ADELAIDE - One of Donald Trump's catch phrases has been his undertaking to "drain the swamp" in Washington DC.
While Trump has never bothered to clarify just what he really means by this oft repeated phrase, I infer he is talking about expelling the rent seekers, carpet baggers and special pleaders who infest the US capital.
While I am no fan of Trump I think that he is onto something here, although, as usual, his proposed solution is unworkable.
There is indeed a Washington swamp that needs attention because, frankly, there always is a swamp when it comes to democratic politics.
Democracy is necessarily an ongoing argument about the distribution of public goods and resources. Thus a swamp infested with competing interest groups is and will remain a necessary part of the democratic process.
We mostly know who the usual denizens of the swamp will be. In any democracy, they will be a mixed bunch including industry, charities, churches, unions, special interest lobbyists and so forth.
They will be talking with an array of legislators including the inevitable sprinkling of hypocrites, chancers and con artists we insist on electing, whose weasel words never match their deeds and for whom the only principle which they truly hold dear is the pursuit of self interest.
Also in the swamp are those usually anonymous and media shy creatures who use money to buy influence (otherwise known as campaign donations).
Invariably, the giving of vast sums of money to political parties by huge corporations, industry groups and wealthy individuals is accompanied by bland public assurances that such donations are made without any expectation of receiving something in return. This is correctly understood by the public to be authentic bullshit.
The pouring of money into the political swamp is the monetary equivalent of over loading a fairly pristine environment with an especially toxic load of fertiliser. The growth which is stimulated frequently has a very adverse effect on the delicate political ecosystem, with very nasty slimes and toxic algae emerging to suffocate the more benign life forms.
History suggests that if the swamp becomes truly toxic, people will increasingly come to believe that the political decision making process is loaded against the wider public interest (as they understand it) and in favour of some sort of plutocracy. This sometimes leads people to seek scape goats or accept implausible conspiracy theories about shadowy figures setting out to threaten or destroy them or their country.
Beliefs like this have, in the 20th century, caused apparently civilised people in Italy and Germany to call into question the very legitimacy of democracy itself and turn towards politicians offering clear, simple and entirely wrong solutions to the perceived problems. This did not end well.
Unhappily, new creatures have slid into our swamps in recent times. The enemies of democracy have come to understand that the swamp is its proverbial Achilles Heel. They have deftly exploited the internet to widen and intensify the inherent divisions within any democracy, especially those that, like the USA, the UK, Canada, Australia and the European Union, are heterogeneous in structure.
They have weaponised "fake news" and used misinformation to help foster dissension and distrust. In this task they have been greatly assisted by our own politicians, who continue to believe in the utility of disingenuousness, diversion and disinformation as political tools.
Democratic societies are full of potentially exploitable fracture points based upon things like religion, ethnicity, education, political ideology and so forth. They are thus vulnerable to manipulation by the unscrupulous, especially so in a world where the objective truth about many major public issues is often complex and hard to understand, as well as being hotly contested by the fringe dwellers in the swamp.
So, extending Trump's analogy, we have these new creatures that have entered the political swamp by covert means, whose motivations are murky if not malignant and whose influence is beginning to manifest itself in unexpected ways. Trump himself is a manifestation of this effect, not its cause.
Draining the swamp is an unrealisable ambition for the Donald or anyone else. The real concern should be how healthy the swamp is: whether the precarious relationship between the beneficial and largely benign inhabitants and the truly malevolent predators is kept in balance. Now, with malignant "introduced species" in the swamp, this task has become very much harder.
The health of the swamp is, in many ways, a good guide to the health of the broader democracy.
We know that all is not well within the world's mightiest and most important democracy. It is riven by divisions and its political debate is now characterised by levels of intensity verging on outright hatred of those articulating a view contrary to one's own.
The political middle ground is a no man's land, with angry voters dug in to the left and right, unwilling or unable to see any merit in what their political foes are saying, much less correctly understanding their underlying motivation.
In short, the swamp is now so toxic that it is in danger of becoming lethally poisonous to the US polity.
So what has this to do with Papua New Guinea?
Right now, the swamp in PNG seems to be full of predators, mostly small, who are collectively draining the life out of the country.
There is an abundance of political leeches, ticks and similar creatures. They do not appear to be motivated by anything other than self interest and greed because differences in ideology, religion and culture seem to be of only marginal importance in PNG.
That said, at least one very large potential predator is now in PNG's swamp, that being of Chinese origin.
I say potential predator because China is using an influencing technique that has been used by democracies for a long time, being the offering of huge amounts of money. It therefore would be rank hypocrisy to suggest that China was doing other than playing by the established rules of the game.
That said, China is a one party authoritarian state, not a democracy. Its money comes with strings attached, not least of which is that a favour done now will be repaid at some future time. The time may come when PNG is asked for a favour that it cannot refuse, even if it doesn't like it.
In PNG's swamp, Chinese influence is like a huge estuarine crocodile. It has no friends, only territorial interests. It also has no fear. It will study its prey for a very long time before attacking without compunction or mercy. Such a potentially dangerous predator requires the most careful management.
So, PNG has its own swamp to manage and, at present at least, it seems to be struggling with that task. It is not alone in this. Australian politicians have proved to be susceptible to the new creatures in the swamp as well.
Unless we collectively find new ways to manage our various swamps, then our democracies will become progressively more unstable and dysfunctional. This will encourage those for whom a world full of unstable democracies represents less of a threat to their plans to expand their power and influence.
Make no mistake, we have been down this path before. When faith in the basic integrity and utility of representative democracy fails, the way is opened for those who offer stability and certainty in return for the giving up of hard won political and human rights. History shows that this always ends badly for nearly everyone.
So, let us all turn our minds to how best to rehabilitate the swamp and return it to a much healthier state.
A good starting point is to fully illuminate the swamp so that its denizens cannot operate in secrecy. This is why powerful Independent Commissions against Corruption are so useful. They help keep swamp dwellers appropriately nervous and careful. The risk of great harm being done to the nation is thus much reduced.
Another important step is to remove to arms length from our politicians some of the most important public institutions, notably the Central Bank, the security apparatus, the judiciary and those bodies that regulate business and the banking and financial structures. No politician, let alone swamp dweller, is equipped by either knowledge or temperament to undertake the tasks they perform.
Perhaps most importantly, we the voters have to remain constantly vigilant to ensure that our hard won rights are not slowly and surreptiously undermined by those who seek to govern us. History shows that allowing this to happen always ends badly for us.