Openness, accountability, truth and the public’s right to know are essential principles and protections in a democracy.
Accountability has been central to the work of the Australian Democrats in Federal Parliament for over 40 years and we have had many, many successes such as curbing secrecy in government contracts and initiating the first ever review of parliamentary entitlements. But ever since, the corruption and abuse of power has become normalised, systemic.
The lines dividing government from big business have virtually collapsed under successive Coalition Governments
Nick Feik, The Monthly, Feb 2021
The Coalition Government shows contempt for accountability. There are no consequences for ministers found guilty of rorting or making serious mistakes like Robodebt or JobKeeper budgeting. Robodebt cost billions in payouts and untold damage to the people affected for which no member of government apologised, let alone, stood down.
The Commonwealth is the only jurisdiction in Australia without an effective, independent integrity system. The Government finally produced a draft bill for an integrity commission but its powers of investigation are weak, its two-tiered approach protects the interests of parliamentarians and their staff and its funding is inadequate. However, it does intend to be tough on disclosers with a 2-year prison term for making a false or misleading allegation of wrongdoing and for saying so publicly.
In the 2020-21 budget the National Audit Office lost $14m in funding. The Australian Information Commission – FOI and privacy – lost $9m after years of previous cuts.
The private bias payback
This government values the private over the public sector, hides its contracting decisions worth billions of dollars behind ‘commercial in confidence’ and awards grants and contracts to the donors to its party. Private firms/consultancies advise on policy, bypassing the APS, and the cost of their services has doubled in the last year to $5 billion. All the major consulting firms donate generously to the major political parties.
Lucrative contracts are routinely let without a competitive tendering process. A $444 million grant was awarded without tender to the little-known Great Barrier Reef Foundation which had just 6 staff and had no specific plans for the money. There are numerous such examples. The Australian National Audit Office found $80 million was wasted purchasing water entitlements from a company co-founded by Minister Taylor but nothing was done other than to cut funding to the ANAO by $24m in the latest budget. Sports Rorts, and a myriad of grants programs went primarily to LNP-held electorates and this is acknowledged by MPs as the new normal.
Secrecy has become the norm. In the last budget, 384 items were marked secret. Major items of expenditure were announced during 2020 with no parliamentary oversight like the $40m handed to Foxtel to show more sport. The Murdoch press will have much to gain from the media bill, introduced by the Government recently, requiring payment from Facebook and Google to major newspapers with no obvious rationale.
Ministers such as Stuart Robert have kept secret private companies and shares they own in contravention of ministerial codes of conduct. He claimed $2,000/month for his home internet use! There have been numerous cases of MPs failing to declare interests and rorting travel and other allowances.
Under PM Gillard, the Australian Government became a signatory to the global Open Government Partnership, the objectives of which are greater transparency, anti-corruption and citizen engagement. We remain a signatory however the current government actions so far are to avoid any real commitment.
The Democrats’ Rorts Watch shows ~40 cases of corrupt practice in the last year or so, adding up to billions of dollars which is why a properly funded system of integrity is needed urgently. Perhaps the most shocking and blatant examples are ministers using public money to advantage their political success, eg. Sports Rorts and the Community Development Grants Program worth $2.5 billion since 2014, the bulk of which went to LNP seats.
Last election almost $70m in public money was paid to political parties that received 4% or more of the vote, $52m of that went to the two major parties. That includes $2.75/ for every first preference vote.
Labor spent $14.5m on advertising alone, the Coalition $13.3m. Clive Palmer spent almost $60m saying his aim was ‘to polarise the electorate’ with anti-Labor rhetoric, mostly untrue. Overall Palmer donated $84m to his own party prompting Labor to call for caps on spending.
Donations and disclosures
Advertising is largely funded by donors and most of the latter have a vested interest in the decisions of the government of the day. This is highly corrupting, undermines democracy and distorts policy that should be based on evidence and the public interest. Clear examples of this are the fossil fuel sector stopping serious action on climate change and the successful resources sector campaign against PM Rudd’s tax on super profits. Other reforms in the public interest that were stymied by donations were pokies reforms and junk food labelling.
Two years ago, the Banking Royal Commission found shocking misconduct and greed by the banks and financial services. It made 54 recommendations directed at Government, the majority of which have yet to be implemented and some have been watered down. Commissioner Hayne referred 13 cases to ASIC but only four are in litigation. The ABC says there has been a concerted lobbying effort from the banking industry to delay. The major banks gave over $1 million in 2017-18 to political parties.
Some states have bans on donations from certain sectors, eg. property developers. Vic, NSW, SA, ACT and Qld have caps on donations, as do the UK, Canada and New Zealand.
The current Federal threshold for disclosure is $14,300 and disclosures can take months to be made public. Often donations made before elections are not disclosed until well after the votes are cast.
Around $1 billion in ‘dark money’ was given to political parties in the last 20 years <40% of their income in the case of the LNP. The Auditor General found the AEC was not doing enough to enforce the laws or to see that accurate records were provided. It did not scrutinise third party records. In 2018-19 53% of private income was undisclosed. For Labor it was 36%.
The only accountability reform to be passed by this government was the ban on foreign donations – something the Australian Democrats called for years ago.
Under cover of Covid
Australians have largely supported measures to contain the bushfires, and then Covid-19, and accepted the need for rapid decision-making that would bypass Parliament. However, the Federal Government took advantage of its emergency controls by:
– Suspending parliament for five months and establishing the National Cabinet
– Establishing the National Covid-19 Advisory Board made up of hand-picked business-people, some of whom had a vested interest in their advice like the Chair, Nev Power who stepped down recently as a non-executive director (and shareholder) of Strike Resources, an oil and gas exploration company. The Commission recommended the $6 billion investment in new gas development. Jane Halton who sits on the boards of Crown Resorts, used as quarantine hotels, also chaired the inquiry into of hotel quarantine. These are clear conflicts of interests that should have been avoided.
– The decisions or recommendations of the Advisory Board are not public. The rationale for business interests to play this role rather than public servants went unexplained.
– Women lost more jobs than men, casual and part time workers arbitrarily missed out on jobkeeper for what was said by the Treasurer to be ‘you have to stop somewhere’..
– Massive spending that will take government debt to over $1 trillion, much of that committed without parliamentary oversight.
Government advertising, data and spin
Dirty tricks in election campaigns are not new but voter manipulation through social media is adding to opportunities and is now a global problem bringing more sophisticated and targeted messages into play. Social media allows political and third parties to harvest data in order to manipulate voters with false information or ‘fake news’. For instance the Coalition said Labor would create a car tax in 2019, Labor claimed the Turnbull government would privatise Medicare in 2016, the PM claimed Kevin Rudd had taken a flight during lockdown – all knowingly false.
The guidelines on publicly funded Government advertising say it must be for information and not promote party political interests but the Auditor General found the guidelines to be ineffective and recommended they be strengthened. Last financial year $128 million was spent on government advertising to promote, for instance, the tax changes and the $100 billion infrastructure plan. $5.2m was spent on market research that informed slogans like ‘this is our comeback’ and ‘powering forward’. Party logos are appearing in government announcements.
Governments rely on spin, employ spin doctors to craft explanations, plausible or otherwise for every failed policy. The hollowing out of expertise in government departments and the ever-greater reliance on ministerial staff to develop politically calibrated ‘policy’ has weakened political accountability.
Barry Jones, What is to be done
Our parliamentary accountability plan
A National Integrity System comprising:
- National Integrity Commission (new)
- Office of the Australian Information Commission
- Commonwealth Ombudsman
- Whistleblower Protection Authority (new)
- Australian National Audit Office.
- Commissioner for Ministerial & Parliamentary Ethics
- Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity
A NIS must be independent, appointed by the Governor General on the advice of the Parliament and funded as determined by a committee of parliament.
It must have the investigative powers of a royal commission and be able to conduct public hearings. It must be able to receive and refer complaints from the public .
It should make findings of fact, but not findings of corruption, and leaves questions of prosecution to the Director of Public Prosecutions.
Political parties and donations
A financial cap on all electoral and campaign spending, per political party and per candidate and limits on amounts that can be donated, in line with NSW.
Disclosure thresholds reduced to $1,500, accumulative, disclosure within 30 days and public release of data ahead of the election so voters know where the money comes from and what influence it might have on government decisions
‘Jobs for the boys’
Entrench merit-based appointments by spelling out skills and backgrounds required, the basis on which candidates are appointed and ruling out those who are politically affiliated except in limited circumstances.
Introduce a mandatory 3-year post-ministerial ‘cooling-off’ period.
Conflicts of interests
Conflicts of interest should not just be declared; they should be rigorously avoided. Where this is not possible, the individual concerned must not have influence over decisions made and the conflict must be recorded on a publicly accessible register.
This should apply to MPs and their staff, public servants, consultants and government appointees.
Reform of politician’s salaries and entitlements
The Remuneration Tribunal to benchmark the resources parliamentarians require to do their job against relevant international standards and to conduct public hearings and any change agree by a vote of parliament
Ban the use of electorate allowances for election campaigns and non parliamentary purposes
Tri-annual Audits by the Auditor General of the use of parliamentary entitlements
Codes of conduct
Enforceable, statutory codes of conduct for ministers and their staff, developed by a joint committee of the parliament. These codes must make it clear that ministers must stand down from the ministry if found breaching the codes.
Ministerial staffers accountable to parliamentary committees in defined circumstances
Measures to protect the impartiality of public service advice and diminish policy-making by spin-doctors, eg. clearly documented and transparent channels of communication between ministerial staff and the public service.
Govt. advertising, data, and spin
Strengthen the guidelines for government advertising and have ads approved for compliance by an independent body.
Require political parties to disclose how they use data for political campaigning.
Ensure party logos do not appear on government announcements.