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Risks of new rules '400 times greater than sport rorts', think-tank warns

Social distancing in the House of Representatives. There are concerns the coronavirus pandemic has concentrated executive power, bypassing the Parliament. Picture: Elesa Kurtz
Social distancing in the House of Representatives. There are concerns the coronavirus pandemic has concentrated executive power, bypassing the Parliament. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

Transparency advocates have raised fears about the growing concentration of ministerial power during the coronavirus pandemic, with large amounts of money being spent in a short period of time with little oversight or accountability.

The Centre for Public Integrity said extraordinary powers had been conferred on ministers during the COVID-19 crisis.

Health Minister Greg Hunt was given the power to crack down on social gatherings and enforce restrictions on movement. Social Services Minister Anne Ruston was given the power to change eligibility rules and payment rates for all social security payments.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg had the power to set rules for the $70 billion JobKeeper scheme, while Mathias Cormann was given broad discretion to allocate a $40 billion advance to the Finance Minister passed by the parliament in March.

But while some increase in ministerial power was needed to deal with the fast-moving crisis, the "remarkable breadth" of discretion awarded to ministers during the crisis was unnecessary, the think-tank said.

In particular, the size of the advance to the Finance Minister was a corruption risk, Professor Joo-Cheong Tham from the think-tank said.

"The risk of corruption is exacerbated where power is concentrated in the hands of individuals, large amounts of public money being spent in a short time frame, and little oversight or accountability measures are in place," Professor Tham said.

"There is a particular risk of misuse of power for partisan gain with Advance to the Finance Minister. Unlike the other ministerial powers, the determinations are not directed at providing rules, and do not necessarily have to be directed to addressing the COVID-19 crisis.

"The size of the advance provides additional risk - being 400 times the amount of the sports grant program administered by Senator Bridget McKenzie when she was Sports Minister."

The decisions Senator Cormann makes with this funding are not disallowable and are therefore not considered by the Scrutiny of Delegated Legislation committee, Professor Tham also pointed out.

"The transfer of decision-making from Parliament to individual Ministers will invariably mean less accountability and more opaque processes of deliberation,' he said.

Former judge and chairman of the Centre for Public Integrity Anthony Whealy said ministers were making laws that affect millions of Australians without passing legislation through parliament.

"Parliament has been bypassed and cannot use its disallowance power to block 20 per cent of these laws, including this Finance fund. This means that there is very little scrutiny of executive power," Mr Whealy said.

"Unchecked executive power needs to be reined in by increasing Parliamentary scrutiny of delegated legislation, and establishing a National Integrity Commission."

However Senator Cormann said the fund was not open to partisan misuse.

"There are strong accountability and transparency measures in place with regard to allocations made from the [advance to the Finance Minister] provisions," Senator Cormann said.

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These included assurance reviews by the Australian National Audit Office on a monthly and annual basis, and registration of determinations made under the fund on the Federal Register of Legislation.

There was also a weekly media release detailing money issued from the fund, and a commitment to seek the agreement of Labor's finance spokeswoman Katy Gallagher on any proposed allocation over $1 billion.

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This story Risks of new rules '400 times greater than sport rorts', think-tank warns first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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