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Howard's End: Sth Oz Public Service Crackdown

The newly-elected Labour Government in South Australia is bringing in some of the toughest legislation ever and making changes to the law to sack directors of Government organisations including boards, public servants and even consultants if they don't act honestly and ethically in performing their duties. Maree Howard writes.

Adelaide newspapers are reporting this morning that in a wide-ranging move to restore confidence in Parliament and Government, newly-elected South Australian Premier, New Zealander Mike Rann, is introducing tough legislation aimed at making government in South Australia more accountable and honest.

Apart from getting the sack, directors, senior public servants and consultants who fail to declare any conflict of interest, are now guaranteed to face court action to recover any money lost as a result of their actions.

Failure to act honestly and ethically will also become a criminal offence.

Mr Rann said, "These changes represent a challenge to government and to Parliament."

" It is to rebuild the standing of government in the eyes of our community. It is a challenge my government is eager to accept," he said.

Two new political and financial watchdogs will also be appointed - an Ombudsman for health matters and one to handle issues relating to electricity, gas, water and the newly privatised ports.

Current Ombudsman Eugene Biganovsky will have his powers widened, as will Auditor-General Ken MacPherson.

Both men will have more powers to scrutinise government boards of directors as well as work undertaken for the government by private contractors.

Mr Rann is also expected to unveil a new ministerial code of conduct next week which, among other things, will ensure ministers:

- Are prohibited from buying or selling shares;

- Required to advise the Premier and Cabinet in writing should they find themselves in a conflict of interest;

- Divest themselves of share holdings in any company in which they have a conflict of interest or could reasonably be expected to have a conflict;

- Disclose the contents of family trusts;

"If people deliberately or overtly break this code the solution is either their resignation or dismissal," Mr Rann said. "That was never enforced under the previous government."

For the first time, anyone performing public-sector work would have imposed on them a general obligation to act honestly and ethically in the performance of their duties. Offences relating to public officers, such as bribery of police officers and abuse of public office, would now apply to everyone who performs public work.

PSA general secretary Jan McMahon said her association supported accountability but it was not public servants who generally made errors.

"It is usually a political decision at a ministerial level which results in the problems outlined by the Premier," she said.

In another move the government will also extend question time in the House and require that Ministers must actually answer questions during question time.

If this is not practically possible an answer must be provided within six days of the query being asked.

This is also a large reform for South Australia given that at present, answers to some questions can be delivered years later - or never.

Other priority legislation includes the banning of nuclear dumps South Australia, and the establishment of an Essential Services Commission with limits on retail electricity prices.

New Speaker of the House, Peter Lewis, looks set to become the target of the Opposition given that his own questioning of former Speaker, John Oswald, while in Opposition set a precedent for the Speaker to be interrogated.


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