by Democratic Audit of Australia
The latest update from the Democratic Audit program at ANU on how our democracy is working.
In the wake of the Brian Burke scandal in WA, Dr Carmen Lawrence, federal MP for Fremantle and former Premier of WA, argues for more stringent rules governing lobbyists’ activities and politicians’ dealings with them. Drawing on international examples, she argues that, at the very least, the transparency of the lobbying process needs to be far greater, yet the WA proposals fall well short of what is required.
Resources for members of parliament: More Australian anomalies
The Audit’s June Verrier argues that the decision to grant MPs an extra staff member is a boost to the incumbency benefits enjoyed by sitting members. Parliament will function better if resources are diverted from support for incumbents' campaigns towards areas of benefit to the parliament as a whole, such as parliamentary research services.
NSW election 24 March 2007
The Iemma Labor government was returned in the NSW State election, but in an interesting development almost a third of the Legislative Council vote was for minor parties or Independents.
Independent speaker for NSW
An interesting development of the election is that Premier Morris Iemma has reportedly given the post of Speaker of the House of Assembly to the Independent member for Northern Tablelands, Richard Torbay. The Speaker is supposed to be impartial in overseeing the conduct of parliamentary business and so appointing an Independent should bolster this impartiality.
Commonwealth whistleblower found guilty
On 27 March a former Customs officer was found guilty of leaking information about flaws in security at Sydney airport and faces up to two years in prison. The leaked information was published in the Australian and led to a major upgrade in security. The Australian has commented that public servants who leak information about flawed public administration deserve medals not criminal convictions. The Commonwealth provides least protection to whistleblowers of all Australian jurisdictions. Read more in the Australian.
FOI legislation ‘woeful’
FOI expert Rick Snell has said that the Commonwealth Freedom of Information Act ‘performs woefully’ in important respects. Whilst requests for access to personal information are generally being responded to swiftly and positively, requests for information relating to policy are systematically failing and the situation appears to be worsening: 46.3 per cent of requests for non-personal information were rejected in full or in part.
Disclosure failure forces minister’s resignation
Queensland Senator and Minister for Ageing Santo Santoro has been forced to resign his post and his seat, following revelations of undisclosed share deals. When he was initially pulled up for his failure to disclose a share trade in a biotechnology firm, he blamed an oversight. But he has subsequently been revealed to have had some 72 other such ‘oversights’. The issue of whether ministers should be able to hold and trade shares is a contentious one: even outside their portfolio, they can have access to information that can directly benefit them and can participate in cabinet discussions that can affect their value. Putting shares out of reach in ‘blind trust’ for the duration is one option. Transparency through disclosure is a minimum safeguard against such potential conflicts of interest, and Santoro’s commercial dealings should have been disclosed on the Register of Members’ Interests.
The accessibility of the Register of Members’ Interests is also an issue. At the moment, the registers are held by the Parliamentary Clerks’ departments, available for inspection in person. But in Westminster and the Scottish parliaments and in New Zealand, a version of the register is available on the webpage. This one of the measures recommended by ICAC in the wake of revelations that the then-Leader of the Opposition in NSW, John Brogden, had asked parliamentary questions whilst working as a public affairs consultant for PwC, and which was apparently disclosed reluctantly (and partially) following media probing. However it appears to have been kicked into the long grass for the foreseeable future.
Proof of ID
The proof of identity (POI) requirements introduced as a result of last year's amendments to the Commonwealth Electoral Act have come into force. From 16 April 2007, people wishing to enroll or to amend their enrolment details will be required to prove their identity by providing a driving licence number or, in the absence of driving licence, to prove their identity in other prescribed ways.
War on allowances
An article in the Canberra Times drawing on Democratic Audit data has highlighted the 'mutually assured incumbency' resulting from increased federal parliamentary allowances and lax rules governing their use. MPs are now permitted to use the resources received for electorate work for party political purposes and to roll over unspent allowances for use in an election year. Independent MP Peter Andren and Democrat Senator Andrew Murray have been leading critics of this trend.
Parliamentary privilege blocking WA corruption inquiry
The WA Corruption and Crime Commission (CCC) has been forced to suspend its inquiry into possible misconduct by members of the Legislative Council's Standing Committee on Estimates and Financial Operations. Evidence suggested that two members of the committee were being manipulated to hold an inquiry to benefit clients of Brian Burke and Noel Crichton-Browne. The Labor President of the Legislative Council has refused to hand over documents to the CCC on the grounds of parliamentary privilege. The parliament is instead holding its own inquiry, which will not have access to the CCC's phone tap and other material.
Read more in The Australian.
An elected House of Lords?
British MPs have voted in favour of an entirely elected House of Lords. Though the vote was not binding, the strength of the backing for an entirely (or almost entirely) elected upper house has sent a clear message to government. The proposals were subsequently strongly rejected by the House of Lords.
UK party funding
The report of Sir Hayden Phillips’ review of party funding in the UK was published in March 2007. The report calls for caps on donations and greater transparency about party income. However, many of the recommendations are tentative, reflecting disagreements between the main parties about the nature of the problem and the preferred solutions. The report is available to download from the inquiry’s webpage.
Coinciding with the Phillips report, Audit contributor Keith Ewing, professor of law at Kings College, London, has published his own investigation into the subject, The Cost of Democracy, in which he argues that spending caps are a more effective means than donation caps for reducing the British parties’ reliance on large donations. It is published by Hart.
Canberra Public Lecture:
Human Rights in Australia: Whatever happened to a fair go?
Julian Burnside QC, Director, The Justice Project
Saturday 31 March 2007
4 - 5.30pm Coombs Lecture Theatre (Bldg 9), Fellows Road, ANU, Canberra
Julian Burnside will speak about current developments in human rights in Australia. He will address in particular: What’s Australia’s past record in human rights? How have Australia’s laws and policies changed recently? Why should Australians be worried? What can we do to re-establish a ‘fair go Australia’? Afterwards, Kurt Esser, Chair of The Justice Project (TJP), will give a brief introduction to the work of the organisation, in particular, the Human Rights Questionnaire to be presented to all sitting members and candidates prior to the next federal election.
Enquiries E: email@example.com or T: 02 6255 1643
Dr Phil Larkin
Democratic Audit of Australia
Australian National University
Canberra ACT 0200
Tel: +61 2 6125 0696 or 1600
Fax: +61 2 6125 3051