Thursday, January 22, 2015

A Question of Perception

It is an evident truism that the perception of impropriety is often more damaging than the inappropriateness of the act itself.


Nowhere has this been more patently displayed than in the recent revelation of the use of Stoke Lodge, the Australian High Commissioner’s Residence in London, by the Federal President of the Liberal Party Richard Alston and billionaire Sir Michael Hintze, the founder of an Australian-British hedge fund to host a party (or let’s call it a “function”).


That High Commissioner and former Howard Government Minister Alexander Downer was not present at the time, and, therefore, arguably not furthering Australia’s national interests, compounds the perception of impropriety.  That Federal Liberal party president, Richard Alston was there in his capacity as a member of the hedge fund’s board and not in his capacity as Federal Liberal President becomes largely irrelevant.  The look is everything and the look is bad.


Political fund raising is a minefield into which even the bravest venture with some trepidation.  That money buys access and access begets influence is quintessentially where perception is king.  Any perceptionthat money has bought a favourable outcome is a one way trip to the 7.30 report and the ICAC dock.  Both former Senator Sinodinos and a swag of former New South Wales Labor members can attest to this.


But it’s not all about the perception of wrongdoing.  There’s also the perception of arrogance.  The “born to rule” attitude or the arrogance generated by an apparent mandate handed to you by the electorate on poling day also grates with electors and will be punished come election day.  (Losing site of the fact that you are subject to the vagaries of a minority Senate is an error that has been made to the government’s great cost.)


Hapless treasurer Joe Hockey has featured in more than a few examples of this: dancing with his wife before handing down the most unpopular budget in political memory or chomping on cigars in a parliament house courtyard with fellow conspirator and Finance Minister Senator Mathias Cormann on the eve of delivering that self-same budget are just two.  Again, the acts themselves might have been without meaning but the perception was replete with symbolism.


He has not been on his own.  Education Minister Christopher Pyne has made an art form out of his own eccentric brand of self-belief and has displayed more hubris than tact on many occasions as both Leader of the House and in prosecuting his apparently unpopular higher-education reforms.

Inevitably, stories like these “have legs” in today’s political environment.  Whether they should or not is a matter of opinion but anything that sullies the image of public and particularly political figures is likely to remain a target for speculation regarding the propriety of the protagonists for some time to come.   And recovery is a hard road – once again, just ask NSW Labor.


The longevity of such stories reinforces widely held perceptions and inevitably serves to amplify the contempt with which the public hold members of political parties and promotes the disengagement that the populous has with politics and politicians.  That this is unhelpful to the political process is as obvious as it is inevitable.


The perception of impropriety is an easy weapon to wield, a hard one to defend against and a necessary part of the political life.  Above all it is the means by which we can hold public office holders to account, provides copious column inches to inform us of the calibre of our political leaders and endless hours of intimate inquiry for Senate estimates.


Following “Stoke Lodge-gate” Labor Senators Wong and Dastyari have a surfeit of material for the Foreign Minister come next estimates sessions.  Best they keep their own house in order before then.  Australian voters are watching.

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