06/03/2007 - 22:00

Governance needs a makeover

06/03/2007 - 22:00

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The past three dramatic weeks of Corruption and Crime Commission hearings into the shadowy dealings of Brian Burke, Julian Grill and Noel Crichton-Browne exposed several shortcomings within Western Australia’s outdated system of governance.

The past three dramatic weeks of Corruption and Crime Commission hearings into the shadowy dealings of Brian Burke, Julian Grill and Noel Crichton-Browne exposed several shortcomings within Western Australia’s outdated system of governance.

The first is that business ventures can be fast-tracked or favourably moulded by those with the right connections at the state or local governing level.

The second is that, despite the Labor governments of Geoff Gallop and Alan Carpenter having had ample warning that WA should acquire strict lobbying legislation regulating this tiny service sector, they sat on their hands.

Those with longer memories may recall that this column first raised the issue and urged adoption of such legislation on May 30 2002 ('Accountability worth lobbying for').

Neither Dr Gallop nor Mr Carpenter saw fit to act at a legislative level, so the Burke-Grill-Crichton-Browne trio was able to work out of sight and unhindered for some four years.

Furthermore, Attorney-General Jim McGinty has also sat on his hands, remaining strangely silent on this pivotal issue.

Precisely when the trio’s activities came to the CCC’s attention remains unclear.

Thirdly, no preventative measures outside CCC bugging operations exist to detect and neutralise the old-style Byzantine mateship networks that count greatly in WA, both within Labor and Liberal ranks, though markedly more so among the Labor ranks.

This suggests those in elected positions and top bureaucratic posts should at all times insist on meeting lobbyists or anyone else seeking governmental action on a two- or three-person basis, never one-on-one.

Such a move would markedly reduce the risk of kick-backs being offered and, worse still, being accep-ted, after which one could be blackmailed.

It’s worth noting that Australia’s most honourable post-war politician, former North Sydney mayor, one-time independent MHR and democratic republican, Ted Mack, insisted on this while in local government.

It’s surprising, therefore, that Mr Mack’s ethical, precautionary method has not been adopted across WA at state and local governmental levels.

Another drawback revealed during the CCC’s hearings is that ministerial staffers are too often mere gophers, yes men, if you will, rather than professional and ethical assistants.

This suggests an urgent need for formal instruction for such staffers on proper processes.

The fifth undesirable aspect disclosed was that governments too often drag their feet in ways that wouldn’t be tolerated in the private sector. So many WA governance activities need hastening.

Although we live in the 21st century, the pace of decision making and implementation is still somewhere back in the 19th.

This two-century gap makes one wonder why government has so many modern accoutrements – telephones (mobile and fixed), photocopiers, faxes, fast computers, the internet, and all the other paraphernalia of modernity.

If such gadgets can’t hasten things, why are taxpayers outlaying so much money on them?

Clearly, one is forced to conclude that these gadgets have done nothing to boost productivity since the age of the pen, ink and blotter.

Take as an example of governmental foot dragging in the case of the mortgage brokers’ scandal.

Throughout 2000, then Labor frontbencher, Jim McGinty, caused havoc over the Court-Barnett government’s inept handling of that scandal, to the point that it resulted in a surprise Labor landslide in 2001.

Yet it wasn’t until February 2007 – more than six years later – that the first promised reimbursements were paid to those who deposited cash with Perth’s wild west “financial cowboys”.

Such inordinate delay is, quite frankly, an even bigger scandal than the actual failure of the Court-Barnett government to effectively police those thieving crooks.

Too many government decision-making processes, including Mr McGinty’s, are too slow.

Dithering is too often the order of the day, including in our courts.

This, among other things, means costly investment projects can be interminably delayed, with such foot dragging adding significantly to their final cost and the overall cost structure across WA’s economy.

WA has what Treasurer Eric Ripper loves calling a V-8 economy, no thanks to him and his ministers and party.

WA’s horse and buggy governance approach is simply too far away from world’s best practice.

It’s time Mr Ripper streamlined decision-making processes and procedures.

If they were faster, transparent, and had criteria ensuring judgements were clear-cut, there would be no need to resort to backdoor approaches like so many obviously have made by calling upon Messrs Burke, Grill and Crichton-Browne.

Legitimate lobbying could still exist, but it wouldn’t be of the fix-it type via party mates with winks, nods, clandestine phone calls and other special favours, including financial ones for election campaigns.

The obvious adroitness of people like the trio mentioned could still be utilised by businessmen and others, though not as fixers, but rather as open and above-board lobbyists who simply approach governments confidently with clear-cut proposals that explain their respective investor clients’ positions.

That’s real and legitimate lobbying, not what is presently being quite erroneously described as such, but is in fact something quite different.

State Scene has known each of the three gentlemen quite well for many years and it’s no exaggeration to say each can be quick-witted and sometimes quite insightful in matters of governance and governmental procedures.

If a properly regulated lobbying sector had been instituted by the Gallop government in, say, 2002 or even the Carpenter government in 2006, Messrs Burke, Grill and Crichton-Browne could still be earning quite handsome fees. But it would be in a manner that would not have led them into their present CCC difficulties.

Finally, there are two other issues the enlightening CCC hearings have uncovered, neither of which may be immediately obvious.

The first is that taxpayers have been told for decades that MPs must receive generous pensions because when they retire they need to have taxpayer-funded nest eggs to look after them to the grave.

That may have been so until the 1950s, or, if one is generous, the 1960s.

What Messrs Burke, Grill and Crichton-Browne have clearly shown is that former MPs continue earning, and handsomely.

In other words, MPs aged well below 65 years, when departing politics, don’t retire as that word once suggested – going fishing, playing golf and/or bowls, or sitting back in slippers and watching TV soapies.

Nor should they.

That being so, isn’t it time the costly parliamentary superannuation scheme was scrapped and MPs were treated the same as other government employees; or better still told to look after their own retirement, since very few immediately retire.

The second, less-than-obvious, issue is that of so-called cabinet confidentiality.

Now, cabinet secrecy is really an ancient notion, one needing to be immediately scrapped.

To better appreciate the need to open up government, the first question that needs to be asked is just when cabinet decisions should be disclosed? That is, no longer be secret.

Should what 16 or so people called ministers decide each week be kept secret from two million or so Western Australians for a day, a week, a month, or perhaps even a year or more?

If one agrees with keeping cabinet decisions under wraps for a period longer than, say, 12 or 24 hours, then please tell us precisely why so long.

At some point taxpayers and electors should be told. And if it’s not immediately after a cabinet decision is made, then when? Yes, when?

WA is, hopefully, not Zimbabwe or North Korea, where people are treated like mushrooms.

So-called cabinet confidentiality – secrecy – is simply a silly idea belonging to the Dark Ages, where Zimbabwe and North Korea are headed.

The sooner cabinet decisions are promptly disclosed to voters the better; and that means having them being posted on the internet within hours of the conclusion of cabinet deliberations, like the CCC’s hearings transcripts are now promptly posted.

Cabinet secrecy is unnecessary and the sooner it’s scrapped the better off we and all adroit lobbyists will be.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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