Laws restricting political campaigns by Queensland trade unions were quietly repealed on Wednesday night, in the face of a High Court challenge. In 2013, new rules requiring industrial organisations to conduct a ballot of members before spending more than $10,000 on political campaigns were introduced. Affected unions launched a High Court challenge, saying that the cost and delay caused by the processes were a burden on their freedom of political communication. The explanatory notes for the repeal bill say the decision was prompted by the “recent decision of the High Court in Unions NSW v New South Wales“, which “indicates that the High Court will read widely the implied right of freedom of communication on government and political matters”. (In that case, the NSW government’s attempt to cap political spending by unions was unanimously held to be an illegitimate burden on the implied freedom.) The Queensland Attorney-General, Jarrod Bleijie, has been forced to defend his performance as a minister; the Court of Appeal struck down a law allowing him to jail people despite court orders to release them because it breached the separation of powers, and his anti-bikie laws are currently before the High Court.
The Victorian Parliament’s Privileges Committee, which is responsible for investigating wrongdoing by MPs, has split along party lines in its report on the Member for Frankston, Geoff Shaw. The inquiry began when Shaw’s misuse of a government vehicle for his private business was found by the Ombudsman to be in breach of guidelines. The Liberal and National majority report found that Shaw’s contraventions were not “wilful”, but he should be required to repay the money. The Labor minority said he was “completely reckless, careless and indifferent to obligations”, and warned: “All options are on the table, including the expulsion of Geoff Shaw from parliament, the suspension of Geoff Shaw or a heavy fine.” For his part, Shaw says the committee were “nuff-nuffs”. The issue is sensitive, as Shaw holds the balance of power in the Legislative Assembly, and the Government relies on his support to pass its bills. The former Speaker, Ken Smith—who was forced to resign under pressure from Shaw—has announced his intention to cross the floor and vote to adopt the minority report, possibly suspending Shaw and creating a 43-43 vote deadlock in the Assembly. Shaw says he will run for parliament again as an independent, so the people of Frankston will have the final say.
The Royal Commission into the Home Insulation Program remained controversial this week, as former prime minister Kevin Rudd was called to give evidence. Although criminal prosecutions held the installation companies responsible for workers’ deaths, and the risk of fire fell under the program, the Abbott Government nevertheless established a royal commission to investigate whether the processes of government contributed to the problems. Controversially, cabinet documents were handed to the Commission, despite a convention that they be kept confidential for thirty years. The Government then tried to use cabinet confidentiality to censor Kevin Rudd’s evidence. The Australian’s legal affairs editor, Chris Merritt, suggests this marks a “turning point when some of the fundamental planks of the Australian system of government started to crumble.” He argues that the people delivered their verdict by electing a new government, and that is how Westminster accountability ought to work: “The existence of this royal commission implies that the Westminster method of accountability does not go far enough. The decision to call this inquiry creates a new and dangersous system in which all future governments can be held accountable not just to parliament and the people but to their successors in the executive.”
Freedom of Information laws are designed to increase government accountability by allowing citizens to access documents related to government actions. However, concerns have been raised about how effective the arrangements are. In Victoria, the FOI Commissioner is struggling to process the large volume of requests. The cost of the Commonwealth system has been criticised, after a software developer was billed $720.30 in fees to access 130 pages of correspondence—including charges for 36.12 hours of decision-making time, or more than a full working week. “I assume that most of that is boosted up and inflated in order to kind of deter people from making FOI requests”, he said. He had requested any documents referring to Stop Tony Meow, a “browser extension that replaces photos of Tony Abbott with pictures of cute kittens”. The government’s response can be viewed at Right to Know, a website that helps citizens lodge federal FOI requests.
NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell resigned last week, after it was discovered that he had failed to declare receiving a $3000 bottle of wine from a lobbyist. O’Farrell told the inquisitorial Independent Commission Against Corruption he had suffered a “massive memory fail”: he had no recollection of receiving the wine, despite making a phone call to the lobbyist the evening it was delivered, and hand-writing a thank you note. Although ICAC’s lawyers say found “no evidence of corrupt behaviour” as a result of the gift, journalists are questioning why the lobbyist was subsequently appointed to a government board. Economists say even small gifts can influence decision-makers: “we find it hard not to be nice to someone who has just been nice to us, even if we know it’s a trick.”
In the Commonwealth Parliament yesterday, Speaker Bronwyn Bishop rejected a complaint from the Opposition that the Prime Minister had not answered their question: “Resume your seat! The member would also know that, under the standing orders, ministers are not obliged to answer questions.” While order 104 of the House of Representatives Standing Orders requires that answers are “directly relevant to the question”, it does not prohibit ministers from simply refusing to answer at all. The Courier-Mail‘s Dennis Atkins complains that Question Time does not fulfil its purpose: “[G]overnments do all they can not to answer.… In one form or another it’s always been so but in recent years it has slipped into genuine disrepute and does more to annoy, frustrate and anger viewers and listeners.”
Students from Sydney’s Newtown High School on a trip to Canberra were surprised by an impromptu question-and-answer session with Prime Minister Tony Abbott. After two female students grilled him on the repeal of the carbon tax laws and his opposition to same-sex marriage, the Prime Minister suggested, “Let’s have a bloke’s question, okay, [like] what football team do you support?” Instead, a schoolboy asked him why his government turned back asylum seeker boats. The final question: “Not saying I don’t trust you or anything, [but] a simple question, why is a man the Minister for Women?” A video of the exchange has been viewed over 60,000 times.
The NT Government’s four Indigenous MPs are threatening to break away from the Country Liberal Party and start their own party. Constituents in remote communities have been disappointed by broken election promises, and the backbench MPs say they are being ignored by their party’s ministers. Their failure to influence government policies is surprising, as it was reported last year that the Indigenous MPs “hold the balance of power in a caucus of 16”, and were instrumental in Adam Giles’s appointment to the chief ministership. However, the group’s leader, Alison Anderson, was demoted from cabinet last September. She has defected from a political party before: in 2009, she quit as a Labor MP, sitting as an independent for two years before joining the CLP.
The Assistant Immigration Minister, Michaelia Cash, refused a request by the Senate to provide documents relating to Operation Sovereign Borders. She claimed a “public interest immunity” because releasing the information might undermine the Government’s attempts to stop asylum-seekers reaching Australia. The Senate’s Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee was asked to consider the issue. Its report recommended that, to prevent the executive avoiding reasonable scrutiny by the legislature, the Senate should look at “changes to the way immunity claims were considered”. In particular, it suggested adopting “the New South Wales Legislative Council’s model of independent arbitration for determining public-interest disputes”.
The ACT government and opposition have endorsed a plan to increase the size of the territory’s unicameral parliament from 17 to 25 members. The ACT Electoral Commission recommended an expansion because MPs represent three times more electors than any other jurisdiction except Tasmania, and the small cabinet means ministers are forced to manage multiple portfolios. However, the change will reduce the proportion of seats won by minor parties.