Victorian voters have ranked problems of public integrity as one of the top three issues in the upcoming election. Most of the solutions to this integrity crisis have focused on substantive reforms to laws, including tightening up laws that regulate lobbying and campaign finance as well as increasing the powers of specialised integrity institutions.
These are important changes. But they are only likely to be effective if the independence of the cornerstone institution of the Australian integrity system is restored: Parliament. Three reforms are critical in restoring Parliament’s central role in Victoria’s integrity system.
Governmental domination of Parliament
Parliament is Australia’s cornerstone integrity institution. Australian democracy is built on the concept of ‘responsible government’ in which Parliament holds the government to account through lawmaking and oversight.
Although parliament does not actually prosecute governmental misconduct, its oversight role generates critical information and publicity that holds the government politically accountable. This role is critical in supporting the integrity institutions such as the Ombudsman and the Independent Broad-Based Anticorruption Commission (IBAC).
In recent decades, however, commentators have discussed how responsible government in Australia has been eroded as parliament has become the instrument of the government. Victoria is part of this trend. Decades of reforms have weakened Victorian Parliament to the point now that Victoria is largely governed not from the Parliament building on Spring Street but instead from the Premier’s office on Treasury Place.
To take just one example, the Victorian Parliament is the only parliament in Australia mandated to report its finances to the government on both a daily and monthly basis, as well as report its performance measures, financial outcomes, and achievement of outputs on a quarterly basis. This purchaser‐provider model—in which the government ‘buys’ outputs directly from the government—puts the government in a position where it 'review its objectives' to 'better reflect' its achievements and provide the government with 'greater clarity' on what these objectives are.
This kind of relationship reverses the traditional accountability relationship in responsible government, creating the perverse situation in which Parliament is at the mercy of the same executive it is meant to monitor and scrutinise.
The integrity problems we see today have stemmed in large part from this deep structural problem of governmental centralism. Three reforms can help to restore Parliament to its position as the cornerstone integrity institution that both oversees the government and supports the Ombudsman and IBAC.
1. Promoting transparency
In responsible government, parliament holds the government to account by forcing the government to produce information about its activities. In Victoria, however, these transparency mechanisms have been weakened.
First, the government now regularly refuses to provide information requested by parliament. This sometimes includes self-adjudicated assertions that this information is protected by executive privilege. It also includes the failure to comply with reasonable deadlines for a response from parliamentary commissions. Most recently, they failed to respond to two sixth-month deadlines set by upper house inquiries.
To solve this, parliament must legislate for an independent body to adjudicate claims of executive privilege in response to parliamentary requests for documents or information. It also must legislate to require the government to respond to reasonable requests for information from the upper house, the house of review.
This kind of transparency is critical in supporting the work of integrity institutions like the Ombudsman and IBAC.
2. Ensuring oversight
Responsible government envisions Parliament holding the government to account through its joint investigatory committees. In Victoria, however, these committees are dominated by governmental MPs. This dominance has led to weak or non-existent parliamentary oversight.
For instance, during the pandemic, the government-dominated Public Accounts and Economic Committee released a report on pandemic management that failed to provide serious oversight of the government’s actions.
To solve this, joint investigatory committees must have a non-governmental chair and no more than 50% government representation. The Pandemic Declaration Accountability and Oversight Committee is the model.
Since its creation in the Pandemic Act, it has functioned with a balanced composition and has emerged as one of the most active and effective parliamentary oversight committees in Victorian Parliament in 2022. These committee reforms will also help to ensure the independence of integrity institutions.
3. Financial independence
Responsible government also requires parliament to be financially independent from the government. In Victoria, however, Parliament is funded by the executive as If it is any other executive agency. This is a problem.
Governmental domination of the budgeting process undermines not just the independence of parliament but also the capacity of the Ombudsman and IBAC to function. Both have repeatedly complained that they do not receive adequate funding to effectively carry out their oversight role.
To ensure that the government cannot starve parliament or key integrity institutions of funding to limits their investigatory scope, parliament must be able to determine its own funding. Emerging best practice in this area is the passage of a separate funding bill drafted not by the government but by an independent parliamentary funding committee.
This bill – which would passed alongside the government’s normal funding bills – would independently set the level of funding for both parliament and key integrity institutions.
Victoria’s public integrity crisis is not the fault of one person or party; it is instead a structural problem, stemming from a chronic lack of governmental accountability. Restoring parliamentary independence is a critical structural reform in reversing this problem.
This will not only better accord with Australia’s democratic traditions, it will also better preserve trust between government and the people – a critical resource in Australian democracy.
Banner image source: Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC)