05 June 2007

Better late than never: News Ltd media support calls for anti-corruption commission in SA

Today's Advertiser/ Adelaide Now editorial supports my call (and that of federal ALP MP Rod Sawford) for an anti-corruption commission in South Australia.

The case for establishing a commission to investigate public service corruption and organised crime in South Australia is becoming more compelling by the day. Several issues which have emerged in the past 48 hours could arguably be referred to an anti-corruption commission.

All that is lacking is the will of the State Government to legislate to set up a watchdog similar to those operating in Queensland, New South Wales and Western Australia. Clearly, as demonstrated by quite separate issues in those states, an anti-corruption commission has the capacity to generate political embarrassment.

But a government with nothing to hide has nothing to fear. A government which says the current safeguards of the Auditor-General and the police are sufficient, risks - perhaps unfairly - being accused of having something to hide.

No serious whiff of corruption has tainted the present Government. But only yesterday it was revealed that two parliamentary select committees looking at the issue involving the operation of government have held no meetings this year. There is the potential conflict of interest involving Members of Parliament who have outside employment and the alarming case of documents stolen from a police car which have fallen into the hands of a bikie gang.No impropriety may necessarily be associated with any of these incidents.

But where can they be referred for assessment? Who is investigating them?

And where can people who suspect illegal or fraudulent activity within the broad performance of government go to complain?

The State Opposition - whatever its political colour - and the media have a responsibility to pursue issues which may involve inappropriate government behaviour. Under Freedom of Information provisions they are often denied access to relevant documents or other information on the basis of commercial confidentiality.

A permanent anti-corruption commission would remove all confusion about where complaints could be lodged, which authority should be investigating specific issues, or doubts about proper release of information.

Recently the paper/website also expressed concern that the number of Labor advisers has increased from 191 to 275 since 2002.

While paid by the public purse, these advisers are not traditional public servants.

Public servants are employed to work for the government of the day, regardless of its political hue - whether serving at a counter, maintaining orderly financial accounts or offering policy advice. Political advisers are employed specifically to protect the personal interests of ministers and the broader interests of the government of a particular political philosophy. Before working for government they have often been loyal party political workers personally known to their minister and the wider government.

Realistically, ministers need a policy filter to assess advice offered by the Public Service. They need press secretaries to field the increasing demands of a diverse media serving a society hungry for information.

It is a trend which began in the 1970s under then prime minister Gough Whitlam and, in South Australia, premier Don Dunstan. But in too many cases the growing army of political advisers is now usurping the role and responsibility of the traditional Public Service. They have a higher regard for political philosophy than public need.

Press officers, working on a "need to know" basis, withhold or distort information for the benefit of minister or government. Some public servants no longer have frequent and direct contact with their ministers.

It is no longer a case of "Yes Minister" but "Yes Adviser".

This is not a criticism directed solely at the state Labor Government.

It can be just as easily directed at the Liberal Federal Government and the previous Liberal state government.

But it is a trend which promotes not the well-being of the people but the survival of the incumbent government.

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