Corruption fighter sees sordid history repeated

By: Tony Koch

RETIRED Queensland MPs and Labor mates are brokering deals between business and the Bligh cabinet in a system where ``patronage is dispensed and access to government can be purchased'', corruption fighter Tony Fitzgerald QC said last night.
As well as accusing former politicians of cashing in their contacts, Mr Fitzgerald accused the Beattie government of siding with supporters of Joh Bjelke-Petersen for political gain, ostracising the former judge and forcing him and his family to move to NSW.
Speaking for the first time on the reform process since he delivered his ground-breaking report on police and political corruption in July 1989, Mr Fitzgerald blasted the ``ethics'' of the current and former Labor governments.
He said also that secrecy was re-established by sham claims that voluminous documents were ``cabinet-in-confidence''. This was a reference to the Beattie and Bligh governments' practice of refusing freedom-of-information requests on public interest matters, such as infrastructure costs, by declaring that documentation was protected by cabinet confidentiality.
Mr Fitzgerald made the explosive comments in an address in Brisbane, where he introduced guest speaker Arthur Chaskalson, former chief justice of South Africa, who delivered the inaugural Tony Fitzgerald Lecture, hosted by Griffith University.
His 1989 inquiry and report resulted in the jailing of five National Party ministers as well as then police commissioner Terry Lewis. Bjelke-Petersen was put on trial for perjury but the jury was unable to reach a verdict on the former premier.
``At the end of 1989, in the aftermath of my inquiry, Queenslanders decided they had had enough of the systemic corruption and repression of Bjelke-Petersen and his cronies, and voted in a new government,'' Mr Fitzgerald last night said. ``Wayne Goss, Matt Foley and others were elected in a spirit of renewal and reform.
``However, by the mid-1990s, Australia generally had wearied of change and moved to the Right, and Queensland, where a long period of conservative government had consolidated a predisposition to conservative thought, moved Right with the rest of the country.
``The Pauline Hanson/One Nation phenomenon began to emerge, again in Queensland, and a coalition of Nationals and so-called Liberals, including relics of the Bjelke-Petersen era, regained power in Queensland with the help of the police union.
``The Connolly-Ryan inquiry was soon set up to discredit the reforms which had been introduced on my recommendation so that they could be dismantled with minimum community disquiet, but that exercise failed when the Supreme Court stopped the farce because of (former judge Peter) Connolly's manifest bias.
``It soon became apparent to Queenslanders that the coalition was still not fit to govern but it had succeeded in interrupting and damaging the reform process.
``By the end of the coalition's term in power in 1998, the political situation in Queensland was volatile. Wayne Goss had departed from politics; the Labor party was led by Peter Beattie and much of the principled willingness to confront Queensland's dark past had been lost, and with it the momentum for reform. I had always known that I might have to leave Queensland to work elsewhere as a consequence of my inquiry, and in 1998 I accepted that the time had come, resigned and took up a position in NSW.''
Mr Fitzgerald then turned to the performance of the Labor administrations of Mr Beattie and the current Premier, Anna Bligh, saying that Labor had held government in Queensland since 1998 and perhaps, on Labor's assessment, ``that is all that matters''.
``Perhaps, to it (Labor), the adverse consequences of its political tactics are just collateral damage,'' he said.
``Under Beattie, Labor decided that there were votes to be obtained from Bjelke-Petersen's remaining adherents in glossing over his and his cronies' repressive and corrupt misconduct, and ostracising me as the supposed instrument of their downfall.
``Tacitly at least, Queenslanders were encouraged by Labor's self-described base politics to forget the repression and corruption which had occurred and the social upheaval which had been involved in eradicating those injustices.
``Younger Queenslanders know little of that era and are largely ignorant of the possibility that history might be repeated.''
Mr Fitzgerald said that incumbency always tested ethics and neither side of politics was interested in addressing the issues of political mates and the patronage, because each waited their turn to be in the position of being able to dispense the largesse.
And he added that cynical, short-sighted political attitudes adopted for the benefit of politicians and their parties commonly had adverse consequences for the general community.
He said the current concerns about political and police misconduct in Queensland were ``a predictable result of attitudes adopted since the mid-1990s''.
Two weeks ago a former Beattie minister, Gordon Nuttall, was jailed for seven years for accepting bribes. Ms Bligh dismissed the conviction as ``just one bad apple''.
Mr Fitzgerald said that politicians who glossed over corruption issues risked the perception that they regarded such criminality as of little importance, which was ``a disastrous perception''.
``Greed, power and opportunity in combination provide an almost irresistible temptation for many which can only be countered by the near-certainty of exposure and severe punishment,'' he said.
``Even if we cannot rely on politicians to voluntarily curb their excesses or tell the truth, a well-informed community which is committed to doing so can influence the way it is governed, just as Queenslanders did in 1989.''