ministerial standards
(Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

Presumably the staff of Martin Parkinson, the head of Prime Minister and Cabinet, have a template for use when he is requested to investigate whether a former minister has breached ministerial standards.

The template likely involves describing how the former minister assured Parkinson that they understand the code of conduct and haven’t breached it, and Parkinson concluding — unfailingly — “I have no reason to conclude *insert name here* has breached the statement of ministerial standards.”

That was the conclusion for Bruce Billson, who took a salary as head of the Franchise Council of Australia before he left parliament and afterward led a campaign to water down proposed legislation aimed at stopping wage theft by franchisees. And that’s now the conclusion in regard to Christopher Pyne and Julie Bishop’s new gigs with Ernst & Young and Palladium, respectively.

The scrupulous Parkinson is correct: none of them breached the ministerial standards. The only way to breach the standards is to leave the ministry one day then, within 18 months, return to actively and directly lobby your former colleagues or public servants on matters that you dealt with as a minister within the last 18 months of your time in office.

You can lobby on other matters that you didn’t deal with, or dealt with earlier than 18 months before you finished. You can advise your new colleagues on how to lobby on the matters you did deal with, as long as you don’t lobby yourself. You can lobby on matters you did deal with from 18 months and one day after you finish up — as long as you don’t “take personal advantage” of information that was available to you as minister but which is not generally available to the public. Quite what “personal advantage” means isn’t clear. But Parkinson has further narrowed that range of information that is off-limits.

It is not reasonable to think that former ministers can or will ‘forget’ all information or knowledge gained by them … a distinction should be drawn between experience a person gains through being a minister and specific knowledge they acquire through performing the role.

Parkinson believes that’s the only kind of information they shouldn’t take “personal advantage” of.

Experience, of course, is a handy thing. Knowing the internal mechanics of a Cabinet decision-making process, or a large tender process, what the pressure and choke points are, how certain people approach key issues, what questions will be asked, what individual ministers and their advisers will say. All experience, and all far more valuable than any specific knowledge. As is the ability to get meetings and have phone calls returned from within the ministerial wing of Parliament House and by key backbenchers, like the chairs of backbench committees.

The standards — which, remember, were created by Kevin Rudd in 2008 — are written to be impossible to breach by anyone other than a complete fool, and represent no impediment to lucrative post-political careers.

There’s nothing wrong with a successful career after politics and — as Parkinson suggests — politicians are going to use the skills and experience they’ve gained while in office in their future employment. But what the standards fail to prevent is a revolving door between public and private office where private interests can effectively influence public decision-making both through the use of personal connections and inside knowledge and through the knowledge of politicians and public servants that they can derive a future income from private interests.

The ministerial standards focus narrowly on one kind of process of exercising influence — lobbying, revealing confidential information — and entirely ignore the outcome of exercising influence. Moreover, they exist in a void: there is no requirement for politicians to reveal whom they have met with; political donation laws are virtually voluntary; most lobbyists aren’t required to register as such.

The only interesting thing about Parkinson’s report on Pyne and Bishop is his final observation that “there are no specific actions that can be taken by you in relation to former Ministers once they have left the Parliament.” Well, they can decline to meet with them, but that’s about it. The standards are entirely unenforceable. You could attempt to link a former minister’s parliamentary superannuation to their adherence to standards, but good luck if that ever gets challenged in court.

Standards so low it’s virtually impossible to breach them. No way of determining if they’ve been breached except by asking the potential perpetrators. No actions that can be taken if, by some miracle, they are found to have breached them. It’s the perfect code of conduct for a government characterised by developing country standards of public integrity and transparency.

How can we — officially — hold former ministers to higher standards? Send your comments to [email protected]. Please include your full name. 

Peter Fray

Join us today for just $1 a week.

Get your first 12 weeks for $12. Cancel any time.

Our journalism is funded directly by our members — that’s how we maintain our fierce independence. We don’t rely on advertisers, clickbait or culture war obsessed columnists.

If you like what we do, join us today.

Peter Fray
Editor-In-Chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW