December 6, 2022

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OPINION / Crispin Hull on Trust in Government

"When the Government loses trust in government, small wonder that most of the population does likewise..."

When the Government loses trust in government, small wonder that most of the population does likewise.

Quarantine; vaccines; testing kits; wasting money on consultants; Djokovic; treatment of women; “blind-trust donations”; bribing voters with “community grants” in marginal seats; the list goes on.

But as we head into an election, Labor does not look very inspiring either. It has been wedged to: drop any meaningful tax or revenue measures; to go along with massive defence spending; and to do precious little on climate.

The big hope for any meaningful restoration of trust in government must therefore lie in a hung Parliament with neither major party holding a majority.

Many people dislike the idea, fearing instability. However, the ACT has been reasonably well run with minority governments from both sides for nearly all of the 32 years of self-government. Many Scandinavian countries are well run by minority governments.

However, it is imperative that those holding the balance of power, do it well. The prospects this election look reasonably good with more than half a dozen, mainly women, independents who could perhaps argue that the Liberal Party left them, rather than that they left the Liberal Party.

Quite a few conservative commentators have issued stern warnings about independents holding the balance of power; and major-party politicians, especially from the Coalition, have warned of instability and that a vote for an independent is a vote for Labor. They have been pressuring the independent candidates to state which side they would support to form government if there were a hung Parliament.

The independents are doing a good job of resisting that pressure.

They should also resist the pressure after an election that delivers a hung Parliament to promise supply and confidence to one or other side or other for the duration of the electoral cycle.

To the contrary, they should get together to work out a strategy to restore confidence in government. To do that they should extract promises from the government-forming party with a deadline, which if not met would result in a vote of no-confidence.

The promises should not be about specific policies (such as climate change, religious freedom, or specific spending or revenue matters). Rather they should all be about changes to process and accountability which would restore trust in government.

Once those changes were made, good policies would almost inevitably follow.

Too often, people holding the balance of power (usually in the Senate) sell their vote for some project in their state or electorate. Remember, how independents Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott made their support of Julia Gillard’s Labor Government contingent upon the NBN being rolled out in the bush first, among other things. It was a silly, economically costly policy.

South Australian and Tasmanian minor-party and independent senators have made an artform of getting special treatment for their states at the cost of the public good.

So, if independents hold the balance, which is becoming increasing likely given the trend of eroding support for the majors, they should concentrate on process and good government, not pet schemes.

It is instructive that the goings on in Parliament are frequently unfavourably contrasted with the way good corporations work. Good corporations (and even mediocre ones) do not tolerate mistreatment of women; do proper risk assessment; and are consultative in decision-making.

To this end the independents should put an end to corrosive methods and process of governments.

Of course, they should start with an independent commission against corruption, not the Mickey Mouse one that Prime Minister Scott Morrison is proposing. It should have public hearings and inquire of its own volition into all areas of government, including members of parliament.

They should demand the repeal of the Community Development Grants law (and anything else like it). These have been little more than a slush fund to help get government candidates elected or re-elected. That should be part of a more general reform of the way the Federal Government spends money, in particular forcing the states to spend federal grants in an ideologically driven way (such as private health and private education).

They should give greater power to the Parliament over appointments to high office. Either House should be able to disallow appointments of judges and heads of statutory authorities. No more Liberal Party hacks and mates being appointed to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

The mere possibility of disallowance would ensure dud appointments were not put up in the first place.

(Alas, this could not happen with the High Court because of constitutional provisions.)

The independents should insist that Parliament should also have the exclusive power to commit Australian troops to overseas conflicts.

Then they should demand root and branch reform of the system of political donations.

They should demand real-time publication of all donations over $100. Yes $100, because multiple donations of say $1000 would permit underhand donations.

All donations by corporations (including things like tickets to ministerial dinners) should be banned. They wield far too much influence on political parties who have become to depend on the donations for campaigns.

From the corporate perspective it takes very little money to get influence. The corporations are not doing it for public good. They are giving money to get results; otherwise, they would not do it.

Then the independents should require the publication of ministerial diaries, so we know which industry lobbyists are getting the ear of the minister. And they should publish minutes of those meetings.

Then the independents could help restore the value of the Public Service. This could be done by insisting that all contracts with government be made public. Who was paid what for doing what. And a follow up report on whether they delivered.

At present vast sums are paid to a few big accounting firms and other consultants (who are often donors themselves) in a completely opaque way, usually citing “commercial in confidence” as justification.

Well, is should not be “in confidence” if it is our money.

The party that agrees to deliver this agenda, or something like it, would get the independents qualified support to govern. And if the government breaks the agreement, they would be thrown out.

As politicians in power first act to stay in power, they would most likely enact the agenda, however, distasteful they might find it at fisrt.

But with such an agenda enacted, a government would look better and more likely be re-elected anyway.

If you remove the secrecy and the corporate lobbying, politicians are less likely to mortgage the public good for narrow private interests.

Outsourcing government to the private sector has been perhaps the single most calamitous trend exposed by this pandemic. It should end. And independents holding the balance could make that happen.

This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 18 January 2022.

www.crispinhull.com.au


Crispin Hull BA, LLB (Hons) | Property Convenor  |  ANU School of Legal Practice Lawyer of the Supreme Court of the ACT, on the Register of Practitioners kept by the High Court of Australia