The hand of the beholder

The Taj Mahal is one of the world’s most beautiful buildings, visited by millions every year. Shah Jahan’s favourite wife, Mumtaz, whose mausoleum it is, may have simply worn out after giving birth to her 14th child. But the building itself, especially in the dawn light, does not disappoint. It is magical.

Not far away, though, in the streets of Agra, you will find enormous potholes in the roads, slums with no sewerage, and people without much hope of ever escaping their situation. Wherever they live, the poor in India miss out on services, but why, I wondered, were the roads in such a conspicuous location not fixed?

I was told that money was allocated, but by the time each layer of bureaucracy had taken its cut, there was not much left for the road. Everyone I spoke with agreed, with a resigned air, that the government of Uttar Pradesh (the state in which Agra is located) was one of the most corrupt in India.

It is easy to say – and many have – that corruption should be stamped out. But like many of the really difficult problems in public administration, the problem of corruption militates against its own solution. Many Indian politicians have criminal histories: indeed they see politics as an extension of their dodgy business dealings by other means. So, it is extremely unlikely that tainted legislatures will vote for change.

I was told that a recent attempt to institute an anti-corruption watchdog in every agency in Uttar Pradesh was voted down by both government and opposition. The Indian Electoral Commission has ruled that convicted criminals may not stand for parliament, but like many such rules, this one is not very effective in practice. While many serving and would-be politicians have been charged with offences, few are ever actually convicted.

The judicial system occasionally catches up with guilty parties, but often years after the event. In a notorious recent case, the principal of a school which proved to have no students, had for many years been pocketing funds intended for dalit (underprivileged) students. Apparently no one had checked that the school was still actually operating. If you can get away with reporting fictitious numbers, it is scarcely surprising that so many are tempted to commit fraud.

Of course, corruption is not unknown in Australia. Members of the Obeid family are alleged to have used their political connections to make huge profits from dealings in farmland that they knew was soon to be opened up to coal exploration. Counsel assisting the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption likened the potential scale of wrongdoing to what went on in the days of the Rum Corps.

While the public perception of the extent of corruption is often too pessimistic, rumours usually circulate well before the authorities take action. A couple of years ago I visited the Sydney suburb of Hunters Hill with a friend. We stopped outside a beautiful mansion. ”Who owns that,” I asked. ”Eddie Obeid,” she replied. ”How would he get the money for a place like this,” I asked. ”It’s a very good question,” came the response.

It’s difficult to know whether to be pleased or not when political leaders speak out against the problem. China’s incoming President, Xi Jinping, may not be serious about tackling corruption, but at least he felt he had to say something on the subject. Corruption is a pressing problem for many international organisations, too.

When they led the World Bank, James Wolfenden and Paul Wolfowitz both inveighed against corruption in recipient governments.

Tired of seeing money frittered away, the World Bank tells countries seeking its help that they must improve their governance. This means that they are required to import Western-style governance, imposing so-called new public management remedies when even basic processes of procurement, record-keeping, audit and IT systems are absent.

There are some hopeful signs, though. In Indonesia, the mayor of Tangerang, a former member of the military, was able to re-invent himself as a kind of people’s mayor. Using the fact that practically everyone has a mobile phone, he was able to go over the heads of his officials and encourage voters to send him an SMS if they had any complaints. ”You can contact me about anything,” was his cry. It seems to have made a difference.

Even the cleanest polities struggle with one of the most pressing issues – donations to political parties. There are strict rules governing such things, but policing them is very difficult. These days, campaigning is so expensive that political parties need more funds than their members are able to provide. Fund-raising dinners which promise access to key decision-makers have become routine.

Direct donations over a certain amount must be publicly disclosed, but over the long run, may or may not get you what you want. Which side do you back? For those seeking favour from governments – or simply worried what governments might do to them – political donations to both major parties may seem to be the most effective risk management.

Often, too, politics thrives on what is understood and what is expected rather than on what is negotiated. When it is time for a change, self-interest and policy join hands in a positive gale of retribution and re-allocation. Those who used to be in are out and those who used to be out are in.

Even in long-lived governments, corruption is not necessarily all bad. In Queensland, those who can remember him tell me that while Joh Bjelke Petersen may have been corrupt, ”old Joh put Queensland on the map”. Certainly able public servants such as Sir Leo Heilscher were able to ensure that the state’s infrastructure kept pace with its rapid economic development.

Campbell Newman, effectively an elected dictator, has taken a blowtorch to the Queensland public sector without any clear overall plan, other than to reduce the size of government. With no opposition to speak of, the Queensland Parliament building sits at the end of Brisbane’s George Street, underused and unloved.

I wonder if Sir Joh would have approved. No parliamentarian himself, he nevertheless enjoyed a good stoush.

First appeared in the Canberra Times 9 Feb 13

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