The failure of present day parliaments to hold governments to account for the actions they take on behalf of ordinary citizens demands radical reforms. Instances of ministers and governments thumbing their noses at the community are legion; examples need not be listed here as readers will relate to many cases in those areas which particularly concern them.
While accountability has slid down the slippery slope in Australia major reform has been underway in other Westminster parliaments within the Commonwealth. The United Kingdom now has a Parliamentary Standards Commissioner while Canada is dramatically tightening bans on political donations. While these models strengthen the effectiveness, integrity and accountability of government, in Australian parliaments watering down has been the order of the day.
Accountability is at the core of democratic government. It should enable us to assure ourselves that the governments we elect are acting in our best interests rather than special interests or their own political futures.
Accountability should inform us how the power we give government is used efficiently, effectively and fairly. Accountability should show us how ministers and governments react when things go wrong and what they do to set things right.
However, the principles and practice of accountability are rarely spelled out clearly and so are difficult to enforce.
Prime Minister Howard’s guidelines for ministers, re-issued in 1998, are a good foundation on which to build a more complete and effective accountability system. In Why Accountability Must be Renewed, a discussion paper released last week, we argue for a number of simple, clear and enforceable reforms which should be adopted by all Australian parliaments. They are based on developments already in practice with the potential for immediate, effective improvement in accountability. Our proposals include an update of the Prime Ministers guidelines.
They are built on three fundamental principles:
- ministers are answerable for not only their own acts and omissions but those of all persons and organisations acting under the prerogative, legislative or contractual authority vested in them, backed by the operation of true freedom of information (FOI);
- the appointment of a Parliamentary Standards Commissioner with powers to investigate and report to Parliament and the public on alleged breaches of accountability guidelines and codes of conduct as an independent Officer of the Parliament; and
- the enshrinement of accountability standards and measures in special legislation.
Ministers are appointed to administer legislative powers within their portfolio and the staff, government departments, agencies and contractors who actually perform the work of government. However, only ministers are answerable to parliament and the people for these functions. They are accountable whether done at their personal direction, with the assistance of personal staff such as ministerial advisers, by public servants or outsourced.
However, ministerial accountability must be much more sophisticated than the common call for resignation when something goes wrong. Resignation is the ultimate sanction. There are five other avenues through which ministers can respond depending on the circumstances. They are: redirecting the question to the relevant minister; providing all relevant information; providing full explanations; taking any necessary remedial action; and accepting personal culpability.
In each case ministers must give direct answers when asked by the parliament to explain their actions. In giving these answers not only ministers but their staff, public servants and contractors must be open to questioning by parliamentary committees. All may hold information about actions by or on behalf of government which Parliament and the public has a right to know.
However, even parliamentary questioning has its limits, for example, procedural and time related factors and the lack of capacity for in depth forensic examination.
Parliamentary Standards Commissioner
An independent official could expose misconduct which otherwise would remain obscured by political smokescreens or dismissed as politically motivated allegations. We propose that Australia build on the success of the UK model by empowering a Parliamentary Standards Commissioner to investigate and report on breaches of accountability. The Commissioner would be appointed by a bi-partisan Parliamentary Committee. Reports by the Commissioner would have a strong impact. However, where necessary, a report could also be referred to the appropriate parliamentary privileges committee.
These proposals should be backed by an Act of Parliament clearly setting out the principles, nature and extent of ministerial accountability empowering Parliament and the public in their dealings with governments, ministers and their staff, public servants and contractors who would in turn gain a clearer understanding of their obligations to Parliament and the public.
These proposals which build on principles and practice well-established in other parliamentary systems can be readily adopted in Australia to the great benefit of good governance. We invite comments on these proposals, further details of which are outlined in Why Accountability Must be Renewed which we have written in collaboration with a number of colleagues and published.
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