How to clean up politics: six rules of engagement


McKenzie went down like a clay pigeon but when it came to the rest of the grants, the Gaetjens report simply “disagreed” with the Auditor-General that the whole business was crook – that these grants were being distributed to buy votes in marginal seats.  No, it said, the grants were “eligible”. Nothing to see here.

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We’ll see about that. There will still be a parliamentary inquiry into this and other grants schemes.

Voters, certainly, are sick to death of it.  The National Party carries on, seeing such programs as slush funds for the Nationals’ interest,  not the national interest, blithely disregarding the erosion of their standing in regional Australia. On they go, pushing for the government to fund a new coal-fired power station in North Queensland in defiance of all logic: there is no net demand for electricity in North Queensland; banks won’t fund it; insurers won’t insure it; renewables are cheaper and have significant export potential.

This all goes to how political parties are funded and are able to be lobbied. It goes to the type of people who are attracted as MPs and senators. It goes to the standards set and enforced for their behaviour. All political parties know these systemic weaknesses but, rather than fix them, they seek to exploit them.

So, to my six-point plan.

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First, clean up campaign and party funding. While I would prefer to confine donations to individuals, to say $1000, and ban all corporate, union, foreign and institutional donations, I recognise some Constitutional questions. Hence, I recommend, with regret, that all campaigns be publicly funded, with tightened eligibility, and any administrative donations to parties and their affiliates be fully declared, on line, as they are made, and banning all foreign donations.

Second, make lobbying more transparent. Ministers and key bureaucrats should be subject to full and real-time disclosure of who they meet and when, and to what end.

Third, introduce truth-in-advertising legislation to politics. It would be independently monitored and enforced, with a limit on campaign advertising spending.

Fourth, introduce legislation to identify and penalise false, deceptive, and misleading conduct, as is done in business. Politicians need to be held accountable for what they say, promise and do.

Fifth, set independent standards for those who stand for election. The parties would still vet and verify their candidates – their CVs and their citizenship – but they would also be accountable for lapses and subject to penalties.

Finally, a fully funded Independent Commission Against Corruption to oversee all activities of our politicians, bureaucrats and federal government, with the capacity to receive anonymous references, and with defined links to the Australian Federal Police for prosecution.

Being elected to politics is not a ticket to put your snout in the funding trough.

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.

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