| by Laksiri Fernando
( April 17, 2014, Sydney, Sri Lanka Guardian) This is a case of ‘accountability and responsibility’ that all Prime Ministers, Chief Ministers, Ministers and all Members of Parliament or members of any such representative institution in a functioning democracy should abide by.
The Premier of the New South Wales (State) of Australia, Barry O’Farrell, announced his resignation yesterday morning (16 April 2014) over the issue of receiving a bottle wine as a gift that he failed to declare in 2011 in the ‘Pecuniary Interest Register.’ When the matter came before the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) the day before, as a potential issue of corruption, O’Farrell first declared that he cannot recollect receiving such a gift. However yesterday morning, the ICAC asked him again to appear before the Commission and informed that a ‘Thank You Note’ written by him is available as evidence. The note was submitted to the Commission only yesterday morning as evidence by an interested party.
Having realized that an ‘omission’ has been committed by him under the required law and code of ethics, and also what he revealed day before has been disproved by the new evidence, even appearing before the Commission, the Premier gracefully announced his resignation yesterday expressing his commitment to the principles of ‘responsibility and accountability.’ That was commendable.
What he lacked in the first instance, when he received the ‘bottle of wine’ in 2011, was the required ‘transparency’ by a Member of Parliament. It should have been declared, however small in value it was. Otherwise, it could have, although it has not been the case according to the prevailing information, led to a corrupt dealing between the ‘giver’ and the ‘receiver.’
The Bottle of Wine
The person who sent the wine bottle was Nick Di Girolmao, who was the CEO of the Australian Water Holdings (AWH), with whom the NSW Government has had several contracts and dealings. It could be surmised that the gift which was sent was aimed at lobbying for more contracts or any other favors although there is no evidence to that effect. On the other hand it could also be argued that the matter was revealed to the media and the ICAC by the same person after having failed to obtain favors from O’Farrell.
The AWH in recent times was implicated in several scandalous dealings with a number of state governments involving several politicians of both political parties of the Liberals and the Labor. Girolmao also was at the ICAC yesterday, and it was the handwritten ‘thank you note’ received by him that finally forced the Premier to resign. Premier however claimed that he has a momentous memory loss on the incident.
The parliamentary group of the Liberal Party this afternoon elected Mike Baird, the Treasurer, as the new leader and he will be soon sworn in as the new Premier. The matter thus became settled within three days, without any disruption to the day to day functioning or governing of New South Wales. The incident might have repercussions for the Liberal Party fortunes at the next parliamentary elections scheduled to be held in 2015. The opinion polls overwhelming endorsed or asked the Premier to resign.
However, there were no chaos or break downs in the system as a result of this ‘debacle,’ thanks to the governing institutions that are in place firmly based on the rule of law and democratic principles. This includes the political parties which respect rule of law and capable of producing new leaders when existing ones are no longer reliable, especially on the count of potential corruption or transparency. The system didn’t fail. The strength of the system is such, when the individuals fail on the count of transparency or accountability they are thrown out of the system.
This is not the first time that a Premier had to resign as a result of the ICAC findings. In 2002, then Premier, Nick Greiner, also had to resign. Ironically, it was him who created the ICAC in 1988/89. The Commission Against Corruption was Independent and therefore he had to respect the findings of the Commission (of his own creation) although some of them were controversial and turned down by the Court of Appeal.
In addition to the above two cases, which may appear minor offenses, there have been a number of other cases, some serious, that have been investigated by the ICAC throughout years and the offenders have been eventually reprimanded and/or punished through the due process.
Both Barry O’Farrell and Nick Greiner were considered efficient and honest Premiers compared to even many other Australian politicians. However, the country and the people ask for absolutely high standards in respect of ‘transparency, responsibility and accountability.’ Otherwise, they know democracy cannot prevail. When O’Farrell resigned yesterday he expressed his complete faith and respect for the ICAC and its independence. It was the same when Greiner resigned in 1992 that I could even remember. I have seen him walking to the Parliament House carrying his own briefcase after getting down from the bus.
The ICAC in New South Wales is one of the most exemplary mechanisms available in Australia or any other country for that matter, against Corruption. In contrast to many of the legislations in Sri Lanka, particularly the “Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC),” this Act is written in most simple and direct language for anyone to understand and adhered to. Most importantly, it is Independent and not a tool of any ruling party or any other entity.
The Act declares “the principal objects of this Act as:
(a) To promote the integrity and accountability of public administration by constituting an Independent Commission Against Corruption as an independent and accountable body:
(i) To investigate, expose and prevent corruption involving or affecting public authorities and public officials, and
(ii) To educate public authorities, public officials and members of the public about corruption and its detrimental effects on public administration and on the community, and
(b) To confer on the Commission special powers to inquire into allegations of corruption.”
Under this Act and under the investigative procedure, however small an act of potential corruption is, the matter is thoroughly investigated. The public and the Media have a great leverage to raise issues of potential corruption and in fact they do for the public interest and public good. It was the Daily Telegraph which raised the issue last month for the first time, however without divulging or knowing the full details. It was then up to the ICAC to look into the matter thoroughly. The talk first was about ‘boxes of wine’ or a ‘box of wine,’ plural or singular. Then it became a bottle.
Although it was one bottle of wine, it was a rare kind of 1959 Penfolds Grange, worth $ 3,000. Moreover, the principles behind the issue undoubtedly were bigger than the bottle and its worth. On one hand it was an issue of ‘transparency’ that the Premier undoubtedly failed in this case in the first instance. On the other hand, it was a matter of ‘accountability and responsibility’ which the Premier finally decided to uphold when he was confronted by the ICAC. Therefore, the important factor behind the ‘correction of the aberration’ was the institutional setting and that is the ICAC. This is something that any country should learn.
Transparency is a requirement of rule of law and constitutionalism in mature democracies however imperfect they may be from country to country, or state to state. Transparency on the part of all Members of Parliament is a requirement in NSW and in Australia. The Code of Conduct for Members of Parliament in NSW deals with (1) conflicts of interest (2) bribery (3) gifts (4) use of public resources (5) use of confidential information (6) duties as a Member of Parliament and (7) secondary employment or engagements.
The last few decades have seen considerable innovations and improvements in the public sector integrity management throughout the world. One of this innovations are undoubtedly epitomized in the structures and functions of the ICAC. At the same time, corruption constitute a significant and damaging phenomenon in many countries including Sri Lanka. The Transparency International among other organizations seek to give us a comparative picture of the world situation however defective their methodologies may be.
There is a great deal of work still to be done in addressing these problems in many countries. A crucial question in Sri Lanka is not so much of the absence of legislation, however archaic the way these legislations are written in my opinion, but the lack of independence for the established and relevant commissions or organizations. If we take the independence of the ICAC as the backbone of the success and exemplary work of the Australian anti-corruption measures, the repeal of the Independent Commissions under the 18th Amendment could be considered one of the most damaging acts that the present regime has perpetrated against the democratic system in Sri Lanka among many others.