30 December 2011

Most politicians, when in opposition seek tools for more effective scrutiny of government; they speak encouragingly about transparency. Opposition parties are attracted to policies that “keep government honest”. On gaining office, priorities change. This is evident in a number of jurisdictions where the commitment to strengthening openness regimes has diminished. The move in Australia to set up a framework to enforce ethical standards among federal politicians is an example. Despite the pledge by the Prime Minister to speedily enact a code of conduct policed by an integrity commission, these anti corruption measures are unlikely to be in place within the next 12 months.

The New South Wales Premier when opposition leader, was outspoken about the need for higher ethical behaviour from Ministers. But, now in power, he is less driven about finalising his proposed Public Sector Ethics Act.

The Canadian experience, perhaps, is typical. The Conservative Government elected to clean up government and implement the findings of the Gomery Commission, has still not appointed the Appointments Commission which was among the ethics watchdogs provided for in the Federal Accountability Act. And the Integrity Commission, has been an embarrassment, with a politically sympathetic appointee taking no substantive action on any of the 170 allegations made to her. An Auditor General inquiry also found that allegations of the Integrity Commissioner bullying staff and abusing the privacy of some, were well founded. In the ultimate irony for an Integrity Commission, the new Commissioner appointed a fortnight ago has said that … “our biggest challenge remains establishing trust in the Office.”

The Canadian Government must be embarrassed already by actions earlier this month by the former Auditor General, Lobbying Commissioner, Chief Electoral Officer, Information Commissioner, Privacy Commissioner, Official Languages Commissioner and the Acting Integrity Commissioner. They jointly signed what the Ottawa Citizen called an “unprecedented appeal” for better parliamentary scrutiny of governance watchdogs and their work.