The New South Wales election on 28th of March is another opportunity to advance the transparency and accountability of government. The Accountability Round Table has sought from parties contesting the recent Victorian and Queensland elections, assurances concerning their commitments to accountability and transparency as well as anti-corruption measures. On the 27th of February we wrote to all parties contesting the NSW election to commit to similar principles. As always, our website (www.accountabilityrt,org) will include both the commitments and assurances asked of the parties, and their responses to those requests.
The principles we are pursuing as set out in our letter to them are as follows:
The first area of concern is that the effectiveness of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (“ICAC”) be maintained. The ART recognises that the NSW ICAC legislation does represent best Australian practice, and contrasts that with the position in Queensland and Victoria. In the one case, Queensland’s anti-corruption body has been diminished by recent legislative changes; and, in the other, Victoria’s Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission falls far short of the body which the then Victorian Opposition promised were it to be elected in 2010. In these circumstances, it is vital New South Wales continues to supply the benchmark against which other anti-corruption bodies are judged. The ART seeks an assurance that ICAC be protected against any diminution of its present effectiveness in exposing corruption.
Political funding is the second area of concern. Again, New South Wales has set the Australian standard; but, as the report of the Panel of Experts on political donations points out, both major parties in NSW have nevertheless allegedly engaged in conduct which when tested in courts might well be found to amount to seriously corrupt misuse of such donations. The Panel has put forward 50 recommendations. The ART seeks a commitment from all major parties that in government they will present to Parliament, as soon as possible after the election but in any event by 31 October this year, a “report on the progress made in implementing the Panel’s recommendations”; and that like reports be tabled in Parliament annually thereafter (Panel Recommendation 3).
Thirdly, the ART seeks an assurance that New South Wales will adopt best practice in open government, and will as an aspect of this entrench the public’s right to know. As the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, has repeatedly stated, open government is not only an essential component of good democratic governance; it is also a vitally important tool in good economic management. It is however essential that action follows the rhetoric. In this context, the ART notes that the Government Information (Public Access) Act 2009 encourages the release of information proactively. Best practice in affording the right to information should be acknowledged in the title and confirmed in the enactment itself and require rather than, as now, merely encourage, such release. It should explicitly cover data held electronically as well as metadata, and extend across all departments and agencies of the executive, the parliament, and court administration. The ART seeks a commitment from your party to make those changes.
Finally, the ART seeks an assurance that in government the parties would enshrine in legislation specific recognition of the legal and ethical principles that:
- public office is a public trust, and
- holders of public office must, in exercising the powers entrusted to them, give priority to the public interest over any other interests.
The ART notes with appreciation that, in the Code of Conduct for Members of Parliament, it is stated that:
Members of Parliament acknowledge their responsibility to maintain the public trust placed in them by performing their duties with honesty and integrity, respecting the law and the institution of Parliament, and using their influence to advance the common good of the people of New South Wales.
The ART believes though that, as experience has demonstrated, more than an acknowledgment is required. Accordingly, the ART seeks from each of the major parties commitments that they will (i) adopt and endorse the principles specified above, and will act accordingly – by, for example, publicly committing to the “Fitzgerald principles” (which, for convenience, are attached to this letter); and (ii) enshrine in legislation a Ministerial Code of Conduct with provisions no less strict than those presently to be found in the Independent Commission Against Corruption Amendment (Ministerial Code of Conduct) Regulation 2014 and also provide for criminal sanctions upon serious breach.
The Accountability Round Table will, after 21 March, post on this website the responses of the Coalition, the ALP and the Greens to these propositions; if any party has not responded, that fact will be reported.