The time has come for hypocritical and self-serving political decision-making to cease.
For too long our members of Parliament have either made themselves the exception to the rules they impose on others, or have devised schemes to serve their and their parties' interests rather than the public interest. Perhaps the majority (certainly not all) of them feel they warrant exalted status.
They don't. Like the rest of society, they are just doing a job, and one for which they are relatively well paid. The public has every right to expect public-interest service in return.
So why are federal MPs always deliberately crafting policies to benefit and protect members of their occupational group, their staff and the political parties to which the vast majority of them belong?
The motivation for such behaviour is the quest to attain or retain power, too often guided by the "whatever it takes" principle. When MPs act in a hypocritical and self-serving manner, they are eroding several core tenets of Australia's democratic political system - particularly accountability, transparency and equity.
A few examples of such behaviour are found in rules governing: truth in advertising; the federal political donations regime; parliamentarians' professional development (and that of their staff); MPs' initial exclusion from sex discrimination laws; and the discreditable Commonwealth Integrity Commission model championed for over two years by Christian Porter as attorney- general, often accompanied by highly questionable evidence to support his claims.
Truth in advertising
Let's look at truth in advertising laws, from which politicians have exempted themselves and their political parties. The question they must answer is: Why? Surely, it cannot be that politicians and political parties want to be able to lie to voters in the lead-up to an election? But given the false claims made by both major parties over the past two federal elections, that may be the case.
Clearly, laws requiring truth in political advertising are required before the next election.
The self-serving rules governing political donations at the federal level also continue to be a blight on Australia's democracy. It is still possible for many hundreds of thousands of dollars to be donated to a political party without voters being allowed to know who donated how much, and to whom, before they cast their vote. In many instances they will never know.
Three easy changes, recommended by experts in the field for decades, address the most offensive aspects of the current regime. They are: placing a $1000 cap on all donations regardless of their source; introducing real-time donations disclosure (within 24 to 48 hours of the receipt of a donation); and placing a ceiling on how much any political party and/or candidate can spend in an election campaign.
These changes are also required before the next election, as it is anti-democratic to force voters to cast uninformed votes, yet again.
It is somewhat unbelievable that, unlike other professions and many occupations, politicians can serve in our parliaments without having to undertake compulsory, continuous education and training once elected to office. In some parliaments, brief orientation programs are compulsory - but they focus primarily on administrative matters. Coverage of parliamentary systems and processes only skims the surface of the knowledge required to be a well-informed parliamentarian, educated in the workings of a parliament and how to run an electorate office.
Parliaments do offer ongoing professional development programs for MPs, but because attendance is voluntary, they are not well-attended.
How many MPs know how to evaluate budget papers? What percentage can analyse an act of parliament and understand its consequences? It would be interesting to put all parliamentarians to the test on these and other topics that relate to their complex parliamentary role. Political staffers, many of whom advise parliamentarians, must also be subjected to compulsory, ongoing professional development.
Such obligatory programs must include ethics, accountability and the public interest. To avoid passing on negative aspects of MPs' culture, former parliamentarians should not be involved in their delivery.
Sex discrimination laws
Following a series of scandals, sex discrimination laws are to be extended to include MPs. However, the Australian community is owed a detailed explanation as to why they were excluded in the first place.
A toothless integrity commission
Self-serving policy is epitomised in the Commonwealth Integrity Commission Bill. The legislation is deliberately designed to protect parliamentarians, political staff and 80 per cent of public servants from public-interest-inspired accountability.
The bill must not pass into law, and if newly appointed Attorney-General Michaelia Cash advocates for this egregious model in the parliament it is the responsibility of every parliamentarian, regardless of their political affiliation, to vote against it. The bill has been extensively criticised by all experts in the anti-corruption field.
The days of MPs prioritising self-interest over the public interest are coming to an end. The people are letting it be known that they have had enough of this type of behaviour. MPs and political parties that ignore this message do so at their own peril.
- Dr Colleen Lewis is an honorary professor at the ANU's Australian Studies Institute.