Ratify Kyoto – it’s a stroke of a pen, needs no legislation, is a simple Yes-No decision and will have a big impact.
Straight after that, though, something much harder. Rudd needs to reverse the decline in ethical standards that we’ve seen under Howard, and which began much earlier, going back at least to the 1970s. Arguably, Howard’s ultimate fate was sealed within a few days of taking office with the abandonment of what he later called ‘non-core promises’. That set the pattern for the many lies and improprieties that followed.
Unless the government acts now, before it has anything it wants to hide, the temptations of office will be too much. Some of the elements needed:
* An end to political advertising on the taxpayer’s dollar. After Howard’s disastrously counterproductive blitz on WorkChoices, this ought to be a forced move. But no doubt there are already plenty of self-rated smart operators in the backrooms thinking about how to use the resources of government in the interests of party
* A ministerial code of conduct. John Howard’s 1996 code would be a good starting point. His abandonment of this code to save Warwick Parer was a defining moment in his government’s decline and ultimate downfall. By contrast, Peter Beattie’s willingness to lose his own deputy premier and numerous other ministers has led to political success despite numerous scandals.
* A revival of the Westminster system. It’s too late to go back to the old idea of an apolitical public service, but a clear statement of the roles of ministers, departmental heads and public servants is needed. In my view, we should accept that the departmental head is the personal appointee of the minister, and they should share responsibility for the acts of the department. In particular, any information known to the department head should be presumed to be known to be minister. All public servants below that level should be permanent and apolitical
* Keeping promises. Rudd made some pretty bad promises to get in, such as matching tax cuts and keeping the private health insurance rebate. The standard approach of incoming governments in Australia has been to fabricate a crisis and dump the promises. While this has an obvious appeal, its long-run effect is corrosive, and is reflected in Howard’s downfall.
fn1. As pointed out in comments, it’s not as easy as that. But the fact that some exceptional measures need to be taken to get an immediate start on ratification will only increase the impact of the decision.