Entitlements scandals demand integrity, not more rules

By Adam Graycar

August 7, 2015

Bronwyn Bishop resigned after a couple of weeks of controversy about entitlements. The controversy has not gone away, as the net has widened and a review is underway. The surprising thing is not that she resigned, but that the debate went on for so long. The week before, it was a member of the UK House of Lords.

“It’s not for lunch, luvvie darling — it’s paying for this”. These were the words of a member of the British House of Lords in response to an incredulous young lady who asked him if he really received £200 a day for expenses. The Deputy Speaker was filmed snorting cocaine which had been placed on the sex worker’s breast.

The politician resigned his post and quit the the House of Lords but this episode again highlighted the public’s scepticism of politicians’ entitlements, and concern about how taxpayers’ money is spent. At least he made no attempt to justify the action or to try to claim it was related, however obtusely, to his work. Ironically, Lord Sewel had written in the Huffington Post a few days earlier about the importance of politicians upholding behavioural standards, and about how easily bad behaviour can damage revered institutions.

Integrity and accountability are bedrock principles of good government. Without them all the hard work and governmental expertise comes to nothing. It is often said that corruption in government is endemic, and has always been so, and will always be with us. This is simply not true. In many countries egregious corruption has been reduced dramatically, and over a long period of time Australia has moved from a convict colony marred by corruption to a country in which the daily lives of citizens are not blighted by corruption. This is not to say that Australia does not have its share of scandals, nor that integrity and accountability could not easily be undermined.

All governments understand the importance of doing the right thing, and having in place demonstrable processes to ensure that the right thing is done, and that it is open to public scrutiny. However, one fundamental is that you cannot make a rule for every possible eventuality. The former member of the House of Representatives Craig Thompson defended his use of credit cards to hire prostitutes by saying that nowhere was it written that he could not do so, and furthermore as his card expenses were paid by his employer, thus signifying approval for this expenditure, he claimed he was in the clear.

It would be absurd to try to list every non permissible activity, whether it is snorting cocaine, buying a hooker or falsifying documents. If one is in an entrusted position one should know what the right things is. It is always surprising that from time to time the defence is that they didn’t know they were doing the wrong thing, or that they actually interpreted it to be within the contortions of acceptable practice.

What is needed is not more rules, but more integrity. This is both a cultural and an educational matter.

Developing strategies to build integrity and enhance accountability should be basic practice in any organisation, and in both the public and private sectors, overseen by some competent and independent authority.

Appropriate interventions depend on whether one pursues a compliance based approach or a values based approach to integrity management. Obviously a bit of both is the way to go. The balance would depend on the nature of the problem.

Is the specific integrity breach an individual failing, an organisational failing, or something consistent with the broad political or business environment. In other words are we dealing with a rotten apple, a rotten barrel or a rotten orchard?

Laws and codes of conduct are a necessary first step in the compliance approach, but they must be backed by realistic enforcement. This needs to apply fairly to all, or as Chinese Premier Xi Jin Ping says, to both tigers and to flies.

The next step is the furtherance of values through education and training so that people understand good principles and are unequivocal about good practice. This would be backed by ethical leadership. This opens the way for the expectation that professional standards are based on integrity and that ethical behaviour is second nature, and not something contrived.

There is always a danger that in countries such as Australia where corruption is not the norm, that we can become complacent and extensively self satisfied because we really do have high standards, and can be justifiably proud of those standards.

As pointed out this is both a cultural and an educational matter. One would expect that people in entrusted positions are enculturated to know what is right and what is not. Children are taught this all the time. Some (and only some) forget this when they reach positions of power or authority, political or bureaucratic. There are important lessons for both politicians and public servants who can see their policy ideas and hard work completely eroded if integrity does not underpin their everyday work.

Read more at The Mandarin: Framing ethics from good principles: Graeme Head’s new guide

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thomas vesely
thomas vesely
7 years ago

well said, thank you..

thomas vesely
thomas vesely
7 years ago

loss of pension ought to be mandatory for those that are exposed and “convicted”

alun probert
alun probert
6 years ago

Well said Adam. It was disappointing to hear an ex-pollie on QandA use the “rules can be confusing” defence. The rules are clear cut and a condition of employment. And even if the use of a helicopter (hypothetically) isn’t expressly forbidden, common sense should be the very least we expect.

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