Opinion Clock ticks on urgent reform

Labor should drop personality politics and honour the deal it made to enact laws securing integrity in public life, argues George Williams.

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Professor George Williams

OPINION: The August 2010 federal election produced a hung parliament and the promise of a ''new paradigm'' of increased integrity and accountability among our politicians. The reality has been very different. Promises of reform have yet to be kept, and the past two years have been dominated by a vicious style of personality politics that has degraded public debate and confidence in parliament.

Independents Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott emerged from the election as kingmakers. They used this power to reinstall Julia Gillard as prime minister in return for a number of pledges set out in an agreement signed on September 7, 2010. Similar agreements were signed by the government with independent Andrew Wilkie and the Greens.

These accords commit the government to achieving ''transparent and accountable government'' and ''improved process and integrity of parliament''. These principles are spelt out in the form of specific goals.

Some of these were achieved soon after the election, including changes to question time and the role of the Speaker. Further reforms followed, such as the creation of a parliamentary budget office that enables minor parties, independents and oppositions to have their policies independently costed. Other commitments remain unfulfilled.

The continuing existence of the Gillard government depends on these agreements. The government will fall if Windsor and Oakeshott withdraw their support.

Despite this, the independents have been surprisingly ineffective in having the government comply with the full range of terms agreed to. This runs counter to the experience of other hung parliaments, where governments have slavishly implemented their promises to the independent MPs who guarantee their survival.

The dynamics are different in this parliament because of the role played by the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott. Opposition leaders in hung parliaments normally seek to win favour with independent members. They hope these MPs will change their allegiance and back the opposition into government without the need for a fresh election.

This happened on the last occasion Australia had a hung federal parliament. After the 1940 election, the United Australia-Country Party coalition led by Robert Menzies formed a government with the backing of two independents. But in this, his first period as prime minister, Menzies lacked the political skills that would serve him so well in his second stint in power from 1949 to 1966.

As a result, Menzies lost the support of his party, and stepped down as prime minister in 1941. He was replaced by the leader of the Country Party, Arthur Fadden, but the instability continued and a few months later the independents shifted their vote from the Coalition to Labor. This enabled John Curtin to become prime minister mid-term.

Abbott initially sought to woo Windsor and Oakeshott, but once that failed he has not tried to engineer the same outcome as in 1941. His strategy has instead focused on rejecting Labor's policies and attempting to destabilise the government and undermine its legitimacy through attacks on the credibility of the Prime Minister and the government's reliance on the vote of Craig Thomson.

This has alienated Windsor and Oakeshott. Windsor in particular has launched a number of attacks on Abbott, including a withering speech in parliament in mid-year in which he labelled the Opposition Leader ''an absolute disgrace''. As a result, there seems to be no possibility the independents might shift their allegiance to Abbott mid-term.

In these circumstances, there is much less pressure on the government to stick to the letter of its agreements. If the government does not, where else are Windsor and Oakeshott going to turn? This has enabled the government to get away with only partial compliance with the terms.

Even given this political reality, it is disappointing that Windsor and Oakeshott have not played a stronger hand in securing the full range of integrity reforms promised by the government. For example, the agreements state that legislation to protect whistleblowers should be passed by June 30 last year. Eighteen months later, no such law has been enacted.

The government's failure to champion whistleblower protection is surprising. A sound model for the law was recommended in February 2009 by a committee chaired by Mark Dreyfus QC, who is now a parliamentary secretary in the government.

The government generally endorsed the findings of the committee, but nearly four years later it has yet to introduce legislation into parliament to bring them about. The inescapable conclusion is that the government does not see whistleblower protection as a priority.

The running has instead been left to Andrew Wilkie, who has introduced his own whistleblower protection bill. However, he has become estranged from the government over the lack of bite in its proposed gambling reforms, and so lacks the same clout as his fellow independents.

Senator John Faulkner spoke of these problems in a speech earlier this month. Although the media focused on his prescription for reforming the Labor Party and its factions, the greater body of his speech concerned the laws and processes that guard against wrongdoing by our politicians and public servants.

Faulkner accepted that the protections for whistleblowers in federal law ''are limited and inadequate'' and said change more generally is ''desperately needed now''.

Unfortunately, it seems the senator's views are not shared more broadly across the government.

Faulkner also argued for reform of Australia's system of political finance. He has done so consistently for many years, including when he was a Special Minister of State in the Rudd government. He sought then to tighten the funding and disclosure laws, but did not get the chance to complete the job before he was promoted to the defence portfolio.

Political finance reforms are covered in the agreements signed by the Prime Minister in the wake of the 2010 election.

Agreement was reached on a process that would culminate in legislative reforms this year to the funding of political parties and election campaigns.

This has not occurred despite, as Faulkner has forcefully stated there being ''no excuse for further delay''.

The energy and will to pursue this issue, which had been apparent in the Gillard government, and the Rudd government before it, seems to have dissipated. The problem lies in the fact that the most consistent and influential voice on such reform is outside the cabinet.

The agreements provide for a code of conduct for members and senators, supervised by a parliamentary integrity commissioner, but progress has been slow. The proposal remains alive in parliament, though only barely. It seems doubtful that even an aspirational and non-binding code will be in place before the next federal election.

A code of conduct is a good idea. There should be a set of rules to guide members of parliament towards ethical behaviour. However, it is clear no well-meaning code of conduct will be sufficient. As Faulkner has said, ''government integrity demands more than general expressions of goodwill''.

The ICAC hearings involving members of the former NSW government clearly demonstrate the need for a federal corruption-fighting body.

There are obvious avenues for corruption at the state level because of the responsibility state ministers have for planning matters, prisons, liquor, gambling and other forms of licensing. Every state has recognised this in creating an independent institution to expose and investigate wrongdoing among those who exercise power on behalf of the people and who control the public purse.

The focus of these bodies is on behaviour by state politicians and state public servants. This leaves a gaping hole in Australia's anti-corruption regime when it comes to their federal counterparts.

There are significant incentives and opportunities for corrupt behaviour at the federal level. While our federal leaders and agencies generally have a good record, there have been allegations and examples of criminal conduct by officials and agencies.

These include the corruption allegations levelled against offshoots of the Reserve Bank, the AWB wheat-for-oil scandal and numerous allegations that parliamentarians have misused their travel and other entitlements.

In 2002, Andrew Theophanous, a long-standing member of the House of Representatives and a Parliamentary Secretary, was imprisoned for receiving money in return for immigration assistance.

It is naive to think federal politics is immune to the same pressures and problems that have beset NSW. The record, if nothing else, suggests strongly to the contrary.

The next federal election will be held in less than a year. In the remaining months of this parliament, the government needs to live up to the terms of its 2010 agreements. If it does, there is a chance this parliament may yet be remembered for making headway on long-overdue reforms to improve the accountability and integrity of our politicians.

George Williams is a Professor of Law at UNSW.

This opinion piece was first published in The Sydney Morning Herald.