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Grattan Institute submission to inquiry into nationhood, national identity, and democracy

Ministerial conduct Political donations Democracy Democratic reform Lobbying Regulation of lobbying Public trust Australia

The Senate has initiated a broad inquiry touching on national and cultural identity, citizenship, globalisation, social cohesion, and ‘other related matters’. Our comments are confined to helping address the Committee’s concerns about the ‘worrying decline in the level of public trust’ in government and democracy.

In Australia, trust in government is at an all-time low. Trust matters to the legitimacy of government and to its ability to get things done. Over time, widespread loss of trust in political institutions can undermine representative democracy.

There are many causes of declining trust. Globalisation and cultural anxiety are part of the story, as is the changing media landscape. But the actions and inactions of politicians are part of the problem too.

Surveys show that Australians are particularly concerned about corruption and misconduct by politicians. Most Australians believe that politicians look after themselves and their mates, at the expense of the public interest.

Yet many politicians at the Commonwealth level remain reluctant to acknowledge and respond to concerns about corruption and undue influence. Politicians – particularly in the major political parties – need to take ownership of the crisis of trust.

To help rebuild public trust, the Committee should focus on political integrity and leadership. Practical, low-cost reforms are available. Improving the transparency and accountability of political institutions could help reassure the public that the system is working for them.

Stronger checks and balances on policy influence are needed, to make Australian politics cleaner and fairer. Reforms should include:

  • improving the visibility of major donors to political parties;
  • publishing ministerial diaries, so people know who ministers meet with;
  • creating a public register of lobbyists who have unescorted access to federal Parliament House;
  • establishing a strong and well-resourced integrity commission, to investigate corrupt and high-risk misconduct in the public sector, with capacity to receive and investigate tip-offs;
  • introducing a code of conduct for all parliamentarians, appointing an ethics adviser, and ensuring all codes of conduct are independently administered; and
  • capping political advertising expenditure during election campaigns, to limit the influence of money in politics.
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