We needn't be corrupted
A version of this article was first published: The Australian - 24 August 2000
In recent days, questions have been asked about the extent to which corporate hospitality should be offered to politicians during the Olympic Games. The underlying reason for concern is the perception that the independence and integrity of our politicians is likely to be compromised if they accept a company's invitation to share in the experience of the Games.
On the one hand, it is easy to understand the level of disquiet. Many people in the community believe that business in general (and big business in particular) has amassed enough power to rival that of governments. This is linked to a belief that government has become little more than a willing handmaiden to the private interests of big corporations.
At the same time, the general public has a low opinion of the trustworthiness of our elected representatives. Despite the genuinely good intentions of many in public life, there is a persistent belief that self-interest (of one kind or another) will always trump their unqualified duty to act in the public interest.
So, it is understandable that the sight of politicians and corporate magnates rubbing shoulders at the Olympic Games will feed deep-seated suspicions about the way in which power and influence mingle at the upper levels of Australian society, even when enjoying private hospitality. Beyond this, we should ask if our worry about politicians accepting corporate hospitality is symptomatic of some deeper public concern about the motives of companies offering hospitality.
In addressing this issue, we might start by recognising that the giving and receiving of hospitality is an established feature of Australian culture. We have always built and deepened relationships over a meal, at sporting events, and so on. Difficulties only arise when people think that the exercise in genuine relationship-building has given way to a ritual for the mere exchange of favours. Such an exchange can take place between total strangers – thereby displacing any sense of a genuine relationship being either important or necessary to the occasion.
It is at this point that contemporary proponents of corporate hospitality run into trouble, for they have inadvertently painted themselves into a corner by allowing a puritanical concern with 'value for money' to distort their motives for offering hospitality.
On the other hand, we need to make a careful assessment of the assumptions that underpin our concerns. First, we should note that all politicians are not equal in their capacity to wield power. In fact, only a handful work within the executive – armed with the ability to direct the functions of government. Most of them are either backbenchers or in Opposition, where the ability to cast a vote in parliament is of only marginal consequence to the fate of particular corporations. In other words, we need to distinguish between government ministers and others with real power to wield, and the ordinary elected representative serving in parliament.
Given this, it may be quite harmless for a common-garden-variety politician to accept corporate hospitality – especially where there is no significant issue in the offing (which makes Telstra's offer an especially interesting and contentious case).
We also need to question our assumption that the goodwill of politicians can be so easily bought. To the extent that we rely on our parliaments to play a critical role in society, we need to accept that in electing politicians we inevitably bestow on them a huge amount of trust (even if we don't like it). Do we really believe the men and women we elect to be so shallow as to surrender their capacity for independent judgement in return for a seat at the Games? If so, then why continue to elect such people year after year?
The answer is that we probably think more of people in public life than we like to admit.
Finally, we should not discount the possibility that politicians can be successful in promoting the public good.
There used to be a time when people in business valued relationships for their own sake. True, good relationships aided the conduct of business. However, bringing people together in a social setting was understood to be a vital part of running a human enterprise. Corporate hospitality was not reserved exclusively for the 'knobs'. Companies would often fund picnics, sporting days and the like. Many did so as a way of allowing people to develop closer bonds – as people.
Now corporations feel compelled to pretend (and I think that in many cases it is mere pretence) that corporate hospitality must and can only be justified by appeal to the bottom line. So it is that we have set up a framework of expectations that deny the intrinsic value of people getting to know each other without any sense of obligation to do something in return. It's just another case where a relentless focus on economic efficiency has made us blind to the realities of how humans get along with each other.
People in public life need to be especially sensitive to the perception that they are trading in public power for private profit (even if it is only the proverbial free lunch). This is especially so at a time when an increasing number of people feel there is a growing gap between the haves and the have-nots. We need to be careful to ensure that we do not deny the possibility of building genuine relationships on the basis of shared experiences.