May 11, 2004

Action learning of ethics

Ethics as a formal part of corporate governance is a “growth industry”, so perhaps no-one should be surprised that the Queensland Branch of the Liberal Party has decided to form an ethics committee. Given the recent history of the party, some might even argue that this is an overdue innovation and that the most recent review of the party’s constitution was remiss in not including one. Others might take a more cynical view, particularly when they look at the membership of the committee.

One would expect members of an ethics committee to have a few attributes. Given that ethics is a formal discipline, some expertise in the area might be a pre-requisite. As it is likely that the committee will be called on to adjudicate in contentious disputes it is also probably best not to appoint very active members of the party who may end up with conflicts of interest. Nothing demonstrates more how the party appears to have ignored these two simple considerations than the identity of the chairman of the committee: one Russell James Galt.

Galt is Chairman of the Ryan FEC, and as a close supporter of Ryan MHR Michael Johnson has been accused of participating in rampant branch-stacking. This stacking may be legal under the Liberal Party’s constitution, but legality is just one of the issues with which ethics deals. What Galt has participated in may be legal, but that doesn’t mean that it is ethical. So much for avoiding conflicts of interest. But the case against him is more interesting than that.

A couple of examples demonstrate this. I'll start with the easier one first.

Applicants for Liberal Party preselection are required to state their academic qualifications. What ethical standard would Mr Galt apply to this? Say for instance an applicant said that they had an MBA. Should this be from the equivalent of an Australian accredited university? Or would it be enough that it was gained from a university which advertises that it gives candidates credits towards their degree based on their life experience? Would it be material that the person claiming these qualifications was a director of the body conferring the degree at the same time as he was a student at that institution? (Readers interested in how they too might get a similar qualification to the one described should check out these websites: Revans University – the University of Action Learning and IMC Association).

Of course this is a purely hypothetical question for Mr Galt, because he would be forced to stand aside from this issue as he is the person in question.

He would also have a conflict of interest in looking at the events surrounding the Moggill pre-selection where he was the losing candidate. Galt challenged the result of the preselection (which he lost by three votes) on the basis that a number of preselectors who had voted were ineligible to vote, and that there was sufficient of them to have changed the outcome. In doing so he relied on the case of Gail Creighton-Barr. It transpired in the course of cross examination that Galt’s numbers man, and Michael Johnson staffer, Bernie Mack, had recruited Ms Creighton-Barr in November 2003 as part of a branch stacking exercise and had driven her to the preselection in the hope (fairly strong, one would have thought) that she would vote for Mr Galt. Mack knew Ms Creighton-Barr because she was his neighbour from across the road and one would think would have had a good idea as to when she joined.

So, another question for the ethics committee, again unfortunately sans Russell Galt. Is it ethical to try to over-turn a preselection on the basis of an irregularity caused by you or your supporters? Mack admitted to doing a lot of canvassing for Galt based on a delegate list that Galt gave him. This raises another issue which the ethics committee should deal with. Candidates routinely do hand over delegate lists to supporters for canvassing purposes, but when they are given these lists they expressly undertake not to reveal the contents to anyone. Should the rules be changed, or candidates disciplined?

The Moggill preselection also raises other questions of a more difficult nature. When Galt challenged the result, instead of suing the Liberal Party, which was the body at fault in the sense that it allowed the irregularity to happen, he sued the successful candidate. Is this ethical? What about the question of the Liberal Party funding his case? What are the ethics of that? Should a body be able to fund the suing of itself by proxy in the person of the successful candidate? Isn’t this an abuse of process?

Now, I am not saying that Russell Galt is an unethical person as I am not in full possession of the facts and haven’t heard his side of the case. That is not the point. What I am saying is that he is an unsuitable person to head up such a committee because he is the center of so much controversy. No wonder so many are cynical about the establishment of the committee in the first place. Yet it does demonstrate one thing –the Liberal Party State Council as a body has a need for a better understanding of ethics, because if they had any idea of the basics of the subject they would not have selected such in inappropriate person as chairman in the first place. Perhaps if Russell could convince the Action Learning Institute to provide a course in ethics they could all get themselves some better understanding of the matters, and of course, a few extra letters after their names.

Posted by Graham at May 11, 2004 11:51 AM
Graham Young
John Black
Mark Bahnisch
Michael Lee