One of the main reasons why the proposals contained in John Faulkner’s long, detailed and important speech yesterday on political transparency will remain unfulfilled was to be found in the subsequent media coverage.

While Faulkner gave one of the most important speeches of the year, covering parliamentarians’ behaviour, whistleblowing, political donations, a national anti-corruption plan and open government, it was his comments about the NSW Labor Party, Labor factions and the unfolding saga of the current ICAC investigations that garnered nearly all of the media’s attention.

Faulkner indeed spoke about the need for major reform of internal party processes to remove the power of factional leaders and hand more power to the party membership, including that the NSW Senate and Legislative Council tickets be selected by a ballot of the full branch membership, pointing out:

“I note that the parliamentarians starring in ICAC’s recent hearings have been members or former members of the NSW Upper House — and like all of us preselected by NSW Labor for the state or federal Upper Houses, they never needed to seek support from the members of the party, but only from the factions.”

Naturally, those comments received nearly all of the coverage, although The Australian, bless their smeary little socks, wanted to know Faulkner’s view about the need for an inquiry into Julia Gillard. But Faulkner also proposed a series of measures:

  • Moving quickly to implement the early 2009 recommendations of the Dreyfus committee on whistleblower protection
  • Renewing the push to establish a code of conduct for MPs and senators
  • Australia supporting the international Open Government Partnership
  • Passage of electoral and political donations reforms blocked by the Coalition when Faulkner proposed them under the Rudd government.

Gary Gray, one of Faulkner’s successors as Special Minister of State, won’t be overly happy with Faulkner’s none-too-veiled criticism of him. A watered-down whistleblower bill has been held up for so long in Gray’s in-tray that Andrew Wilkie gave up waiting and introduced his own bill at the end of October. Gray immediately promised to introduce the government’s own bill … next year, around the fourth anniversary of the Dreyfus report.

Transparency advocates are advised not to hold their breath. If Gray’s bill ever appears, it’s likely to be a dud, watered down by every senior public servant and minister terrified of leaks.

The government has also shown no interest in revisiting Faulkner’s political donations reforms despite having a more welcoming Senate environment than in 2009. That’s when the Coalition disgracefully combined with that jibbering cretin Steve Fielding to block a bill that would, inter alia, have lowered the donation disclosure threshold, banned foreign donations and moved donations disclosure by the AEC to a six-monthly basis, rather than the current annual basis, which means we don’t know who is giving to political parties in the lead-up to an election until as late as 18 months afterward.

Joe Ludwig released an electoral reform green paper in 2009, but the issue has vanished since then.

Faulkner also lamented how a code of conduct for MPs had foundered between the House of Reps and the Senate. “I am not so unkind to suggest it was designed to fail,” he said about the process that yielded, at the end of the parliamentary year, a rejection by the Senate, “but its failure was inevitable”.

That Labor turned gun shy on transparency reform is to an extent understandable. The Rudd government came into office with the sort of strong commitment to transparency that only 11 years in opposition can give you. It made significant reforms to freedom of information laws, overhauled the Howard government’s corrupt (and I used the word deliberately) advertising processes and tried to repair the damage inflicted by the Howard government on political donation disclosure. It got precisely zero credit for any of that.

And then there’s the media’s strange reticence on the subject. The media is the key stakeholder in government transparency processes, but appears to routinely forget that. Despite Faulkner laying out a comprehensive agenda for greater political transparency, including having a swipe at his own government, the bulk of the media coverage has focused on the topical and more controversial elements relating to the NSW Labor Party.

That sums up why the government feels no pressure to return to the reforms Faulkner championed four years ago, or to which it committed in its deal with Wilkie. Once majority government returns, the only real momentum behind transparency reform will vanish.

Something for the media to collectively consider next time it complains about government spin and information management.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey