The government has extended the energy payment to people on Newstart – after excluding them only days ago.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said the decision was made at a meeting on Tuesday night of Scott Morrison, Finance Minister Mathias Cormann and himself. He indicated it was about smoothing the passage of the measure through the parliament.
There was widespread criticism of the exclusion of Newstart recipients from the payment, which will be A$75 for a single person and $125 for a couple.
The money is due to go out very soon and the government needed the legislation to pass immediately. While Labor had flagged it would support the one-off payment, the legislation could have been amended, because the government is in a minority in the House of Representatives.
The payment was originally set to be confined to those on the age pension, disability support pension, carers payment, parenting payment single recipients, and veterans and their dependants receiving payments.
The extension, which will also cover those on Youth Allowance and other working age payments, bringing the number of recipients to five million, will add some $80 million to the original cost of $284.4 million.
Labor seized on the backdown, seeking to suspend standing orders to move a motion in the House saying the government’s backflip “has already blown an $80 million hole in the budget”, and showed the budget was “unravelling less than 24 hours after it was delivered”.
The motion condemned the government for “only looking after the top end of town and treating vulnerable Australians as an afterthought”. The attempt to suspend standing orders failed.
Frydenberg, speaking to the National Press Club, explained the original exclusion by saying three-quarters of people on Newstart moved off it within 12 months, and 99% of people on it received another payment.
“They get a parenting payment or they get a family tax benefit payment, whereas when you’re on the Disability Support Pension or on the aged pension, you tend to be on it for longer, and that seems to be – that is your principal form of payment”.
Frydenberg said the change “will secure the passage of the piece of legislation through the parliament”.
Appearing on the ABC Q&A on Monday, Liberal senator Arthur Sinodinos could not say why Newstart recipients had been excluded from the payment. “The short answer is I don’t know why,” he said. He also said he thought Newstart was too low.
If Twitter is the revolutionary version of blogging, TikTok might be the revolutionary version of YouTube. Both Twitter and TikTok encourage their users to post shorter, more fragmented content than their precursors.
TikTok, owned by the Chinese tech giant ByteDance, is the international version of China’s short video sharing app, Douyin.
TikTok is not the first Chinese social media platform to go international, although it is likely the first to gain traction with non-Chinese users globally. WeChat and other Chinese social media platforms that have gone global have, in fact, been predominately used by international Chinese citizens.
But TikTok is not yet a complete success story. The video-sharing platform may have broken into some non-Chinese markets, but it still has a lot to learn when it comes to outside regulations and culture.
And this is true for Chinese apps generally – they face obstacles refining their global strategies, particularly in navigating China’s notorious internet censorship.
Chinese social media is already going global
Some scholars attribute the success of Chinese social media to the censorship and isolation of China’s internet. This is because China’s Great Firewall prevents foreign social media from entering the Chinese market.
Nevertheless, many China-based social media platforms, such as Weibo, WeChat, You Ku, Blued and Douyin, are seeking to expand into the global market.
WeChat, for instance, tried (and failed) to expand into the non-Chinese overseas market, even hiring soccer star Lionel Messi to front their advertising campaign.
Unlike the global strategies of its peers, ByteDance has never merged Chinese and international digital realms. Instead, it created a separate app, TikTok, specifically for going abroad.
In fact, ByteDance spent A$1.42 billion to purchase Musical.ly, to target the teenage market in the US. On August 2, 2018, ByteDance merged Musical.ly into TikTok, an exceptional boost for TikTok’s success.
TikTok is trying to remove its Chinese roots
Douyin and TikTok are branded as the same product, but they each have distinct characteristics depending on their marketing target. This is wise for ByteDance’s global ambition, given Chinese internet culture doesn’t always translate in a global context.
For instance, TikTok, unlike Douyin, has a set of westernised stickers and effects on its interface, as you can see in the picture above.
Still, some prevailing Chinese traits appear in TikTok that emerged from Douyin, such as a meibai (美白, literally meaning “beautify whitening”) camera tool.
But the pursuit of white skin isn’t a social motivator in most western countries, and technological constraints like this are easily noticed.
Despite ByteDance’s efforts to minimise Chinese culture in its international app, it is still difficult for TikTok to fully understand western culture.
And this is especially true of other Chinese social media platforms, which don’t really endeavour to incorporate global cultures at all. For instance, WeChat’s mobile payment service, WeChat Pay, only allows Chinese citizens with a Chinese bank account to set up an account.
Global app with Chinese regulations
In April 2018, Chinese internet regulators accused ByteDance, of spreading “unwholesome” content through Douyin.
This includes child users who are making money by live streaming or posting advertising videos on Douyin. And to gain more Douyin followers, some children, for instance, have been reported as recording suggestive gestures or dances.
ByteDance’s chief executive Zhang Yiming responded by saying the company would increase its content moderation team from 6,000 staff members to 10,000. But ByteDance refused to disclose how many of these 10,000 moderators would work for TikTok, and whether the content standards for American users are the same as those for Chinese users.
Chief executive of Common Sense Media James P Steyer said children on TikTok are “significantly too young for it”.
It’s not that the content on TikTok isn’t okay for your 15-year-old. It’s what happens to your six or seven-year-old.
Last month, TikTok was penalised A$8 million by the US Federal Trade Commission due to its violation of Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.
ByteDance’s low-level attention to underage users on Douyin and TikTok shows the lack of structural mechanisms in place for protecting children in China. And there are possibilities for more unforeseen circumstances due to nontransparent regulation of social media within China.
While TikTok agreed to pay the largest ever penalty in a children’s privacy case in the US, there is still much for it to learn and adapt in the global market.
The Morrison government’s pre-election budget has not been the bonanza some predicted. It is a fairly modest affair.
But calculations by the the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling, based at the University of Canberra, show the budget will widen the gap between rich and poor. This is because changes to the tax and welfare system most benefit those paying tax. Those who don’t earn enough income to pay tax benefit least.
The centre has calculated the impact of the the federal budget’s tax and welfare transfer changes by families, age groups and Commonwealth Electoral Division.
The most significant tax changes are the two stages of tax cuts in 2022-23 and 2024-25. In 2022-23 the point at which the marginal tax rate increases from 19% to 32.5% will lift from A$41,000 to A$45,000. In 2024-25 the marginal tax rate on incomes between A$45,000 and A$200,000 will be reduced to 30%. The top tax rate of 45% (which now kicks in at A$180,000) will apply to any income above A$200,000.
The threshold on which no income tax is paid remains the same, at A$18,200.
Other tax changes involve increases to the Low Income Tax Offset (LITO) and the Low and Middle Income Tax Offset (LMITO). The LMITO (available for those earning more than A$48,000) will increase from A$530 to A$1,090 from this financial year, while the LITO will increase from A$645 to A$700 in 2022-23.
More income, more benefit
The benefit of the 2024/25 tax cuts on high-income families will be dramatic, as seen in Figure 1, which shows the effect of the changes over three years (2019-20, 2022-23 and 2024-25) by income.
The important point to note is that changes to marginal tax rates and the income tax offsets affect anyone paying tax. There is absolutely no benefit to anyone not paying tax. Which is why there is very little gain for those on incomes below $40,000 (the top of the second income quintile in Figure 1). The gain for those in the first income quintile (who mostly earn no private income) is even lower.
Figure 2 shows that the cohort that would gain the most in 2019-20 are those aged 26–35, by an average by A$245 a year for men and A$213 a year for women. This is mainly due to the change in the Low and Middle Income Tax Offset.
By 2024-25, the cohort gaining most are men aged 46–55, by A$795 a year, and women aged 46-55, by A$759 a year. This is mainly because the tax changes in 2024-25 provide greatest advantage to high-income earners, as shown above.
Figure 3 breaks down the impact by family type and income quintile. Couples with children gain the most for all years. By 2024-25, couples with children in the highest-income quintile gain an extra A$4,573 a year, while those in the lowest quintile get just A$114.
The main reason for this is that couples with children commonly have both parents working and paying tax, therefore tax changes benefit these families more.
In the first year (2019-20), the Low Income Tax Offset and Low and Middle Income Tax Offset mean middle-income earners gain the most (although it is still Quintile 4 gaining the most in this first year). By 2022-23 the tax cuts benefit higher-income households more.
When it comes to the impact by Commonwealth Electoral Division (Figure 4), we can see that by 2024-25 urban areas gain the most, and regional areas the least.
This is because households in urban areas tend to have higher incomes, and the tax cuts in 2024-25 mean electoral divisions with higher income households will benefit the most.
Effect on poverty rate
The budget’s effect on the poverty rate – the proportion of households living on less than 50% of median income – is to reduce it by 0.2 percentage points by 2024-25. This is a fairly small reduction. But due to the tax cuts in 2024-25 raising the net incomes for high-income households, this means income inequality will be higher.
The 0.2 percentage point decrease compares to an 0.8% percentage point reduction that NATSEM’s modelling estimates would result from raising the Newstart allowance by A$75 a week from what it is now.
The message from this analysis is that the changes to the tax and welfare system in this budget benefits those with higher incomes and who are paying tax, with little to no gains in future years to some of those low income earners who aren’t paying tax.
An Easter weekend in an election campaign might be a bit of a challenge for a pair of leaders who were atheists. But fortunately for Scott Morrison and Bill Shorten, declared believers, it wasn’t a problem.
Both attended church services during the so-called campaign cease-fire that the main parties had proclaimed for two of the four days.
Morrison on Sunday was pictured in full voice with raised arm at his Horizon Pentacostal church in The Shire, where the media were invited in. On Friday he’d been at a Maronite Catholic service in Sydney.
Sunday morning saw Shorten at an Anglican service in Brisbane, his family including mother-in-law Quentin Bryce, former governor-general.
Neither leader was hiding his light under a bushel.
Church, chocolate and penalty rates
Sunday was an opportunity to wheel out the kids, chasing Easter eggs (Shorten) or on the Rock Star ride at Sydney’s Royal Easter Show (Morrison). This was campaigning when you’re not (exactly) campaigning.
The minor players weren’t into the pretend game. For them, the relative restraint on the part of the majors presented rare opportunity. Usually Centre Alliance senator Rex Patrick would have little chance of being the feature interview on the ABC’s Insiders.
But while Friday and Sunday were lay days for the major parties Saturday was not (and Monday won’t be either).
For Labor, Easter has meshed nicely with one of the key planks of its wages policy – restoration of penalty rate cuts by the Fair Work Commission. Even on Sunday, Shorten pointedly thanked “everyone who’s working this weekend”.
It was the start of Labor’s campaign focus turning from health to wages this week, when it will cast the election as a “referendum on wages”.
Turnbull resurrects the NEG
The weekend standout, however, was the intervention of Malcolm Turnbull, who launched a series of pointed tweets about the National Energy Guarantee (NEG).
Turnbull was set off by a reference from journalist David Speers to “Malcolm Turnbull’s NEG”.
“In fact the NEG had the support of the entire Cabinet, including and especially the current PM and Treasurer. It was approved by the Party Room on several occasions”, the former prime minister tweeted.
“It had the support of the business community and energy sector in a way that no previous energy policy had. However a right wing minority in the Party Room refused to accept the majority position and threatened to cross the floor and defeat their own government”.
“That is the only reason it has been abandoned by the Government. The consequence is no integration of energy and climate policy, uncertainty continues to discourage investment with the consequence, as I have often warned, of both higher emissions and higher electricity prices.”
He wasn’t finished.
“And before anyone suggests the previous tweet is some kind of revelation – all of the economic ministers, including myself, @ScottMorrisonMP, @JoshFrydenberg spent months arguing for the NEG on the basis that it would reduce electricity prices and enable us to lower our emissions.”
“I see the @australian has already described the tweets above as attacking the Coalition. That’s rubbish. I am simply stating the truth: the NEG was designed & demonstrated to reduce electricity prices. So dumping it means prices will be higher than if it had been retained. QED”
“The @australian claims I ‘dropped the NEG’. False. When it was clear a number of LNP MPs were going to cross the floor the Cabinet resolved to not present the Bill at that time but maintain the policy as @ScottMorrisonMP, @JoshFrydenberg& I confirmed on 20 August.”
(Frydenberg, incidentally, has lost out every which way on the NEG. As energy minister he tried his hardest to get it up, only to see it fall over. Now he is subject to a big campaign against him in Kooyong on climate change, including from high-profile candidates and GetUp.)
Turnbull might justify the intervention as just reminding people of the history. But it is damaging for the government and an Easter gift for Labor – which is under pressure over how much its ambitious emissions reduction policy would cost the economy. It also feeds into Labor’s constant referencing of the coup against Turnbull.
Turnbull’s Easter tweets are a reminder
the Coalition sacrificed a coherent policy on energy and climate for a hotchpotch with adverse consequences for prices;
it dumped that policy simply because of internal bloodymindedness, and
the now-PM and treasurer were backers of the NEG, which had wide support from business.
Shorten has strengthened his commitment on the NEG, indicating on Saturday he’d pursue it in government even without bipartisan support.
“We’ll use some of the Turnbull, Morrison, Frydenberg architecture, and we will work with that structure,” he said.
Given the hole it has left in the government’s energy policy, pressing Morrison on the economic cost of walking away from the NEG is as legitimate as asking Shorten about the economic impact of his policy.
Infrastructure spending is one of the central themes of Treasurer Frydenberg’s budget speech. His headline announcement was the promise to increase the ten-year federal infrastructure spend from the A$75 billion announced last year to a target of $100 billion.
Major projects previously announced – like the Melbourne Airport rail link, Western Sydney’s north-south airport rail link and Queensland’s Bruce Highway upgrade – are affirmed. A fast rail connection from Melbourne to Geelong is added. Also added are nation-wide packages of roadworks targeted at reducing congestion and improving regional freight corridors.
So the announcements continue the infrastructure program detailed in the 2018-19 budget, as promoted regularly in the government’s expensive “Building Our Future” advertising campaign that gives prominence to the government’s ten-year “Infrastructure Pipeline”.
The Parliamentary Library has been unable to locate any public document which provides a transparent overview of [the federal government’s] total infrastructure commitments.
One suspects that scrutiny over coming weeks of the $100 billion infrastructure spending promises will be thwarted by a repetition of this lack of transparency.
Why are infrastructure needs so great?
The national population growth story is the key framework for assessing the Coalition’s infrastructure plan. Between 1901 and 1948, the nation grew steadily, but modestly, from a population of 3.8 million to 7.7 million. Then the population surged on the back of a post-war baby boom and an expansion of immigration. The population grew by between 2.0 and 2.5 million people each decade from the 1950s through to the 2000s.
But in the last decade, the nation has added nearly 6 million people, with the east coast cities overwhelmingly hosting the increase. Urban infrastructure planning and spending have lagged. Both quality of life and economic productivity have been affected adversely as a consequence.
The infrastructure spending in this budget responds to community concerns about these declines.
The Future Fund was also created to cover public service pension liabilities. That fund is now custodian of over $150 billion worth of assets.
Dissolving pension liabilities is wise economic management. Australia’s problem is that this resolution took place at the expense of national capital works spending. Around this time, the state-owned utilities that had taken responsibility for the roll-out of post-war infrastructure – with their regular, predictable annual capital works budgets and their vast in-house planning and delivery offices – were on their last legs.
The loss of committed funding and the erosion of the utilities stalled infrastructure delivery at a time in Australian history when it was most needed. The urban infrastructure projects for coping with the acceleration of urban growth are only now coming on stream.
New funding streams have had to be found, led by a new round of state-based asset sell-offs – in New South Wales especially – and new models of private sector delivery, ownership and operation. Pretty much all new urban infrastructure projects in Australia are now some sort of private public partnership.
But, as this budget confirms, private sector involvement in infrastructure spending and delivery needs to be leveraged on the back of public funding and protected from project risk by a raft of government measures. An important risk amelioration measure involves decision-making technologies.
Here, the growing expertise within the federal government’s Infrastructure Australia unit is increasingly important. Established by the Rudd Labor government a decade ago, IA struggled for legitimacy for many years. Now we can see Infrastructure Australia’s priority lists – based on its independent assessments – dominating government budget announcements. Indeed, the government’s ten-year Infrastructure Investment Pipeline is a very close reproduction of Infrastructure Australia’s national priority listing. Which is a good thing.
Why the focus on roads?
The problem, of course, is that rather than infrastructure steering urban growth, as would have been the case had the Howard Coalition government not dramatically lowered the level of national capital works spending, infrastructure spending now chases urban growth.
Not surprisingly, the Morrison government packages a bundle of roads spending as “urban congestion” measures, acknowledging that transport planning has been inadequate.
The concentration on roads spending also acknowledges that the millennial growth surge in our cities has been geographically perverse. Greenfields residential projects are rarely aligned to public transport systems. And jobs growth has been a mix of CBD obsession and suburban scatter.
The result is congestion of antiquated CBD-centric public transport systems and suburban journey-to-work patterns that make retrofitting of public transport an impossible task.
No doubt there will be criticism of this budget’s apparent obsession with roads spending. The unfortunate reality is that large sections of our cities are stuck with the roads-based configuration that was instilled into their DNA from the get-go. Roads – not rail – are the thoroughfares that define transport options across our new suburban areas into the future.
Getting used to road spending and having constructive things to say about road use are a major challenge.
The shortlist features six renewable electricity pumped hydro projects, five gas projects, and one coal upgrade project, supplemented by A$10 million for a two-year feasibility study for electricity generation in Queensland, possibly including a new coal-fired power station.
The study is unnecessary, because the GenCost 2018 study by CSIRO and the Australian Energy Market Operator already provides recent cost data for new power generation in Australia. It shows that new wind and solar farms can provide the lowest-cost electricity, even when two to six hours’ worth of storage is added.
Hence there is no economic case for new coal-fired power in Australia. After a century of coal, it should not be subsidised any longer.
While Queensland and Victoria have state government policies to drive the rapid growth of large-scale solar and wind, New South Wales does not even have a renewable electricity target. Yet the retirement of large, old coal-fired stations is in the pipeline: Liddell, nominally 1,680 megawatts, in 2022 and Vales Point, nominally 1,320MW, possibly in the late 2020s.
Coal baron Trevor St Baker bought Vales Point from the NSW government for the token sum of A$1 million in 2015. He wants to refurbish it and run it until 2049 – and his plan has made it onto the government’s shortlist.
Given that Vales Point is now arguably a A$730 million asset, St Baker has made a huge windfall profit at the expense of NSW taxpayers, and so a government subsidy to upgrade it would be unjust.
Unfortunately, the newly elected NSW Liberal-National Coalition government has no policies of substance to fill the gap left by retiring coal stations with large-scale renewable electricity. It will therefore be up to the federal government after the May election to provide reverse auctions with contracts-for-difference, matching the policies of the ACT, Victorian and Queensland governments. Also, increased funding to ARENA and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation is needed for dispatchable renewables (those that can supply power on demand) and other forms of storage.
Driving the change
The transition to renewable electricity is already well under way, as even the federal energy minister Angus Taylor admits. The low costs of solar and wind power are driving the change. To maintain reliability, dispatchable renewables (as opposed to variable sources such as solar and wind) and other forms of storage are needed in the technology mix.
Batteries excel at responding rapidly to changes in supply and demand, on timescales of tens of milliseconds to a few hours. But they would be very expensive for covering periods of several days, even at half their current price. So there is a temporary role for open-cycle gas turbines (OCGTs) to meet demand peaks of a few hours, and to fill lows of several days in wind and/or solar supply.
Small-scale pumped hydro, in which excess local renewable electricity does the pumping, has huge potential for storage over periods of several days, but takes longer to plan and build, and has higher capital cost per megawatt, compared with OCGTs.
Small-scale pumped hydro should be the top priority for the federal program. In particular, the off-river proposal by SIMEC Zen Energy, which is part of Sanjeev Gupta’s GFG Alliance, will use a depleted iron ore pit and provide cheap, reliable, low-emission electricity for both GFG’s steelworks at Whyalla and other industrial and commercial users.
Hydro Tasmania’s proposed “Battery of the Nation” would involve building a new interconnector across the Bass Strait, together with possibly three new pumped hydro plants. It’s very expensive and is already receiving A$57 million in federal funding. Its inclusion in the shortlist is worrying because it could soak up all the program’s unspecified funding for pumped hydro.
Furthermore, the need to greatly increase Tasmania’s wind capacity to deal with droughts appears to be an optional extra, rather than an essential part of the project.
Little information is available for the other shortlisted pumped hydro projects. UPC Renewables is proposing a huge solar farm, together with pumped hydro, in the New England region of NSW. In South Australia, Sunset Power (trading as Delta Electricity, chaired by Trevor St Baker), in association with the Altura Group, is proposing an off-river pumped hydro project near Port Augusta, and Rise Renewables is proposing the Baroota pumped hydro project. BE Power Solutions, which does not have a website, is proposing pumped hydro on the Cressbrook Reservoir at Crows Nest, Queensland.
Pumping for Snowy 2.0 (which is not part of the program) will be done mostly by coal power for many years, until renewables dominate supply in NSW and Victoria. Therefore, I give low priority to this huge and expensive scheme.
To sum up, new coal power stations and major upgrades to existing ones are both unnecessary. They are more expensive than wind and solar, even when short-term storage is added – not to mention very polluting.
A few open-cycle gas turbines may be acceptable for temporary peak supply during the transition to 100% renewable electricity. But the priority should be building pumped hydro to back up wind and solar farms. This will keep the grid reliable and stable as we do away with the old and welcome the new.
On March 27, India announced it had successfully conducted an anti-satellite (ASAT) missile test, called “Mission Shakti”. After the United States, Russia and China, India is now the fourth country in the world to have demonstrated this capability.
The destroyed satellite was one of India’s own. But the test has caused concerns about the space debris generated, which potentially threatens the operation of functional satellites.
There are also political and legal implications. The test’s success may be a plus for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is now trying to win his second term in the upcoming election.
But the test can be viewed as a loss for global security, as nations and regulatory bodies struggle to maintain a view of space as a neutral and conflict-free arena in the face of escalating technological capabilities.
According to the official press release, India destroyed its own satellite by using technology known as “kinetic kill”. This particular technology is usually termed as “hit-to-kill”.
A kinetic kill missile is not equipped with an explosive warhead. Simply put, what India did was to launch the missile, hit the target satellite and destroy it with energy purely generated by the high speed of the missile interceptor. This technology is only one of many with ASAT capabilities, and is the one used by China in its 2007 ASAT test.
Power and strength
Since the first satellite was launched in 1957 (the Soviet Union’s Sputnik), space has become – and will continue to be – a frontier where big powers enhance their presence by launching and operating their own satellites.
Although India downplayed the potential for danger by arguing that its test was conducted in the lower atmosphere, this perhaps did not take into account the creation of pieces smaller than 5-10 cm in diameter.
These were written when there were only a handful of spacefaring nations, and space technologies were not as sophisticated as they are now.
Although these treaties are binding legal documents, they leave many of today’s issues unregulated. For example, in terms of military space activities, the Outer Space Treaty only prohibits the deployment of weapons of mass destruction in space, not conventional weapons (including ballistic missiles, like the one used by India in Mission Shakti).
In addition, the treaty endorses that outer space shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes. However, the issue is how to interpret the term “peaceful purposes”. India claimed, after its ASAT test:
we have always maintained that space must be used only for peaceful purposes.
Al Jazeera’s explosive investigation, “How to Sell a Massacre”, exposed the One Nation party’s attempts to weaken Australia’s gun laws with pro-gun PR training and donations from the National Rifle Association.
The party joins a growing group of our politicians who have recently behaved unethically.
Already in the first weeks of 2019, a senator attended a rally of far-right extremists using A$3,000 of tax payer money; another accepted the gift of a family holiday from a travel agent with political connections; and the prime minister flew to Christmas Island at a cost of A$60,000 for a PR-laced 20 minute press conference.
Given this dismal record, unethical conduct will likely feature again in the months ahead, and in myriad forms. It’s no wonder Australians are disillusioned with the standard of politics.
It’s time all nine of Australia’s parliaments join thousands of professional organisations and devise a common code of ethics for their members.
Past attempts to ‘clean house’ have sadly failed
Initiatives over more than half a century to manage unethical conduct in the political realm have proved ineffectual. John Howard, Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull made paltry efforts – knee jerk reactions essentially – to rein in the shabby behaviour of their own ministers, asserting only a prime minister could determine the offender’s fate. Such judgements would surely lead to arbitrary rulings and bias.
Where independent commissions against corruption have been established, defining their goals and procedures has proved problematic. With corruption and conflict of interest as their principal points of focus, a plethora of other forms of misconduct have been given short shrift.
One would imagine the threat of an enforced, humiliating resignation; the possible end of a parliamentary career; and heartbreaking effects on the offender’s family would deter politicians from behaving improperly.
Yet unethical conduct continues.
A model for a code of ethics
There is nothing new in what I am proposing. Indeed, it is rare today to encounter a professional body that has not established a set of ethical principles to guide their members.
So why should politicians, who have the most pivotal jobs in the nation, not follow suit?
One model they can draw from is the code of ethics of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP), with which I have been involved for 30 years.
In 1990, our members determined a code of ethics could help instil in us a commitment to “cultivate and maintain the highest ethical standards” in our care of patients.
The resulting set of morally informed principles was devised in collaboration with college members, key stakeholders in the mental health field (advocacy organisations like SANE and MIND) and, most relevantly, people with experience of mental illness.
The 11 principles of the current code cover readily recognisable aspects of psychiatric practice, among them respecting patients’ dignity, maintaining confidentiality, providing the best attainable care, obtaining informed consent and never denigrating colleagues.
Most of the ethical challenges politicians face are also readily identifiable, falling under the rubric of always respecting their constituents and never forgetting to place the national interest ahead of their own.
And given politicians across the country grapple with similar ethical dilemmas, we can envisage a single code to serve them all.
How would a code for Australia’s politicians be devised?
Many options present themselves. One possibility that echoes the procedure followed by RANZCP would see the country’s parliamentarians setting up an independent working group charged with the task of devising an ethical code aimed at promoting their moral integrity.
The group could be chaired by an esteemed judge and comprise retired politicians, one from each state and territory and one federal. They would be highly respected for the moral integrity they exhibited during their parliamentary career. A moral philosopher and a legal scholar, both experts in the domain of professional ethics, would consult to the group.
Their initial step would be to invite submissions from all parliamentarians, past and present, relevant stakeholders and the community at large.
Copies of an advanced draft would be distributed to all current parliamentarians, requesting feedback, substantive and stylistic.
Taking the feedback into account, representatives of each parliament would unite to review the penultimate version and submit any final suggestions.
And like RANZCP and may other organisations, it would be revised every five years. It would bear in mind new developments in ethics, relevant societal changes and how the code improved politicians’ conduct during the preceding five years.
A common criticism of codes of ethics is their lack of teeth. While the RANZCP much prefers to use its code to promote ethical behaviour and moral integrity, serious consequences for any transgressions prevail, including the radical step of expulsion from the college.
Steps would be taken to remind politicians, the very people who have had a hand in devising the code, that its principles apply directly to them and warrant their continued attention. Any ethical misconduct would be dealt with by the offender’s parliament following an agreed procedure.
On a positive note, ethical conduct would be highlighted at every opportunity.
This would include ethics workshops for newly elected MPs; an annual ethics conference for all MPs with participation from moral philosophers and international parliamentarians; and ensuring the national code is readily available online and in all nine parliaments.
Nothing to lose
I may be regarded as naive in proposing a code of ethics for all the nation’s parliamentarians.
However, given its widespread acceptance by thousands of professional organisations universally, establishing a code for politicians devised by politicians is worth a shot. There is nothing to lose except the funds allocated to the process should it flounder.
Given so many politicians have breached moral principles over the years, at times placing our fragile democracy at risk, we need to act vigorously and without delay. Australians deserve politicians of integrity who they can trust and respect unreservedly.