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Corruption watchdog for federal MPs long overdue

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Bob Brown 14 Aug 2009

The current political culture in Australia decrees that if you hand a minister $10,000 in a paper bag marked ''for you'' in return for a talk about your business plans, it is a bribe. But if you hand the $10,000 to a party official to sit next to the minister at dinner and discuss your business plans, that is OK.

It is a sham. Democracy is being eroded by money. The ideal of one person, one vote, one value is eroding under the monetarist epithet that influence is there to be bought. Your power is directly proportional to your purse, and if you are out of the power circle your powerlessness is proportional to your poverty.

All democracies in this age of materialism face the same degradation of the pivotal democratic ideal of equality.

And the flow of money shows the worth of buying favour.

More than $10 billion goes to corporate subsidies from state and federal governments each year - equal to half the national defence budget and many times the money spent on Australia's environmental security.

Even so, this level of largesse is set to be ramped up. The Federal Government's emissions trading scheme offers polluting industries $16 billion in its four years on the basis that the more a company pollutes the more it will be compensated. Many of Australia's biggest companies have large overseas shareholdings, so billions will flow overseas.

While curbing corruption, like outsmarting tax cheats, is an endless project, there are two simple and tried innovations the Australian Parliament should consider.

The first is the Canadian law that provides public funding for political parties proportional to the public vote, with no corporate or union donations allowed. Individual donations are limited to $C1000 ($ 1100) each year.

The second innovation - and the more important one - would be a national anti-corruption and integrity commission with the powers of a royal commission to hold public and private hearings and to summons people and documents. It would work like the Independent Commission Against Corruption established in NSW in 1989. Since then Queensland and Western Australian have set up similar commissions and Tasmania will soon have an Integrity Commission.

But no national anti-corruption agency exists with the powers or the jurisdiction to investigate claims of misconduct and corruption across the Federal Parliament or Commonwealth agencies. The national anti-corruption and integrity commission, as proposed by the Greens, would be able to investigate misconduct or corruption in parliamentary, public service or police activities. It would also give advice to protect the integrity of the Federal Parliament, parliamentarians and all Commonwealth departments.

The Commonwealth Law Enforcement Integrity Commissioner was established in 2006, but its role is restricted to investigating and preventing corruption in the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Crime Commission.

A joint parliamentary committee inquiry is now being held into the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity. The terms of reference include expanding its role to other Commonwealth agencies. But the inquiry has just started and no date is specified the tabling of its report. Importantly, there is no suggestion in the terms of reference to include parliamentarians.

There are many instances where the rules governing the conduct of federal parliamentarians are not clear or specific, and the relevant department often advises that it is ''up to the discretion of the politician''.

The national anti-corruption and integrity commission should be free to nail corrupt behaviour, but it should not leave good MPs, public servants or police officers anxious wrecks because inexperience or non-corrupt lapses in prudent behaviour lead to mistakes.

The commissioner would act as an independent arbiter to provide a clear ruling on such instances where the guidelines are unclear, or where claims of misconduct are made against a parliamentarian who has sought to follow the guidelines. The existence of such a body would potentially avoid systemic misconduct as revealed recently in the British Parliament. In Australia the new commission would help defend politicians and the Parliament from unwarranted attack.

Conversely, good people and talent need reassuring and nurturing. So the commission should also be an advice agency for those having ethical dilemmas in their workplace.

Is such a commission feasible? Of course. It simply needs the goodwill of the government and parliament of the day. I have no doubt that if the Federal Government were to legislate in the next 12 months for either an end to political donations, as in Canada, or a commission as the Greens are proposing, it would pass both houses of Parliament.

The time honoured way to kill such innovations is to put them off for more inquiries or until after the next election. It is up to the Prime Minister.

The Government allocated more than $40 billion to a stimulus package for a passing economic downturn. It should use the same nous to legislate for the long-term health of Australia's parliamentary democracy for much less.


First published in the Sydney Morning Herald

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