Shining a light on Australia’s shady behaviour

Barry O’Farrell’s resignation has brought accountability into the spotlight, and it’s not only public officials feeling the pressure. Corporates are also finding that spin just won’t cut it anymore.

When Barry O’Farrell resigned as NSW Premier over the Grange affair he profoundly changed the rules of public and corporate life.

Not only did he set a new bar for accountability for politicians and public servants, O’Farrell underlined that in future there would need to be accountability in corporate lobbying.

And so, before long we are going to see public servants, government minsters and corporate executives become accountable for their actions and less able to hide behind spin.

I don’t think the current crop of Canberra public servants and politicians have fully grasped the implications of O’Farrell’s resignation and corporate Australia is even further behind. To illustrate what is happening among corporations I want to talk about the ACCC action against Coles, and in the public service sector I will illustrate with the Department of Defence and the taxation office.

Behind the scenes we are seeing intense lobbying to prevent the federal government carrying out its solemn pre-election undertaking to extend consumer protection laws to small businesses in dealing with large corporations and governments.

Most cabinet members and backbenchers have either been lobbied or will be lobbied as some of the largest corporations in the land flex their muscles.

Then suddenly the ACCC is attempting to test the existing legislation in the courts to determine whether it will protect small enterprises against the alleged predatory behaviour of a large company.

In fairness to Coles, it now operates under a Food and Grocery Council set of rules but that was not the case two or three years ago and it's not the case over a wide area of business and government activity -- hence the intense lobbying to keep the status quo from business and governments outside supermarkets. But the big business and government lobbying campaign will need to be conducted without threats or offers of Grange because, thanks to O’Farrell and the ACCC, it will be in the public spotlight.

On a different tack, public servants or politicians who make statements that are later found to be wrong are now also likely to face Barry O’Farrell moments -- particularly when they are speaking in controversial areas.

And so when the chief of the Defence Force, General David Hurley, said on ABC Radio that he had received no significant Defence Force sexual abuse complaints in the last year or so, and that after two years people are no longer coming forward, he had better be right.

There are a number of victims who claim he is wrong. It’s not my place to pass judgment and normally I would not raise such matters but the head of the Defence Force is another person who will come under increasing scrutiny. Accountability cannot be underestimated in these issues.  

Someone in Defence also needs to be accountable for telling the Prime Minister that if Australia buys the Joint Strike Fighter it will deliver air superiority in the region when the American general in charge of the JSF is adamant that it will not deliver air superiority (Misguided Abbott strikes out on the JSF, April 28). 

There are a number of other defence equipment blunders that have been covered up with spin and the people who made the mistakes not held accountable.

In opposition the current government promised to make the taxation commissioner obey the law so that independent contracting could flourish. It was alleged the commissioner was acting outside the law in wanting to classify genuine independent contractors, as defined in the legislation, as employees and penalise them heavily. The bureaucrats are still conducting inquiries rather than being forced to obey the law. Someone must be held accountable.

Meanwhile in the opinion polls you can see what happens when a Prime Minister indicates he may break a promise in relation to tax and tries to use spin to say he is not really planning to break that promise (Abbott's tax betrayal will cost him dearly, May 5).

Whether it is in private sector lobbying or the behaviour of politicians and public servants, the public is demanding accountability. 

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