Government is constitutionally obliged to act in the public interest. The institutions of government and the officials and agencies of government exist for the public, to serve the interests of the public. This ‘trust principle’ expresses the condition upon which power is given to the institutions of government, and to officials, elected and appointed alike.
Acting in the public interest has two separate components:
- objectives and outcomes – that the objectives and outcomes of the decision-making process are in the public interest, and
- process and procedure – that the process adopted and procedures followed by decisionmakers in exercising their discretionary powers are in the public interest.
Whilst the first may be somewhat subjective – some think submarines are more important than aged care – the second is not. The processes and procedures surrounding decision making are crucial in order for citizens to have confidence that it is the public interest being served rather than private, personal, parochial or partisan interests.
The government should comply with both the letter and the spirit of the law rather than trying to find loopholes to get around it.
We have had the unedifying spectacle of environment minister Sussan Ley going to court to contest that she does not owe a duty of care to the next generation to act on climate change and refusing to release a report she has had since December because parliament hasn’t racked up 15 sitting days in the last four months.
Rather than emphasis on public officials acting ‘in the public interest’, the term is now most associated with freedom of information applications or in journalists’ legal defence against prosecution brought by the government. It’s less about the quality of their decisions and actions and more about our right to know about them.
Due process must be followed in decision-making to ensure public officials are acting fairly and impartially, with integrity and professionalism. Without transparency and accountability, it is impossible to expose corruption or serious maladministration.
We now have the AFP joining the call for a far-reaching anti-corruption body that can compel witnesses and hold our lawmakers to at least the same standards as the people who enforce the law.
The rorting of parliamentary expenses has become a joke. (George Christensen is milking it for all he can). Conflicts of interest abound in the allocation of public funds, in regulatory decisions, and in appointments. (Reference the Taylor dynasty.)
Over the last nine years, the public interest has been totally subsumed by the interests of the Coalition and their powerful and wealthy puppeteers.
Scott Morrison has successfully completed his coup, disenfranchising party members and installing sycophantic supporters, but he has failed at every turn in his constitutional obligation to act in the public interest and should, along with his enablers, be rejected by the public whose interest he so wilfully ignores.
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