One of the most compelling things about Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, is the way we don’t get to identify the baddie until halfway through. And even then we don’t get to see the baddie’s face, of course, because he doesn’t have one. And while HAL, the Heuristic Algorithm computer which maintains the spaceship’s vital functions, does eventually evince something like emotion, it’s not until after he’s killed three astronauts who questioned his performance and realised a fourth one has gotten the better of him. ‘I’m sorry, Dave,’ he murmurs when Dave breaks into his hard drive and starts dismantling his memory, and then adds, when he realises that he’s about to be un-plugged like a malfunctioning toaster, ‘I’m afraid’.
Despite the more ostensibly human constituency of the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption, it’s unlikely that the ICAC will ever say ‘I’m sorry, Gladys’ – just as it never said ‘I’m sorry, Barry’ or ‘I’m sorry, Nick’ – not even after it became clear the allegations of corruption it claimed to be investigating against them would never get to court. In other respects, though, ICAC and HAL have rather more in common than mere facelessness. Both were created with the best intentions and both were given the operational autonomy it was thought they would need to always put the objectives of the mission ahead of the interests of anyone who happened to be driving the ship. But one thing that ICAC has made all too clear is that real panels of real unelected civil servants who cannot be held to account for their actions are no less liable to become self-serving and toxic than any fictional Artificial Intelligence. And when those panels are made up primarily of lawyers, a profession which in Australia at least has shown itself to be home to more than its fair share of political ideologues, the rot will set in sooner rather than later. In 2001 HAL has to travel the best part of a light year to go rogue. ICAC turned on the Liberal premier who set it up within six months of him taking office. And until a NSW government legislates to introduce some kind of accountability, and give parliament some kind of Dave-style manual override option, ICAC will have no reason to say ‘I’m afraid’ to anyone.
I heard about Gladys’s demise a few minutes after finishing my laps in one of the outdoor Sydney swimming pools which she had re-opened a few days earlier. The radio station I was listening to as I drove home quoted one of her defenders saying ‘It couldn’t have happened at a worse time for the people of NSW’, but I suspect this will prove to be bollocks. Thanks in large part to the hard yards Gladys has put in and the common sense and decency she has shown, there is a feeling amongst everyone I talk to that NSW is on the home straight now. Restaurants have already started taking bookings for the back end of this month and by the time you read this I wouldn’t be surprised if international travel is back on the cards. For all of which we will all feel grateful to Gladys – as indeed I felt, when I got out of that pool. But this will prove that certain sections of the media have been wrong about something else, too. I’m talking about conservative commentators who have said, some in the pages of this magazine, that the willingness shown by Australians during the pandemic to cede their constitutional freedoms and comply uncomplainingly with draconian regulation, means we have turned into a nation of sheep. I disagree; I think we have turned into a nation of dogs. To see why, try this simple test. Lock a close friend or family member in the boot of your car for a few hours. When you release them, there’s every chance they will be very angry with you – and quite possibly violent. Then do the same thing with a sheep, and note how, when you open the boot, the experience will not have changed the sheep’s attitude towards you in any discernible way. Now lock your dog in the same boot and drive through the Blue Mountains – on unsealed roads, wherever possible. When you finally let it out, chances are the dog will not bite you or even bark much. Chances are it will lick you.
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