MIKE WALLER. Restoring trust in our Westminster system: politicians heal yourselves

Oct 14, 2019

Politics in the US and the UK represent the death of shame in democratic government. To be caught lying in today’s populist, post truth world of tribal politics is seemingly, at worst, a peccadillo. Legitimacy is now based on the will of the people (as the leaders interpret it), not by the standards they hold themselves to, or accountability to Parliament.

So far, we have been spared the worst of the egregious, cavalier behaviour of the Trump and Johnson governments. But signs of a race to the bottom in Australia are clearly there, in terms of both rhetoric and accountability. On the former, witness Labor’s 2016 “Mediscare” campaign, the Coalition’s 2019 retaliatory “Death Tax” ads, Mr Morrison’s refusal to answer challenges to Australia’s climate change policies, his relationship with Hillsong Church luminaries, etc (“false information”, “Canberra bubble”, “gossip” – nothing to see here, folks). The accountability deficit is reflected in unjustified secrecy about why and how policies are imposed (the plethora of repressive anti-terror laws, refugee policy, “robodebt”), and a shameless misuse of Ministerial power and position (Michaelia Cash’s woeful behaviour over the AWU police raid, the Bishop/Pyne appointments).

Much of what needs to change to help combat these trends is in plain sight.

A starting point is an enforceable code of conduct governing all Federal politicians and ministerial advisers, based on both principles and rules of behaviour. Parliament rejected this for politicians in 2012, because a similar system in the UK had not avoided the House of Commons expenses scandal. This is both obviously self-serving and confuses necessary and sufficient conditions to support greater integrity and ethical decision-making.

Hence, there is also a need for an independent Federal body to inquire into unethical or corrupt behaviour. Here, the Coalition’s pallid “ICAC” model doesn’t pass any reasonable smell test. The dual track treatment of different areas of public administration, restrictions on references and the secrecy of processes mean the current proposals fall far short of what is required to hold our Federal public office holders effectively to account. There is a compelling case for a much more comprehensive model, such as the National Integrity Commission proposal in the 2018 report by an Australia Institute panel of former jurists.

Peddling of favours between Government and Australia’s highly concentrated industries also needs serious and specific attention. Politicians and lobbyists alike argue there is nothing to see here. This is nonsense on stilts. As Murray and Frijters’s Game of Mates shows, rent seeking and favour trading pervades Australian politics, paying off handsomely for winners but imposing huge costs on all Australians (including Mr Morrison’s quiet ones): higher charges, poorer services, lower tax receipts, inflated costs and degraded environments. Examples are legion: the huge tax revenues forgone resulting from the mining industry’s successful monstering of a super profits tax; and, the continued Coalition blocking of a financial services inquiry that quickly uncovered grievous unethical or downright illegal treatment of customers by the banks and retail super funds.

Influence peddling is thus an area begging for the structural reforms that the Government continually preaches for other sectors but steadfastly ignores in its own backyard. Action is needed on appointments, transparency, and party political funding.

On appointments, the “revolving door” between commercial interests and Ministers, ministerial staffers and senior bureaucrats fatally compromises any claim to independent decision-making in the public interest. We need a contractually enforceable minimum time limit on taking up such appointments. Canada has adopted a five year delay for any lobbying activities involving a significant part of a new job, with adherence policed by an independent body. We should do the same. A similar approach should be adopted for people re-joining ministerial staff from lobbying jobs, where the revolving door seems to be at its fastest.

We also need an independent appointment process for senior public sector jobs, to address the increasing perception (and, arguably, reality) of public service politicisation. All Secretary and equivalent level appointments should be subject to recommendations from the Public Service Commission to the Prime Minister, with the latter being required to publish reasons for rejecting the advice. Similar arrangements should be reinstated for the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, now used extensively by the current Government as highly paid rewards to (mainly unqualified) supporters in order to skew Tribunal decisions towards Coalition prejudices.

On transparency, the definition and reporting of lobbying activity should be extended to expose the full extent of influence trading. As in Canada, the register of lobbyists should include both third party and corporate/in house lobbyists (as opposed to only the former at present). All lobbying activities with Ministers, their staffs, officials and MP/Senators should be subject to public reporting via a real time, on-line data base, with ethical and procedural guidelines enforced by an independent referee.

The role of money in politics also requires urgent, effective action. Today, seemingly only some 10% of donations are properly disclosed. Current laws exclude disclosure where a company pays to attend a party business forum to meet ministers and MPs. Donors can and do split their money amongst state parties, making their overall financial contributions harder to identify if they are below the reportable threshold of $13,800. And donations are only disclosed once a year, meaning up to twenty month delay in finding out who is donating. Either these rules need to be tightened – with lower dollar limits and enforced real time disclosure – or serious consideration should be given to public funding for political parties.

Finally, the problems of rhetorical overreach, obfuscation and downright lies in our political discourse are amplified by social media. The business model here thrives on controversy, outrage and behaviour modification, delivered via targeted, personal messaging. As such, it effectively evades current electoral law controls on broadcast media (a point not overlooked by political parties and influence peddlers). In future, all social media advertising undertaken by, or on behalf of, political parties or lobbyists should be legally reportable, published on an AEC website and subject to real time reporting of costs and sources of funding. This would aid transparency about cash being used to influence policy and enable fact checking of fraudulent claims chasing electoral or sectional preferment.

These changes are not easy but they are urgently needed, for two reasons. Firstly, to address the abysmally low levels of public trust in our democratic institutions by holding our federal representatives to much higher standards of transparency and accountability. Secondly, by blunting sectional interests’ sway over money politics, it should serve to open up more space for the structural reforms Australia needs to prosper in the twenty first century but which government is currently neglecting.

Mike Waller has served in senior economic roles in the UK Treasury and with federal and state governments in Australia. He was Chief Economist for BHP Ltd and a founding partner in a consultancy firm providing strategic advice to global resource and energy companies. He has also served variously as board member or chair of a number of not for profit and commercial bodies.

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