When it comes to codes of conduct, the Commonwealth parliament badly lags several other jurisdictions.
New South Wales, Queensland, WA, Tasmania, Victoria, the Northern Territory and ACT parliaments all have codes for MPs (in Tasmania, for government MPs only), which are additional to, or include, ministerial codes of conduct — which the current federal government has.
NSW goes one better than merely having a code of conduct: the NSW code is included in definitions relating to corrupt conduct under the Independent Commission Against Corruption Act, meaning a breach of the code has potentially serious consequences and an investigative apparatus to pursue it.
The Coalition view on a Commonwealth code of conduct — that you don’t need a code to tell you what’s right and wrong — is at odds with its own policies about other industries (it’s OK to urge consumers to provide input to a communications industry code of conduct, but apparently a parliamentary one is out of the question) and the parliamentary reform agreement it signed up to in 2010, which committed the Coalition to support a code of conduct (backed by a parliamentary integrity commissioner), although it has repeatedly abrogated that agreement.
That position is also plainly wrong.
There are plenty of issues where a code is necessary to identify inappropriate behaviour. What about disclosure of secondary employment? At what point does an MP need to reveal that, like John Howard’s industrial relations consultancies for law firms in the 1980s, they’re receiving income from another source? The NSW code, for example, addresses that issue. What rules should apply to post-political employment? Ministers and advisers now face a cooling-off period. What about other MPs seeking to move into lobbying? How about more timely and comprehensive disclosure of pecuniary interests?
And then there’s treatment of political and electoral staff. All too many MPs on all sides of politics apparently don’t know what’s right and wrong when it comes to how they treat their staff, and the result is a lengthy casualty list of broken people, often but not always with compensation from taxpayers, for being bullied, harassed and abused.
It’s telling that none of the current state codes of conduct relate to treatment of staff, although the Victorian Parliament imposed a hardline code of conduct on staff.
The whole issue of a parliamentary code of conduct and appropriate enforcement mechanisms was meant to have been resolved long ago, as a consequence of the agreement to improve parliament. But the implementation has been marked by delay and lack of interest — almost as if MPs would prefer there be no mechanism for assessing their ethical standards.