This coming March 26 is a day to think laterally
"If you know where the bodies are buried on both sides, and you are prepared to expose where the bodies are buried, and you decline offers to be an assistant minister, a speaker and a member of a political party - they really don't know how to handle you". (Ruth Richmond in her biography of John Hatton AO.)
Last June, a handful of concerned people and myself set-up a public meeting in a club south of Sydney. The key speaker was to be the real-life character who John Waters had played the previous week in the TV series Underbelly. We thought we should strike while the iron was hot.
He gave the same performance he had been giving at several other localities - and had it off-pat. At age 77, and a National Trust nominated Australian Living Treasure, John Hatton has come out of retirement - and he is on a mission. He wants a public fed-up with the self-serving antics of the major parties to support in future elections, those independents who are committed to fighting corruption.
Is that wise? Afterall, I can still picture the very wise Bob Hawke staring into a TV camera advising us that a vote for an independent was a wasted vote.
Ted Mack, the independent member for the North Shore, was a mate of Hatton's. As a protest against the excesses of public office, Mack retired two days before he qualified for a parliamentary pension worth $1 million (that's in 1988 dollars). He refused the gold pass and has never taken an overseas trip at public expense.
That is the type of person the old comrade believed that we would be wasting our vote on. So, Bob wasn't thinking of integrity when he gave us his advice - he was thinking of who gets the power.
Since the idealistic Whitlam government did itself in, both major parties at both federal and state level have become philosophically close to the centre. Nevertheless, the job of the front rows in parliament is to be in perpetual combat. The backbenchers are there to put their hands up when votes are to be counted. That can't be very satisfying for them. So, why are they there?
If a parliamentary seat can be sat in for two terms, the life-long benefits are truly sweet. But, to get to the money, one needs money. That means getting Labor or Coalition endorsement of one's candidacy. The journey to the sweetness might require sacrificing a few formally unshakable principles.
The independents who pay for their own campaigns to correct what they believe to be wrongs, must have an extraordinarily deep feeling for this country. His biographer, Ruth Richmond, described the independent member for the South Coast's difficult personality as being:
….in stark contrast to those who had come into parliament to ride the gravy train, to disembark when their pension was at its peak - asking no questions about the direction of the train, how it was powered or who fell in its path.
Life as a square peg in a round hole
Hatton's parliamentary career began when Robert Askin was New South Wales Premier. His greeting by Askin in the premier's office was: "You look after our interests, and we will look after yours". The defamation law held back until the day of his funeral the questioning of Askin's "amazing lucky streaks at the races". There was no hard evidence that the premier was accepting huge bribes - and yet an audit of his estate revealed "substantial wealth derived from undisclosed sources".
As premier, he recommended knighthoods to the queen. He thus secured his own knighthood - and later its upgrading. It was even claimed that he sold knighthoods to wealthy mates.
The years that followed Hatton's election revealed that the state had in the member for the South Coast what the great majority of Australians want in every parliamentarian - but almost never get. After playing a role in exposing a corrupt link between a chief magistrate and the administration of rugby league, Hatton used parliamentary privilege to expose the mafia in the Griffith area which did not stop short of murdering those (Donald Mackay) who threatened its operations.
Friends provided emergency shelters for Hatton's family. But why take risks nobody else was taking? Responded his frightened but stoic wife, Vera: "Somebody has to do it."
Hatton did not accept the police commissioner's one-rotten-apple-in-the-barrel theory about the New South Wales police force. By being the prime mover behind the Wood Royal Commission, he achieved more than any parliamentarian (who was not a minister) in the history of this country. The commission exposed widespread and entrenched corruption in the New South Wales Police Force.
In his long parliamentary career, Hatton had became highly informed and knew how to prod and probe. As the media regarded him as worthwhile subject matter, the high profile they provided helped his effectiveness considerably. Victims of corruption outside of his own electorate sought his help.
In spite of his probable obsession with corruption, Hatton's electorate didn't seem to feel that he was ignoring them. He served for 22 years and retired at the point of exhaustion. In one state election, and without any party funds behind his campaign, he attracted 78 percent of the votes in his electorate.
The coming state election on March 26
The New South Wales Parliament is known as the Bear Pit. Crazed behaviour is one thing, but a parliamentary process which is sheltering corruption is something else again. John Hatton claims that the New South Wales parliamentary process is sheltering corruption in the private sector as much as it has ever been in its grubby history.
What is needed in both upper and lower houses is that there be enough genuine independents beholden to nobody who will determine what legislation gets passed. This has occurred before - to the fury of the party condemned to be a minority government. One can understand the fury after buckets of money have been spent to put the party in control - and individuals running on near-empty call the shots.
But, what if the electorate you live in is a safe Labor, Liberal or National Party seat? Does this not mean that your vote for an independent is a completely wasted vote? Not if your vote gives the safe seat a shake.
After the results come in, there is a lump of public money to be distributed amongst the candidates in your electorate. Your primary vote delivers a portion of that money to your candidate of choice - providing that candidate attracts four percent or more of the total primary votes.
If you vote for the independent most likely to get four percent of the votes, that candidate gets the money to fund his or her next run. But, as the independent will not win the seat, it will remain in the hands of Labor or the Coalition.
How can a vote for an independent be wasted when it sends out a message that the voter is not happy with party-politics?