SECTION 2. ACCOUNTABILITY MECHANISMS – PROBLEMS & OPPORTUNITIES FOR REFORM
17. ACCOUNTABILITY OF MPs AND THEIR POLITICAL PARTIES VIA ELECTIONS
Political parties, how they are constituted and their roles and relationships with parliament and executive government are beyond the scope of this Policy Paper in most respects. However, the Rule of Law, Accountability and the Public Trust are relevant to all parties, as discussed below.
The most crucial and central accountability mechanism is through the competition between major parties seeking to be entrusted with the people’s power on the basis of promises and performance in the use of that power for the benefit of the people. (Minority parties and independents promise to either push governments in certain directions and away from others). However, there is a huge temptation to use the power entrusted to them to increase their chances of re-election by other means.
Gerrymandering had a long Australian tradition that died a sudden, unexpected and entirely welcomed death in the 1980s when re-districting was taken out of political hands. Other abuses that would affect electoral outcomes should be treated in the same way.
Timing of elections to coincide with expected peaks of popularity and avoid expected downturns is no longer possible in most Australian jurisdictions where four-year terms and fixed election dates have been written into their constitutions. The Commonwealth should follow suit, putting the power to call elections out of hands that might abuse it.
Government advertising has been shifting from information campaigns to advertising campaigns for government policy. This is a serious abuse of power. Our suggestion is that the Independent Communications Committee be re-formed with power to approve or reject all government advertising. The Committee should be established by legislation. Membership should be subject to bipartisan approval similar to that for independent officers of Parliament. The Committee should report to and be subject to oversight by a Parliamentary Committee. It must not only be genuinely independent, but can also be defended as genuinely independent even in the face of criticisms from cynical voters and disappointed or opportunistic political rivals. Former political staffers will never pass that test. The role of the Committee could be complemented by a role for the Auditor General similar to that established for the Northern Territory’s Auditor General under the Public Information Act 2010. That legislation requires that the Auditor General must, on request of a Member of the Legislative Assembly, conduct a review of information given to the public by a public authority to determine amongst other things whether the material promotes particular party interests or includes statements that are misleading or factually inaccurate. The resulting report by the Auditor General is tabled in Parliament and publically.
Pork Barrelling is a misuse of public funds that involves the expenditure of government funds to increase votes in marginal electorates rather than according to general transparent principles of general application (as expected in good policy making). This involves an abuse of entrusted power (and the people’s money) to a party political benefit. ART posts a ‘Rorts Register’ on its website. [i] Both major parties are expert practitioners at pork barrelling, so additions to the list are made frequently. In the Australia Talks survey, it was found that 77% of Australians think politicians should resign if they engage in it. Given that the NSW Premier says it is “accepted political practice”, such resignations would allow a healthy clean out of politicians on both sides! The claim that it is ‘not illegal’ is not a defence but an indictment that they have not yet banned it. Pork barrelling should be seen to be the means for a graceless exit, not a ticket to re-entry to parliament. There are two broad solutions: –
- The old fashioned way: government makes policy, sets criteria, independent public service carries it out.
- The new fashioned way is to establish independent institutions set up to give advice. If there is a ministerial discretion it must be subject to administrative law review (and integrity commission investigation if need be).
Either way, modern governments should be forced to recognize the distinction between their money and public money – demanded by Parliament and conceded by Charles II 450 years ago!
Coalition Agreements. One challenge to accountability is where two or more parties form a government. Parties compete with each other by promising policies and performance, the delivery of which is scrutinised by parliament and other accountability institutions and held accountable at the following election.
If two parties make the same promises, they operate in the same way as a single party. But if they make different promises at the election and agree to a variation of them, the Parliament and public should know about such agreements. Furthermore, the Coalition agreement should be published. The same should be true where an independent supports a government for confidence and supply and for similar reasons, preference deals should also be public.
Local representation is a central, valued feature of the representative parliamentary system, especially the single member electorates of the House. Meetings with and letters to Members and Senators can have a strong influence on policy and administrative actions, especially where the representation is clearly personal rather than orchestrated by a vociferous minority.
[i] Accountability Round Table (2021) Rorts Register. Available from https://www.accountabilityrt.org/rorts-register/
Accountability of MPs and their parties via elections: Public funds, resources and powers should not used to create advantages for candidates or parties, whether manipulating electoral boundaries, election timing, government advertising, pork-barrelling or secret agreements between coalition parties.