24/01/2006 - 21:00

Joe Poprzeczny: State Scene - Failing the accountability test

24/01/2006 - 21:00


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There’s little doubt all state MPs learned the obvious lesson from Liberal leader Matt Birney’s unpleasant pre-Christmas encounter with the Privileges Committee – don’t secretly slip amendments into your Parliamentary Financial Interests Register, or else

Joe Poprzeczny: State Scene - Failing the accountability test

There’s little doubt all state MPs learned the obvious lesson from Liberal leader Matt Birney’s unpleasant pre-Christmas encounter with the Privileges Committee – don’t secretly slip amendments into your Parliamentary Financial Interests Register, or else.

But did any learn the obvious lesson from the Gallop government’s embarrassing Tim Ungar affair, which involved the belated discovery that Mr Ungar had been a court referee for someone who was cultivating cannabis and is now his business partner?

And the same Mr Ungar has served on four state government quangos – the Water Corporation, Museum, Olympics Committee, and Technology Industry Advisory Council – and convened Labor’s roundtable business group?

State Scene suspects not.

And the reason is that our MPs are all raised on the so-called Westminster system of government so they unquestioningly accept that senior bureaucratic, judicial and quango appointments are made by cabinet – and cabinet alone – which is manned by members of a single political party.

Unbeknown to them, there’s another view that rejects such an exclusivist approach to appointments.

Under it, executives – another term for a cabinet – nominate people to such senior position but the elected representatives of the people, MPs through parliament, confirm all such appointments.

This spreads the responsibility for decisions about who occupies senior bureaucratic, judicial, and quango posts, all of which affect the lives of the citizenry.

And until the elected representatives confirm, that is, vote on, anyone nominated by a cabinet, they cannot take-up the post.

This double look-over of persons who are proposed for such posts means parliament, not just a single party dominated cabinet, ultimately arbitrates on who’ll have bureaucratic, judicial or administrative powers over the people.

That’s what occurs in the US.

And the reason is that those great 18th century figures, America’s founding fathers, showed scepticism and foresight when it came to what rulers or executives could do if left unimpeded.

That foresight has been institutionalised by what’s called oversight and confirmation, something that’s unfortunately absent under the archaic Westminster system.

In the US, cabinets headed by presidents don’t have carte blanche over senior bureaucratic, quango and judicial appointments.

Yet here, 177-years after Captain James Stirling camped on the shores of the Swan River, top bureaucrats, judges and quango officials acquire their jobs after no more than a nod from cabinet.

What should occur with all such appointments is that cabinets continue nominating aspirants, but before they can take up such posts an all-party, not just one, Legislative Council committee should vet the nominees and confirm the appointment.

Such a committee would recommend for or against the nominees, and the Legislative Council in full session would formally vote for or against them.

Now, such public or pre-emptive vetting would mean holding open hearings with nominees being publicly quizzed, so they’d be required to answer tough and penetrating questions put by committee members.

Among questions asked would be the listing of their qualifications for the position they’ve been nominated for.

If this had occurred in Mr Ungar’s case we’d now know what made him so special to have gained the Gallop cabinet’s nod for chairmanship of the Water Corporation.

Because Western Australia is without a confirmatory process, however, we weren’t made aware that he reportedly had a half stake in a telco company, TSA Services Pty Ltd, with a convicted drug cultivator, Peter Jones.

Another standard question nominees for taxpayer-funded positions could be asked at confirmatory hearings is: “Have you ever been associated with a known criminal or criminals?”

In Mr Ungar’s case this would have compelled him to reveal that Mr Jones had a criminal record involving production of cannabis, for which he was fined $2,000 and handed a two-year suspended sentence.

Clearly, Mr Ungar’s nomination for the Water Corporation chairmanship and his other quango positions may well have struck serious problems in such a confirmation process.

Those not wanting to encounter such questioning could privately indicate disinterest to the MP suggesting they join a quango, which would mean governments were less likely to be publicly embarrassed.

In Mr Ungar’s case, the Gallop government could have sought someone else, someone without a convicted person as a business partner, because of the self vetting that stems from having a confirmatory procedure in place.

If confirmatory hearings were an integral part of the state’s governance system it’s probably unlikely Mr Ungar would now be sitting on a quango, given what has been reported.

Instead we’ve had him serving on four, and the only reason we know of his close association with a criminal, for whom he provided a courtroom reference, is that someone tipped off the state’s only daily newspaper.

The parliament, and presumably cabinet, until those press reports surfaced, were in the dark, whereas both should be fully abreast of what’s happening across the state’s bureaucracy – which includes quangos – and judiciary.

Confirmatory hearings would help ensure there’s a greater likelihood of this occurring.

If the press hadn’t reported this issue, which thankfully wasn’t the case, we, the taxpayers, the citizens, of WA, would still be no wiser.

Fortunately, as things transpired, Mr Ungar donated just below a tenth of his Water Corporation sitting fee of $106,000 to help bankroll the Labor Party’s fight at the last state election.

And some months later that information appeared in a WA Electoral Commission’s disclosed report, meaning his generosity to Labor, which had appointed him, surfaced in the press.

Thereafter, someone tipped off the newspaper to another little known aspect involving Mr Ungar.

However, that was far from the end of the state’s keep-voters-in-the-dark Westminster-style system. Far from it.

When the government was confronted with these unknown aspects of Mr Ungar, acting premier Eric Ripper transformed the Ungar affair into farce by claiming the $10,000 donation was an act of, wait for it, “good citizenship”.

“People that are on boards are not public servants,” Mr Ripper said.

“The appointments are made by cabinet and I think they’re in a different category from the traditional public service, which has a responsibility to serve each side of politics impartially.”

It’s difficult to determine precisely what Mr Ripper is driving at here, since heads of quangos can have as much, if not more, power than public servants.

“It’s an act of good citizenship to support a political party and to support the democratic process,” Mr Ripper continued.

“The fact is, the donation has been openly declared and the information is available to the public.”

But what Mr Ripper couldn’t say had been “available to the public” were all pertinent details about nominees to senior quango positions, because WA is without a confirmatory process in staffing them.

That being so it’s fair to ask just what he meant when he used the term, “democratic process”, in relation to that $10,000 donation by an unvetted appointee to a quango.

There was nothing democratic about it. Mr Ungar was appointed by a cabinet controlled by a single party. His appointment was never scrutinised by an all party Legislative Council committee.

And the reason; because WA is without a democratic procedure for confirmation of senior public servants, judges and quango nominees.

What makes the present archaic state of affairs even more tragic is that nobody on the conservative side of politics – Liberal or National – pointed out any of these elementary facts during the Ungar affair.

And the reason?

You guessed it.

Because they want an unscrutinised appointments system in place when they’re in government.

The sooner we institute confirmatory hearings the sooner Western Australians will cease being treated like mushrooms and the sooner our MPs will be required to fully carry out their parliamentary duties.

Mr Birney’s torrid encounter with the Privileges Committee undoubtedly taught all MPs a valuable lesson.

Unfortunately Mr Ungar’s torrid encounter with the media hasn’t done likewise.


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