The recent revelations about corruption in Western Australia do little to salvage the reputation of politics as a profession undertaken for the public good. There appears to be a damning lack of understanding on the part of some - but not all - parliamentarians and ministers of the standards of probity and ethical behaviour appropriate to their role as a political representative. We can moralise over personal failings or we can focus on an agenda for good governance.
Increasingly, at both state and Commonwealth level there is a mood towards the development of registers of lobbyists and lobbying activity. Registers of lobbyists and codes of conduct for lobbyists - such as Canada’s Office of the Registrar of Lobbyists - are a desirable and positive development. However, more is needed. Australia’s political institutions require significant and systematic reform, to embed the principles of good governance, transparency and accountability.
Democratising pre-selections, or at least maximising their transparency, is probably the first priority.
Australia has a well deserved reputation for the democratic integrity of its elections. However in safe seats the preselection process is the real election. Given the numerous accounts of branch stacking and abuses of process that have troubled both major and minor parties, it may be time to consider legislation for the external enforcement of intra-party democracy.
At present only Queensland requires that preselection processes conform to “general principles of free and democratic elections”. Its Electoral Act provides for the oversight of preselections by the Electoral Commission of Queensland and for the random auditing of preselection ballots.
Alternative models could require that Electoral Commissions supervise all preselection processes. We are not prescriptive as to process; rather, we want Australia to begin conversations at both state and Commonwealth level about the democratic character of candidate selection processes.
We also need a significant cooling off period of for ex-ministers taking positions with companies that do business with government, or lobby groups, or becoming a lobbyist. The recent past is awash with ex-ministers leaving parliament and within months becoming lobbyists for organisations that deal directly with state or federal governments.
Even if these ex-ministers were to act with scrupulous honesty, the scent of impropriety is never far away. These practices are regulated in the United States and in Britain - there is a one year cooling off period in the US and two years in the UK. In Canada, ministerial staff are prohibited from acting as lobbyists for five years. The Commonwealth’s own Corporate Law Economic Reform Program (CLERP) principles require a mandatory two year cooling-off period before a retired partner, director or member of an audit company can become a director or take a senior management position with former clients.
Third, incorporating ministerial advisers and staffers into existing accountability mechanisms is an essential mechanism for safeguarding transparency and accountability. Ministerial advisers and staffers are the ears, eyes and the gatekeepers of ministerial offices, yet they do not attract the scrutiny ministers and public servants can reasonably expect. Codes of Conduct should be the bare minimum, but ideally, Parliaments should be able to hold ministerial advisers to the same standards of responsibility as their permanent public service colleagues.
Finally, we need to be clear about whom ministers are accountable to. The purpose of processes that maximise transparency and accountability is to hold parties and governments - and particularly ministers and prime ministers - accountable to citizens.
For that reason, we’re dubious about prime ministerial codes of conduct. A Prime Ministerial Code of Conduct places the responsibility for ensuring ethical conduct and the highest standards of probity with the party leader and effectively enable a party leader to determine what is ethical and appropriate behaviour. Inevitably, issues of accountability and probity become entangled with the interests of the party and the government of the day, so that the higher standards of conduct Oppositions always promise become compromised. John Howard’s Prime Ministerial Code of Conduct is the most recent example.
Of course none of these will suffice if individuals are determined to act corruptly and circumvent processes and procedures. It’s not possible to legislate for ethical practice. Transparency and accountability mechanisms are neither infallible nor foolproof. However, our system of representative democracy relies on the integrity, honesty and professionalism of elected representatives - so we need mechanisms and processes of transparency and accountability that minimise conflicts of interest and make corrupt practice more difficult.
Systems of government should not be static, but rather should be subject to reform and change in the interests of accountability and the public good. A sustained mineral boom such as we have seen in Western Australia is but one dynamic that throws up new challenges. So we should be vigorous in pursuing transparent, accountable and incorruptible government.
It’s not just the economy stupid. It’s about what the Australian Constitution says - “the peace, good order and good government of the Commonwealth”. To achieve that we need checks and balances, but more importantly, robust, transparent and accountable institutions. In the end that’s what makes a healthy democracy.