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Electoral Reform

Reforms a shot at rising above the rot


Published in The Age - January 27, 2013

SOMEWHERE, there is a Labor bunker where senior party members are hatching election plans. A few loyalists would be hoping their strategy will keep Julia Gillard in The Lodge. Others will be aiming simply to limit the loss of safe seats.

These election planners would be wise to give serious consideration to the impact of the festering sore of NSW Labor. The salacious hearings before the NSW corruption watchdog are set to play out right up to the federal election.

The actions of former NSW ALP ministers - Eddie Obeid, Ian Macdonald, Eric Roozendaal and Tony Kelly, among others - are providing copy for an ugly chapter in Labor history. This presents a tough task for federal Labor's strategists: how to stay out of the glare of the Independent Commission Against Corruption spotlight fixed on Labor's underbelly?

One strategy to confront the mess in NSW, as well as its own demons, is for Labor to start rebuilding the country's democratic assets.

Labor has the numbers in the House of Representatives and Senate to pass important and overdue reforms before the federal election.

It could establish a national version of the NSW ICAC and adopt a suite of other reforms including whistleblower protection for public sector workers, political donation reform, tougher regulation of lobbyists, improved FOI legislation and an MPs' code of conduct.

Rather than be a leader in advocating for such reforms, federal Labor is either silent or in retreat. It looks as though former special minister of state and champion of democratic causes John Faulkner is a lone Labor voice pushing the government to honour commitments in this area.

This government came into being off the back of various agreements with the Greens and independent MPs who flew the flag high for ''transparent and accountable government'' and improved parliamentary processes.

These promises have not borne fruit. Federal Labor, at a time when trust in MPs and the democratic process is at a low, has paid scant regard to developing mechanisms that would help protect against the scandals that have enveloped NSW Labor, and it has lost an opportunity to resurrect its standing with voters.

Two examples demonstrate this.

The review of freedom-of-information legislation is an opportunity to make good the Prime Minister's spoken commitment to transparency and accountability. The Attorney-General, Nicola Roxon, appears reluctant to give Gillard's words legislative power, unfortunately.

Roxon is on the record as advocating changes to the law that allows FOI requests for documents held by parliamentary departments. The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner has warned that such a change would be a setback for openness in government.

Sensitive information is already protected from disclosure and Australian intelligence agencies and parliamentary departments should not be beyond the reach of public scrutiny.

A second illustration of Labor's back-pedalling on democratic reform is political donations. If the government cannot find courage to ban corporate largesse to political parties outright, it could at least take the first steps and end the flow of money from developers and the tobacco, gambling and alcohol industries.

The Greens are ready to work with Labor on legislation to advance democratic reforms.

If federal Labor cannot show the backbone for reform it will miss a golden opportunity to distinguish itself from this rotten spectacle.



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