Integrity and Ministerial Standards at a Tipping Point

17th September 2021

By Serena Lillywhite, (Chief Executive Officer)

Integrity and Ministerial Standards at a Tipping Point

The latest integrity scandal involving an anonymous financial bailout to the former Attorney General and now Minister for Industry Science and Technology – Christian Porter, brings into question again that the government is serious about transparency and accountability. It is staggering that the former Attorney General thinks it’s ok to accept money from an apparently unknown source, without checking out who they are, and their credibility.

Our electoral laws ban anonymous payments to political parties, which makes it mind boggling that the former AG said yes to an anonymous donation from a ‘blind trust’. For all we know, which is nothing at this point in time, this money could be linked, at worst, to criminal or corrupt activities or foreign government interference, or slightly better, a business leader who will seek to rein in the favour to suit their interests. Perhaps it was just a helping hand from a well-heeled mate, but if it can’t be disclosed it can’t be accepted.

With a record number of national security laws recently passed (many without the usual parliamentary scrutiny) and concerns about foreign interference, the hypocrisy is stark, particularly considering the growing pressure on non-government organisations and charities to disclose, which they do, where their money comes from.

Using a trust to gift this money suggests opaqueness and a veil of secrecy was considered important and it was deliberate, and the question is why? Without disclosure of who’s behind the money it will be hard to track if, and when, the ‘quid pro quo’ kicks in, and if political decisions made down the track are in the public interest or influenced by this gift.

Serena Lillywhite - Transparency International Australia

The public and the parliament have a right to know who ultimately stumped up the money for Minister Porter, how much they gave him, who manages the Legal Services Trust, and when the Trust was established. The lack of transparency raises questions as to who the secret benefactor is, and what they will expect in return for their largesse. Nothing for nothing and pay to play.

How can the public have confidence there is no conflict of interest if we don’t know who has bankrolled the Ministers legal costs and what sectors of industry they may have an interest in. Surely this is relevant given his current portfolio.

It highlights yet again why we need a fit for purpose national integrity commission, an electoral promise made by the Prime Minister more than 1000 days ago, and we are still waiting.

With this matter now subject to an internal review against the Prime Minister’s Ministerial Standards, the spotlight is back on the effectiveness of these Standards as an integrity and accountability mechanism. It’s going to be difficult to reasonably draw any conclusion other than a breach of the Standards, which state:

The Australian people deserve a government that will act with integrity and in the best interests of the people they serve. Ministers and Assistant Ministers are expected to act at all times to the highest possible standards of probity, and to conduct themselves in line with standards to maintain the trust of the Australian people.

And here is the clincher:

Ministers must not seek or accept any kind of benefit or other valuable consideration either for themselves or for others in connection with performing or not performing any element of their official duties as a Minister. Ministers shall ensure that they do not come under any financial or other obligation to individuals or organisations to the extent that they may appear to be influenced improperly in the performance of their official duties as Minister.

The problem is these Standards are rarely enforced, any investigation is internal, details not revealed, and there are no penalties and consequences – in short no accountability. It’s why we need a parliamentary code of conduct, with independent oversight and consequences for non-compliance. This reform must go hand-in-hand with the establishment of an effective and credible National Integrity Commission. The gap is stark, Australia’s federal parliamentarians, and WA’s upper house, are currently the only public officials without any code of conduct.

For any Minister to accept money while claiming they don’t know where it came from sets a dangerous precedent and can only further undermine trust and confidence in government, encourage the peddling of influence and erode our democracy. The right thing to do is clear – follow the rules and just say no to anonymous gifts and donations. If it can’t be disclosed don’t accept it.

The public and the parliament have a right to know where donations come from, how much, and in real time disclosure. Without this, conflicts of interest cannot be assessed, and undue influence and lobbying can shape political decision making.

Sunlight is the best form of disinfectant to hold power to account.

Photo: Marco Bianchetti on Unsplash

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