The Brumby Government has launched a pre-emptive strike against Local Government councillors also employed as ministerial advisers, quietly drafting a Code of Conduct that bans them from holding the dual roles.

A copy of a “Code of Conduct for Political Advisers” dated July 2009 and obtained by Crikey, says ministerial staff “may not hold office as a local Government Councillor” — a step ahead of the bill formalising the ban, which is still before Parliament.

It is expected that the 2-page code will increase pressure on dissident MLCs to expedite the passage of the “Conflicting Duties Bill“, and insulate the Victorian Premier against allegations of cronyism.

The code, drafted by the bureaucrats in the Department of Premier and Cabinet, includes a provision that declarations on private interests be lodged with the Premier’s Chief of Staff.

Outside employment is a no-no, unless it receives formal approval. However, union sources say community activities such as netball umpiring would be permitted.

The code also contains provisions for probity in tendering, advising that “care should be taken in dealing with business contacts”, but stops short of ruling on the contentious issue of post-separation employment.

Recently, it emerged that former ministerial staff were working for firms lobbying the governmennt over key infrastructure contracts. Former Tim Pallas staffer and ex-University of Melbourne Student Union identity Pete Marczenko was involved in Metro Trains’ successful $8 billion bid for the Melbourne rail system contract through his job at Enhance Group.

Former Bracks Government adviser Danny Pearson also helped grease the wheels on the state’s $3.5 billion desalination tender. Sources say that at election time, Pearson moonlights as a strategist at the Victorian ALP’s King Street HQ.

Despite a 2006 election promise, Victoria currently has no lobbyist register and there nothing preventing ex-staffers and ministers from joining the private sector in their area of expertise when they decide to jump ship.

Around 200 ministerial staff, or “minstaff” as they call themselves, are expected to be affected by the new code. They undertake a variety of party-political tasks, with their ranks dominated by ALP insiders on the make. They often act as enforcers for their respective Minister in dealings with public servants.

The union representing minstaff, the CPSU, is currently seeking clarification on a number of points on the new code. The union said the code should be read as an addendum to the extensive VPS Code of Conduct, which runs to 40 pages.

Minstaff are employed under a non-certified agreement negotiated by the CPSU and the MEAA. An IR quirk means that the powers to make agreements have not been referred to the Commonwealth. Advisers currently work in a legal no-mans land under murky common law contracts.

Around 40 advisers will face a difficult decision on whether to resign their day job or their councillor gig if and when the councillor bill is passed.

The legislation was introduced in response to the Victorian Ombudsman’s report into allegations of corruption at Brimbank Council. Critics say the code is an attempt to firewall the Brumby Government from claims of impropriety in the wake of that scandal.

The bill was read in the lower house three weeks ago and will now to move to the Legislative Council, where amendments moved by the DLP and the Greens will be debated when sittings resume in September.

Last year, electorate officers, who undertake some political work, were forced to sign an onerous code that critics say was designed to safeguard their MP bosses from public embarrassment.

An MP Code of Conduct is currently before a joint committee of parliament, with the current emaciated provisions running to just three dot points.

The Federal Government implemented a similar code for its minstaff. Queensland also has a code and Western Australian advisers fall under the provisions of public servants.

Crikey contacted the Premier’s Media Unit for comment on this story, but it failed to respond before deadline.

Peter Fray

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