Scott Morrison should look to Queensland to improve voter trust

by Carmela Chivers

Published by The Courier Mail, Wednesday 26 September

It’s no secret that Australians are fed up with our politicians. There’s a creeping feeling – vented on talkback radio and evident in polls – that people in government aren’t acting for us, but for themselves and their mates. New Prime Minister Scott Morrison is on a mission to change this. He says he’s on our side.

Well, if he wants to restore people’s trust in politics, he could do worse than look north to Queensland.

A new Grattan Institute report, Who’s in the Room? Access and influence in Australian politics, shows that improving the Commonwealth’s abysmal regulations on lobbying, political donations, and the “revolving door” between government and business will be key. It’s quite a task. But it isn’t impossible – Queensland has already shown how it can be done.

Take political donations: money and politics have always been cosy, but without proper scrutiny there’s a risk that donations “buy” a favourable hearing with our elected officials.

To combat this, Queenslanders have a clear view of who is donating to whom. The 2017 Queensland election was the first in Australia with “real-time” disclosure of political donations. Within a week of a donation being made, voters knew the details. Anyone can log on to the online portal and “follow the money”.

However, it takes up to 19 months to hear about donations to federal parties. That’s why Malcolm Turnbull’s $1.75 million donation to the Liberal Party in the dying days of the 2016 federal election campaign wasn’t officially made public until early this year.

Queensland political parties also declare a lot more: any donation greater than $1000 is registered on the website. At the federal level, parties only disclose donations of $13,800 or more. More than $62 million in party income was missing from the federal register in 2016-17 – most likely donations under the threshold.

Some of this was probably from “mums and dads” giving a hundred bucks to their favoured party. But $13,800 is a quite a sum, so there’s a lot of large federal donations we know nothing about.

It’s not just donations – the Sunshine State leads the way on lobbying, too. Queensland is the only state that publishes the contacts that commercial lobbying firms make on behalf of clients. The state was also the first to publish ministerial diaries (NSW and ACT have followed since). Anyone can see who the Premier and her ministers met with, within two months of the meeting taking place.

These tools enable public and media scrutiny. We saw the pressure build in the lead up to last year’s Queensland state election over the extent of the Premier’s dealings with Adani. And knowing their diaries will be published can encourage ministers to consult more widely.

Queensland state MPs also sign a code of conduct – unlike most federal MPs. And we have an independent Integrity Commissioner, who administers the codes of conduct, and a Crime and Corruption Commission, which investigates serious corruption risks in the public service.

The Federal Government has no equivalent bodies. A federal integrity commissioner and a federal anti-corruption commission would help to build public confidence by demonstrating that the Federal Government is serious about managing conflicts of interest and identifying corruption risks.

Surely our federal politicians don’t expect us to believe they are more saintly than their state counterparts?

If ScoMo wants to show that he’s on our side, he should give Palaszczuk a call and then put integrity reforms at the top of his agenda.