Thursday, December 2, 2021

Accountability is under threat. Parliament must urgently reset the balance

All Australians have a stake in the good governance of our country. The past week has given many reasons for concern about the Morrison government’s disregard for the core principles of Australian democracy in its quest for electoral advantage.

I cannot think of an Australian government with the same blatant disregard for responsibility as the government of Scott Morrison. There hasn’t been one more diligent in fostering the culture of secrecy that pervades the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and below.

His disdain for checks and balances, dissatisfaction with attention, and a willingness to disrupt long-standing conventions is widely seen among journalists, experts and practitioners, including former members of the Coalition. Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull describes a “culture of empowerment, a culture of irresponsibility” in government that he says is “deeply troubling.”

This culture was once again fully demonstrated in parliament recently when the government challenged Speaker Tony Smith to stop the transfer of Christian Porter’s blind trust fund to the House Privilege Committee.

Smith ruled that the committee should investigate a “prima facie case”. But in an unprecedented step in 120 years of the existence of the federal parliament, the leader of the government in the House of Representatives, Peter Dutton, opposed the speaker’s decision, mobilizing coalition members to win the vote. He accomplished this by refusing to count the votes of independent members present remotely, despite the fact that it has been a common occurrence for a remote Senate presence since September 2020.

Much ink has been spilled, confirming the Morrison government’s dubious reputation for integrity. These include the misuse of public funds through discretionary grant programs, his refusal to meet reasonable expectations of accountability to parliament or answering media questions, his reluctance to enforce ministerial or other codes of conduct, or to acknowledge the accumulation of evidence of widespread abuse of power in relation to public appointments. …

Parliament, like the national cabinet, is only the latest arena to show Morrison’s courage, given his small majority and deep divisions in his government.

Speaker Tony Smith was rejected by the government when he referred Porter’s blind confidence to the Privileges Committee, an unprecedented step in Australian politics.
Lucas Koch / AAP

The all it takes approach is gaining traction

Political scientist James Walter argues that Morrison epitomizes a decades-long shift towards centralization and leadership dominance in Australian politics. Morrison harnessed and leveraged the prime minister’s institutional and personal power, including the courtyard of trusted supporters and a large and powerful PMO. He establishes discipline and control throughout the government, including the civil service.

Morrison’s PMO has earned a reputation for battling opponents and punishing critics. His department, led by former chief of staff, Phil Goetjens, is accused of allowing the prime minister to evade responsibility and scrutiny.

Read more: View from the hill: Scott Morrison gets entangled in his own web

Australia is not the only Westminster-style system grappling with the trend towards increasingly strong political executive power. In the United Kingdom, similar concerns have been raised about the extent to which unwritten “conventions” designed to guide political practice, based on the exercise of restraint in the long-term public interest by power holders, are now sufficient to enforce appropriate standards of behavior and constitutional observance.

Since the 2016 Brexit referendum, a series of “constitutional violations” have occurred in the UK. Andrew Blick and Peter Hennessy note:

[The abuses] touched upon many major government bodies: the cabinet of ministers, the civil service, parliament, the judiciary, decentralized institutions, and even the monarchy.

This questioned whether the “good guy” theory that underlies British political tradition (as well as informs Australia’s) remains a sufficient bulwark against an arrogant executive.

The flexibility of an unwritten constitution based on restraint and mutual respect for governing norms has served Britain and other Westminster-style systems well. However, Blik and Hennessy argue:

For the system to work, ministers must [their] the authorities are responsible and willing to cooperate with oversight mechanisms to an appropriate extent.

[…] If general standards of good behavior among high-ranking politicians can no longer be taken for granted, then there can be no upholding of key constitutional principles.

More effective ways must be found to promote a culture of good behavior among officials. This can include a formal codification of expectations for behavior and safeguards to protect the rule of law and strengthen institutions of governance, including the civil service, parliament and the judiciary.

In 2020, the British Public Life Standards Committee began a survey of “the strengths and weaknesses of institutions, policies and processes that implement ethical standards in Westminster and beyond.” The survey comes amid the Greensill lobbying scandal, which involved (among many others) former Prime Minister David Cameron, and claims of a “humocracy” where access, positions and honors are paid for service to fellows and political donors. …

It also comes amid criticism of the impact of the informal, personalized networks surrounding British ministers on other institutions, especially the public service. COVID-19 exposed Boris Johnson’s flawed management style, his unceremonious approach to truth and his willingness to violate long-standing constitutional norms. This culture has spread to former supporters such as Chief Counselor Dominic Cummings.

Accountability is under threat. Parliament must urgently reset the balance
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has also been criticized for a lack of government accountability.
AAP / AP / Alberto Pezzali

The case for a federal integrity commission is overwhelming

If, as recent results in the Australian government show, “general standards of good behavior by high-level politicians can no longer be taken for granted,” the case for a federal integrity commission with broad powers will be overwhelming.

But last week, when his government broke precedent to protect Porter from scrutiny, Morrison told independent MP Helen Haynes that his government would not facilitate discussions on her Australian Integrity Commission bill.

Like his “eternal friend” Boris Johnson, Morrison does not seem inclined to put up with government restrictions. But, as last week also showed, even dominant prime ministers face risks when they overplay.

Coalition members voted against the proposal to transfer Porter to the party line privilege committee. But many MPs, reportedly angry, demanded a meeting with Dutton.

Read more: Grattan Friday: Porter’s Blind Trust Funding Is A Test of Integrity for Morrison

Likewise, the National Party put the authority of the prime minister to the test. His agreement to zero by 2050 was achieved despite opposition from Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, although the leader of the Nationals decided to allocate his party premises.

While the PM was touting his zero-zero plan for 2050, it was frustrating to hear him and Minister of Industry, Energy and Emissions Reduction Angus Taylor refer to the Westminster System and Cabinet confidentiality agreements while ignoring key traditions. “Responsible government” – including accountability to parliament. They had already been completely defeated by Joyce and her national counterpart Bridget Mackenzie, whose pretense of being an “outsider”, despite their position at the pinnacle of power, would have been laughable if not so cynically destructive.

With the absence of a Federal Integrity Commission and anything vaguely reminiscent of a Committee on Public Life Standards, the Australian Parliament is increasingly becoming an exception. It is belittled and humiliated by a bold political executive that, as we saw in 2019, will stop at nothing to secure its return to office.

The time has come for the country’s legislators to exercise constitutional leadership by throwing off the balance. It will take courage from moderate liberal supporters, whose consent at the fingertips of their leader could have electoral repercussions.

This article is republished from – The Conversation – Read the – original article.

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