Costello supporter Julie Bishop has been outspoken on lots of subject but both she and fellow former Clayton Utz employee John Howard have been remarkably quiet about the firm’s appalling conduct on behalf of big tobacco.

There is also a political connection between the two law firms. Julie Bishop, the present serving member for the federal seat of Curtin, became a partner of Robinson Cox in 1985, and following the merger of that firm into Clayton Utz in 1992, Bishop was appointed Managing Partner of Clayton Utz in 1994. Crikey certainly does not suggest that Ms Bishop was involved in any of the shenanigans recently disclosed in the Victorian Supreme Court.

Bishop’s high profile position with Clayton Utz was to be largely responsible for her appointment to a number of Government boards and agencies. Later it was to be the strong selling point in her quest for the Liberal Party endorsement for the safe seat of Curtin and has given her a standing and credibility in Canberra.

Bishop is a high profile member of the Liberal left faction in Canberra which places civil liberties at the head of its agenda and as a member of the the House of Representatives Legal and Constitutional Committee, she has recently spoken out against the Anti Terrorist legislation because of its imposition on individual civil rights.

As Chairman of the Joint Parliamentary Standing Committee on Treaties, Bishop has been equally vocal in her call for Australia to sign the International Criminal Court Convention because of its proposed role in bringing to justice those who violate individualism rights. During the federal election Bishop spoke out against the government’s immigration policy calling for an increase in the number emigrants into Australia.

Ms Bishop represented the Australian government as an observer of the recent elections in Zimbabwe. Her function was to monitor that the wishes of the voters were reflected in the outcome of the election.

Given that Ms Bishop has assiduously cultivated a public profile as an advocate of individual liberties, to many it is therefore surprising that the federal member for Curtin has not publicly commented on the scandal of document destruction and the use of private investigators to snoop on opponents that has consumed Clayton Utz in recent months. In normal circumstances Bishop would walk a mile on broken glass for a media opportunity.

There is of course an appeal pending however this matter is not just about suggestions of alleged illegality, it is about morality, decency, corporate behaviour and acceptable standards of conduct by the practitioners of the law. It is about the preservation of the equal rights of all before the law and the courts. It most certainly goes directly to the heart of the rights of individual Australians. There can be few forums where there is a greater need for the preservation of a citizen’s rights than before the courts.

These are all matters about which parliamentarians can and should publicly speak out whatever the status of litigation before the courts. Given the member for Curtin’s previous high profile partnership in Clayton Utz, and the profile she has cultivated as a civil libertarian, it may have been expected that Ms Bishop would publicly condemn the behaviour disclosed in the Victorian Supreme Court. Thus far she has been silent on the matter.

The issue has after all, attracted the interest of the Law Society of New South Wales, the Law Institute of Victoria, the ACCC and the Victorian Attorney General, all of whom have felt free to comment publicly on the matter.

The pending appeal has not stopped Bishop’s constituents speaking out. Five senior Western Australian medical specialists, four of who are constituents of Bishop’s, have called for the resignation of Clayton Utz as legal adviser to the Medical Defence Association. The Association represents nearly all WA medical practitioners.

Perhaps as with her former defacto, the redoubtable Ross Lightfoot whom Julie claims to barely know, her Clayton Utz partnership is now a previous life experience best forgotten.

On the matter of Clayton Utz, we should make reference to Howard’s involvement with that firm.

Crikey has previously made much of the fact that Howard was a consultant to Clayton Utz for a period, however the issue is not for whom he consulted but rather why and was it ethical.

Of the twenty eight years Howard has been a member of parliament, only seven have been spent on a back bench salary. It was during this period that Howard moonlighted as a paid consultant on industrial relations for Clayton Utz. This is the same man who successfully argued at that time in the Coalition party room against his back bench colleagues accepting the recommendation of the Remuneration Tribunal for a modest salary increase.

Putting aside Howard’s meanness in not being prepared to live on a back bench salary himself albeit for a short period in his long career, while arguing that his colleagues should make a salary sacrifice in the interests of his wages policy, the more important issue is whether it is morally acceptable for politicians to take an outside remunerated position.

Politicians are paid on the basis of a parliamentarian’s position being full time and the Remuneration Tribunal assesses their salaries on that premise. In Howard’s case, his duties included that of Shadow Spokesman for Industrial Relations for which he was provided additional staff. Not only was Howard being paid as a full time parliamentarian, he was being paid in particular to fulfill certain duties for which he was selling his services to an outside source.

It would be absurd to suggest that members of parliament should not maintain their financial interests outside the parliament if and when they do not create a conflict with the members’ public duties and responsibilities providing they do not require personal exertion, which in any form makes them a second occupation.

It may however be quite another matter when members of parliament not only use time in their working day to acquire additional income but when they use the knowledge, information or skills they acquire in part through their public duties.

Would it be appropriate for members of parliament to charge a fee for advice and nothing more, on immigration matters to members of the public who may or may not be their constituents?

Peter Fray

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