Transparency in Australian politics

I’m very excited to see that OpenAustralia, the local version of TheyWorkForYou is online and in beta testing. Congrats to everyone involved. It’s something I’ve been wanting to see happen in Australia for years.

Reading through the site and its’ associated blog tonight, I discovered a couple of interesting points about transparency in Australian politics, good and bad.

The good was Kevin Rudd’s explanation of the nationwide FuelWatch system he’s implementing, to the chagrin of the opposition. From his explanation in Parliament this week and this release on his website (which is a couple of months old but, hey, I’ve been busy), it sounds like a good system to me. I think providing transparency on the issue of petrol prices is exactly what the government should be doing. It prevents them from interfering in the market by either placing a ceiling on petrol prices or getting more directly involved in competition regulation. They provide information and let the people decide which retailers they will buy their petrol from. It’s pretty hard to argue with. Interesting to see the Liberals *still* siding with the oil companies even after losing the last election so badly. All of the post-election rhetoric about having to change and listening to the people has obviously been put aside.

The bad thing I read was on the OpenAustralia blog where they have been trying to get access to the Register of Members’ Interests. What’s that? According to OA:

As you may know, the Register of Members’ Interests says who or what organisations are paying what to members of the House of Representatives. This is a really important document that explains who is financially influencing your Representatives.

So basically you get to see who is bribing your local MP to send them a favourable vote. You would think that this information would be pretty important in a representative democracy, right? So, where is it? Here’s what OA was told:

Not only, as mentioned before, is the register only kept in one office in Canberra, and not available online for everyone to see, it is not even available in electronic form.

Rather, the Register of Members’ Interests is a set of 7 binders with around 1500 A4 sheets in them, which are continually updated (by hand) throughout the course of the parliamentary term. Supposedly, many of the sheets are handwritten.

In other words, it is being deliberately made difficult for members of the general public to get access to. This has to be changed. We need to start a campaign to build awareness around this issue and get the Rudd government to address it. We all should have the ability to see who is lining our politicians’ pockets. This information should be readily available to everybody.

12 thoughts on “Transparency in Australian politics

  1. I 100% agree with you there Mr Reilly, we have the same problem (amongst many) here in Norway to.
    It is very strange to see that “the Register of Members’ Interests” are using the same arguments as here in Norway.
    And they even refuses to discuss it when confronted with questions on TV ore other media here in the land of rich idiots.

    This is a very important thing as fare as I am concerned, The government is there for the people and NOT the other way around.
    If we say we want 100% transparency in all matters, that is what they MUST provide, regardless of what THEY think.
    Cos that is how they tell us democracy is supposed to work….but it doesn’t work that way. It works totally opposite of what it is supposed to…because of lobbies and organizations/institutions like “the Register of Members’ Interests”, AND because WE over and over again let these people fu&%¤ us over, without doing anything to stop them.
    Most likely cos we have just enough lux and entertainment to feel semi content (give people bread and circus a.s.o. quote: Joseph Stalin).
    But we keep forgetting how easy it would be to change everything…we outnumber these people (the ones benefiting from status quo in our money/religion and political systems)one to a million.
    Another thing is that I don’t think that all rich people are against us creating a better and more fair system on earth (yourself a proof of this), witch even strengthen our numbers and resources.
    The big problem I think is to get everybody to understand and see that all people have a common course we could follow, that would bring prosperity to a lot more people than today, without rocking the boat for people that already feel they are ok.
    Cos by solving the problems in the so called third world (stupid name if you ask me) would go a long way in releasing the pressure we have on the immigration problems that Europe, USA and Australia are struggling with today.
    And that would again make for more understanding among the people of the world…..
    Man did I stray off here…so sorry, only want to say that transparency is a must together with decentralization.
    You see I used to be an advocate of armed revolution if necessary, but I have started to think that we might just be able to pull this off peacefully and with everybody’s dignity more ore less intact.
    This as a result of the internet and free access to information and communication world wide, and that is something I would give my life to protect, not some stupid religion ore “ism”…

    Thanks for a fantastic podcast…here as well 🙂


  2. I fully agree that the Register of Members’ interests should be made accessible – and yes it is true that many of the sheets updating each person’s register are handwritten. Mine certainly was.

    However, I do think you’re being a bit harsh with the rhetoric about “seeing who is lining our politicians’ pockets”. Many of the things put on the Register are assets, not gifts (e.g. share holdings, investment properties, etc) which are there as a check on potential conflicts of interest. While its true that many MPs receive things like free tickets to major events or sometimes travel costs to overseas conferences and the like (and these should certianly be declared) it is not really the sort of personal enrichment that’s implied by the “lining pockets” phrase.

    Most big donations go to political parties rather than individual MPs – and there needs to be greater controls and transparency there too. (the Electoral Commission’s website showing donations to parties and enabling searches is a good model for what should be possible with the Register of Interests).

  3. And its great that a site like Open Democracy is up there. Naturally I think it really needs to have the Senate up there to be really valuable, but it is in beta mode so I shan’t whinge too much. It’s a great initiative.

  4. I agree totally on making that Register of Members’ Interests info public.

    Mr. Bartlett, it’s great to see a senator who’s savvy enough to read blogs (and to blog himself). Not to mention how I agree with most of the little I’ve seen of your writing. I’m impressed.

  5. This is a pretty big issue that really should be brought into public debate. To do that I’m thinking a collaborative satire video on The Youtubes. If say 20 of us each did a Chaser/ACA/TT style ambush interview of our local member asking them about it and raising the the issues directly to them. Then we pool all the footage to cut it together so it’s a sub 3 minute video that gets across why ’tis needed while then showing the politician responses and likely non-knowledge to the lack of info available online could be entertaining/funny and informative depending on how we approach it and the questions we ask. Follow the video with a call to action to go to a survey, petition, letter campaign or something that would require members/Parliament/media to take more notice.

  6. “Any suggestions on how we go about getting the Register put online?”

    I think good old fashioned awareness raising (as you are doing here) and lobbying – in all its forms – about the issue is the way to go. Look for opportunities to make the point, whether in public forums, parliamentary inquiries and the like. And whilst not suggesting people be powderpuffs about it, don’t frame the whole thing in a “let’s expose the whole bunch of corrupt trouts in troughs” way. A bit of that is fair enough, but it is as much an issue of improving transparency and public confidence in politicians and processes – the same as the online registery of electoral donations.

    Politicians are human (it’s true!) and you present an issue to them in a way that just tells them you think they’re a pack of arsehols, they’re less likely to respond positively – although obviously negative publicity and attacks can provide an effectiuve way to apply pressure, but politicians get plenty of that anyway. It does involve publicising your private details (as in your assets and investments, not just gifts) and many people have an instinctive aversion to that stuff being spread across the internet, so you have to overcome that instinctive aversion.

    The assumption is also that ease of access to this sort of info will mainly serve to give more ammunition for journalists to take cheap shots in their endless (and yet to be successful) battle to get politicians to be held in even lower public esteem than journalists.

    Not reasons not to do it, but things to be aware of in trying to overcome the aversion to greater public access.

  7. Pingback: Open democracy II
  8. Thanks Andrew. I like your shot about journalists. 🙂

    From my perspective, it’s healthy in a democracy for us to have a certain level of distrust of politicians. I don’t think journalists in this country do nearly enough digging into ways in which politicians can be manipulated (see my recent interview with Stephen Mayne and his explanation of the defamation rort).

    Coming out of 11 years of the Howard government, I think it’s even more natural for us to be wary and skeptical of politicians’ motives for keeping certain information off of the radar.

    But I do take your point that if we frame the initiative to get the Register online as a negative issue that it might make it harder to get their support.

    By the way, great to see your blog back online and best of luck with your final speech tomorrow. You’ve been a big inspiration to many of us over the years and I look forward to seeing what you do next.

  9. Just wanted to give some positive vibes to the nice senator.
    We could do with politicians like this here in Norway (or maybe we have, but they’re not focused on in the media), and I agree that we might get a better response from our chosen ones if we address them in a slightly friendlier tone…might turn out to be a good idea…just think of it…I am sure many of our politicians are good and well meaning people tangled up in a system out of control.

    just another two cent from a Norwegian slightly confused world citizen…


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