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State Scene - Joe Poprzeczny: The accountability issue

THE debacle arising from the secretly agreed upon McGinty-Barnett $1.28/vote compulsory vote levy (CVL) plan that consumed so much time and energy, especially within Liberal ranks, rested upon two essential ingredients.

The first, as State Scene argued last week, was a desire to ensure taxpayers’ money was channeled into party coffers because of skyrocketing campaign outlays and declining community participation in, and voter loyalty to, political parties.

Equally significant was the role of secrecy, the desire to do things in the dark, behind closed doors, beyond public gaze, so taxpayers were presented a fait accompli rather than having an openly considered and candidly debated proposal that stood or fell on its merits.

Ask any Labor MP who their most secretive member is and odds on Jim McGinty gets the guernsey.

Do likewise to Liberal MPs and Colin Barnett is sure to be fingered.

Both show a propensity for operating behind the scenes, which in this case they probably and incorrectly still regard as negotiations.

That said, it’s worth noting that there was nothing stopping Mr McGinty publicly announcing last May – the month of his and Mr Barnett’s secret meeting – that Labor was considering opting for public funding of parties and would introduce legislation to enshrine it.

Why wasn’t such an open and candid approach taken?

Why was the public not promptly informed?

Wasn’t it the public, as taxpayers, that would be financing this party bankrolling proposal?

So why should the public be last to know?

Wasn’t open government the right and proper path?

And why didn’t Mr Barnett promptly tell Mr McGinty he planned disclosing that they’d met to discuss public funding of parties, which he, of course, favoured?

Instead, the predisposition of both men, their conditioned response, was to treat their plan as if it was top secret.

Fortunately most WA voters still believe our democracy operates best when secrecy is absent, something neither gentleman showed signs of fully grasping despite their combined 25 years in Parliament.

Perhaps they should re-read (or is it read?) the 1995-96 Commission on Government’s (COG) reports that so strongly criticised the cult of secrecy so widely and regularly resorted to during the 1980s WA Inc years, which led to so many costly blunders.

Perhaps all of COG’s recommendations should be made compulsory reading once someone is elected to parliament.

It’s also worth noting that far too much institutionalised secrecy exists at the upper echelons of WA’s governing

arrangements. Far too many practices are founded in secrecy, with the two most glaring being cabinet and party room discussions.

Both major parties inculcate into their MPs minds the idea that what’s said within both venues is hush-hush.

Like Pavlov’s dogs our MPs are conditioned after entering parliament to believe that what’s discussed in cabinet and their respective party rooms should go no further.

What’s said behind the four walls of those rooms is treated as taboo beyond them, something the public is not permitted to know about.

This rigid Pavlovian conditioning of MPs means they are promptly initiated into believing that issues of state are something only they – not the public – should be fully informed about.

But to whom does Western Australia belong – the people, or only WA’s 91 State MPs?

If the former two million, then MPs should have a contrary predisposition towards public policy, not their present clandestine one.

It’s high time premiers and party leaders were required, as a matter of course, to promptly issue detailed press statements after all cabinet and party meetings outlining precisely what was discussed and resolved.

After all, the issues discussed affect every citizen.

Cabinet and party meetings should cease being treated like secret society get-togethers, as they have been for so long.

It’s also time ministers were required, as a matter of course, to release once weekly a list naming all the people they’d met during the previous week to discuss public policies and reveal, in considerable detail, what was discussed.

And such media statements should be posted on respective ministerial web sites for all who are interested to read.

Shadow ministers should adopt the same practice, the same openness.

After all, the office of the State’s governor issues vice-regal notices, which are published in WA’s daily newspaper, setting out whom he had met.

Why isn’t a more detailed variant of that admirable practice extended to ministers and shadow ministers?

A year or so of such institutionalised openness would begin inculcating into all MPs minds that they’re not elected to parliament to keep voters in the dark, but the opposite, to keep them fully informed.

Unless issues considered by cabinets are a matter of clear-cut national security there’s no reason for them to be treated as secrets, as currently occurs.

Why bother hiding anything in the area of public policy?

Too many MPs have come to believe the contrary – that only they should know what is going on and why.

It’s because of this that they’re increasingly inclined to treat taxpayers’ money as if it were theirs, and now even worse, as something their political parties, which many voters see as resembling secret societies, should be permitted to access.

 

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