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Speech: Ministerial Conduct

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 19 Mar 2014

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (16:29): This debate needs to be seen in the wider context of strengthening our democratic process. We urgently need politics to be cleaned up in this country. That needs to go much further than just dealing with the issues of today around Senator Sinodinos, because there is a real thread through so much of this work with regard to lobbying and how it is conducted in this country. But it goes much wider than that, and that has implications for political donations. Our houses do not fully come under freedom of information requirements; there is the question of how entitlements from members of parliament are managed; there are codes of conduct for ministers and MPs and the need for those codes to be legislated—these are all highly relevant to this issue. You can see why there is increasing cynicism from members of the public. They do see MPs as a protected species—and that applies to all of us—because what has happened today damages the standing of parliaments and the parliamentarians who attempt to do this work, and the very fabric of our democracy is undermined. We need to address greater transparency and improve accountability so that the public can scrutinise the work more readily, because that certainly is not possible at present.

I start with the issue of donations, and this certainly goes back to how the Prime Minister operates. In the latest release of data from the Australian Electoral Commission that came out on 1 February, we saw that tobacco and mining money still found its way into the coffers of the coalition, and the alcohol industry was there to benefit both Labor and the coalition in that case. Imperial Tobacco and Philip Morris spent about $4.5 million under their own names, and the Alliance of Australian Retailers—which just seemed to appear out of nowhere but really had so much to do with plain packaging—dispersed $9 million. The Minerals Council of Australia reported $4 million and the Association of Mining and Exploration Companies reported $2.2 million. This, interestingly, was around the time of the debate about the mining tax, and it is worth remembering that those companies spent $22 million on advertising. These are big companies influencing and being very close to key politicians in this place, and people are not able to open a window on how that influence is exerted and what discussions go on behind closed doors. That it is certainly very relevant to what we are discussing here.

Senator Brandis: Have you heard of the register of donations?

Senator RHIANNON: While I did not hear the interjection from Senator Brandis—but I am sure it will be very interesting—he might be interested in this aspect because it is another area where we need to clean up politics. Through some of the debates that are currently occurring in terms of how political parties operate, there are some interesting discussions around the need for standards for political parties in terms of how they operate, particularly if they are going to run in elections, be registered and gain public money. Should there be some standard regarding democracy within political parties? I was interested to read in July 2011—and I do note this was before the current government was formed—that claims emerged of possible vote tampering during elections for the State Executive of the New South Wales Liberal Party. The accusation that the Herald reported was that up to 80 ballots had been identified where the original vote had been changed using correction fluid to follow the ticket put forward by the hard or religious right faction. I use that example as another reason why we need to clean up politics and explore ways to ensure that the highest standards are followed.

Then there is the issue of entitlements. When this government came to office, the whole issue of entitlements really got a working over with those extraordinary reports of various government members claiming entitlements to go to weddings. Senator Brandis and former Senator Joyce—both now ministers—used money to go to weddings and denied any wrongdoing. Then we had some very interesting statements about this from Minister Malcolm Turnbull. When he was asked about $15,000 that was claimed by some senior coalition ministers to attend three different weddings, he said, in this case with regard to Minister Julie Bishop, that she made 'a very valid use of her travel entitlement' when she claimed $3,445 to pay for flights home from the lavish wedding in India which we have heard a great deal about. Where it becomes very interesting is that Mr Turnbull's comments were made on the same day that news reports emerged that Prime Minister Tony Abbott repaid $1,094 in travel expenses he had charged taxpayers for attending the 2006 wedding of former MP Sophie Mirabella. This does not need to occur. It really is so damaging. Mistakes are made with entitlements, and I am obviously aware that these things can happen. In this case, I felt the claim for weddings went a bit too far.

I would again highlight what the Greens have been advocating. The Scottish parliament has a very simple website where you click on your MP and you can see how the expenses have been paid. The transparency is there. The accountability is there. The public have an understanding of how public money is being spent by their publicly elected people, and that is certainly how it should be. In this context, it is interesting to note that former Prime Minister John Howard did see what some would say was an opportunity. Others would say he was doing the right thing—although I think some of his colleagues thought that he went too far—when he campaigned when he came into office in 1996 for tighter rules on entitlements. He did promise, and eventually delivered, a new code of conduct for ministers. Interestingly, it led to five ministers going in his first term. Sadly, it seems, the lesson that the coalition learnt—and maybe it is a lesson some others took from that—is that we have weaker rules around entitlements, and many would say that ministerial responsibility barely exists these days. This is another area where we need to clean up. It is very easy. It is public money. I will say it again: it is public money being spent on public duties by publicly elected people. Let us have it on an easily accessible website—that is so easy to do in this day and age.

The issue of lobbying is a thread that runs through so many of the problems that we have confronted in recent weeks. We have heard about how Senator Nash ran her office. We are yet to hear more about the operations of Senator Sinodinos. But the issue of lobbying, of people trying to gain influence, is certainly there.

Clearly lobbying has an important role in the democratic process; that is a given. It is a right for people to engage in this way. But, when they do, we need to think about how it operates and what information is then available to people, because right now there is so little information that the public can access when it comes to lobbying.

We need to have a code of conduct for lobbying legislated; that is long overdue. When the Greens were successful in setting up an inquiry to review how lobbying is conducted, unfortunately and disappointingly Labor voted against it. The coalition did vote for it. But then we hardly called any witnesses, so it was controlled in that way.

What is clearly needed is this. As the Greens have been putting forward, we need a commissioner of lobbying. The definition of 'lobbyist' needs to be expanded to include in-house lobbyists. Records should be kept of the discussions that are held when lobbyists meet with ministers. Also, the code needs to cover not just ministers but all MPs. Clearly, in this day and age, with the way politics work, backbenchers and crossbenchers can play a key role in the final decisions governments make. So those meetings also should come under any code.

In conclusion, this is a valuable debate. We need to be looking at how we clean up politics in many areas: political donations; codes of conduct for MPs in general; the issue of entitlements. Transparency and accountability need to be the foundations of how we work.

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