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Accountability needed, not mere posturing

THERE are several ways of viewing WA’s latest mini-political extravaganza, last week’s talkfest, the Drug Summit.

The first – the way Premier Geoff Gallop’s 2001 campaign advisers would like it seen – is that at long last a group of experts and concerned people were courageously convened by Labor in an august precinct to ponder, debate, deliberate and advise on how seemingly intractable drug overusage should be treated.

Another is that the fact a summit was convened is nothing less than a grave indictment of WA’s 91 MPs.

Whichever version one opts for, electors can justly ask what those MPs and their immediate prede-cessors have been doing all these years.

MPs should always be searching out expertise and discussing com-plex issues so as to refine legis-

lation.

If they’re not, why not? Why the lethargy?

That includes attending prof-essional conferences and seminars, meeting senior public servants, independently assessing various views, and reading specialist journals.

MPs ought, over recent years, to have passed appropriate legislation that confronted drug overusage and related lucrative criminal activities.

Parliament is where select and standing committees can be convened to call – subpoena if necessary – any experts for quizzing, and under privilege, on any issues MPs wish to canvass.

Parliament is not an appropriate venue for arbitrarily selected groups of academics, unionists, lawyers and others to discuss, under quite stringent time restraints, issues needing careful consideration, thoughtful discourse, indeed contemplation, over a longer term.

Summits may make good TV news viewing but they’re a silly electoral ploy and misuse of Parliament and a cop-out for MPs, conveniently wrapped into one.

Summits mean handing the baton to the viewers.

Little wonder serious queries surfaced.

Summit delegate, Matthew Fergusson-Stewart, has revealed that just eight minutes were allocated to assessing in a working group the idea of taxpayer funded heroin injection rooms.

More damning was Greens MLC Christine Sharp’s claim the talkfest produced nothing new.

If that’s so it was a disgraceful waste of money.

Labor leaders have been dazzled by summits since Prime Minister Bob Hawke initiated one in an effort to convince voters he was doing something on taxation where there was, in fact, a vacuum.

His tax reform summit witnessed strong arguments for adoption of a broad based consumption tax, a GST.

For a while Mr Hawke’s treasurer, the man who toppled him, Paul Keating, strongly backed a GST.

But, as sometimes happens with Labor, there was a back flip.

Remember how Labor under Gough Whitlam backed mining, processing, and the export of uranium, then reversed that gung-ho stance?

Mr Keating went on to become an ardent GST opponent, as successor Kim Beazley is.

What this shows is that summits guarantee nothing. In the GST’s case the opposite was embraced by the party convening the summit.

Summits are simply a way for politicians to shirk their duty, to delay acting. They’re an excuse for a policy when you’re without one.

However, misuse of parliaments continues beyond summit misuse.

Take, for instances, the important issue of parliamentary question time, a long established traditional practice where MPs can quiz members of the executive – ministers.

Dr Gallop’s side complained long and hard about the Conservatives for either not answering, or not candidly answering, parliamentary questions.

Those complaints were, in some cases, valid.

So it’s disappointing that Dr Gallop’s frontbenchers continue the practice.

State Scene has an array of recent answers showing Stonewall Jackson was an apprentice.

“The information is not readily available,” is a favourite retort. “It would require too many resources to produce,” is another.

There are others. But whichever is used, Parliament is being misused. And if it continues it will cease being seen as a venue in which faith can be placed.

Habitual blocking reached a high point in the mid-1980s under Labor, which prompted the 1992 WA Inc Royal Commission to say question time had been willfully perverted.

“Whatever else can be said of question time, it today provides the crudest form of accountability exacted by Parliament,” its report says. “The manner of its conduct, the apparent acceptance of evasion and equivocation in providing answers, and the governmental manipulation of it for its own purposes, can leave the public with little reassurance that it presently serves the accountability purpose the traditional view attributes to it in anything other than a fortuitous way.”

Labor’s 2001 election platform said: “The Court Government’s record in its eight years in office has been increasingly marked by secrecy, a lack of accountability and, above all, arrogance.

“A Gallop Labor Government will aim for the highest standards of openness and accountability.

“The public has a right to know how their money is being spent and how their public services are going to be delivered.”

Dr Gallop should immediately instruct all ministers to re-read – or just read – this policy, otherwise the WA Inc Royal Commission’s observations and criticism still apply.

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