AJ Brown: can Palaszczuk really put integrity before politics?

By A J Brown

February 16, 2015

Will the new Queensland Labor government’s swag of integrity and accountability commitments translate into a coherent strategy for repairing trust in government? And do new Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and the Liberal-National Party’s Lawrence Springborg have what it takes as leaders to put their state’s interests ahead of party politics?

Just when the rest of Australia thought Queensland was ready to slip back to infamous pre-Fitzgerald standards of public integrity, the dramatic state election result has shown the state continues to come of age. During the election campaign, Labor promised to restore integrity and accountability in government, including:

  • Committing to the Fitzgerald Principles for good governance;
  • Reforming political donations rules, including restoring a lower $1000 disclosure threshold;
  • Holding an inquiry by the Crime and Corruption Commission into the “links, if any, between donations to political parties and the awarding of tenders, contracts and approvals”; and
  • Upgrading and advertising the chairmanship of the CCC, held on an “acting basis” by former bureaucrat Dr Ken Levy in what Labor brands an “abuse” of the position.

Since then, the Labor leader has made four pages of promises to earn the crucial support of independent MP Peter Wellington, including new commitments such as developing real-time, online electoral donation disclosure — a first for Australia.

On February 9, Labor’s law and justice spokesperson, Yvette D’Ath, spoke at the Accountability and the Law conference in Brisbane. She pledged again to restore the corruption prevention function of the QCCC and to revisit rules requiring statutory declarations for many corruption allegations, both part of controversial corruption reforms pushed through in 2014 by the LNP.

D’Ath was also spot on when observing that citizens want political parties to be on a “unity ticket” when it comes to accountability.

Here lies the first and biggest challenge for the new Labor government: how is it going to lead all parties, including its LNP opponents, to restore Queensland’s once famous but now battered public integrity system?

The problem with at least two of Labor’s key commitments is they make it hard to escape what former Courier-Mail editor David Fagan and former corruption inquiry chief Tony Fitzgerald call the “winner takes all” approach to government, which got Queensland to its present low point.

As Fitzgerald rightly pointed out, that return to Queensland’s “old-style politics” actually began under Labor’s Peter Beattie and Anna Bligh administrations, before getting even worse under Campbell Newman and the LNP. So this is a bipartisan problem, urgently needing a bipartisan solution.

“Unfortunately, Labor’s promised donations inquiry comes with clear partisan objectives and impacts …”

Unfortunately, Labor’s promised donations inquiry comes with clear partisan objectives and impacts, since it is only the LNP in the spotlight. It’s much like the Abbott government’s use of royal commissions into union corruption and home insulation to try to wreak political damage on its predecessor, as much as to sort out actual problems.

And while replacing the QCCC’s acting chairman, Dr Levy, with a new “independent” appointment is one part of rebuilding a credible anti-corruption agency, it’s clearly not the whole task, and carries similar risks.

Amid the temptation of political point-scoring, we need to stop and ask how the Queensland LNP allowed itself to slide into the position of being demonised — mostly rightly, but also partly wrongly — as opponents and eroders of political integrity.

Until Newman, Attorney-General Jarrod Bleijie and other key figures became dominant in the last three years, the LNP had long supported the fundamentals of Queensland’s integrity system. Back in 1989, the Liberal and National coalition initiated and signed on to implementation of the Fitzgerald inquiry in 1989. The conservatives also played a pivotal role in reforms like the creation of Queensland’s parliamentary and executive Integrity Commissioner in the 1990s, and helped champion whistleblowers and strengthen the 2010 Public Interest Disclosure Act, in ways that would not have occurred under Labor alone.

Labor’s botched attempt to make integrity a 2012 election issue was a crucial turning point for the state. Before the election, Bligh’s government referred aspirant premier Newman and his family to the then Crime and Misconduct Commission. Newman was cleared, but Labor’s attempted politicisation of the CMC was a key reason for the over-reaction against it and other integrity institutions once the LNP came to power.

A political shopping list, or a plan?

Since 2012, debate over the reform of the CMC (now CCC) has also shown the risk of Labor putting too much effort into “playing the man” (in the form of Dr Levy) as a way of elevating issues in public debate, at the expense of the issues themselves.

This is the second set of lessons of the last three years. While Labor’s commitments include many of the issues that need to be revisited to repair the damage, its pledges don’t yet add up to a comprehensive strategy. To restore public trust in good government, Labor must go beyond simply turning back the clock to how things were before the LNP was elected three years ago.

Sorting out the CCC chairmanship and governance, restoring corruption prevention and independent research are all vital.

But we have to remember the former CMC was overdue for a serious review, if not shake-up. Many of the questions about whether its efforts were well-targeted were worthwhile to ask — even if the answers suggested by the LNP’s review panel, former High Court justice Ian Callinan and Professor Nicholas Aroney, were mostly wrong, and most of the government’s responses worse still.

Some crucial reforms, like the statutory declaration barrier to corruption complaints, were substantially altered or abandoned by the LNP in 2014, due to the public and internal backlash. So sorting what to keep and what to change will require a sensible, more sophisticated and better-informed process.

Missing from Labor’s list of proposed reforms, so far, is revisiting the new, narrowed definition of “corrupt conduct”. Is this part of its plan? It needs to be, because it defines what the CCC and anyone else can do, as well as being part of a crucial national debate, given parallel dilemmas in states like Victoria, and even bigger questions federally.

“… are we going to address the fundamental conflict involved in having the CCC as both a crime-fighting and anti-corruption body?”

This also means we need to take stock of the roles that other integrity agencies play — especially the Ombudsman, with its responsibility to facilitate and protect whistleblowers, and the Public Service Commission, now overseeing the management of a lot of the misconduct that used to be covered by the CCC’s predecessor.

And while Labor’s promised review of organised crime laws is also necessary, are we going to address the fundamental conflict involved in having the CCC as both a crime-fighting and anti-corruption body — especially when crime-fighting is so much more politically fashionable?

Now is the time for systematic review and rebuilding. And what happens next will be a vital test not just for the new government, but the whole parliament, including for the LNP opposition.

Queensland’s integrity and accountability agencies deserve better than being kicked around as a party-political football.

Fortunately, we know it is possible to overcome those old party-political divisions for the sake of the state, because it’s happened before. In the 1990s, the building of Queensland’s modern integrity system helped lead national and international debate. So in the search for new and better solutions, the time is ripe for Queensland once again to lead the way.

In her letter to independent Peter Wellington, Annastacia Palaszczuk closed with the promise not only to “restore integrity and accountability”, but to forge a path of “consultation and consensus, rather than the division of the past three years”.

That’s a tall order, given how entrenched the “winner takes all” mentality has become under successive Labor and LNP governments. But Queenslanders made it clear at this election that they want change. It’s now up to Palaszczuk and the Opposition Leader to show their parties got the message.

This article was originally published at The Conversation

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