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Integrity for all: who is keeping the crossbenchers honest?

Crossbenchers Tony Windsor and Rob Oakleshott arrive at a press conference on asylum seekers. AAP/Alan Porrit

It is fair to say that, in the eyes of the Australian public at least, the view of our politicians is currently at a very low ebb.

The tone of the Australian Parliament is at its most toxic for a generation, the appeal for a bipartisan response to public distress at the drowning of at least 90 asylum seekers came to nothing, and the reputation of the Speaker, and our newest crossbencher, remain under question.

A recent poll revealed that trust in the Federal Parliament is currently down 33%.

Traditionally, integrity measures have been focused on the actions of ministers and governments. However, in a context where a shift in one or two votes can make or break governments, perhaps it is time to think about the integrity of all parliamentarians.

Is it not also reasonable to ask - if the crossbenchers are meant to be keeping governments honest, then who is keeping the crossbenchers honest?

Could a broader and more rigorous notion of integrity for politicians not only be timely, but also in the interests of all?

Currently, the notion of integrity would seem to be limited to a minimalist approach of ensuring that position, power or parliamentary privilege is not used for coercion, corruption or crime. This might be considered as basic political integrity, which can be approached through codes of conduct.

However, a broader notion would support all politicians (and particularly crossbenchers with the deciding vote) to negotiate the often unclear path of articulating and acting on a case for public good, separating matters of state from matters of religion, and pursuing the national interest before that of interest groups. This might be described as a broader concept of parliamentary integrity.

In the light of recent events in the Federal Parliament, where political gain for politicians of all persuasions eventually outweighed public sentiment on asylum seekers, this view of parliamentary integrity is worthy of fuller consideration.

This is not to allege impropriety on the part of any member, just that new times (such as minority government in both houses) bring new challenges - and new opportunities.

Implicit in this argument is the inclusion of “all” parliamentarians in integrity measures, which would involve not just ministers and governments, but also opposition and cross bench members.

The promise of a Commissioner for Parliamentary Integrity presents one such opportunity to pursue a more rigorous notion of parliamentary integrity.

In practice, the National Integrity Bill that is currently before the house focuses primarily on acts of corruption and the actions of ministers, while scope for a broader notion of integrity seems limited to advice on codes of conduct from a parliamentary adviser.

Yet, while the exact arrangements for a National Integrity Commissioner and Parliamentary Integrity Adviser remain unconfirmed, the potential exists to lead the way with new opportunities to enhance parliamentary integrity.

With independent funding, these new roles could provide education and advice on a code of parliamentary integrity, as well as conduct independent investigations and recommend sanctions for breaches of this code.

Among other things, these new roles could also include producing guides on due process for consideration of legislation, rulings on crossbencher requests for more time to consider legislation, and facilitating non-partisan policy forums for the benefit of all members.

For many of those immersed in the political culture of Canberra, these suggestions may seem idealistic or naive. But if we continue with the existing culture, how much further will trust in our political leaders fall?

What we face is an opportunity, not just for Australia, but also for the growing number of Westminster-based parliaments that find minority government the rule, rather than the exception.

Surely there is no better time than this.

This article draws on a paper considering potential new integrity measures in the Australian Parliament and is part of a recently published international special edition on integrity: Prosser, B 2012: New integrity issues for independents and minority governments, Policy Studies, 33:1, 79-95

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