If regulation is good enough for professionals, it’s good enough for politicians

By Peter Strong

March 24, 2022

house-of-representatives-canberra
Self- and formal regulation exist for professionals, so why not the same for politicians? (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

OPINION

Self-regulation (such as professional codes of conduct) and formal regulation exist for professionals – so why not the same for politicians?

In our society, professionals are among the most trusted groups. A large part of that trust is down to the maintenance of robust self-regulation by professional associations and further enhanced by government-imposed processes and regulations on people like financial professionals.

So, for the sake of trust, politicians should take heed and approve a federal ICAC. Such action should not end with the formal ICAC but rather should also incorporate a code of conduct to deal with behaviours that, while not deemed ‘corruption’ in the eyes of the law, fall well below the community standard expected of elected officials. 

Only the corrupt and the dishonest would tremble at such a process.

The message has to be clear: if you are corrupt, you will be caught. If you rort the system, you will be caught. If you break the rules for vested interests, including changing the decisions of senior public servants beyond the norms of ministerial discretion, you will be named, shamed and expected to resign your position of trust immediately.

We do know that public trust in many of our institutions has fallen. Trust in financial institutions, unions, aged care and religious institutions are low. Politicians will always attract a low level of trust — it goes with the job. But the level of trust in our federal elected leaders has fallen to a pitifully low level and we must make wholesale changes to return community trust in our politicians to acceptable levels.

The need for a federal ICAC has also been magnified by the growth of social media and the impact that has created on trust. It seems anyone can now just make something up and post it to Twitter or Tik Tok or online and there will always be a minority who will believe it and run with it. Think of the anti-vaxxers and the politicians who promote their weird and dangerous beliefs. Wouldn’t it be a good thing to have an independent body to confront people like Craig Kelly and others, to question them about their provenly false and dangerous beliefs and statements and then check on their motivations?

An argument exists that politicians are already regulated by parliament itself and by senate processes and do not need a new watchdog. But such arguments do not pass the pub test given the numerous and sensational funding rorts that have been exposed in recent times. Most importantly, current state processes (such as ICAC in NSW) have shown there is a need for regulating the behaviour of politicians, and one that includes a legal requirement to answer questions honestly and without ambiguity.

There is another argument that politicians are already judged at elections but this is an indirect form of judgement that is clouded by the noise of competing political issues of the day — hardly a mechanism for ensuring true accountability. Further, there are many of us who work as professionals and employees of professional associations who are judged every day and are judged annually for association membership. A professional and indeed any employee can lose their job overnight, and customers will quickly vote with their feet if they see businesses not performing well.

The idea and practice of robust regulation of public and important people is, of course, not new — regulation of specialist groups has been around for a long time, often developed by those groups themselves. Early and indeed ancient examples of self-regulation in the professions include the Hippocratic Oath for physicians and the Inns of Court for London barristers. In the professional associations, and also many trade associations, there are mechanisms for identifying and dealing with dishonesty and maleficence. Most associations have rigid entry requirements and membership-renewal requirements based on ongoing education and skills development. It is recognised, for example, in medicine that new techniques and new technology are emerging and that practitioners, particularly specialists, need to prove they are keeping up with those changes and developments.

Another example is the architects — there is constant development of new building materials and new planning and building regulations. There is also changing software needs and changing educational needs for current and emerging architects. The public needs to be confident that architects know what they are doing and membership of associations, with strict rules, gives that confidence. It is the same with engineers, optometrists, pharmacists, accountants and so forth.

So, why can’t legislators have their own mechanism for transparency that isn’t clouded by the smoke often found in political affairs or the mirrors that reflect only what is in view?

We are talking about corruption and dishonesty. Politics is robust and full of opinions and that is good – Australia is in a great place economically and socially because over the last 60 years we have had good and indeed, at times, great governments and leaders. There have also been some shonky politicians, have there not?

Most politicians are good and honest people and, as with all groups in positions of influence and power, there is the temptation to abuse power.

We ask no more than what our associations and government impose upon the professional community — an independent mechanism for dealing with serious complaints about politicians and where necessary recommending punitive actions.

  • Peter Strong is the Australian Council of Profession’s head of advocacy,

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