Official deviance exposed: An historical examination of political scandals in late twentieth-century Australia

Liam Lander

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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The subject of this thesis is political scandal; a fascinating but understudied phenomenon that has long been an important part of Australian politics. Political scandals are sensational public affairs concerning the discovery of facts that signify a breach of the norms binding those in government to the people they represent. They can adversely affect the reputation of those responsible; undermining trust or confidence in their ability to behave according to normative standards of law, ethics or good government. In liberal democratic societies like Australia, where elected politicians, appointed officials and government bodies are accountable to the people, political scandals can have significant implications. Political scandals can bring down governments, ruin the reputation of high-profile individuals, result in legal sanctions and/or lead to the reform of institutions. Alternatively, they can go unresolved or quickly disappear without having made any impact. So, what are political scandals about? How do political scandals work and why do they matter? These are the fundamental questions addressed by this thesis in case studies of 10 major scandals that transpired in late twentieth-century Australia

Political scandals occur when it is discovered that an important agent or organisation within the structure of government has deviated in a disgraceful manner from a certain norm or standard upheld by the people upon whom rests their legitimacy. Official deviance can be graded black (serious), grey (ambiguous) or white (trivial) according to its severity as perceived by the body politic. At the black end of the scale, political scandals involve crimes and corruption detrimental to the integrity of democratic institutions of government. At the white end of the scale, political scandals involve mostly tolerated offenses of a relatively trivial nature that marginally threaten norms of government conduct. Between these extremes is grey deviance, which involves offences of an ambiguous nature that provoke condemnation from some but ambivalence from others.

Although scandals have long been part of Australian politics and government, they began appearing with greater frequency the 1970s due to a combination of social, economic and technological circumstances. The white and grey scandals of the Whitlam era of federal politics (1972-1975) were soon followed by a series of black corruption scandals in state politics of New South Wales and Queensland. Many of these were linked to the spread of organised criminal activity throughout Australia. Scandals consumed a great quantity of news coverage and political attention throughout this period, occupying a significant portion of press activity and legislative debate.

This thesis builds on a small but authoritative body of scholarly literature by providing detailed studies of 10 major scandals that occurred in late twentieth century Australia. It combines original primary source research with an analytical method drawn from social theory about deviance, scandals and corruption. Its purpose is to explain the cause, course and consequences of the scandals selected for examination. Included among the abundance of scandal related news-media content, official records and other primary source materials examined are hitherto publicly inaccessible documents from the 1986 Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry concerning the conduct of Justice Lionel Murphy. This thesis is the first to analyse the contents of these documents, which were declassified by the Turnbull Government in 2016 for the purpose of this research.

The research findings of this thesis demonstrate that despite partisan political and commercial media exploitation. scandals often had significant consequences that were civically beneficial to Australian society. It shows how political scandals enriched public discourse by enabling the collective affirmation of the norms held by the body politic concerning the conduct of politics, government and the administration of justice. Further, it shows how scandals were the antecedent to an array of political, legal and institutional repercussions, which ultimately helped ensure the operation of Australian politics and government in accordance with normative expectations of probity.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Charles Sturt University
  • O'Sullivan, Dominic, Principal Supervisor
  • Van Duinen, Jared, Co-Supervisor
Place of PublicationAustralia
Publication statusPublished - 2023


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