Saturday, April 14, 2018

The danger when political parties assimilate the duties of government

While it rarely becomes top of mind for voters, there are times where political parties attempt to take on some of the responsibilities of governments, either because they don’t trust government agencies to perform these duties, or they perceive some form of electoral or financial value in doing so.

Now I can’t speak for their intentions, and it may seem benign that a political organisation ‘helps out’ by conducting the arduous job of encouraging people to provide their views on a complex governance issue, of collecting and collating these responses and then presenting them to the government of the day for consideration, but I’d like to quickly highlight some of the perils in this approach.

Firstly it is important to recognise that governments and political parties are separate organisations. Political parties are privately owned and run for the benefit of their members, whereas government has a responsibility to the entire community and is, in effect, owned by all citizens. As such their motivations and interests can be extremely different at times, even when politicians from these political parties are elected to parliament and serving as the government of the day.

One of the most striking differences is in their financial motivations. Political parties attract funding from donations, investments, events and membership fees and are constantly looking for additional funds to help them build their structures and campaign more effectively during elections. They operate like private companies with limited scrutiny over their books. Governments operate in an environment of much higher public scrutiny and accountability. You have a right to see how your governments is collecting, employing and disbursing its funds - but no such rights of oversight over the political party that your elected officials belong too.

Similarly governments have certain obligations around privacy designed to protect individuals from undue government interference (noting people may debate whether these go far enough or are equitably enforced), whereas political parties, through the machinations of their elected parliamentarians, excluded themselves from the provisions of Australia’s privacy law. This means they can collect and combine data about any citizen without scrutiny or oversight and citizens have no right to ask what private information political parties hold on them, let alone to correct this information should it be incorrect.

These two areas of difference in combination, financial and privacy, lead to very different motivations and approaches between political parties and governments. For example as there is no requirement for a political party to act in an unbiased manner, it may favour engagements with citizens who pay them more money, via ‘donations’, or who they feel, from the information they hold on them, are more receptive and likely to vote for that party’s candidates to form government.

Governments are not allowed to show such bias, and there can be significant consequences when they do, creating a constant tug of war for elected politicians whose loyalties are divided between their party, serving their big donors and supporters, and the state, serving all citizens on an equitable basis. 

This tension can be managed to some extent in governments, where the public accountability requirements reveal inequitable activities by politicians and provide methods for injecting more balance, or censure - although most politicians do skim as close to the line as they can.

The tension cannot be managed however, when political parties take on roles that government usually performs. Instantly that public accountability disappears and politicians and their parties have a different set of motivations in play, based on party gain rather than public good.

Even when politicians are public minded and seeking to do the right thing, that’s no guarantee that their party machinery, which answers only to itself, not the public, will not use these opportunities to just bias the process a little in their favour.

This is where I come to the example of the ACT Liberals and their role in a public consultation process.

Any individual or organisation can choose to promote a public consultation (I regularly do this myself) or provide a free service where it provides forms for collecting responses, aggregating and submitting them to governments. There’s some notable groups doing this today - including activist and lobby groups like GetUp and the Australian Christian Lobby, retailers like EB Games which provided a response and submission mechanism during the consultation on R-rated games, and industry bodies such as the Australian Mining Council which regularly collects and submits the aggregate views of its members in relevant consultations. and similar services allow individuals to undertake this appproach in a similar manner - though more linked to petitions than consultation responses.

These groups are all entitled to take these steps, and generally do so in order to promote their ‘side’ of views. The extent to which they will entertain and pass on divergent views differs by organisation, but if you wish to take the chance they will not pass on your response, that’s your decision to make.

Political parties differ slightly when doing this. Firstly they exist outside the privacy act,  are expected entitled to keep everything you say and add it to their file on you, helping them decide down the track whether you are someone they wish to cultivate for donations or would consider helping in a governance matter. As they are exempt from privacy law and  privately owned, there isn’t no scrutiny on whether they modify your submission, aggregate it with others in deceptive ways to push their point or simply withhold it from government altogether.

At the same time the public expectationsof political parties are much higher. If your local member asks you to provide feedback on an issue via their website it can convey the appearance that you are directly responding to the government and thus have the public probity rights you should expect when responding on an agency website, even though you don’t.

This can easily mislead voters with a more limited understanding of our political processes, who trust their elected representative to behave according to government requirements.

In the case of the ACT Liberals there was also the matter of 19 misplaced responses which were caught in a spam filter. 

Tragic to say this has happened at government agencies as well, and I have direct experience of helping agencies resolve this technical problem. 

While it is the headline of the Canberra  Times article, I regard this as less of a concern than the ability of the party to select or reinterpret the responses it passes to government, while keeping all the details of every response in their citizen database for future electoral advantage.

This is a single example of the risks of political parties taking on government responsibilities but serves to illustrate the broader issue. When duties move out of government to party machines we love the ability for public accountability, the tasks are performed by individuals without a contractual and cultural commitment to be apolitical and the motivations change to be less equitable and more ideologically driven.

Whether it is collating consultation responses, negotiating trade agreements, advising the Minister on complex matters, making purchases, providing services or otherwise transferring a government process to a political party team, or some other task, we lose as a democracy when political parties absorb or deliver more of the functions of government.

Even when the intentions are good, corrupting the approach is far easier and less accountable and it undermines our nation when this occurs.

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