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Government accountability: the obligation of governments.

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Government Accountability



Accountability : The Obligation of Governments


Since Don Chipp was first elected to the Senate in 1977 with the catchcry of 'keep the bastards honest', the Democrats have revolutionised the role of the Senate as the House of Review. As a former Auditor-General John Taylor puts it, the Sena te is the last brake on the power of Executive Government. "The reason for the unpopularity of the Senate with the executive and sections of the bureaucracy is plain - the Senate is independent, not a rubber stamp nor rotten borough, and when it w ants to be, very effective."


The Democrats are proud of our achievements of changing the role of the Senate, of strengthening the status of Senate Committees, of the hundreds of amendments moved to improve laws each year, of keeping Ministers on their toes, of exposing the excess es of politicians and bureaucrats, and of advancing the agenda of a progressive transparent and accountable democracy.


It is hard work that often does not get the big glare of media attention. But, accountability is essential to ensure that Australiaísí citizens get a fair go from their Governments. Now, One Nation is challenging the Democrats for the balance of power in the Senate, with major but largely unreported consequences for how the Senate would function. The Leader of One Nation said on 6 September 1998, "One Nation isnít in the federal campaign to keep the bastards honest. Weíre here to get rid of the bastards altogether."


The ramifications of a totally obstructionist Senate need to be carefully considered. Instead of a House of Review which let through over 400 Bills last Parliament, and only rejected 2 Bills outright, the Senate could become a House of Horrors.


The Democrats reject the One Nation approach to the use of Senate power. We believe that ëkeeping the bastards honestí by holding them to account is an essential and fundamental part of the role of the Senate. We are proud of our record of promoting Ac countability and open, honest Government. On October 3, if the Democrats win the balance of power in the Senate, we will be giving the highest priority to putting accountability back in its rightful place at the centre of the Senateís considerations.



Democrats' Record on Accountability


Despite Senator Colstonís defection in August 1996 denying the Democrats the balance of power role that 1.2 million Australians elected them to perform, the Democrats have still succeeded in achieving significant wins to improve accountability over the past three years.


These include:



• Strengthening the powers of the Auditor-General to monitor financial accountability, including the establishment of an Audit Committee of Parliament;


• Improving the accountability of the $1.1 billion Natural Heritage Trust Fund with th e establishment of an expert Advisory Committee for grants;


• Exposing the enormous public subsidies in the Parliamentary Superannuation Scheme through a Senate Committee Inquiry;


• Uncovering the documents that demonstrated a clear conflict of interest by former Small Business Minister Geoff Prosser on fair trading issues that lead to his resignation;


• Improving the accountability of companies to their shareholders by requiring executive remuneration to be fully disclosed to shareholders;


• Rejecting the Governmentís plan to rewrite the Public Service Act as weakening the independence and integrity of a merit-based public service;


• Successfully defending the right of the Senate to reject unacceptable regulations and ordinances against a Government attempt to restrain that power;


• Ensuring that Telstra remains subject to direction by the Minister on its performance and activities;


• Protecting the independence of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission and Employment Advocate as impartial ump ires in industrial disputes;


• Campaigning for comprehensive reform of politicians entitlements following the revelations of rorting by a number of politicians.



If the Democrats again win the balance of power in their own right in the Senate, we will ca mpaign for even more rigorous accountability measures for Governments, trying to ensure that honesty in Government is not an option - rather, that honesty is made compulsory.



1 Improving the Accountability of Politicians


After seven sackings or resignations from the Howard frontbench and the ongoing Colston and Parer sagas, the Democrats believe that improving the accountability regime for parliamentarians themselves must be an urgent priority of the new Parliament. In stead of weakening codes of conduct as the Prime Minister has recently suggested, we propose:



• Immediate establishment of a Parliamentary Ethics Committee to set a clear, comprehensive, and unambiguous code of conduct for Minister and other Members of Parliament that includes rules as to the avoidance of conflicts of interest;


• A Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards to impartially investigate breaches of the Code, reporting to the Ethics Committee, and recommending appropriate sanctions for breaches to the Parliament;


• To ensure a strict and detailed Senatorsí and Membersí Register of Interests that lists all businesses that the member may have an interest in, including any businesses owned or conducte d by a family company or trust;


• Independence of the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President of the Senate, with incumbents not to be removed during their term other than for proven incompetence or partiality, and not permitted to attend party room meetings duri ng their term;


• Overhauling the Parliamentary Superannuation Scheme to reduce the excessive public subsidies and to bring it into line with general community standards;


• Restricting overseas study entitlements for parliamenta rians to those clearly demonstrated to be relevant to their work based on an approved itinerary, and with a comprehensive report tabled on return.



2 Improving the accountability of political parties


The old political parties raise tens of millions of dollars a year to fund their election campaigns. Fundraising of this kind has two effects. It can corrupt the political process by introducing "quid pro quos" into policy making. And, it ca n lead to election campaigns where costly advertising can be used to destroy opponents. The Parliamentary accountability regime must extend to how parliamentarians are elected and the political parties that get them there.


We propose:



• Improving the internal accountability of political parties to their members by maki ng democratic and financial accountability a requirement for registration under the Commonwealth Electoral Act;


• Empowering the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) to investigate complaints of breaches of political partiesí constitutions, with a view to encouraging better self-regulation and political party management;


• Preselection ballots within political parties to be conducted by the AEC, with a requirement that the procedures are fully democratic;


• Large donations to political parties (i.e. $10 000) to be disclosed to the AEC within 14 days so that the public knows at all times who has given what to whom;


• Donations made through trusts or clubs to disclose the true source of the donations or be refused by political parties;


• Truth in political advertising with stringent penalties for any candidate, political party or other person who publishes inaccurate, misleading or deceptive statements during election periods;


• Strengthening the Charter of Budget Honesty by making it compulsory for all political parties, legally enforceable, and ensuring that voters receive an impartial, independent costing of all election promises made by political parties.



3 Improving the Accountability of the Bureaucracy


High quality delivery of Government services relies on a bureaucracy that is fearlessly independent and where members are appointed on merit rather than as political favours. Improving the accountability of the bureaucracy means reversing the politicis ation of the bureaucracy, ensuring that public servants are appointed on merit and are able to provide fearless independent advice without threat of political retribution. To improve the accountability of the bureaucracy, the Democrats propose:



• Establishing a Commissioner for Public Appointments t o ensure that all appointments by Minister to public authorities comply with a code of conduct, ensuring that appointment are based on merit, are made in an open and transparent process, are ind ependently scrutinised and avoid "capture" of authorities by interest groups;


• Enacting Whistleblower protection legislation with high powered officers to receive, investigate and assess information from whistleblowers while ensuring that genuine whistleblowers are properly protected from retribution;


• Defending the right of pub lic servants to appeal against appointments not made on merit or against unfair treatment as contained in the Public Service Act;


• Investigating ways to improve the accountability of advice given by public servants in key service agencies such as Centrelink, particularly where clients have acted on that advice;


• Increasing resources for Senate Committees to ensure that they can continue to effectively scrutinise the performance of Government Departments called before them;


• Reversing funding cuts to the Commonwealth Ombudsman to ensure that public complaints about service standards are properly investigated and resolved.



© 1998 Australian Democrats