Here’s a proposition: No one should be above the law, not members of parliament, not their staff, not public servants, not ordinary citizens.
And another: Members of parliament should not have conflicts of interest between their private interests and public duty or between deciding matters on their merits and those of donors to political parties in expectation of an outcome.
Here’s a fact: 85% of the population supports a Federal integrity commission that would have the powers to investigate the doings of the first three categories of persons.
Why? Because, as the most current investigation of corrupt practices by the NSW ICAC shows, Daryl Maguire, former member of parliament, would have got away with peddling influence and shady deals and the leading lawmaker in NSW – Premier Berejiklian – would not have been exposed for having indulged him in this.
Every State Parliament now has a body to investigate corrupt practice. These anti-corruption/integrity commissions vary in scope but all have the power to investigate corruption by elected officials. What’s more they are busy uncovering corruption and playing an important role in promoting preventing it.
The Federal Electoral Act says that a person must not stand for, or sit as, a member of the Federal parliament if they have been found to have attempted or been convicted of bribery, undue influence or interference with ‘political liberty’.
The problem here is that there is no Federal body to investigate bribery, undue influence or interference. Members of Federal Parliament are effectively above the law and there is little doubt that donations and subscribing to over-priced dinners and ‘briefings’ are intended to influence the outcome of regulation in areas of tax, mining, banking, communications, gambling, alcohol, media, fossil fuels, property development etc.
It is why the coal, gas and oil industries have been able to delay action on climate change for decades, why tax cuts go to companies and high income earners, why mining companies are not obliged to protect Aboriginal Heritage sites and why there are no signals on food packaging as to the sugar content – a trade-off between the sugar industry and the health of children. There is little regulation of gambling which is now advertised on most sport and sport is now dependent on poker machines.
Big donors say their money is to support the democratic process but the opposite is true.
Back in November 2018 the Federal Government released a discussion paper on its proposed model for a Commonwealth Integrity Commission. It was widely criticised for being weak, narrow in scope and would not look at past corrupt activity. At a proposed $25 million/year, it would not have sufficient resources either. (Victoria’s IBAC receives $40 million a year.)
The NSW ICAC expressed the firm view that:
‘using political donations to procure favourable government decision, or even favourable access to decision makers, causes serious damage to representative democracy’.
A corrupt member of parliament can be voted out of office if elections are free and fair. But if there is a loss of trust in the election process, then the whole system of representative government is weakened.
The major parties are in an arms race of spending on election campaigns and so ever-increasing millions of dollars must be sourced from companies and donors buying access and influence.
Here’s an idea: Put caps on both donations and election spending. Some of our states have done this, as have enlightened countries around the world.
The ALP now supports a commission and cross benchers have put up various models. The Coalition has put out umpteen press releases and announcements. On 15 October government members were saying “.. the draft legislation would be released as soon as possible after the more immediate priorities concerning the management of the COVID recovery have been dealt with”. In Senate Estimates 21 October, the Attorney-General’s department said an exposure draft of the NIC was sent to the A-G in December.
Former Prime Minister, John Howard said in 1996 when he introduced the first-ever guide to ministerial responsibility:
“… most important thing any government can do is build a sense of trust, a sense of integrity, a sense of honesty and a sense of commitment to the Australian people.’
The guide required Ministers to tender their resignation for their culpable behaviour or that of their department and for misleading parliament.
The problem was that the obligation to resign was optional. Nineteen ministers were accused of breaching the code for non-disclosure of their (considerable) interests, misuse of entitlements and, for instance, the failure of intelligence that justified the invasion of Iraq. Only 8 resigned and Howard stopped insisting that they did so. He (along with the coalition of the willing,) was (rightly) accused by the UK Chilcot Inquiry of not taking responsibility for his ‘error’ of invading Iraq on evidence that was thin, ambiguous and incomplete. He re-wrote the code so the wrongdoing would have to be deliberate and conflict of interest was made largely inconsequential.
So here we have it: Federal Ministers now say they take full responsibility for whatever corrupt, self-interested deceit, improper electoral advantage or disaster they were responsible for – Sports Rorts, the $30 million Western Sydney airport land deal, Robodebt, detainee abuse – but they are only removed from their ministry if the outcry looks likely to affect the next election.
What’s needed is a binding code of conduct, an independent parliamentary standards and/or ethics commissioner and a national integrity commission with powers at least equal to the states.