Back to first principles: a blueprint to revive Australian democracy

by Kim Wingerei | Dec 10, 2021 | Government

Parliament is in recess and another year has gone without the Morrison government honouring its promise to establish a federal ICAC. It is clearly reluctant to do so at all, while rorts and scandals continue to erode trust in our politicians. The system is broken, and it will take much more than an integrity and corruption commission to fix it. Kim Wingerei reports.

A wise person once said: the problem is rarely the problem, it’s failure to deal with the problem that becomes the problem. The problems run deep in Federal Parliament, but they can be addressed.

This is the challenge that the Accountability Round Table (ART) set out to address when launching its report “Integrity Now – 21 reforms to restore the rule of law, accountability and public trust.

The ART is is a non-partisan group of journalists, lawyers, academics, former politicians and judges with extensive experience in parliament, government and the courts. It is dedicated to improving standards of accountability, transparency, ethical behaviour and democratic practice in Commonwealth and state parliaments and governments across Australia.

The Integrity Now! report was launched by former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, who focused in particular on the normalising of lying as a key symptom of the malaise:

Lying has been normalised and goes, for the most part, unremarked. Parliament seems unable to hold governments to account. The press gallery, in general, has become so compliant, or partisan, that it [too] is unable to hold government to account.

Malcolm Turnbull

Turnbull was largely supportive of the 21 recommendations in the report, and was candid in his admission that although he once was opposed to a federal ICAC, he has changed his mind. He can do that now, not being a politician any more.

The lead author of the report, Charles Sampford, Dean of Law at Griffith University, outlined its main objectives:

The Integrity Now! project examines the principles of accountability and integrity in government. It identifies systemic failures and areas of risk and recommends a raft of necessary reforms designed to create a stronger, fairer and more resilient democracy including the essential design features of a national integrity commission.

Charles Sampford

The 21 reforms are broadly about legislative oversight and accountability, as well as transparency and codes of conduct.

Some of the key recommendations are around strengthening the roles of the Senate and the parliamentary committee system.

One particular area of concern is how legislation enacted by Parliament is often too vague and delegates to the minister and the executive to “fill in the blanks” through rules and regulations – aka. “delegated legislation” which in effect is not subject to parliamentary oversight.

On example of this is how the Immigration Minister has extraordinary delegated powers going right down to ruling on individual cases, without oversight by Parliament or sometimes even by the courts.

The ART recommends that all such delegated legislation need to be presented to and approved by Parliament before coming into effect.

With the AUKUS debacle fresh in mind, another set of recommendations addresses the issue of how Australia enters into international treaties without parliamentary approval. It recommends that all treaties must be ratified by Parliament, enacted into domestic law if required.

Related to this is the recommendation that any decision that involves going to war must be scrutinised by, and ratified by both houses of Parliament.

War powers reform is supported by 83% of respondents in a Roy Morgan survey in 2020. Yet what seems self-evident to most Australians is much less so to our parliamentarians, with many opposed or sitting on the fence.

As we saw in the Christian Porter secret-donor story, our politicians (and the rules they abide by) are equally out of step with community expectations when it comes to transparency.

The ART report contains detailed recommendations on real-time reporting, limits on donations and limitations on who can donate. It also recommend public funding of, and caps on, election spending.

Most of the recommendations are commonsense proposals easily implemented without fundamental changes to law, and none require constitutional changes. Most are about changes to the conventions that govern how our democracy works, emphasising the basics of the rule of law and the separation of powers that (supposedly) underpin our democratic system.

One such recommendations is to return parliamentary Question Time to the mechanism for parliamentary oversight of the executive it is supposed to be. Question Time has been allowed to descend into a farce of Dorothy Dixers, obfuscation and refusal to address the questions. In his remarks during the launch, Turnbull recounted how he tried to change it but was rebuffed by the entrenched view that “it isn’t called answer time for a reason, you know.”

And therein lays the real challenge. Despite the commonsense nature of the recommendations, the real issue is the culture of the class of entitled party politicians who are now so far removed from the voters that the trust they have in our system is at an all-time low.

This hasn’t happened overnight, but we now have a Prime Minister whose relationship with the truth is not just tenuous, but seemingly irrelevant to him.

Recommendation 17 of the 21 is that politicians and political parties should have the same duty as people and corporations to tell the truth, and there “needs to be negative consequences for lying and misleading”.

That such a recommendation even has to be made is perhaps the most damning indictment of our politicians one could make.

You can find the ART report and the recommendations here.

Kim Wingerei is a businessman turned writer and commentator. He is passionate about free speech, human rights, democracy and the politics of change. Originally from Norway, Kim has lived in Australia for 30 years. Author of ‘Why Democracy is Broken – A Blueprint for Change’.

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