Victorian election: transparency campaigners say state lags on integrity

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Guardian: Victorian election: transparency campaigners say state lags on integrity. Friday 21 November 2014

Major parties have rejected proposals to strengthen anti-corruption body and political funding rules, say former judges

The Liberals and Labor have rejected proposals to strengthen Victoria’s anti-corruption body and political funding rules, a non-partisan group has found. Photograph: AAP
Both the Liberal and Labor parties have rejected proposals to strengthen Victoria’s anti-corruption body and political funding rules, a non-partisan group has found.

According to a comparison of policies by the Accountability Round Table, a group of former senior judges, politicians and academics, the state lags behind the rest of the country on integrity issues.

The Round Table requested all major parties provide their policies to boost accountability and transparency of government. The group says it is “gravely concerned with the erosion of honesty and integrity in our democracy”.

It called for reforms to the state’s Independent Broad-based Anti-Corruption Commission (Ibac), set up by the government after the last election. The Coalition promised a body similar to NSW’s Icac, but it is acknowledged that it fell short, with its own commissioner warning that there had been corruption allegations it had been unable to investigate.

The round table also called for an inquiry into political funding, saying Victoria lacked mechanisms to ensure parties avoided anti-democratic or corrupt practices.

Finally, it called for improvements to Freedom of Information (FOI) laws, which it said were far weaker than in “best practice” Queensland.

The group includes former supreme court judge Stephen Charles, QC, former federal ministers Jim Carlton and Barry Jones, former speaker in the Victorian parliament Ken Coghill, and former auditor general in Western Australia and Victoria Des Pearson.

Although not normally considered vote changers, the issues of honesty and transparency have emerged as key themes in the election campaign, from the debate over the secrecy of the East West Link contract, to controversy over government advertising spruiking political policies, to fundraisers charging thousands of dollars for access to senior politicians.

In reply to the questionnaire, only the Greens fully backed the proposals and in some cases, went further than them.

The Coalition proposes reforms to Ibac, which the roundtable has said are improvements, but do not go far enough.

The government reported that it had had no intention of changing political funding or donation rules, considered to be the weakest in the country. Unlike NSW, developers are not banned from donating, and there is no cap on the amount that can be donated.

The government outlined reforms it had already made to freedom of information, including establishing an independent FOI commissioner, and did not propose more.

A week ago, the state’s current and former auditor generals called for unfettered powers to investigate the spending of public money in public private partnerships, such as for East West Link or private prisons. The office is blocked from scrutinising such deals, usually for commercial-in-confidence reasons.

The Coalition said it would prepare laws to allow for so called “follow the dollar” powers for the auditor general. But the attorney general, Robert Clark, told ABC radio this week that they would only be allowed “a last resort power”, as recommended by a parliamentary committee.

Labor responded with several new integrity measures, including lowering the threshold that had to be reached before Ibac could launch an investigation. It did not agree to an inquiry into political funding, but said it would review and possibly revise the fundraising code of conduct “to ensure improved transparency of disclosure” and to minimise any perceived conflict of interest.

Labor is promising to limit government-funded television advertising to those relating to health and safety and community wellbeing, such as road safety campaigns.

It also pledges to to introduce parliamentary reforms, including banning “Dorothy Dixer” questions and reducing the time limit for answers.

Labor would also strengthen the powers of the auditor general “unfettered by executive government or parliament”, although the need to consult would remain.

The chairman of the round table, former supreme court judge court judge Tim Smith, QC, said the group was disappointed that both major parties had failed to embrace key reforms on political accountability.

“Only the Greens have embraced the need for essential reforms, and we are heartened by that,” he said.

He said it was clear Victoria had a serious problem.

“We’ve been lagging behind other states for some time,” he said. “You look around the country and there are much stronger benchmarks elsewhere – Queensland with its right to know legislation, NSW with its political funding legislation, and NSW and Queensland with their anti-corruption bodies.”

Asked whether voters cared about these issues, he said: “Yes, but they feel helpless.”

The election will be held on November 29.

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