Joo-Cheong Tham is an Associate Law Lecturer at La Trobe University.
The allegations made by John Laws last Wednesday raise very serious questions. As is well-known, Laws has alleged that Alan Jones pressured John Howard into appointing David Flint as chair of the Australian Broadcasting Authority by threatening to withdraw support for the Coalition in the 2001 federal election.
If true, Jones would have engaged in an act of bribery; an offence under both the Commonwealth Electoral Act and the Criminal Code Act. If Howard responded to Jones� threat, he too would be guilty of the same offence. The fact that no brown paper bags of money were involved makes no difference as a matter of law or principle: the gravamen of corruption, the exercise of public power for private gain, will clearly be present.
Moreover, if these allegations were proven to be true, they would vividly demonstrate that Australian political life has yet to deliver on democracy�s promise that all citizens have equal access to political power. Some, it would seem, are more equal than others.
At this stage, we are, of course, far from knowing the true situation. There are only allegations and denials at hand. The water is also muddied by the intense rivalry between the accuser, Laws, and one of the accused, Jones. At this point, Howard and Jones, like all other persons accused of a crime, are entitled to the presumption of innocence and judgment is best reserved.
This does not, however, sanction inactivity. Uninvestigated, these grave allegations would still leave a dark stain on Australian political life. They will create a strong perception of corruption at the highest levels of government with Kirribilli House seen as the venue of choice for bartering away the public interest. Such a perception will have a corrosive effect on the standards of public life. It will also to deepen the disenchantment that the community already has of the political process.
It is imperative then that these allegations be thoroughly investigated. This needs to occur on at least two fronts.
The police should investigate whether Howard and Jones have engaged in criminal wrongdoing. Such an investigation could be triggered by a formal complaint made by either the Opposition or Laws.
Moreover, there should be an independent public inquiry into these allegations examining not only the question of illegal conduct but also whether there has been improper or unethical conduct.
There should also be a broader investigation into the relationship between politicians and influential media commentators like Jones and Laws. Acts of corruption are usually the tip of the iceberg.
The real danger is that Laws� allegations, if true, prefigure a web of informal understandings where political patronage is regularly traded for favourable media coverage or, more insidiously, where political action is profoundly shaped by the fear of media reprisal.
If such understandings exist, Australia�s pretensions to democratic credentials might very well be just that.