While Coalition governments in Victoria and Queensland are in for some serious competition in their coming elections (November 2014 and first half of 2015 respectively), the NSW Coalition is on track to retain government in 2015.

The politics of retribution

Why haven’t the revelations at ICAC taken more of an electoral toll? While there’s been a rapid fall from grace from a new leadership that promised to end the sleaze, the NSW public has had almost a decade of reporting about allegations of corrupt activities by Labor identities.

Even as recently as two weeks ago, the book launch of Kate McClymont and Linton Besser’s He Who Must Be Obeid put the old file footage back in the news cycle. Many of us have seen the Obeid family more often than our in-laws over the last decade.

For most people from New South Wales, the failure to bring a prosecution against former Labor MP Eddie Obeid is galling. And in the absence of a timely action, withholding electoral support from the ALP is the only way for an aggrieved public to vent.

Former Labor MP Eddie Obeid is yet to be prosecuted over allegations of corruption. AAP/Paul Miller

For Labor, the eventual court cases will re-open this period, but it presents the only hope for effective closure. A good comparison would be the trial of former Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen in the first term of the Goss Labor government, allowing the Nationals’ demons to be exorcised. The Nationals only spent two full terms in opposition following Bjelke-Petersen’s downfall.

Preferencing will also push votes back to the major parties in the way they did in the last federal election, where support for minor parties and independents reached an all-time high. However, the absence of a viable third party will be significant.

Clive Palmer is likely ruing his decision not to register his Palmer United Party in NSW given he might have been able to capitalise on anti-party feeling in a way the NSW Greens are unlikely to. This feeds into, and reflects, the recent survey research showing low voter efficacy. Only 43% of Australians believe their vote makes a difference to election outcomes, down from 70% in the late 1990s.

While a small majority believe there is a difference between the policy positions of the two major parties (56%), this decline in efficacy talks to dissatisfaction with the translation of votes into seats.

Questions of influence

An unresolved question for the NSW government is whether the public see the current scandal as categorically different from Labor’s woes. While there are some claims of personal enrichment in the current mix – the most significant being the alleged use of approximately A$10,000 to pay a personal tax liability – the majority of unlawful activity relates to illegal campaign fundraising unique to NSW.

While it has been argued the developer ban was a “trap” laid for the Liberals by Labor, both sides have been ensnared by the laws.

Suspended Liberal MP Tim Owen resigned from NSW parliament last week. AAP/Paul Miller

The federal Liberal Party is also in ICAC’s sights for potentially directing monies from developers to the NSW party through an allied organisation, the Free Enterprise Foundation. In New South Wales it is also unlawful for a person to make a political donation on behalf of a prohibited donor, as well as solicit donations. However, in this case, evidence will be more difficult to obtain as it would require investigators and future prosecutors to follow money into and out of a consolidated revenue pool.

While this also demonstrates how the federal system of electoral laws has becoming unwieldy over time, it is a political problem specific to the Liberals, of whom the public are sceptical about their ties with big development.

In a May 2014 Essential Media poll, 53% of Australians agreed property developers have too much influence over the Liberals (highest influence group) compared with 39% for Labor (fourth highest influence group). This question of influence ties back to Australian’s disconnectedness with political parties, voting, and the way allegations of corruption and illegality drive public opinion.

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