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Sunday, March 18, 2007

The web could help keep MPs honest

Just when we thought that standards in public life couldn't get much lower, along comes Senator Santo Santoro who had to tell the Prime Minister last week that he had "forgotten" to update the Register of Interests regarding 72 share trading transactions undertaken in his 15 months as Minister for the Ageing.

This was after he owned up to one failure to disclose last year and mistakenly said he had given any profit from that deal to a charity that turned out to be a not for profit lobby group. It's still up in the air whether any of the share trades involved companies engaged in the aged care sector.

No jokes here about ageing and the effect on your memory!

This is the latest in a string of scandals involving Federal Liberal Members of Parliament. Then there was Opposition frontbencher and the reference he gave a drug trafficker.

Would greater transparency be part of the answer to this sorry state of affairs?

In "Where to draw the line?" in yesterday's The Age, the experts tell us there is a clear correlation between low ethical standards, secrecy and corruption. To combat this we need leaders who set "tone at the top" and reinforce values and ethical standards, for example through a parliamentary standards commissioner, as well as freedom of information laws that provide access to documents in all but specified exceptional circumstances.

Registers of interests are required of members of parliament and are available for inspection by any member of the public who takes the trouble to go and look.

Elsewhere the internet plays a vital role in public access. For example, want to know about the interests of any member of the New Zealand Parliament? Simply look here.

Or, interested in disclosures by members of the British House of Commons? It's all here, including under Blair, information that his wife receives royalties from a book about being married to the Prime Minister, and under Brown, the fact that Blair's likely successor hasn't got a thing to declare.

These web disclosures are summaries rather than the fine detail included in declarations lodged with the parliament. But in Canberra and the states we should be taking a leaf out of these books to require disclosure of interests to the world, not just those who show up and ask at the counter between 9 and 5 on weekdays.

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