Originally published in The Canberra Times on July 8, 2023

Australia may finally have a national anti-corruption watchdog, but we still have a long way to go to reach genuine accountability and transparency in our system of government.

As the behaviour of those public servants working on Robodebt, the contractors working at PwC, and the parliamentarians who have blatantly put self-interest ahead of national interest have shown, we have a lot of work to do.

Like old books left in a dark shed for too long, Australia’s democratic culture has been allowed to rot. Despite the fact that ministers and public servants are ultimately accountable to the parliament, the contempt with which many of them treat processes like Senate Estimates Committee’s is barely concealed. Indeed, taxpayers’ money is often spent by departments to train public servants in how to conceal information from the public parliament they are supposed to serve.

The law says that that public servants are supposed to release information requested by citizens under the Freedom of Information Act in a timely and comprehensive manner, and the Archive Act obliges them to keep good, easily accessible notes. But if the Robodebt Royal Commission taught us anything, it’s that the modern public service is as good at hiding information from other departments as it is at hiding it from the public and even the Parliament. It has also exposed a total lack of accountability amongst those in senior positions, with barely any big public apologies or resignations.

Hopefully the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) can do what the parliament has become unable to and improve the culture of the public service. Namely, the NACC should demand the documents created by those paid to serve the public and demand answers to simple questions under oath.

So many good people choose to work for government precisely because they want to serve their community, which is why it is important that our laws and institutions are strong enough to provide transparency and accountability when personal and political benefits of concealment and obfuscation are so high.

We don’t just need good laws and institutions; we need good people from diverse backgrounds to implement and oversee them.

The fact that so many in parliament and in the public service were unable to see the danger of so many external consultants, working for conflicting clients at such a high price, is perhaps the clearest proof that both our parliament and our public service would benefit from a lot of new faces.

Sadly, the opposite is just as likely. While PwC probably won’t pick up much government work ever again, most of the work they were doing is likely to be transferred to new consultants rather than brought back in house.

In the parliament, despite, or perhaps because of the key role that minor parties and independents have played in demanding and delivering transparency, there is a real risk the major political parties will conspire to change the electoral laws to make it harder for independents and minor parties to enter parliament.

Unlike most competitions, it is the winners of the last electoral race that set the rules for next one. While Australia’s Constitution creates a legal framework for the conduct of our federal elections, most of the laws that govern those elections are created by the parliaments which, by definition is full of people who won seats at the last election. While the news is full of things the major parties disagree with each other on, the reality is, far more legislation passes with bipartisan support than is bitterly contested.

At the last election the Liberal party lost eight seats to independents candidates and Labor lost two to the Greens. While what Australians call ‘minority government’ is extremely common around the world, and increasingly common in Australian states and territories, one thing that the federal Labor and Liberal parties can definitely agree on is that they both prefer to avoid being in minority government if they could, which makes the upcoming debate about electoral law reform so important.

The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM) recently handed down its interim report, with the final report expected by the end of August. While the committee makes some recommendations that would clearly improve the transparency of our democracy, such as real time disclosure of donations, it has also made recommendations which have the potential to entrench the incumbent parties in parliament by making it much harder for new entrants to raise and spend money.

There is obviously a case for improving Australia’s political donation laws, but it is far less obvious how to best make such changes. Creating a simple cap on the size of donations, or the amount of money a candidate can spend may appear to create a level playing field, but in reality it would lock in an uphill battle for independents and new parties trying to win seats against publicly funded incumbents.

According to research by the Australia Institute, the staff, offices and communication support provided by taxpayers to incumbent MPs is worth a minimum of $3 million over each electoral cycle. Over the current election cycle, Labor MPs and Senators will receive at least $283 million in publicly funded benefits, and Coalition MPs and Senators will receive at least $234 million. In short, incumbent MPs have a big head start as each new election race begins.

Despite the obvious problems with imposing the same donation and spending caps on major party candidates and new independent candidates, this is exactly the approach favoured by the unlikely allies of the Liberal party and some NGOs who have long campaigned for donation reform. While the benefits to the Liberals (who gain far more of their funding from taxpayers than donations), are clear, it seems some NGOs are simply going along with the ‘any reform is better than none’ approach to campaigning.

The independents seem alive to the risk of donation caps. The Independent member for Curtin, Kate Chaney, says that “donation and spending caps [should be] structured to recognise the additional barriers to entry faced by independents or new entrants”. An important principle that the Liberal Party explicitly rejects.

Australia’s democratic project is in dire need of a restoration and repair. New bodies like the NACC didn’t just happen, they came about after more than a decade of research, campaigning and political leadership from the Greens, independents and then Labor from opposition. Needless to say, the previous Coalition government were not enthusiastic about creating a body to scrutinise the decisions of the executive government or the conduct of their senior public servants.

We can’t get too comfortable yet. New laws and new institutions will, like FOI laws, die on the vine if they are not carefully tended by new entrants to parliament. The democratic process does not just require good process, it needs good people with a passion for accountability and transparency, to keep an eye on those with a preference for a blind eye and a quiet wink.

Changes to donation reforms that succeed in keeping not just money, but independent and minor party MPs out of parliament, are not a step in the right direction, they are a dangerous dead end for those seeking a more diverse and transparent government.

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