Search This Blog

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

People are talking about integrity; governments should be listening and acting

The Transparency International Australia National Integrity 2017 conference in Brisbane last week brought together 160 government, business and civil society delegates from all corners of Australia, including senior legal figures, heads of integrity agencies, federal, state and local parliamentarians, community groups, corporate leaders and individual TI Australia members.

Lots of energy at the conference and a perceptible whiff that positive change is in the air with more voices calling for improvements in integrity in the public and corporate sectors.

The release of a major paper canvassing key issues for the design of a federal anti-corruption commission was one of many highlights.

Here's me giving a rundown on lessons learned from Australia's experience in developing the national action plan required as a result of the commitment by PM Turnbull in December 2015 to join the Open Government Partnership. Someone told me the only thing missing from the timeline diagram are the snakes and ladders.

And in a panel discussion with Queensland Attorney General Yvette D'ath and James Ensor BHP Billiton.
 

Hat tip to Queensland for leading the nation on real-time disclosure of political donations, which follows publication of minister appointment diaries, and reporting and publication on lobbying contacts. 
(They should do better with reporting on parliamentarians use of entitlements.)

Hat tip to BHP Billiton- no to political party donations, yes to publicly available information on beneficial ownership of corporate entities, action in reporting on payments to government....
(They and the business community generally are rarely heard on the topic of good government and could and should speak up.)




Monday, March 20, 2017

The Diary Wars; Who ministers plan to meet in the course of their duties should be no state secret.

 Crikey this morning
"A monumental waste of everyone's time." That's how shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus has described the three-year battle to release Attorney General George Brandis' diary for the months leading up to the 2014 budget. Brandis has finally released a heavily redacted version of his diary, after challenging Dreyfus' freedom of information request all the way to the Federal Court, which ordered Brandis to hand over the diary in September. So what does it show? The 34-page printout of his Outlook calendar doesn't include any meetings with community legal centres, which had their funding slashed in the 2014 budget. The Attorney-General's office says this isn't the whole story though, as the diary doesn't show meetings made at short notice or by the Attorney-General himself.

The only correction to this and Adam Gartrell's longer piece in the Sydney Morning Herald is that the Federal Court ruled there was no valid reason for the refusal by Brandis' office to  process the FOI application. Six months ago it ordered the office to do so.

The Attorney General took offence in Senate estimates in February at suggestions his office may be in contempt of a Federal Court order to process the application by shadow AG Dreyfus for entries in his appointments diary for the three months before the 2014 budget:
"That is a very serious allegation In order to assert that there has been a contempt of court it is necessary to show that the order of the court has not been complied with. There has been no noncompliance with any order of any court. The order of the full court of the Federal Court was merely that the appeal be dismissed with costs. The order of Justice Jagot in the AAT was—and I will read it to you again: 'That the decision that there is a practical refusal reason be set aside,' so that was set aside, and 'that no practical refusal reason exists'. That is the order. It was not an injunctive order. It was not a direction to me or to the decision maker or to anyone.
It took three years in total for the office to get the job done.

Senator Brandis in Opposition in 2009 of course nailed it with this comment: (Senate Hansard13 August 2009
Senator Brandis.....The true measure of the openness and transparency of a government is found in its attitudes and actions when it comes to freedom of information. Legislative amendments, when there is need for them, are fine, but governments with their control over the information in their possession can always find ways to work the legislation to slow or control disclosure. That is the practice we are seeing now under the Rudd government, whose heroic proclamations of commitment to freedom of information are falsified by the objective evidence of their practice.
 It's not the end of the Diary Wars either

As Sean Parnell reported in The Australian in January the Office of the Prime Minister is off to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal contesting the ruling by Australian Information Commissioner Pilgrim that the PM's official diary for his first day in office 16 September 2015 is not exempt and should be released to the applicant, Parnell.

Commissioner Pilgrim accepted that entries concerning meetings with Coalition members who were not serving Ministers, and entries relating to party political events, are to be treated as exempt. But he rejected exemption claims for entries in the electronic calendar recording a meeting time and the name of the person scheduled to meet the PM.

The Commissioner found
  • that  some entries reveal information that would, or could reasonably be expected to cause damage to the international relations of the Commonwealth and could be redacted for that reason
  • that information is unlikely to cause damage to the relations between the Commonwealth and a State, particularly as those entries do not record the content of the proposed discussions. "Other than asserting that damage would occur, PMO has not provided any real and substantial grounds for expecting damage to occur, nor has it provided any evidence supporting this contention
  • that the entries recorded do not contain opinion, advice, recommendation, consultations or deliberations that have taken place. In its confidential submissions, PMO essentially reiterates its reasoning in its decision, and contends that the document functions as a means for deliberation about the management and use of the Prime Minister’s time.I do not agree with PMO that a diary is used for deliberation about the management of a person’s time. This, in my view, is not a weighing up or evaluation of the competing arguments or considerations, and is not a deliberative process for the purposes of s 47C.
The Commissioner did not agree with PMO that disclosure of personal information in this case would be unreasonable. 
"The document records scheduled meetings between the Prime Minister, Ministers, and various individuals. It is my view it would not be controversial or a surprise to anyone that the Prime Minister had scheduled such meetings on his first day in office. Further, there is nothing in the document that would suggest that the personal information is uniquely private or sensitive. Accordingly, I am satisfied that the disclosure of the names of the individuals in this case would not result in an unreasonable disclosure of personal information."
 The Commissioner ruled to the same effect on an application by Josh Thomas Taylor (apologies) for Communications and Arts Minister Mitch Fifield’s diary entries for a three month period in 2015. 

There's a better way than this of course-publish appointment diaries as Queensland and the NSW government and many others do.



Friday, January 13, 2017

Has the PM answered the call: An integrity agenda for 2017?

The Prime Minister in conjunction with the resignation of Health minister Sussan Ley has announced a commitment to further changes to the parliamentary entitlements system.

The changes go beyond the recommendations in the Conde report already accepted in principle and according to an earlier announcement to be acted upon in the first half of 2017.

The PM:
"Australians are entitled to expect that politicians spend taxpayers' money carefully, ensuring at all times that their work expenditure represents an efficient, effective and ethical use of public resources," he said. "We should be, as politicians, backbenchers and ministers, we should be as careful and as accountable with taxpayers' money as we possibly can be." Mr Turnbull also announced that a new body overseeing parliamentary expenses would be created.
"The Government believes that the work expenses of parliamentarians, including ministers, should be administered and overseen by an independent agency," he said.
"An independent parliamentary expenses authority will be a compliance, reporting and transparency body. It will monitor and adjudicate all claims by MPs, senators and ministers, ensuring that taxpayers' funds are spent appropriately and in compliance with the rules."

Describing transparency as key, Mr Turnbull said the new system would allow the public to view expenses in "as close to real time" as possible. "The system that manages entitlements will be modernised to allow monthly disclosure of parliamentarians' expenses in an accessible — that is to say, searchable — format," he said."[Currently] Most of the forms are filled in by the politicians by hand. It is all paper-based. The reports that you do find on the Department of Finance website are big PDF files. They are, you know, months out-of-date when they are posted."
Welcome news.

As per usual the devil is in the detail, yet to come.

A few thoughts:
  • Apart from Conde there are recommendations not acted upon in a number of auditor general reports stretching back to 2001-2002 and from the Belcher committee report in 2010. Hopefully they haven't been lost in time.
  • No mention so far of a Code of Conduct for Parliamentarians. Maybe the legislation the PM has in mind will go further than a code when it comes to responsibilities. Great. However the Coalition in 2010 wouldn't have a bar of it when John Faulkner tried to persuade Parliament to introduce a code.
  • "Parliamentarians entitlements"paid by Finance are only part of the picture. Some payments are made to or on behalf of members and senators by the Parliamentary departments, including support for and the cost of hospitality incurred by the Presiding officers. These payments currently are not  published. Parliament in 2013 excluded the parliamentary departments from the Freedom of Information Act.
  • Each department pays for the costs involved in supporting its minister, including official hospitality and who knows what else. These expenditures currently are not published.
  • The PM is right to state parliamentarians must be "as accountable with taxpayers' money as we possibly can be."Transparency and accountability should also extend to searchable information about declarations of interest (PM- they're in PDF files), contact with lobbyists ( PM-not published), and political donations (PM-can be published up to 18 months after the event.)
  • A parliamentary expenses authority should help keep things within reasonable limits. However a government serious about integrity would accept that a Federal anti-corruption body is also much needed.
As Peter Hartcher in making similar points in Fairfax Media recently said
"The cause of cleaning up Canberra is an inevitable one. The only question is who will best do it, and whether the energy will be channelled constructively to fix our democracy or destructively to make it weaker."
Trust and confidence 

Before the 2016 election campaign got underway the Roy Morgan Annual Survey revealed Federal Politicians are rated highly on Ethics and Honesty by 17% (up 4% in a year), putting them 23 of 30 professions included in the survey.

As scored on ABC Vote Watch the Prime Minister finished the election campaign in July with a personal trust rating of 4.5 out of 10, Bill Shorten 3.7 and Greens leader Di Natale 3.9.

According to the ANU Post Election 2016 Survey 74% agree "People in government look after themselves." Only 26% say "People in government can be trusted."

The PM knows all this. As he said in July last year:
"There is no doubt that there is a level of disillusionment with politics, with government, and with the major parties. Our own included. We note that. We respect it," Turnbull said. Now, we need to listen very carefully to the concerns of the Australian people expressed through this election. We need to look at how we will address those concerns that's what the Deputy Prime Minister and I have been discussing today. There are lessons to be learned from this election."
On the other hand we've heard good intentions before.

Tony Abbott before the 2013 election as reported in the Sydney Morning Herald:
Abbott's first priority if he wins the election will be to seek to rebuild Australians' confidence in government and restore civility to the national political discourse after three bruising years of minority government.
''The greatest deficit in our country at the moment is the trust deficit. Sure we have got a very serious budget deficit, but the trust deficit is even more serious. I would hope that, should we win the election, I would be able to so conduct myself and my team would be able to so conduct themselves that by the end of the first term people would have once more concluded that Australian government was competent and trustworthy
 We live in hope for 2017.