Dr Catherine Williams is the Research Director of the CPI, this piece was originally published on the 4th of March 2021 in the Age.
The maelstrom that has engulfed federal politics has left many wondering how on earth we ended up here.
The allegations of sexual assaults and the failure of politicians to treat their own staff with basic decency and dignity are so shocking the Federal Police Commissioner felt it necessary to remind our leaders of their obligation to report crimes. A senior cabinet minister stands accused of committing one of the gravest of crimes.
And these are merely the most egregious examples from the past week.
Barely six months ago, the Senate’s finance and public administration legislation committee’s consideration of a Greens bill proposing – among other things – a parliamentary code of conduct, concluded that there was not a strong argument in favour of such a code.
If that conclusion was defensible then, surely it is no longer: recent analysis by the Centre for Public Integrity has revealed that “hidden” money disclosed by Australian political parties since 1998-99 now amounts to some $1.5 billion; there are claims that ministerial discretion has again been used to distribute public money in line with political expediency rather than actual merit, in the form of Peter Dutton’s administration of the Safer Communities Fund; and key accountability institutions are facing unprecedented budget cuts, with $1.4 billion cut from accountability institutions’ funding in real terms since 2010-11.
The Australian National Audit Office, the agency which revealed both the sports rorts and the Leppington Triangle scandals – faces cuts so serious one might be tempted to wonder whether there is some punitive element to them.
In recommending that a code of conduct not be introduced, the committee noted that “in a democracy, the primary accountability mechanism for an elected representative is the voters”.
While voters might theoretically perform this function, how well they are able to perform it depends upon manifold factors: one of these is the existence of effective scrutiny mechanisms.
In circumstances in which the available scrutiny mechanisms include a weak political donations disclosure regime (with a disclosure threshold of more than $14,000, no aggregation for the purposes of disclosure and no real-time disclosure), a lobbying regime that fails to meet the threshold of what the OECD describes as a “strong framework”, accountability institutions which are under attack, no disclosure of ministerial diaries and still no National Integrity Commission, whether they are effective appears doubtful.
This desolate integrity landscape is at least in part the product of a culture of impunity driven by our elected representatives’ commitment to their own exceptionalism. In its refusal to adopt a parliamentary code of conduct (and similarly, in its insistence on MPs being given special treatment under the proposed Commonwealth Integrity Commission model), the government’s view of itself as a protected species – as well as its contempt for the standards of ordinary Australians – is revealed.
Many professions are subject to codes of conduct that (rightly) set high standards for behaviour.
Exempting parliamentarians and their staff from similar requirements is unjustifiable.
More than 20 years ago, a Parliamentary Library research paper concluded that a parliamentary code of conduct “would form an important element in any program designed to foster public trust in, and improve public perception of, Parliament and its members”.
Considering that the Australian National University’s latest Australian Election Study found Australians’ satisfaction with their democracy in 2019 to be at its lowest since the constitutional crisis of the 1970s, the need for such a measure appears clear.
Fortunately, reform is – with the requisite political will – achievable, as the experience of comparable jurisdictions proves: the UK has a Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, who is an independent officer of the House of Commons, as well as a code of conduct for MPs. There is also a Lords Commissioner for Standards, who is responsible for investigating alleged breaches of the Lords’ code of conduct. Canada’s Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner can investigate possible breaches of that country’s conflict of interest code for members of the House of Commons.
This is not to suggest that the adoption of codes setting out ethical standards is a panacea. However, the setting of such standards for all politicians and their staff is an important and necessary step in repositioning integrity as a core, guiding principle within our system of government – a principle to be promoted and respected, and the breach of which should attract real sanction.
The articulation of a series of ethical standards might even serve as a galvanising force to drive other pressing integrity reforms, including the introduction of a fit-for-purpose National Integrity Commission, the bolstering of political donations disclosure requirements, the strengthening of the existing lobbying framework and the reinforcement of the resourcing and independence of Australia’s key accountability institutions.
All of these are crucial to restoring public trust and therefore to democracy itself: as scholars of authoritarianism warned in the lead-up to last year’s US elections, “democracy is extremely fragile and potentially temporary, requiring vigilance and protection”.
And after all, as the Commonwealth’s statement of ministerial standards recognises: “The Australian people deserve a government that will act with integrity.”
It is high time we had it.