The intent of Prime Minister Rudd’s ministerial code of conduct is commendable, but its worth depends on enforcement and meaningful penalties for misconduct.
After the long night of weak Coalition standards and poor integrity, the dawn of better accountability is welcome, but there is much more to be done before there is full sunlight.
It is good that the full Guide on Key Elements of Ministerial Responsibility will be revised and reissued when Parliament resumes in 2008. In preparing for that, the Government should call for submissions, and consult further. That will ensure a best practice approach for the Guide. If Labor does not want to do that, a Senate review of the new Guide would be an appropriate alternative.
The real test will be whether the Prime Minister will have the ticker to come down hard in the event of ministerial mistakes. John Howard failed this test. The AWB scandal alone served to highlight the danger when ministerial codes are controlled by the executive rather than the parliament.
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Codes should not depend on the PM of the day. The best safeguard is for Parliament itself to set ethical standards for all of its members including ministers, administered and enforced by an independent parliamentary ethics commissioner.
Should Prime Minister Rudd fall into the same trap as Howard did in exercising partisan judgement in the event of misconduct, impropriety or conflicts of interest, ministerial controversy and accountability will also come to dog Labor while in government. Loosely interpreting and applying the code will only exacerbate the already deep cynicism amongst the public.
The Lobbyists Register is also welcome, but it should apply to all parliamentarians. Those holding balance of power in the Senate are as much in need of this as Ministers.
The prohibition of electoral fundraising at the Lodge and Kirribilli is also welcome, but should extend to the Parliament too, including ministerial offices.
As they have promised, Labor now needs to follow up with even more comprehensive accountability reforms that cover policy areas such as freedom of information, whistleblower protection, government advertising, and cleaning up corruption in political donations.