In December 2021 a community group of highly qualified people, coming together as The Accountability Round Table (ART), issued a paper entitled “21 Integrity Reforms to Restore the Rule of Law, Accountability and Public Trust”. Their reason for writing the paper is a concern that “… the public’s trust in our democracy and institutions has been seriously eroded”. The authors’ reference, as evidence for this belief, the Australia Talks National Survey conducted by Vox Pop Labs1. Their article states that this survey “provides grim reading in counting the views of Australians towards the political leaders who are supposed to account to them for the use of the people’s power that has been entrusted to them”.
They continue, “The increasing evidence of gaps in accountability and threats to the Rule of Law amount to a crisis. In response to this emerging crisis the Accountability Round Table has produced (an) issues and discussion policy paper to emphasise the nature of, and relationship between, the rule of law, accountability and public trust. We aim to emphasise the serious shortfalls in governments and attendant institutions ... and how we, and all Australians, might address them to produce better governance for all citizens”.
It is refreshing to see people with experience in senior positions in the law, public administration and elsewhere, willing to highlight their concerns about the Australian political system, admittedly of a high order of consideration. Importantly, they also offer considered actions to remedy the key problem areas that they have identifed.
However, two questions arise from their paper. The first question is, exactly who is listening to what is being said and with what result? The second is, how might community groups in Canberra, such as CPAG, consider their proposed remedies and application to our own territory government?
Many comments have been made in recent years on the veritable ‘sludge’ that mass media has discharged into the public arena making it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to make sense of what is happening within our political, let alone social, world. Thus, whether one agrees or not with the ART’s 21 recommendations designed to protect and enhance the Rule of Law, Accountability and the Public Trust in Australia, it is unlikely that they will be broadly disseminated, adopted, or even understood by a wider public.
Then we come to the issue of how the ACT government might fare in this matter? Many community groups, including CPAG, have expressed deep concerns regarding how ACT planning policy is being developed and implemented, which has led to some extremely poor outcomes in terms of sustainability and social equity.
On the issue of public accountability in the electoral system the ART paper highlights the insidiousness of corruption, as follows: “There is a beguilingly simple democratic circle in which the voters choose their Members of Parliament (MLAs), the (MLAs) choose their (Chief Minister), the (Chief Minister) chooses the ministers, the ministers choose senior public servants and the policies they implement for the benefit of the voters and the voters decide whether to re-elect the MPs.”
“Accountability goes in the opposite direction of the circle – (in general terms) civil servants are accountable to ministers, who are accountable to premiers (Chief Minister), who are accountable to their MPs who are accountable to the voters.”
“In this circular model, anything that gets in the way of the virtuous democratic circle is undemocratic and to be resisted. The problem (in general terms) was that every single element along the circle could be, and often has been, corrupted. Policies and politicians could be bought, governments could use government resources to promote re-election and electorates be gerrymandered and voter suppression practised.”
What is being discussed here is the concept of public trust in the democratic system. This issue becomes most acute around the raising and spending of public money. Governments generally are under scrutiny on these issues. The ART paper further highlights the ‘Sports Rorts’ and Robo debt programs of the Commonwealth government wherein lawful process was abused.
While the ACT Government may not have the kind of overt and potentially corrupt exploitation of process, identified in the ART paper, it does attract a fair share of community concern and debate around, for example, how it generates its income and the potential risks this raises. For instance, an article in the Canberra Times (8 September 2021) ran with the headline “ACT government revenue exceeds forecasts with $326 million boost”. The article further states that, “Stamp duty continues to be a key revenue raiser for the government, despite the fact the tax is being phased out as part of a 20-year reform program. Grants from the federal government also contributed to the ACT government's revenue increase, with more than $127 million given, mostly due to increased GST revenue. Government land sales also helped with the boost, with gains from contributed assets up by more than $51 million”. The issue here is in knowing whether the development industry interests override the interests of the community and how this money is spent in support of a ‘better’ Canberra, not just a bigger Canberra.
According to the ART paper, “Many (government) appropriations are put in very general terms. The Treasurer is allocated huge discretionary funds and there is a growing figure (in the Budget) of ‘decisions made and not announced.’ The secretive appropriation of funds in this covert manner is increasingly used by each major party in government, leading to the perception of an unholy conspiracy between them to the ultimate harm to good government and merit-based allocations of resources”.
In the case of the ACT, land tax and stamp duty incomes are based on suburban housing developments involving powerful industry participants in close collaboration with ACT Government bureaucrats. Thus the ART paper, and general response to such situations, is to call for the legislature such as the ACT Legislative Assembly, to “…. exercise its powers over money bills during consideration of the budget process. It should demand sufficient detail to understand the public benefit that justifies entrusting those funds to the relevant minister…”.
But is this a sufficient action to regenerate trust in ACT planning when so many community submissions and actions concern urban developments and housing availability? My answer to this question is ‘No’! As the ART paper notes, “… question time is limited and largely wasted through ‘Dorothy Dixers’ and ‘answer avoidance”. Reforming this process is vital.
Another suggestion from the ART group is that parliamentary committees be made more effective through better resourcing: “All integrity agencies should be formally constituted as “Independent Officers of Parliament” which, following Victorian practice, are “entities established by statute, (and) are independent of the executive government and which assist parliament in carrying out its responsibilities to scrutinise the actions of the government”. Furthermore, in addressing the risk of potential circumvention of laws, the ART paper suggests that “There should be a parliamentary procedure for assessment of the risk that proposed legislated powers may be abused and recommend the best means for avoiding or mitigating them (with inputs from the CIC)”.
In addition to the above recommendations, the ART paper suggests the following with respect to Freedom of Information requests; “Information produced by the government for the purposes of making and recording decisions is the property of the people. One needs a good argument to deny access by the people to their property. …Withholding information to prevent public discovery that a minister or senior public servant was wrong, foolish, unethical or, especially, lying is a serious abuse of power and therefore corrupt.”
Interestingly the ART paper highlights the need for considerable transparency with respect to multi or dual-party agreements when they form government, an issue of relevance in the ACT. The ART paper states that “… if (political parties) make different promises at the election and agree to a variation of them, the Parliament and public should know about such agreements. Furthermore, the Coalition agreement should be published. The same should be true where an independent supports a government for confidence and supply and for similar reasons, preference deals should also be public”.
The ART article highlights other well-known matters prone these days to impact upon our democracy because the proper checks and balances are not in place, such as the lack of media accountability and the issue of political donations.
In conclusion, the ART paper advances a higher order of thinking to suggest that there are many potential solutions available by which to address the corruptions of governance in Australia at this time. The article, however, leaves the reader hanging somewhat helplessly as it identifies legitimate matters in which our political and bureaucratic systems clearly fail the wider public democratic system but does so without much real teeth to its recommendations.
The concluding proposal in the ART paper is valuable. It proposes an integrity commission but which body “… must be part of an integrity system in which other, complementary, institutions operate to suppress corruption and to enhance integrity. This combination of mechanisms and public institutions and agencies (including courts, parliament, police, prosecutors), watchdog agencies (ombudsman, auditor general), NGOs, laws, norms and incentive mechanisms is primarily directed at pursuing the positive goal of good governance rather than the negative goal of limiting corruption. Such a combination has been termed an ‘ethics regime’, an ‘ethics infrastructure’, a ‘National Integrity System’ and an ‘Integrity and Accountability System’.
Finally, do the points made and suggestions put forward in this ART paper apply to the ACT?
Judging by the extent of anger regarding how urban development and planning decisions are made in the ACT and the often-serious negative impacts on socially equitable outcomes, I feel that there is real scope for the ART paper’s analysis to be considered for local implementation and for the paper itself to be more widely circulated. I hope you will take the time to read it and pass it on.
With permission from Cathy Wilcox
The full ART paper “Integrity Now” can be accessed at https://www.accountabilityrt.org/integrity-now-download-the-document/
Geoff Pryor 26 January 2022