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It's high time for a national corruption commission

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Lee Rhiannon 17 Apr 2014

This article was published in the Guardian on 17 April 2014.

Premier Barry O’Farrell’s resignation was supposed to indicate a break between the old-style way of doing politics in NSW and the state Liberal Party, but it has emerged that new premier Mike Baird appointed the lobbyist at the heart of the current scandal, Nick Di Girolomo, the chief executive of Australian Water Holdings, to the state water board.

However, recent events in NSW parliament have little to do with a bottle of wine, Barry O’Farrell’s poor memory, or even Australian Water Holdings. They are about an issue that goes right to the heart of our political system – the links between our major political parties and the big end of town. The NSW Labor culture of lobbying has well and truly spread to the NSW Coalition and to federal parliament – couldrevelations involving Liberal senator Arthur Sinodinos and the relationship between NSW Liberals and Australian Water Holdings be the tip of the iceberg?

At the federal level, very little has been done to combat influence peddling in politics. Governments write their own ministerial codes of conduct. There are no real consequences for failing to update the registers of senators’ and members’ interests, and we have seen many examples of MPs forgetting about their obligations.

Lobbyists are barely regulated, spending on political advertising is unlimited and both the government and opposition have opposed attempts to establish a national lobbyists’ watchdog. Although parties are required to declare donations, there are few restrictions on who they can take money from.

In NSW, donations from developers and tobacco, gambling and alcohol companies are banned, and for other corporations capped at just over $5,000 per annum. But despite growing public cynicism about the influence of corporate political donations, the Coalition and Labor parties have stuck together to block any federal reforms. Donations from corporate interests to both Labor and the Coalition run to many millions of dollars at every election.

The Australian Greens currently have a bill for a national Icac that is before the federal parliament. Such a body is urgently needed to shine a light on any situations where relationships between big business and major party politicians go further than just political donations into the realm of corruption in order to restore people’s confidence in the political system.

Like the NSW Icac, its powers must be broad. It should be empowered to investigate and expose allegations of corruption throughout the public sector, not just among ministers. This could include public agencies and departments, the courts, public officials, and all MPs.

A federal ban on corporate donations to political parties is also a must. This is one way we can put the brakes on activities many in the community consider unethical.

It is a shame, but telling, that earlier this year the Coalition government and Labor opposition joined forces in the Senate to vote down a Greens motion backing greater regulation of lobbying activities in the federal parliament.

Prime minister Tony Abbott will attempt to isolate himself and the federal coalition from premier O’Farrell’s resignation. The only way to get to the bottom of this is if the Coalition and Labor get behind the Greens proposal for a federal corruption commission.

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