May 14, 2012

Commonwealth lags badly on MP code of conduct

Federal Parliament is far behind other jurisdictions in having a code of conduct for its members.

Bernard Keane — Politics editor

Bernard Keane

Politics editor

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.

Free Trial

You've hit members-only content.

Sign up for a FREE 21-day trial to keep reading and get the best of Crikey straight to your inbox

By starting a free trial, you agree to accept Crikey’s terms and conditions


Leave a comment

8 thoughts on “Commonwealth lags badly on MP code of conduct

  1. Horde

    And while at it, what about an Oath of Office for all parliamentarians that is relevant to their duties and responsibilities to the people of Australia as well as Duty Statements for all government and opposition front bench appointments on both sides of the despatch box?

    If accountability is what people want of and in their Parliament, that’s one way to get it that doesn’t require waiting for elections to come around.


  2. bluepoppy

    Couldn’t agree more. It is about time that the same codes of conduct were held against the behaviour of elected representatives.

    Any Code of Conduct is only as good as those who deliberate on breaches or those who have oversight. No point in a code if in practice it has no teeth.

    There are numerous cases of bullying, failures in codes of conduct, breaches, barriers to FOI and internal whistleblower reports that never get a public airing within the public sector. Fear still plays a role in future career and job prospects. This won’t change while whistleblower protections remain vague for public disclosures.

  3. kennethrobinson2

    The first thing that should be brought in, is remove the adressing as “THE HONOURABLE MEMBER, what a farse.

  4. jmendelssohn

    Am I right in thinking that the very good NSW Parliamentary Code of Conduct was the result of the last hung parliament? If so, then we’re in good hands in getting an appropriate code for the Commonwealth, as the rooky MLA in that old NSW Parliament is now the point man for the House of Representatives – the excellent Tony Windsor.

  5. Horde

    Nothing wrong with the title of “the Hon”. Just need to get them to earn it and live up to it.

  6. Ros

    Borrowing from considerations of fuzzy law and insider trading,
    “What the mischief was that it was the purpose of the legislation to remedy.”

    So a Code of Conduct is to be introduced to deal with the malfeasance of Thomson, or so Windsor and Gillard would have us believe. It would have to include specifics such as prior to being a member the member behaved badly by, ? Anyone think that is what is intended, isn’t it more likely that a Code will just let him off the hook. I think Kudelka’s cartoon today covers their objectives, “suspicion someone is taking the piss”

    If however Parliamentarians were bound by a Code of Ethics then at least he could be taken to task for his behaviour since entering Parliament, it might even persuade him to desist from yarns such as I was shafted by, whoever he chooses to malign under Parliamentary privilege.. Gillard might have a few questions to answer as well.

    And as Simon Longstaff puts a case,
    “The development of a code is an understandably attractive alternative. At first glance the solution seems to be relatively cheap and efficient. In fact, it is regrettably common for the following process to unfold:
    •Refer the matter of ‘ethics’ to Corporate Counsel, Human Resources or a consultant
    •Have the appointed individual draft an appropriate document (usually based on earlier attempts by others)
    •Publish the code (occasionally with a ‘sign off’ requirement)
    •Activate the internal monitoring / enforcement regime
    •Sit back and relax

    At first glance, it may seem that far more use can be made of a Code of Conduct. After all, such a Code provides clear and unambiguous direction about appropriate standards of behaviour. However, further examination of the issue reveals that the less specific Code of Ethics is the more significant document.
    Despite (or some would say because of) its ‘fuzzy’ form, a Code of Ethics is the better vehicle for ensuring long-term commitment to important values. This is because a Code of Ethics demands something more than mere compliance. Instead, such a Code calls forth an exercise in understanding that is linked to a requirement that people exercise judgement and accept personal responsibility for the decisions that they make.”

    We are entitled to expect more from our politicians than a set of rules for specific nominated bad deeds which would need to be updated constantly as some found their way around them. And as we are all affected by the behaviour of our politicians we should have an input into the development of a code, and there should be an independent body making the calls, not the foxes themselves.

  7. Chris Johnson

    Note that it’s taken a hung parliament to lift the lid on political integrity. So desperate for outright power the two major’s have gone hammer and tongs to lay each other bare.
    But the bad news is that Slipper and Thomson are just blow-ins to a loyal-to-loser parliamentary brotherhood of zipped lips and smothers for mates that wreaks of footie and bikie culture.
    Law-breaking, civil and human rights violations all documented in parliamentary lore are the inevitable wash-up of handing ordinary people extraordinary powers. The media coverage of ‘complex characters in the tradition of the Australian larrikin MP’ is tip of the iceberg.
    Those who can’t run their own lives or behave like decent human beings also arbitrarily manage workplaces in electorates across Australia. And in these hippie-style outposts sick leave, sackings, counselling, termination and compensation packages hide the statistics and degree of workplace and other exploitation.
    There’s relatively minor stuff like repaying staff for electorate costs with a bounced cheque and threatening dismissal for refusing to drink on the job. And then there’s HREOC intervention over discrimination and in Gillian Sneddon’s case outright blackballing for being an innocent bystander of Milton Orkopoulos’ wretched activities.
    Why parties and parliaments didn’t address Orkopoulos’ use of his Swansea bolt-hole as a den of iniquity under the NSW Coat of Arms beggars belief. So too Sneddon’s ghastly predicament of being no one’s workplace responsibility.
    Civil, criminal and protracted legal stoushes with confidential million-dollar plus settlements don’t deal with corrupt behavior – they encourage it.
    Yes of course MP conduct and unfettered powers need to be reassessed as do the workplace rights of MP electorate staffers. Because right now our parliamentary system rivals certain religious institutions on scandal and abuse coverup.

  8. Edward James

    @ Chris Johnson. I am pleased to read the writing of someone else who points out the loyal to the loser parliamentary brotherhood. I like to identify what our elected representatives do and accommodate as political sins against the peoples. There is no doubt the two parties not much preferred will never legislate better protections for whistleblowers. Systemic abuse of due process and corruption is permitted because party members and those who support them may turn away even leave the party but most of them are not brave enough to expose the rot which causes our political system so much trouble. As for the voting public while we can and do chatter,whinge and whine about misgovernance and malfeasance. The result of all that has us being identified by those whom we give or votes to in trust as members of the chattering classes. It has been suggested we will get much better representation when our politicians begin fear us. The NSW code of conduct has been used as a doormat for years, perhaps because it is rare to get politicians to turn on their fellow team players. I always smile when I recall the night we seen on NBN 3 when Gillian Sneddon accused Nathan Rees one time Chief of Staff to Milton (the horrible) Orkopolous of scurrying like a rat back to Premier Morris Iemma. Earning him the Nathan (scurried like a rat) Rees name. Edward James

Share this article with a friend

Just fill out the fields below and we'll send your friend a link to this article along with a message from you.

Your details

Your friend's details