Summary Table – Democracy


Under Summary table: Democracy is a table briefly summarising the status of democratic and accountability reform in the federal sphere.

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Democratic Reform Initiatives – current status

Reform requiredNeeded action - as described in discussion pieces aboveCurrent status as at May 2014
Electoral reform
Automatic enrolmentYoung people reaching the age of 18 to be automatically enrolled and people changing their address to be automatically re-enrolled at their new address.

Better engagement of Indigenous communities to increase enrolments.

(See: Direct enrolment)
In June 2012, amendments to the Electoral Act provided for the ‘direct enrolment’ of eligible Australian citizens, reinstatement to the electoral roll and inclusion of votes of people who meet certain criteria, and to allow the Electoral Commissioner to update an elector’s enrolled address (‘direct update’) following receipt and analysis of reliable and current data sources from outside the Commission. The AEC hopes to see enrolment numbers improve over the following 2-3 electoral cycles.

Some Indigenous communities, however, will continue to experience serious under-enrolment without other and different approaches, and the AEC is engaged in the Indigenous Electoral Participation Program to address some of the gaps in enrolment levels. Additionally, an Australian Research Council funded project at Monash University aims to develop evidence-based solutions where civic and electoral participation are low in Indigenous communities. The project established that significant numbers of Indigenous births are not registered, and also that if registered, significant numbers of Indigenous parents are not obtaining copies of birth certificates, leading to later issues with proving identity and other related activities, such as enrolling to vote.
Senate ballot papersAbove the line sections of Senate ballot papers should be redesigned to give voters greater opportunity to express their second, third and fourth preferences clearly and transparently.

(See: The redesign of Senate ballot papers)
The Commonwealth Electoral (Above-the-line voting) Amendment Bill 2013, introduced by Senator Xenophon, removes group voting tickets and introduces an optional preferential voting system for voting above and below the line in Senate elections. The Bill was referred to the Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee for inquiry and report by March 2014. (A previous Commonwealth Electoral (Above-the-line voting) Amendment Bill 2010 lapsed at the end of Parliament in 2013.)
Anti-corruption
A national anti-corruption commissionA national anti-corruption commission should be established. It should be empowered to investigate corruption of all kinds including institutional and political corruption.

(See: Anti-corruption commissions)
The National Integrity Commission Bill 2013, introduced by Senator Milne, is currently before Senate. The Bill establishes a National Integrity Commission as an independent statutory agency which will consist of the National Integrity Commissioner, the Law Enforcement Integrity Commissioner and the Independent Parliamentary Advisor and provide for: the investigation and prevention of misconduct and corruption in all Commonwealth departments, agencies, and federal parliamentarians and their staff; the investigation and prevention of corruption in the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Crime Commission; and independent advice to ministers and parliamentarians on conduct, ethics and matters of proprietary. Also: provides for the establishment of a Parliamentary Joint Committee on the National Integrity Commission; and makes consequential amendments to the Law Enforcement Integrity Commissioner Act 2006, Ombudsman Act 1976, Privacy Act 1988 and Public Interest Disclosure Act 2013.

The Attorney General’s Department leads the Australian government’s engagement in international and regional anti-corruption forums and, since public consultations in mid-2012, has been developing a ‘national anti-corruption plan’. Recommendations were made to government by the Joint Parliamentary Committee on the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity (ACLEI) in 2011, by Transparency International Australia and by the UNCAC Implementation Review Group in 2012.
Their recommendations include:
  • establish second tier of jurisdiction for ACLEI to extend oversight
  • review the Commonwealth Integrity system
  • examine the merits of establishing a Commonwealth Integrity Commission with anti-corruption oversight of all Commonwealth
    sector agencies
  • continue the consultative process for the development of a comprehensive national anti-corruption action plan, which will include an examination of how to make anti-corruption systems more effective.
Electoral donations and campaign financeIn the short term, political donations should be regulated to force disclosure in a reduced timeframe, disclosure limits should be lowered to $1,000, and donation splitting should be prohibited. Payments made to attend functions with promised access to Ministers should be detailed. In the longer term, funding for political parties should be radically reformed as has occurred in Canada.

(See: Caps on donations)
Changes proposed following a national inquiry during the previous Labor Government’s term (2007-13) were not made and the 2010 Bill lapsed in the Senate at the end of Parliament. The inquiry was carried out by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM). Its December 2011 report into the funding of political parties and election campaigns include the following recommendations:
  • lowering the threshold for the reporting of donations to $1,000
  • single donations over $100,000 to be reported to the Australian Electoral Commission within 14 days
  • banning foreign donations
  • limiting public funding of MPs to campaign funding
  • banning the prevention of full disclosure through the splitting of donations
  • money paid for attending political functions treated as a normal political gift
  • extending the powers of the Australian Electoral Commission to conduct compliance reviews.
Two dissenting minority reports were tabled, one from Coalition members asserting that the reforms if implemented would give unfair political benefits and calling for a dedicated fraud squad within the AEC, and another from a Green Senator arguing that the reforms proposed do not go nearly far enough.

An independent appointment system to public officesA merit based independent system of appointment to public offices is needed.

Legislation is needed to give force to the merit based selection process for the selection of heads of departments, agencies and statutory corporations.

(See: Independent public appointment systems)
In July 2008, the Labor Government introduced a statement of policy and guidelines for a merit based selection process for the selection of heads of departments, agencies and statutory corporations (see http://www.apsc.gov.au/publications-and-media/current-publications/merit-and-transparency). Legislation remains outstanding.

The National Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill received assent in July 2012, establishing a merit-based appointment process for the ABC and SBS non-executive directors for their respective boards and re-establishing the position of staff-elected director to the ABC Board. The current Abbott government has committed to retaining the merit-based process but this will be tested during 2014 as new appointments are required to be made.
Lobbying and post-retirement employment of ministers and othersThe Lobbying Code needs to be extended to include in-house lobbyists and the prompt reporting of meetings and their details. Post retirement employment restrictions on ministers, shadow ministers and public servants should be strengthened.

Lobbying and post-retirement rules should be supervised by the proposed Parliamentary
Integrity Commissioner.

(See: Post-ministerial appointments and lobbyists)
In 2010, then Special Minister of State, Senator Ludwig, initiated a review of the Lobbying Code of Conduct that was completed in July 2011. Two areas of the Code recommended for improvement were: (1) the need for lobbyists to disclose details of any former government representatives on their declarations related to the Code; (2) the possibility of electronic submission of statutory declarations.

In November 2011, the Senate referred the operation of the Lobbying Code of Conduct and the Lobbyist Register to the Senate Finance and Administration Committees for inquiry and report. The Committees’ report was provided in March 2012. Its general conclusion was that the Code was operating effectively and meeting its defined objectives, therefore no recommendations for changes were made.

Reforms are needed to include details of all people engaged by lobbyists to assist their lobbying. The provisions relating to post retirement employment by ministers and others have not been strengthened. In 2014, following revelations of Liberal Minister Sinodinos involvement in lobbying for the AWH, calls have been made for tighter regulation of the employment restrictions of all political insiders.
Strengthening the role of Parliament
Reform of question timeThe Standing Orders of the Parliament need to require relevancy and time limits on responses to questions, and enhance the ability of the Speaker of the House and President of the Senate to enforce these rules.

(See: Reform of question time)
Following the September 2010 agreement between the ALP and independent members, Standing Rules were amended to limit Ministerial Statements to 90 seconds, limit the times of questions and answers, provide times specifically for debate of Private Members business, and to oblige members to give answers which are relevant to the question.
Parliamentary budget officeA Parliamentary Budget Office would be a valuable new institution to give independent budget advice to all parliamentarians.The independent Parliamentary Budget Office was established in July 2012 by agreement between the Labor Government, Independents and Greens. Its first work plan was published in October 2012. The office is available to provide confidential budget analyses and policy costings to all senators and members. One of the Office’s responsibilities is to produce a post-election report of election commitments, the 2013 report is available from the APH website.
Citizen engagement
Consumer rights and protectionBreaches of the consumer protection framework need serious attention and swift legal action against offending companies.

(See: Consumer rights and protection)
On 1st January 2011, the Commonwealth Trade Practices Act 1974 was replaced by the Competition and Consumer Act 2010 (the CCA). The new Act provided common standards and enforcement provisions for all Australian State and Federal regulators. It created a national scheme for consumer guarantees and warranties, and introduced national standards for consumer safety. However, other measures as recommended by the Australian Consumers Association are yet to be addressed. These include ‘cypres’ remedies (which support consumer groups with settlement funds from consumer cases), a funded national consumer organisation, integrated competition and consumer regulation, and consideration of behavioural economics in the national scheme.

Senator Xenophon has introduced the Competition and Consumer Amendment (Misuse of Market Power) Bill 2014. If passed, the amendment would give the Court power to direct a corporation found guilty of a s46 breach to reduce its market share. The Bill is a response to the high concentration of retail markets in Australia and concerns that lack of competition is leading to higher prices for consumers and putting producers under financial strain.
Greater accountability of executive
Accountability of ministers for actions under their authority and ministerial codes of conductThe responsibilities of ministers, including possible devolution of certain responsibilities, need to be clearly and formally defined.

(See: Accountability of Ministers)
Though there is no formal code of conduct, members and senators’ conduct in Parliament is guided by the Standing Orders of the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Gillard Government agreed with the Independents to establish a Parliamentary Integrity Commissioner, but this did not eventuate.

The National Integrity Commission Bill 2013, introduced by Senator Milne, is currently before Senate. The Bill establishes a National Integrity Commission as an independent statutory agency which will consist of the National Integrity Commissioner, the Law Enforcement Integrity Commissioner and the Independent Parliamentary Advisor and among other responsibilities, will provide for: the investigation and prevention of misconduct and corruption in all Commonwealth departments, agencies, and federal parliamentarians and their staff.
Defined accountability responsibilities for ministerial advisersA specific and formal code of conduct for ministerial advisers is needed. Advisers should be required to appear before Parliament when requested. The code must be independently enforced.

(See: Accountability of ministerial advisers)
There is a current code of conduct for ministerial staff but it does not oblige staff to appear before Parliament if called. The Gillard Government had agreed to establish a Parliamentary Integrity Commissioner, but this did not eventuate.

The National Integrity Commission Bill 2013, introduced by Senator Milne, is currently before Senate. The Bill establishes a National Integrity Commission as an independent statutory agency which will consist of the National Integrity Commissioner, the Law Enforcement Integrity Commissioner and the Independent Parliamentary Advisor and among other responsibilities, will provide for: the investigation and prevention of misconduct and corruption in all Commonwealth departments, agencies, and federal parliamentarians and their staff.
Responsibilities of members of ParliamentA specific code is needed which defines the responsibilities and ethical obligations of members
of Parliament.

(See: Ministerial codes of conduct)
The Government agreed with the Independents to the preparation of a code of conduct for members of the House and Senate.

The Parliamentary Committee for Privileges and Members Interests conducted an inquiry into a draft code of conduct for members of the House and reported in November 2011. A motion to endorse the draft code was debated in both May and September 2012. The Senate Standing Committee of Senator’s Interests then conducted a parallel inquiry with reference to the draft code, and tabled its report at the end of November 2012. The draft code was not endorsed and the Committee recommended against the adoption of such a code. The Greens provided additional comments stating that they did not support the conclusion of the Committee. Further Senate discussion is anticipated.
Parliamentary integrity commissioner A Parliamentary Integrity Commissioner (or Advisor) is needed.

(See: Parliamentary Ethics Commissioners)
The previous Labor Government agreed with the Independents and Greens to establish, by statute, a Parliamentary Integrity Commissioner within 12 months of the commencement of the previous Parliament. The Commissioner was not appointed during that term.

The National Integrity Commission Bill 2013, introduced by Senator Milne, is currently before Senate. The Bill establishes a National Integrity Commission as an independent statutory agency which will consist of the National Integrity Commissioner, the Law Enforcement Integrity Commissioner and the Independent Parliamentary Advisor and among other responsibilities, will provide for: the investigation and prevention of misconduct and corruption in all Commonwealth departments, agencies, and federal parliamentarians and their staff.
Transparency, freedom of information and freedom of speech
Protection of journalists and their sourcesWhen journalists report on matters of public interest, they need protection from legal action which forces them to disclose the identity of their sources.

(See: Protection of journalists’ sources)
The Evidence Amendment (Journalists Privilege) Bill 2011 was assented to in April 2011, extending protection to confidential communication between journalists and their sources.

These laws need to be uniform across jurisdictions.
Protection of whistle blowersComprehensive protection is needed for whistleblowers who make disclosures which expose corruption, malfeasance and/or mismanagement.

(See: Protection of whistleblowers)
The Public Interest Disclosure Act 2013 received assent in July 2013. Though delayed, it addressed a commitment made by the Labor Government to Independent members of Parliament (Oakeshott, Windsor and Wilkie). The Act facilitates disclosure and investigation of wrongdoing and maladministration in the Commonwealth Public Sector.
Media concentrationThe media play a crucial part in an open democratic society. Diverse ownership of mainstream media is therefore of great importance.
Media convergence and interconnection clearly require policy review. Any changes which might take place as a consequence of such a review should, however, include the need for greater diversity of media ownership.

(See: Media concentration and media laws)
The previous Minister for Communications, Senator Stephen Conroy’s Convergence Review resulted in some proposed changes to media laws, but only two pieces of legislation were passed from a proposed suite of six. The changes address content quotas on commercial TV, limit commercial networks to 3 and reduce licence fees by 50 per cent. Other key reforms recommended remain to be addressed, including proper consideration of the convergent media future, a new communications regulator, a public interest test, and content standards across platforms.
Public interest immunity claimsAn independent statutory office accountable to the Parliament is needed to rule on government claims of public interest immunity from freedom of information applications and calls by the Parliament for the Government to produce documents.

While significant progress has been made (see next column) the question of further reforms remains unresolved, including reforms of the Freedom of Information Act in light of reforms in other jurisdictions.

(See: Freedom of information)
The Australian Information Commissioner Act 2010 created the Office of Australian Information Commissioner to work in conjunction with the Privacy Commissioner and the Freedom of Information Commissioner and provide an independent review of freedom of information decisions made by agencies and ministers.

In November 2012, the Labor Government appointed Dr Allan Hawke to review and report on the operation of the Freedom of Information Act 1982 and the Australian Information Commissioner Act 2010 and the extent to which those Acts and related laws continue to provide an effective framework for access to government information. The Hawke Review’s recommendations (July 2013) included a comprehensive review of the FOI Act, determination of public interest claims in respect of documents called for by the Parliament and by the Information Commissioner, development of an online FOI request system, changes to fees and a processing time ceiling. The review also produced a better practice guide for government agencies.

The Parliamentary Service Amendment (FOI) Bill 2013, assented to in June 2013, provided an exclusion from the FOI Act for parliamentary departments and office holders.

Other areas of needed democratic reform

Reform requiredNeeded action as described in discussion pieces above
Electoral reform
Fixed term elections and extensions of parliamentary terms.Fixed term parliaments are in the long term fairer to all political parties since they do not allow incumbent governments the opportunity to choose politically expedient dates for elections. Four year terms are also desirable but require constitutional change. (See: Fixed term elections)
Strengthening of the role of the Parliament
Strengthening of the Committee system of the Senate as an independent house of review.A bipartisan committee dedicated to reviewing the budget and economic strategy drawing on the resources of the new Parliamentary Budget Office would be a very valuable addition to the Senate committee system. Independent committees fully funded through a parliamentary commission in the style of the UK are also highly desirable.
(See: Strengthening the role of the Senate)
Citizen engagement
Civil society and public advocacyThe roles and significance of civil society organisations should be formally recognised, including the right to disagree with government policy without penalties or restrictions of any kind. The Not-for-profit Sector Freedom to Advocate Act 2013 (assented to in June 2013) prohibits or invalidates clauses that prevent NFPs from advocating with regard to Commonwealth policy issues. (See: Civil society and public advocacy)
Citizen participation in DemocracyGovernments should take all possible steps to encourage citizens to participate actively in the functioning of Australia’s democracy. These steps should include a greater effort to make the activities of the government more transparent and understandable, greater investment in democratic education, and support for citizen initiatives
such as citizen parliaments and attention to their outcomes. (See: Citizen engagement)
Transparency, freedom of information and freedom of speech
Public broadcastersGiven the great significance of their role in a country with a very high concentration of media ownership, funding for the public broadcasters should be increased. (See: Adequate funding for public broadcasters)
Human rights
A charter of human rights in AustraliaA human rights charter was recommended by the National Human Rights Consultation (2009) and supported by the majority of Australians participating in the Consultation. Australia is the only English speaking country with a common law tradition without such a charter. In response to the Consultation, the Government announced a Human Rights Framework which it described as a ‘package of measures to strengthen understanding and respect for human rights’. These measures included the establishment of a new Joint Parliamentary Committee on human rights and the combination of existing federal anti-discrimination laws into a single Act. Significantly, the Framework did not include a national charter of rights.

As one of the measures forming part of the Human Rights Framework, on 4 Jan 2012, The Human Rights (Parliamentary Scrutiny) Act 2011 came into force. It requires all bills to be accompanied by a ‘Statement of Compatibility with Human rights’ - an assessment of compatibility against the seven main United Nations treaties
to which Australia is a party. The Act also established the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights.
(See: A national charter of rights and responsibilities)