A FEATURE of recent developments in administrative and organisational theory and practice over the last ten to fifteen years has been an increasing focus on issues of ethical practice, and the rise of the notion that good administrative and organisational practice is best served by ensuring the ethical character of such practice and an ethical culture within which it occurs.

Thus we have seen the rise of ethical reform within public sector administration in the UK, Canada, Australia and NZ, and an increasing emphasis on the centrality of notions such as trust and respect in the corporate sector. Yet surprisingly, perhaps, this period has also seen the rise of claims concerning the lack of ethics in government and a number of high profile corporate collapses.

Thus, while on the one hand we have seen an increasing emphasis on the importance of accountability within the public sector, and on the need for high standards of ethical conduct on the part of individuals working within the sector, and yet, on the other hand, we have seen a apparent willingness on the part of senior political figures to mislead the public, to manipulate information, even to lie, to disregard proper process, and to engage in tactics that are designed to bully, intimidate and divide. One result of this has been the oft-noted decline in public trust and confidence in our political leaders and, to some extent, in the political process in general (although clearly, and fortunately, this has not to such an extent that the public has lost hope in that process).

What is important to realise, and is seldom remarked upon, is that the way the concept of ethics – and associated notions such as that of accountability – has lately been deployed has been in a very specific direction. Within organisations it has invariably been top-down, and in very few cases has it, in any significant way, encompassed the leaders or senior managers of those organisations. Within many private sector organisations, it has thus often been used as a way of ensuring greater compliance on the part of employees – as a way to discipline staff – rather than to reform organisational structures as a whole.

So far as government is concerned, it has not only been top-down, but also from the centre outwards. By this I mean that it has tended, as in the private sector, to focus on employees rather than senior leaders or managers, but has also been directed away from the centre of governmental power and authority, that is to say, away from Parliament, and especially, away from Prime Minister, or Premier, and Cabinet, and towards other structures within the governmental system, towards the public and state services, and towards public institutions such as the health service, the universities, schools and so forth.

What has occurred over recent years has, in fact, been a deliberate shift in ethical responsibility and accountability away from the executive arm of government. This shift is directly tied to the desire for greater executive control and, one might also suggest, greater executive autonomy. This is not only manifest in terms of the shift in accountability and ethical responsibility, but also, at the fedral level especially, in the move towards increased centralisation of power in the executive (WorkChoice is one example of this, but so are recent moves in aboriginal affairs, and in relation to water management).

Of course, our political leaders will insist that they are accountable, and in a more direct and immediate way than anyone else, namely, through the ballot box. But election is by no means the only nor even the most direct means by which individuals and organisations are made accountable, and it is, most notably, only a very intermittent or occasional form of accountability – it certainly does not deliver ongoing accountability of the sort that Government itself increasingly demands of other parts of the governmental and public sectors. Moreover, the shift in accountability and ethical responsibility away from the executive has been part of a structure that appears in many ways to shield the executive from outside scrutiny and criticism. This is readily seen in the way in which the Commonwealth Public Service Act, and the values that it enshrines, is currently being used by the Federal Government to prosecute whistleblowers within the Service. Thus, while both Commonwealth and State legislation emphasises the need for the Public and State Services to be apolitical and impartial, the reality is that in both cases Government Members and Ministers appear to view the Public and State Services as being first and foremost geared towards serving the interests of the Government of the day (indeed, Centrelink includes this as one of their core values – although only in its internal documentation). The very structure of the Public and State Service legislation demonstrates quite clearly the top-down character of the ethical imperative that operates there – that legislation provides a disciplinary framework within which employees can be held to account, but no means by which the upper levels of management within Government Agencies and Departments can be similarly held to account in respect of the values and principles to which those Agencies and Departments are supposed to be committed.

Ethical accountability is not just about ensuring financial propriety or personal integrity. Ethical conduct is essential to good government itself. The demands that ethics places on us are the same as the requirements of effective decision-making and proper process. To require that government be accountable and ethically responsible is to require that government operate in a transparent and democratic fashion, and that it operate competently and effectively. Such a requirement is in the interest, not only of those who are governed, but of government itself.

Does Tasmania, does Australia need an anti-corruption commission? If I have a hesitation about saying yes to this it is only that I think we need more than just a commission against corruption, we need a commission for ethics. Such a commission needs to be properly resourced and to have appropriate investigative powers, it needs to have a wide scope so that all areas of governmental activity, with the possible exception of the judiciary, may be open to it, it needs to be proactive in its orientation, not merely looking to investigate cases of actual corruption, but also to facilitate and promote a more ethical political culture, and it must also be independent of the powers who are accountable to it. Establishing such a commission will not guarantee good or ethical government (there is nothing that can provide a guarantee of that sort), but in the absence of such a commission, or some similar structure of accountability and scrutiny, bad and unethical government is almost certainly more likely.

Given that there are already serious questions about the conduct and propriety of governmental conduct, including that of individuals, within government at both a state and federal level, the need for such a commission seems self-evident. Indeed, when questions of ethical propriety of this sort arise in relation to public affairs and public figures, it is in everyone’s interest that those questions be dealt with as transparently and fairly as possible. To fail to do so is to risk serious harm to the political process itself, as well as to the reputations, and sometimes the futures, of those involved.

Just how effective a commission for ethics would be depends very much on its staffing and operational structures – it will be imperative, for instance, that it be well-led and that its priorities be well-chosen. But there can be doubt that some such body is urgently needed. We must reverse the shift in ethical responsibility and accountability that has occurred in recent years so that the greatest responsibility, and the greatest demand for accountability, rests on those who also exercise the greatest power.

Jeff Malpas
Professor of Philosophy and ARC Professorial Fellow
University of Tasmania

The context: DEACRU_Seminar_Friday_27th_July2.pdf

Jeff Malpas

Given that there are already serious questions about the conduct and propriety of governmental conduct, including that of individuals, within government at both a state and federal level, the need for such a commission seems self-evident. Indeed, when questions of ethical propriety of this sort arise in relation to public affairs and public figures, it is in everyone’s interest that those questions be dealt with as transparently and fairly as possible. To fail to do so is to risk serious harm to the political process itself, as well as to the reputations, and sometimes the futures, of those involved.