It's time to be ethical!

by Chris Griffith
Published 10 January 1993 in The Sun-Herald


my face


It is said former Queensland Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen regarded the presence of developers' cranes on Brisbane's horizon as political nirvana, a measure of all being well in the sunshine state.

The physical: new mining ventures, tourism development, roads and railways, the Commonwealth Games, and Expo '88 were the economic measuring sticks Queensland prided itself upon.

The Goss Government, too, has cultivated a high profile for encouraging grand-scale development. Its support for South Bank, the Cape York Space Base, the Indy Grand Prix, and the Brisbane Casino have been sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.

However Queensland's progress under Bjelke-Petersen came at a cost. The cutting of red-tape, the bending of rules to help friends, and ministerial rezonings left a legacy of a compromised political system ring-barked for demolition by the Fitzgerald report.

As part of the reform process, a Queensland parliamentary committee will soon examine a proposed Public Sector Ethics Bill drafted by the Electoral and Administrative Review Commission (EARC), As a result, Queensland may soon adopt an Ethics Act of Parliament.

Now an Ethics Act is something you would never have visualised being sponsored in the Queensland Parliament by some of our colorful past politicians.

Could you, for example, imagine it being introduced into the House by Russ Hinze, or Don Lane's second reading speech on it, or it being enforced by our Police FORCE under the guidance of former Commissioner, Sir Terence Lewis.

Of course, you could equally not imagine it being supported through the Queensland Parliament now by many of the MPs yet to refund their travel entitlements.

Nevertheless the Goss Government has committed itself to considering all Fitzgerald reforms at Cabinet level by year's end, and to passing all related legislation by June 30, 1994. One up for consideration is the Ethics Bill.

Its passing will acknowledge that the end justifying the means is not the only yard-stick to guide behaviour in Queensland public life. How any end is achieved will be guided by ethical standards that will apply throughout Queensland's public institutions.

This includes the Parliament, the Executive Council, the courts, government departments, the Police Service, Queensland Railways, and Government corporations.

The proposed Bill spells out five major ethical principles to apply to both elected and appointed public officials: respect for law and the system of government, respect for persons, integrity, diligence, and economy and efficiency.

The Bill also proposes an Office of Public Sector Ethics, charged with developing a detailed code of conduct for public officials, and at the Speaker's request, a code of conduct for Queensland politicians.

Public sector heads, or in the case of politicians, the Speaker, will be required to educate their charges as to their obligations under these codes. The Bill further provides for investigations of breaches of Codes of Conduct, and for punitive measures to enforce any breaches.

Unfortunately politicians will collectively decide what penalties are to apply to themselves. I say unfortunately because the Travel Rorts affair showed how politicians of all parties stuck together when there was alleged impropriety of a bipartisan nature.

Nevertheless the ability to challenge unethical or inappropriate behaviour will fill a void in Queensland.

The Criminal Justice Commission (CJC) is already empowered to investigate misconduct or corruption among public officials.

However other undesirable behaviour can go unchallenged, except where codes already exist. The Public Sector Management Commission (PSMC), for example, is responsible for the current 1988 public sector code of conduct, which Fitzgerald recommended for review.

Nowadays behaviour that is legally acceptable, yet unethical, is very newsworthy and challenged regularly in the media. This applies particularly to the exposure of public officials exercising conflicts of interest.

In Queensland, recent examples are public servant Graham Hartley's role in selecting the Brisbane Casino developer while he held shares in one of the participants, and Toowoomba Mayor Clive Berghofer's large local developments.

In NSW there was former Premier Nick Greiner's decision to appoint former Minister Terry Metherall to that state's Environment Protection Agency on a salary of $110,000-a-year.

Overseas there was the Japanese bribery scandal, the product of a political system which depends on corporate patronage of individual MPs and their factions.

Dr Noel Preston, senior lecture in Applied Ethics at Queensland University of Technology, says an important aim of ethics education is to ensure the alarm bells ring when behaviour that is unethical, yet still possibly legal, occurs.

"If you don't do these things, you'll abandon one of the yardsticks that can be used in the public debate by which public behaviour can be judged," he said.

Dr Preston points to the US, where outgoing president George Bush has promoted compulsory annual ethics training for all federal US officials. New president Bill Clinton has also vowed to impose strict ethical standards on his staff.

Unfortunately Bush's support and awareness of ethics did not stop him committing recently what was a most unethical act. This was his Christmas Eve pardon of former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and five other Reagan officials for their involvement in the Iran- Contra affair. Bush was seen to protect former president Ronald Reagan and, possibly himself.

It will therefore be interesting to see how seriously the Queensland Government adopts and enforces ethical standards beyond mere advocacy.

In its report, the EARC has drafted a sample Code of Conduct for publicly appointed officials, and another for our Queensland politicians. These are for consideration of the Office of Public Sector Ethics.

It requires MPs to "treat other Members, members of the public and other officials honestly and fairly, and with proper regard for their rights, entitlements, duties, and obligations". It requires they declare all conflicts of interest that influence their public performance, and that they not improperly use their political influence to obtain advantages for their friends within the public sector.

Ministers especially are required to divest themselves of shareholdings where a possible conflict may arise, resign or declare memberships of boards, and accept that they must resign or stand- down when they are under formal investigation.

Most importantly, these codes aim to promote a culture of political independence of the public service, something many regard as still in its infancy under the Goss Government.

However Mr Preston says none of this will succeed without education, and he is keen to see what Speaker Jim Fouras proposes for the ethics education of members of parliament.

To some extent, the advent of an Ethics Act is contrary to what ethics, as opposed to law, is about. While the law defines permissible and impermissible behaviour, ethics attempts to define the bounds within which individuals make choices as to their behaviour.

Ethics is preferably enforced by the individual adopting these standards of behaviour as their own, rather than through the law.

However in Queensland recent events suggest ethical standards must be adopted at "warp factor nine" speed. Hopefully the legislation will be effective and not devolve into symbolism.