Most governments in political trouble immediately reach for a pot of populism and the pumps that spread the money around — even if few of them manage to match the Howard government world benchmark for such activities.

The Queensland government, in contrast, seems to be trying to test the contrary assumption — about good policy being good politics — with a variety of integrity legislation initiatives and changes in advertising codes of conduct.

In August, the government introduced the second tranche of integrity reform Bills into Parliament following on from the 2009 report Integrity and Accountability in Queensland. The report, and the legislation, seem to have received very limited national publicity although Victorian Opposition leader, Ted Baillieu, has picked up on one of the advertising code proposals in a Bill that will be debated in the Victorian Parliament this week.

The three Queensland Bills relate to ministerial staff appointments, declarations of interests by the staff and a code of conduct; reforms to the Whistleblowers Protection Act; and several miscellaneous issues to do with integrity reforms such ethics principles for public servants and lobbying. There is also a new code of conduct for the public sector.

Another important reform has been amendments to the government’s code for advertising including tightening up the code, and largely banning advertising that might be seen as “political” in the six-month lead-up to the election. The latter, as well as being an integrity reform, should save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. The Baillieu Bill goes further and provides for an independent person (a judge) to ban all government advertising seen to be political.

Details of all of the above are available here and here. There is also a good summary of the legislation, by Kelli Longworth, in Transparency International’s August newsletter.

All of the above are also steps in the right direction. If the advertising codes had been implemented under the Howard government, for instance, they would probably have saved about a billion dollars.

But there is still much to be done. Chris Savage, of STW Communications, was quoted by The Age’s Julian Lee as saying the new situation in Canberra is going to be “the golden age for public affairs and lobbying. It is a perfect storm for our sector”.

While probably true in the short-term, it is also probably a case of being careful what you wish for, and for remembering that PR people are much better off shutting up and staying out of the limelight.

As Tony Walker said in the AFR (September 11-12), it would be better to have a “golden age of governance than a gilded era of lobbyists”. The gilded era allusion is a good one, reminding us that it was the old gilded era in the US at the turn of the century, which gave us anti-trust legislation, and the new one pre-GFC, which is giving us moves to reintroduce some of the regulation that evolved in the decades after the first gilded era.

There are many templates for reform in Australia and around the world. Lobbying activities can be constrained; legitimate government advertising can be protected while eliminating the illegitimate and the partisan; new levels of transparency and accountability can be introduced.

Governments are reluctant to act, however, because they like the luxury of being able to negotiate semi-secretly with special interest groups and can rarely resist the temptation to take our money to promote themselves.

But at the federal level good policy in these areas — which is being urged by the Independents — might be good politics. The Abbott Opposition is going to be a policy free zone and the negotiations with the independents show that the Howard resistance to reform in these areas is still part of the Coalition DNA.

A healthy debate on some of these issues might cause divisions in the Coalition; would not be fertile ground for the current Coalition’s violent and hysterical rhetoric; and, would lock the independents even further into supporting the government. (More next week on the way the Opposition’s thuggish rhetoric echoes some of the political tactics of late 18th century France and inter-war European propaganda.)

Anna Bligh’s good policy seems to have been regarded somewhat cynically within Queensland and is, admittedly, a response to some scandals. But the reforms are still good ones and, if the Victorian Liberals are any indication, she’s not the only one to see them as good politics as well.

Ritual declaration of interests: The author is a member of Transparency International, which campaigns for the reforms discussed above; and, has been a lobbyist as well as a recipient of fees for government PR campaigns.

Peter Fray

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