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Canberra Today 11°/15° | Saturday, September 25, 2021 | Digital Edition | Crossword & Sudoku

Integrity is fading as a key part of political life

“Power brokers within parties, whether elected or not, have a particular responsibility to ensure high ethical standards… And yet, despite promises at successive federal elections, there is still no integrity and crime commission,” says political columnist MICHAEL MOORE.

A SCATHING internal review on the performance of the WA Liberals has key lessons for all political parties across Australia. 

Michael Moore.

Undemocratic and unfair selection processes along with failure to maintain key values was just the starting point for the internal report.

Branch stacking has always been a fundamental concern for all political parties. As the membership of parties has reduced, the temptation to stack has increased. For those who have a particular philosophy to push, recruiting like-minded members has been a tried and true technique. There is a thin line between this style of recruiting and branch stacking.

However, the WA Liberals went to a whole new level. The review, which has been widely reported in the media, painted a picture of party members, including elected members of parliament, as “unethical and underhand”. The party, as a whole, has been affected by a “corruption of the essential mechanisms that guide and are intended to preserve the integrity of the party”.

The WA Liberals were severely punished in the most recent state election with just two members elected to the lower house of the parliament. Fingers were pointed at the former leader, Zak Kirkup. However, it was also recognised that he was elected to the position just before the election in “a desperate and ill-advised move”. The rot had set in well before this time.

The recent election in the US shows just how vulnerable democracies are to inappropriate behaviour. High ideals are set out in the inaugural speeches of almost all members of parliament. However, what this internal review reveals is just how often such ideals are undermined by the actions of elected people and the actions of political party officials.

Within the WA Liberal Party there was a group referring to itself as “the clan”. This group operated through the social media platform Whatsapp and were proud of the fact that they could legally manipulate branches to push their view through stacking. 

Even more disturbing in the report are the leaked text messages pointing the finger at key power brokers including former federal Finance Minister Mathias Cormann along with serving members of the Legislative Council, Peter Collier and Nick Goiran. The highest ethical behaviour is what constituents should expect from their elected members.

Former Finance Minister Mathias Cormann… leaked text messages pointing the finger at key power brokers.

Structural changes to the culture and operations of the party were suggested as fundamental. These included preselection and training processes along with funding, party membership and equal opportunity. An “essential” factor, according to the review, was to increase the participation of women. Credit goes to the WA Liberals in releasing this warts-and-all review, indicating the intention to take reform seriously.

Annabel Crabb’s recent series on the ABC “Ms Represented” provided an in-depth insight into the challenges that women have faced in parliament and in political parties. 

Labor and the Greens seem to have largely found ways to resolve this issue. However, the Liberal Party, by refusing quotas and insisting on the “best person for the job” have fallen way behind. When men decide who is the “best person for the job” they just might frame things differently than a woman!

The ACT is an exception with a woman leading the parliamentary party and five women of the nine elected Liberal MLAs. In fact, 14 of the 25 members of the ACT Legislative Assembly are women, with five as ministers.

Power brokers within parties, whether elected or not, have a particular responsibility to ensure high ethical standards. The failure of the WA Liberals has been revealed in the report, but they are not alone. This report has federal ramifications. And yet, despite promises at successive federal elections, there is still no integrity and crime commission.

Integrity is such a key element of political life that it is difficult to understand why members of parliament have not jumped at the opportunity to establish such a body that will ensure their behaviour and operations are above board. 

A federal integrity and crime commission would play a part in reinforcing for the public that members of parliament are keen to act democratically, ethically and with the public interest as their priority.

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

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Michael Moore

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