The new meaning of “divestment of interests”

I was disappointed to read that it appears that Federal Labor has made its first significant bungle on the governance transparency front: it has emerged that a $60,000 media contract for the 2020 Summit was awarded without public tender to a company that until recently was run by Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon’s media advisor, Christian Taubenschlag. The incident is now going to be investigated by the Government Staffing Committee, which is a good sign, but there still seems to be something of a potentially less than squeaky clean character going on here.

The government has previously defended the tender-less awarding of the contract using the argument that there was not enough time to conduct a tender process in this case. As Bernard Keane so succinctly puts it for Crikey, though, that’s nonsense; something approaching a tender process could still have been carried out. Corners were clearly cut and cut crudely. While this contract does fall within the Commonwealth Procurement Guidelines with a value of under $80,000, there are numerous existing precedents for contracts of this size going out to public tender.

Certainly the role of Christian Taubenschlag in all this is not yet completely apparent. As Jewel Topsfield reports, Taubenschlag seemingly did indeed made an effort to clear the decks financially when he joined Fitzgibbon’s staff:

Mr Taubenschlag said earlier this month that he had not played any role in the company after starting his job at Mr Fitzgibbon’s office, other than starting the process of giving up his stake in CMAX Communications.

“I began divesting myself of all interest in CMAX Communications from January 2008. This process was fully finalised in April 2008,” he said.

On the other hand, this observation from the same story seems to undermine Taubenschlag’s comments completely:

A spokesman for Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said Mr Taubenschlag ceased playing any active role in the company when he joined the Defence Minister’s office and the company was now run by his wife, Tara Taubenschlag.

Now is it really accurate to say that one has divested one’s interest in a company if one’s partner is now running the company? This is a joke, right? In fairness, it is not clear whether there has really been any impropriety in this instance, but in the very least the awarding of this contract has a questionable odour about it and looks ugly for the government. It contradicts Special Minister of State John Faulkner’s recent admirable emphasis on transparency and good governance, and quite frankly I think if the government is to maintain its good image it needs to act quickly here.

This matter needs to be investigated and the investigation completed as soon as possible, and I think it is only reasonable that the position of whoever was involved in cutting corners with potential contract candidates be reconsidered as part of this process.

Improvements to political donations legislation

Around a couple of weeks ago, Special Minister of State John Faulkner announced the introduction of some much-awaited electoral law changes into the Senate in the form of a bill. These sorts of small, incremental reforms often go unmentioned when it comes to the leading news headlines of the day, but represent the bread and butter of good governance that we all would like to be able to take for granted. While the Howard Government during its final terms was seemingly willing to go to machiavellian lengths [PDF] to bend the system to its advantage, in the admittedly fresh-faced Rudd Labor Government we have an administration willing to improve the nation’s electoral system at the expense of the two major parties in this country.

The major reforms being introduced include a 90% decrease in the disclosure threshold for donations, a ban of overseas donations, and an overall tightening of the reporting regime and associated penalties under the Commonwealth Electoral Act of 1918. For the average voter this is unlikely to be particularly spellbinding stuff, but clearly the mechanisms of our democracy should not just be left to rust and diminish over time. In the modern era, when we consider the speed and volume at which money can flow across the globe and of course from corporate accounts into political party coffers over boozy lunches, we have every reason to have a good hard think about the relevant laws and how we can improve them. That John Faulkner as Special Minister of State is wasting little time in acting and has already alluded to the fact that there will likely be more reforms yet to come is something that we should be proud of as a nation.

The first part of a green paper focusing on funding, disclosure and expenditure issues is due in July 2008, with the second part focusing on other potential improvements due in October 2008. In particular, two issues I would encourage the government to tackle as part of the second part of the paper would be a rollback of the Howard Government’s draconian changes to electoral roll closing dates and somewhat more progressively, allowing young adults 16 and over to voluntarily enrol to vote should they wish to. I don’t see why young people who are well and truly old enough to make decisions about politics and want to have their say should be denied the opportunity.