Papergate: Can we trust Zed?

TRUST is the key element in an election, but ACT Opposition Leader Zed Seselja is on very thin ice as he starts the first sitting week of the election year.

He should be challenging the Government on failures, testing their management of the economy and stimulating doubt about their capacity. Instead, the shoe is on the other foot. He is fighting to retain community trust.

In the first moments of introducing the most recent Budget, Chief Minister Katy Gallagher, told the Assembly: “This Budget returns the Territory to surplus in 2013-14, as planned”.

It will not be achieved before the next election in October and so ACT Labor is not as vulnerable as, say, the Prime Minister to being exposed as a poor money manager. There is no black and white indicator – surplus or no surplus.

There is no sense of crisis or impending doom about how the Budget is being managed. The roads are still in better condition than in most places in Australia, the rubbish is being collected, schools are working and those urgently needing an operation or emergency treatment are being looked after.

A change of government really requires a community sense of need. The best shot the Seselja Liberals have of winning government at the next election is to create a sense of failure, the need for a change to something better.

Where better for conservatives to challenge a left-wing government than on money management?

It’s taxpayers’ money! Why should Zed be trusted to manage the finances of the whole community if he cannot be trusted to manage the money in his own office?

The exposure of failures over staff entitlements such as leave and time sheets raises serious concerns. Had it been one of his MLAs who had made the same mistake he or she would have been forced to take some public action to illustrate his or her potential as a strong leader and a good money manager.

It is only eight months ago that Seselja forced the Liberal Party to pay back a $10,000 grant to the ACT coffers after the money was used inappropriately.

There are temptations in government. The public service is effective at managing money, but there are always forces pushing towards a favoured project, an approval of development for a benefactor or a decision that will have favourable electoral consequences.

There are checks and balances in place in the ACT to prevent the misuse of taxpayers’ money beyond the directorates advising Ministers. They include independent authorities such as the Auditor-General and the potential of inquiries by the Assembly Committees or judicial inquiries under the Inquiries Act, a process similar to a Royal Commission.

There must be an inquiry to determine the extent to which there has been inappropriate expenditure of money in the office of the Leader of the Opposition. It is not a question of whether he has deliberately misspent the money, but more to understand if he has not been careful enough to ensure the money has not been used in appropriately.

There will be an inquiry. The Liberals will look for a short, sharp investigation. Labor will want to spin the inquiry out as long as possible as the electoral advantage is just too great. The Greens will also have to make a choice between what is the fairest way for an inquiry to be conducted and what is in their own best interests politically. The decision also tests trust in them. There is a higher expectation of the Greens that they will put the community interest before their own – a result of how they have campaigned for decades. Are they really to be trusted to do so?

There is no more important factor than trust in the choice people make when voting. In politics, as in the home or with friends, money is the thing that tests trust.

Michael Moore is a former member of the ACT Legislative Assembly and an independent minister for health in the Carnell Government. He has been a political columnist with “CityNews” since 2006.

Last week columnist Moore wrote: “All the Liberal MLAs other than Jeremy Hanson are Catholics”, when in fact Alistair Coe is an Anglican.

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