senate inquiry julie bishop
(Image:AAP/Lukas Coch)

The physical absence of the star witnesses at this week’s Senate inquiry into whether former Coalition ministers Christopher Pyne and Julie Bishop had done anything wrong in their choice of post-politics employment simply underscored what a hollow exercise this charade has proven to be.

Senators talked to empty chairs which had, ludicrously, been marked with the names of the absent former Liberals. A second, completely unnecessary, notice said “Via Teleconference”. All was well, though, as the pair were still referred to as “The Hon.”.

Pyne and Bishop sparked outrage and a flurry of in-house “doing something” after they took jobs associated with their previous ministerial responsibilities just days after they’d spent their last comfy wait for  taxpayer-funded flights in the Chairman’s Lounge at Canberra Airport.

Former foreign minister Bishop is a sometimes adviser to development aid contractor Palladium, and one-time defence minister Pyne is working up a sweat two days a month for consulting behemoth EY (formerly Ernst and Young) which is establishing a big defence industry presence in Canberra.

Canberra’s former resident Sir Humphrey, ex-head of the prime minister’s department Martin Parkinson, did a desktop review of the whole thing, looking to see if he could find any breach of the guideline that supposedly prevents ministers from taking jobs in which they might be able to use knowledge they’d gained in their old jobs during a “cooling off” period of 18 months.

Parkinson read public statements, scanned media reports and chatted to Pyne and Bishop — two politicians with whom he’d worked quite closely for some years. He found nothing. The ex-ministers told him they hadn’t breached the guidelines and they weren’t going to do so.

Non-government Senators weren’t happy and launched a swift and probably pointless inquiry. They asked Parkinson if he’d in fact found what he said he’d found and he said he had, showing an incuriousness that might not look flash in the governance column of any CV he waves around for his post public sector phase.

Bishop and Pyne not only didn’t bother to show up for the hearings — surely their new employers would have stumped up the cost of airfares — but they also didn’t try to hide their contempt for the process.

Sounding as if they were having their much-deserved entitlement interrupted by people they regarded as their juniors — members of the House of Representatives frequently refer to the Upper House as the “B Team” — Bishop and Pyne emphasised how little they were being remunerated, saying in almost unison, it was much less than the $207,000 base salary for a Senator.

Bishop said she took the guidelines about post-ministerial employment seriously and pledged to do the right thing but demonstrated the “trust me” nature of those words by pointing out any requirements were voluntary and not enforceable by law.

Pyne didn’t disappoint those who are amused by his Adelaide eastern suburbs’ accent and attitude, feigning hurt that anyone would question him after his 26 years of tireless contribution in the national parliament.

“Having been around politics … for 26 years, there’s an instinctive understanding of how government thinks and how political parties think that I would bring to such a job [as that at EY] as well,” he said.

So not only have we citizens been lucky to have had Pyne’s service for a quarter century, now one of the biggest accountancy firms in the world can share in that good fortune.

Bishop and Pyne are not the first to slide seamlessly from the ministerial wing to adjacent employment and both sides of politics have maintained an understanding that this is the way things are done.

Unless this Senate committee proposes something with real enforcement — perhaps mirroring ASIC’s rules for disclosure and handling of confidential information in the private sectors — nothing is going to change. At the moment we have politicians feathering their own nests and then policing any disruption of those feathers.

The inquiry will report next Tuesday after two rounds of public hearings and examining submissions.

What do you make of Christopher Pyne and Julie Bishop’s no-show at the Senate inquiry? Write to [email protected].

Dennis Atkins is a freelance writer based in Brisbane where he was a national political editor during the Howard government. He is filling in for part of the time while Bernard Keane is enjoying a break.