A leadership code for Australia?

22 May 2012

IN THE LIGHT of discussion about what the parliament should do about Craig Thomson, perhaps it is time that we in Australia took a lead from our cousins in Papua New Guinea, and introduced a Leadership Code. Despite the various political games that have been played out in PNG in recent times, commentators agree that one of the enduring successes since independence in 1975 has been the Ombudsman Commission and its administration of the code.

In PNG, as in a number of Pacific Island countries, leadership codes have been adopted which play a major role in advancing transparency and accountability. These Codes apply, typically, to:

  • All Members of Parliament
  •  Members of provincial assemblies and local government office holders
  • Heads of public service departments
  • Personal staff of the Governor-General and the Leader of the Opposition and Deputy Leader of the Opposition
  • Ambassadors and senior diplomatic and consular personnel
  • Commanders and Commissioners of the police and military forces
  • Constitutional offices such as judges and magistrates as defined by Section 221 of the constitution
  • All heads of, or members of, the boards or other controlling bodies of statutory authorities.

The behaviour which codes seek to regulate are similar in the different jurisdictions. Fundamentally, they require that leaders conduct themselves in relation to the performance of their duties so as not:

  • to place themselves in positions in which they have, or could be seen as having, a conflict between their private interests and their public duties
  • to compromise the fair exercise of their public duties
  • to use their offices for private gain
  • to allow their integrity to be called into question
  • to cause respect for, or confidence in, the integrity of their government to be diminished.

The Leadership Code establishes specific rules and regulations to prevent conflicts of interest between public office and private enterprise. It does so by regulating or prohibiting:

  • Use of office for personal benefit;
  • Personal interest;
  • Company directorships;
  • Shareholdings;
  • Engaging in other paid employment;
  • Interests in contracts;
  • Acceptance of bribes;
  • Acceptance of loans;
  • Misappropriation of funds;
  • Taking personal advantage from official information;
  • Disclosure of interest before debate or voting;
  • Agents (spouses, relatives, children).

The Papua New Guinea constitution specifies that leaders must not “demean” their office or allow its integrity to be called into question. This can be interpreted fairly broadly to include moral behaviour that might negatively affect the public standing of the office, such as adultery, drunkenness and drug use. This also extends to the leader’s spouse, children and relatives. Leadership Code legislation requires that leaders covered by the code must lodge a statement with the Papua New Guinea Ombudsman’s office within three months of assuming office (to be repeated annually) declaring their assets, liabilities, third-party sources of income, gifts and all beneficial interests in companies (such as shares, directorships, business transactions).

Breaches of the Leadership Code can result in:

  • Dismissal from office
  • Reprimand
  • Suspension from office
  • Fine

In Papua New Guinea the Director of Public Prosecutions facilitates the prosecution of misconduct cases but not in its standard capacity as criminal prosecutor.  Instead the DPP, on a brief of evidence produced by investigations by the Ombudsman Commission, uses its discretionary powers under the Constitution to initiate proceedings against the leader. It does this by invoking Section 27 of the Organic Law on the Duties and Responsibilities of Leaders by asking the Chief Justice to appoint a tribunal that consists of judges and senior magistrates to investigate and determine the outcome of the alleged misconduct.  If the DPP does not act on the Ombudsman’s recommendation then under Section 27(3) of the Organic Law the Ombudsman Commission can directly request that the Chief Justice appoint a Tribunal. 

The Ombudsman Commission has maintained a very active investigation programme over the years. Between 1976 and 2011 it has referred 96 leaders to leadership tribunals. Of these, 22 were dismissed or recommended for dismissal, 14 were fined, two were suspended, one received a reprimand, 4 had appointments revoked or were disqualified from office, 4 were found not guilty and 10 are pending. Another 28 either resigned or lost office in elections before the tribunal was appointed or completed its hearings.

Leaders who were found ‘guilty’ included; a Prime Minister, two Deputy Prime Ministers, 11 Ministers, 16 MPs, 7 Provincial Governors, and 11 heads of agency.

Let us see if Australian politicians are prepared to take such a brave step!

John T. D. Wood is an accountability specialist and consultant

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