According to former Liberal Party leader John Hewson, we need to immediately clean up our politics, and what’s more, he knows how to do it.
Hidden away in my ‘to read’ file was a piece written by former Liberal Party leader John Hewson. His piece is important and reflects his Fraser-like political approach in the past few years. The piece spoke of a favourite subject of mine: how to clean up our politics to make for a better democracy for all Australians. In the article, Hewson proposes six rules of engagement.
To make his case, Hewson recalls the time: “Scott Morrison had his ‘Trump Lite’ moment when he stared blankly at the Australian people and told them that an internal report – which they were not allowed to see – had found $100 million in sports grants were legitimate. It said much about the lack of transparency that is at the heart Australian politics and its parlous state.”
He goes on to recite other examples of Morrison’s oft-quoted adventures into fooling the Australian people and says that voters are sick to death of it. All of which is true except it doesn’t seem to hurt him in the polls. Even as I write, the public is being tricked into believing that the COVID-19 vaccines only a month ago could not be brought forward, yet now they miraculously can.
Hewson continues: “The National Party carries on, seeing such programs as slush funds for the Nationals’ interest, not the national interest, blithely disregarding the erosion of their standing in regional Australia. On they go, pushing for the government to fund a new coal-fired power station in North Queensland in defiance of all logic: there is no net demand for electricity in North Queensland; banks won’t fund it; insurers won’t insure it; renewables are cheaper and have significant export potential…all political parties know these systemic weaknesses but, rather than fix them, and they seek to exploit them.”
He notes that this is all to do with how we fund our political parties and who can lobby them in Australia. He also points to the standards and methods parties use to select their MPs and Senators.
First, he proposes cleaning up both campaign and party funding: “While I would prefer to confine donations to individuals, to say $1000, and ban all corporate, union, foreign and institutional donations, I recognise some Constitutional questions. Hence, I recommend, with regret, that all campaigns be publicly funded, with tightened eligibility, and any administrative donations to parties and their affiliates are fully declared, on line, as they are made, and banning all foreign donations.”
The only thing preventing this is the major parties themselves who both have a vested interest in seeing that the status quo remains.
Second, he wants to: “… make lobbying more transparent. Ministers and key bureaucrats should be subject to full and real-time disclosure of who they meet and when, and to what end.”
Of course, this would add a great deal of openness to how the public understands their representatives spending their time. Appointments should be fundamental to any MPs’ diary. It wouldn’t be hard to display a list of meetings/appointments daily and in real-time.
Third, Dr Hewson says we should: “… introduce truth-in-advertising legislation to politics. It would be independently monitored and enforced, with a limit on campaign advertising spending.”
Again, not challenging to monitor. The amount of money spent on government advertising in the guise of information when it is nothing more than political propaganda. This also to party advertising during elections where the truth seems to be ignored completely.
Fourth: “… introduce legislation to identify and penalise false, deceptive, and misleading conduct, as is done in business. Politicians need to be held accountable for what they say, promise and do.”
The Prime Minister and many of his cabinet are an example of what Dr Hewson is suggesting here. The pace at which they speak. The half-truths-lies by omission and full-on lies are just calculated to mislead the public on the true meaning of the words they use. The voter doesn’t need to be lied to at all, let alone at the Coalition rate.
Fifth: “… set independent standards for those who stand for election. The parties would still vet and verify their candidates – their CVs and their citizenship – but they would also be accountable for lapses and subject to penalties.”
Hewson again is correct. As a Coalition, the standard or intellectual quality of its MPs is nothing short of deplorable. People like Christensen, Kelly, Canavan, McCormack, Price, Robert and others would be passed over in private enterprise for a job of a similar standard.
And sixth, Dr Hewson recommends: “… a fully-funded Independent Commission Against Corruption to oversee all activities of our politicians, bureaucrats and federal government, with the capacity to receive anonymous references, and with defined links to the Australian Federal Police for prosecution…being elected to politics is not a ticket to put your snout in the funding trough.”
Such a body wouldn’t be necessary if politicians were honest, but they aren’t. However, the problem is that the party with the most corrupt offences is expected to write the legislation.
As justifiable as Dr Hewson’s six points may be l would, if reshaping our democracy is the purpose, treat his suggestions as the first salvo in a more significant reconstruction.
There still remain the questions of what sort of democracy we want to be and how far we are prepared to go to achieve it.
Nothing goes on forever without some form of repair work so we could start with the Constitution. What about Question Time and states’ rights? Then we might have another look at becoming a republic. And of course, the recognition of our First Nations People in the Constitution.
What about the voting system? Is it fair? What about the breakdown in the conventions and institutional arrangements of our democracy that Tony Abbott wrecked?
The reader might like to add to my list.
There was a time when we trusted our politicians to do the right thing while we got on with life. It was a time when politics was a principled occupation.
Those times are long past.