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Integrity, transparency, honesty – and ethics

In addition to studying ethics as part of my law degree, I have also served on two university ethics committees, the second one as the required legal member.

The material detailing the requirements of those serving on these committees, which has to be read and responsibly applied, should be required study for anyone aspiring to a political career – most particularly on social science policy issues.

A university, depending on the range of disciplines on offer, would have at least one ethics committee.

If research is in the context of social science, there will be a Human Research Ethics committee, which is required, among other issues, to ensure avoidance of harm, protection of privacy and protection from disclosure which might adversely affect the participant. The committee would have a much wider brief if medical research is involved, to ensure that participants are fully aware of any risks to health which might be involved in participating.

In the veterinary side of research, there would again be important safeguards on the animals’ well-being.

If you think deeply about it, every policy developed by any government has implications for, mostly, the health and well-being of the people affected by the policy and, occasionally, the animals involved in – as seen recently – areas like horse or dog racing.

So politicians engaged in approving policy ought to be aware of the ethical issues raised by proposed legislation and take care to avoid causing unintended harm.

The significant problem with a political system which has two major parties, is that, belonging to a party requires the individual to accept the party policy. There might be an opportunity to voice individual views at party meetings, but, once policy guidelines have been determined, the individual mist toe the line – or resign.

If we had at least three parties of similar size, opportunities for compromise and consensus might occur, but the permanent Coalition between the Liberal Party and the plethora of other, smaller conservative parties, has totally thwarted this possibility.

So any attempt to reach consensus when discussing policy is unlikely to succeed when ideology trumps any desire to best serve the nation – rather than wealthy donors.

In years gone by there used to be reference to ‘small l’ liberals and the more conservative ‘hard L’ liberals – but now we seem to be driven by a blind ideology based on power at all costs.

We NEED legislation to control donations.

We NEED ethical behaviour and transparency in policy making.

We NEED Ministers to resign when they are found guilty of wrong-doing.

And – in the absence of leaders with integrity, who will enforce ethical behaviour standards – WE NEED AN ICAC WITH TEETH!

Integrity within the Public Service is also in doubt, and no public servant or elected parliamentarian deserves to be exempted from public scrutiny when there is clear evidence of possible corruption.

Before she married at age 35, my mother was in the UK Civil Service.

Her position, prior to mandatory resignation on marriage, (thank goodness times have changed!) was as Personal Private Secretary to the Controller of the Stationery Office. A quasi-government organisation, responsible for printing and storing all manner of government issued materials, my mother worked for William Codling and Norman Scorgie, 2 of the senior people mentioned in this article.

With her boss out of the office most of most days, she had the task of having to deal with requests for papers of varying degrees of confidentiality from variously important people, and to deny a request without offending.

Had she ever been guilty of accepting a gift, she would have been out on her ear, quick smart!

That ruling applied to all members of the Civil Service. They had permanent positions, with the possibility of promotion, so that provided a strong level of motivation to not break the rules.

Politicising the Public Service here, so that permanence and promotion no longer have any certainty, has potentially two adverse effects – it reduces the motivation to behave ethically and it destroys the accumulated knowledge and wisdom. “Yes, Minister” and “Yes. Prime Minister” might have been based on a measure of truth, but, when you think about it – no Minister, appointed for a few years, often to handle several portfolios, has the depth of knowledge required to make complex decisions, and to engage external bodies for policy advice runs the risk of accepting suggestions which are  biassed by the advisors external interests.

Why are we not surprised that we have a Prime Minister who is developing energy policy which ignores all scientific evidence of the need for greater use of renewable energy, when he is relying on advice touted by a gas and oil magnate?

If you want reliable advice from the Public Service, you must give them the certainty that disagreeing with the Minister will not end in their dismissal!

And they, in turn, need to be people of integrity – which is not guaranteed if the advice is coming from political staffers!

The recent continuum of disasters – a failing economy, high un/under-employment, wages flat-lining, unprecedented bush fires, followed by COVID-19 – has shown, in all its glory, the ineptitude of the Coalition government and its failure to use appropriate advice.

No major country has handled the pandemic well, except, possibly, China – and of that we cannot have any certainty, because so much secrecy surrounds their actions.

Part of the confusion in Australia has arisen from history – the separation of powers between Commonwealth and States or Territories but – much more importantly – further muddied by political differences.

Just as the ALP’s handling of the GFC earned praise from other OECD countries, while being rubbished by the Coalition, so, now, Daniel Andrews’ hard lock-down in Victoria is being praised and copied by many European governments, where the resurgence of the virus is causing chaos, yet the Morrison government is throwing mud at him at every opportunity.

I am sure Morrison was reluctant to follow advice for a spending campaign which echoed the GFC actions – maybe that is why it started so late – but his plan was so ill-designed that there are hundreds of people in despair because they are at risk of becoming totally destitute.

And those numbers include non-Australian citizens, with no means of leaving Australia, and no government help to keep body and soul together.

The ONLY way we are going to get a decent corruption policy will be through people power and, possibly, civil disobedience.

I will update my regular sign off!

What do we want?

ICAC!!

How do we want it!

With real teeth!

When do we want it?

NOW!!

 

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5 comments

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  1. New England Cocky

    ”The ONLY way we are going to get a decent corruption policy will be through people power and, possibly, civil disobedience.”

    Too true Rosemary. However, the action will have to be correctly coordinated; NOT during summer when the surf is running and cricket is on television; NOT during winter during the football season (all codes); NOT in spring when the racing carnivals are occupying the sports pages; so perhaps in Autumn ….. until we can find a better activity to play or watch.

    Then it could only be successful if it were commenced at 0600 hours on a Sunday morning using “Australia All Over” as the guiding communications and completed by lunch in time to take the kids to MacDonalds.

  2. Ian Hughes

    Agree completely Rosemary. We need a major overhaul of our Federal electoral system. Here’s some ideas:
    1. Fixed terms (3 or 4 years) & Election Date. No “window” for PM to call an election when it suits. Stand on your record.
    2. Election campaign restricted to 4 weeks prior to Election Day. No media advertising of any kind before that. Public rallies, town halls etc ok. Try to return democracy to the people.
    3. Publically funded elections. Fixed amount allocated based on seats contested. Establish a funding mechanism so individuals are not disadvantaged financially. Managed via AEC.
    4. Total ban on corporate/union/charity/foreign donations to political parties. Only registered voters can donate up to $1000 per fiscal year. Manage this through new AEC enforcement & tracking systems ie. you can only donate to a political party or candidate through the AEC. They pass though the $ and track the origin of the donation. Subject to audit by ANAO.
    5. Ban on lobbyists. Calendars for all members of parliament & their staff to be available publically in real time. Subject to audit by ANAO.
    6. Ministerial advisers to be employed as Public Servants. They must be available for public scrutiny eg. appear at Senate Estimates if called.

  3. !

    Ian Hughes – while one can agree with the sentiment, there might be a few issue to resolve – so feel free to respond. First, re ‘fixed terms’. What happens if a government loses one vote of confidence? An election or not? What about losses of multiple no-confidence votes? What if a number of Ministers are convicted of … whatever and the PM can’t raise the numbers to dismiss? Should the PM have to power to approach a GG?

    Second, re election campaigns and being limited to 4 weeks. How will election campaigns be defined? Will they only start when the PM declares them under way? Will they (only) begin (in the definitional sense) when the PM approaches the Governor-General? Is Morrison in election campaign mode at the moment? And how do we tell when a campaign is over (given that some would argue that these days politicians are in an election mindset and practice – ALL the time? Won’t go on but just on this point alone one could write a tome.

    Third re public funding of election campaigns. Also sounds good but when an owner of multiple MSM outlets chooses to promote one political party (and also attempt to destroy another), then how do we determine when that’s inside or outside public funding? Or aren’t we going to take that into consideration? And if we aren’t doesn’t that make a farce of the whole exercise?

    Fourth – how do you define a lobbyist? A President of a national Union appearing in the media? State president? Regional? Branch? What about a teacher, for example, who approaches a local member? What about if that teacher is leading a delegation? Writing letters? Appearing on national television? Where do you draw the line? Are local members allowed to lobby PMs (even if they are are of a different political colour?)

    Fifth re ministerial advisers being employed as public servants. There’s difficulties there also – particularly the bit about providing fearless advice in the public interest.

    While one could agree with the sentiments, intentions etc, there is still a few mountains to climb – a few definitional, legal and conceptual chasms to be crossed.

  4. Florence Howarth

    Cap on campaign spending. Postal voting, pre-poll restricted for a week before election day.

    All electoral rolls are to be electronic.

    Electronic voting. A system similar to the TAB. Vote recorded electronically with card kept for the backup count.

    4-year fixed term.

    Federal ICAC with teeth.

    All working documents to be preserved. No threading or deleting.

    Speakers office & speaker at arm’s length of parliamentarians.

    Sitting days to be passed by 60% vote in the lower house.

  5. Graham Barnes

    While agreeing with the preceding comments, I am concerned with House Standing Orders, particularly re Question Time. “Dorothy Dixing” should be banned. All questions to be put across the Table. Attacking the questioner rather than answering the question to be regarded as a breach of etiquette, on pain of suspension of the offending respondent.
    Otherwise, Question Time is a waste of time, given over to filibustering and “bagging”. I’ve witnessed more intelligent and courteous discourse in Army barracks Bull Sessions than the current lot in Canberra produces!

    While I’m on it, the current use of The Gag to silence Opposition comments in debate must require justification of some form or other. Currently it has become another form of authoritarian rejection without cogent refutation.
    Another nasty activity is that of Government Senators leaving the Chamber when minor party senators deliver a speech – a clear display of contempt. Actually, they don’t want to hear the truth in counter-argument. As in the lower House, the President should suspend debate until a quorum is present.

    Just a few thoughts that might bring some dignity back to Parliaments……

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