Integrity reform is difficult but essential

Jul 11, 2022
Parliament House, Canberra
Image: iStock

For governments, few things are harder than implementing or improving almost any arm of a fully functioning and effective integrity regime. Every such development – including effective freedom of information, an independent auditor-general, Ombudsman, whistleblower protection, an impartial professional and effective public service, an independent anti-corruption commission – appears to government to involve a surrender of part of its power rather than an acknowledgement that it needs to be open and accountable to the people it represents and from whom its power derives.

It seems to take a major upheaval in public life – such as the Fitzgerald Commission in Queensland in the late 1980s – or the advent of a new reforming government, Prime Minister or Premier – to make government focus on reforming its own integrity and accountability. And it is such a difficult undertaking for government, that rarely can it contemplate across the board reform – Queensland post-Fitzgerald was the standout exception to this rule.

That being so, it will be surprising (but so welcome) if the new Albanese government can deliver on more than two of the integrity fronts. The first will be its political commitment adopted a few years ago, urged also by the teal independents in recent times and the Greens for many years, to establish a national anti-corruption commission, similar to the relatively powerful such bodies in New South Wales (ICAC) and Queensland (CCC).

The second reform concerns the public service. This has not been a significant political issue but has been driven by necessity and a few insiders. The public service over quite a few years has not delivered the support for government that should be required of it. Increasingly, many of its functions were hived off and rented out (at huge cost) to private sector accountancy, legal and other consultancy firms.

Expertise and corporate memory within the public service have withered. Worse, under Scott Morrison as Prime Minister, the key function of providing advice to ministers was switched off. Morrison announced a new job-description for the public service, to ‘deliver the government’s agenda. It is ministers who provide policy leadership and directions’.

Little wonder there was little appetite for senior public servants to say ‘no, minister, that action would not be legal’ when a sports rort or other decision or action contrary to the law was undertaken.

Malcolm Turnbull, when Prime Minister, recognised that the public service was not functioning effectively or efficiently and established a review headed by David Thodey, a former CEO of Telstra. Its recommendations were either rejected or ignored by Morrison. However the new Labor government, has hired two of the six members of the Thodey review panel and put them in senior positions in the public service to implement some or many of its recommendations – exactly which ones we haven’t yet been told. Glyn Davis is the new head of the Prime Minister’s department while Gordon de Brouwer is secretary for public sector reform.

Other integrity reforms? It seems there will be more support for the Auditor-General but otherwise there is not much in prospect. But there needs to be. In particular one core, essential reform should be to improve the integrity of the electoral process, by limiting and controlling political donations and spending on electioneering.

It will be difficult for the government to avoid tackling the tortured relationship between ministerial advisers and the public service. In recent years too many advisers have seen their role as directing the public service – in their minister’s name, of course. Ministers need to ensure their staff don’t exceed their jurisdiction. An enforceable code of conduct covering ministerial staff seems essential. A further reform would be to make advisers accountable to parliamentary committees. There is little or no chance of this happening because ministers see this as a threat to their own independence.

Were the Prime Minister to consider further reforms he might look to recent developments in Queensland. As a consequence of a 12-month crisis over allegations of an integrity breakdown in governance, the Premier appointed two inquiries. One, by the redoubtable Tony Fitzgerald, is into the Crime and Misconduct Commission. That report has not been completed as yet.

The other, by Professor Peter Coaldrake, was into culture and accountability in the Queensland public sector. That report, whose recommendations the Premier promised before the report was made public to implement ‘lock, stock and barrel’ (a phrase first used by the then National Premier of Queensland in relation to the Fitzgerald inquiry recommendations), are in a few respects revolutionary by Australian standards.

In particular, ‘Cabinet submissions (and their attachments) agendas and decisions papers to be proactively released and published online within 30 business days of such decisions.’ (30 days??? Currently it takes 20 or 30 years for such papers to become available to the public. But New Zealand adopted this time frame some years ago, with no ill effects on governance.)

And: ‘Lobbying regulation to be strengthened through a requirement to register all professions offering paid lobbying services for third parties, more transparent description of meeting purposes, extension of ministerial diaries to include staff meeting with lobbyists and explicit prohibition of lobbyists “dual hatting” as political campaigners”.

(The reference to ministerial diaries is to the practice in Queensland of ministers publishing their business diaries monthly.)

And: Integrity bodies’ independence be enhanced by involvement of parliamentary committees in setting their budgets and contributing to key appointments’. (That is, no more nobbling of the Auditor-General by reducing the budget, as happened with the Morrison government.)

Altogether there are 14 recommendations many involving the public service. If – when – fully implemented they will make a huge difference to openness and accountability, extending the Fitzgerald and subsequent reforms that Queensland governments have adopted. The Commonwealth should follow the leader.

Footnote: It is perhaps ironic that perhaps the major integrity crisis that prompted the appointment of Professor Coaldrake to conduct this review was an allegation that the Public Service Commission had raided the office of the Integrity Commissioner and seized two laptops. An investigation by the Crime and Corruption Commission, published immediately after the Coaldrake review, concluded in part:

The circumstances in which the laptops were retrieved from the Integrity Commissioner’s office were entirely ordinary, and the descriptions of ‘raid’ and ‘seizure’ do not reflect the reality of what occurred. Further, the circumstances in which one laptop was ‘wiped’ are wholly unremarkable.

But the reforms will go ahead.

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