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‘Not seen by the Minister’: how lack of probity clouds our democracy

Governments, at all levels, have either increasingly sold out to narrow vested interests, or sought ways to minimise transparency, accountability and responsibility. Flickr/Restricteddata

Our democracy depends on accountability and transparency: but are Australians being shortchanged on both?

In our fifth and final piece in our Barangaroo series, John Hewson, Honorary fellow at the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University mounts a broad argument that allowing commercial interests undue influence represents a real danger to our public processes.

It was Benjamin Disraeli, twice British Prime Minister, who remarked:

“I repeat… that all power is a trust – that we are accountable for its exercise – that, from the people, and for the people, all springs, and all must exist.”

In this country, there has been an alarming erosion of public trust in, and respect for, government, its institutions, and its processes, in recent years.

Governments, at all levels, have either increasingly sold out to narrow vested interests, or sought ways to minimise transparency, accountability and responsibility.

A recent NSW example is the failure of the O’Farrell Government to insist on a public tender process for the hotel, and, ultimately, probably a casino, at Barangaroo, ensuring favourable, and unaccountable, access to James Packer and his Crown Group.

This clear responsibility of government was abrogated to Lend Lease, the “approved developer”, to negotiate the hotel development. The Government also waived normal requirements of dealing with possible contamination on the site.

What’s worse was the arrogance of James Packer, speaking at a business forum soon after it had been determined that he wouldn’t need to face a public tender process, claiming that as one who lives in Sydney, and understands what Sydney wants, he would have won any tender anyway.

This is certainly not clear, especially if it were a truly open, global, tender process for a six Star hotel/casino.

The public may well have been sold short by giving Packer a favoured inside run.

But, this is only the most recent of many significant examples of where government and its institutions have failed the public trust.

In the John Howard years, there was the Wheat Board scandal, where the AWB paid bribes to win deals with the regime of Saddam Hussein.

While there can be no doubt that this scandal extended to the highest echelons of the Howard Government, the Government was still able to get away with it, by quietly, and retrospectively, changing the rules of the game.

Specifically, there was an important change to the Cabinet processes, such that a page could be added to the front of Cabinet submissions, where a Ministerial staffer could sign as “Not Seen By The Minister”.

That is not to say that the Minister “didn’t know”, or that he/she “wasn’t briefed” as to its contents.

But, the practical effect was that, in one fell swoop, the concept of “Ministerial responsibility” was effectively destroyed. Ministers were off the accountability hook!

A third example is the Reserve Bank bribery scandal, where again those who should have been held accountable have been let off the hook, at least so far.

In this case, subsidiaries of the RBA, on whose Boards sat senior RBA staff, paid bribes to foreign governments/institutions/individuals to win note-printing contracts.

Whistle-blower evidence has emerged as to when very senior staff were informed of these transactions, being long before they informed the police. (In front of a parliamentary committee RBA Governor Glenn Stevens admitted he should have called in police earlier, but denied a dereliction of duty.)

This is not to mention that directors, appointed by the RBA to subsidiaries they owned, or effectively controlled, either knew, or should have known, and therefore should have informed the RBA management/Board, thereby ensuring that appropriate procedures were then followed.

In this case, nothing short of a Royal Commission would be effective in getting to the bottom of the matter, ensuring that all the relevant facts were made public, and that full accountability/responsibility was delivered.

Finally, I should refer to a non-government institution, the Catholic Church, and to the child abuse/sexual exploitation. This is a scandal that has been allowed to fester for decades, riddled with misinformation and cover-ups, where ultimately the truth is breaking out.

Again, a broad-based Royal Commission is the only effective way to improve disclosure, transparency, and some accountability.

I have just quoted just four examples. There myriad others at all levels of government in this country; in planning decisions, in the carbon and mining taxes, in simply misrepresenting what they stand for and what they will do.

Somehow society, perhaps driven by political “spin”, but with the general assistance of the media, raises certain government processes and institutions to be above the “general/acceptable norm”, almost beyond serious questioning, and even reproach.

Yet, in the corporate sector, there are very strict rules enforced with legislation around truth, continuous disclosure and general transparency and accountability.

Why the double standard?

Is it any wonder the general public is increasingly sceptical and apathetic? Is it any wonder our political and institutional leaders are increasingly held in such diminishing esteem?

Disraeli would turn in his grave to hear of the extent to which our current political game has fallen so far short of his ideals.

Read more in the series:

Part one: Barangaroo: the loss of trust?

Part two: Barangaroo: politics, property and players - it’s business as usual

Part three: Will a casino be a boon or a bane for Barangaroo?

Part four: Barangaroo: Development interests counter the public interest

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