You are here

MATTER OF PUBLIC IMPORTANCE - Codes of Conduct

5 July 2018

Ms O'CONNOR (Denison - Leader of the Greens) - Madam Speaker, I move –

That the House take note of the following matter: codes of conduct.

We thought it was important that parliament debated the issue of codes of conduct today, whether they be ministers, members of parliament or ministerial staff. This follows the release yesterday of the Integrity Commission report into the investigation of an allegation of interference in the Office of the Commissioner for Children. I have read the Integrity Commission report, as a number of members of the House have. I find the report somewhat confusing in its findings and in its weighting of the evidence. It is hard to understand why contemporaneous notes written by the Commissioner for Children were given less evidentiary weight than the testimony of a minister and a political operative.

That aside, the issue raised in the Integrity Commission's report goes to that of conduct and the Ministerial Code of Conduct. Regrettably, the Ministerial Code of Conduct is not law and has no weight in law. It is simply the premier's set of expectations of his minister. The Ministerial Code of Conduct, while it refers to the need to respect the apolitical nature of public servants, does not make it clear that ministers must respect the apolitical and vitally independent role of statutory officers, including the Commissioner for Children.

It is clear from the Integrity Commission's report that the substance of the allegation has been confirmed: a political ministerial staffer raised a concern with the Commissioner for Children that matters were being put into writing. The Commissioner for Children had finally put these matters into writing out of frustration at not being able to gain the minister's attention in relation to concerns over the policies applying to vulnerable children and young people in Tasmania. We know the conversation was had between the minister's staffer and the Commissioner for Children. The Commissioner for Children took clear notes at the time, yet those notes apparently had less evidentiary weight than an interview with a politician and a political staffer. I find that very curious.

There is a statement in this report that says the commission took the view that the Ministerial Code of Conduct is a code of conduct for the purposes of the Integrity Commission Act. However, the commission noted that the Commissioner for Children is not a public servant for the purposes of that code. Therefore, there was no apolitical role held by the commissioner that the minister was required to respect under the code. That is alarming. What it is saying, in effect, is that the Commissioner for Children is a political role and there is no requirement on ministers to respect the independence of the Commissioner for Children.
You will have political interference in this vital role if there is not an approach in government and a commitment to respect the independence of a statutory officer like the Commissioner for Children. That is what happened. We know this because we have seen the chain of communication and emails. It is laid out in the Integrity Commission's report. There is a major hole in the Premier's expectations of his ministers if he is prepared to allow this statement from the Integrity Commission's report to go unanswered.

If the Premier is going to make a contribution today, he needs to tell his ministers unequivocally that he expects them to treat statutory officers apolitically, that the same expectations apply to ministers in relation to their conduct towards public servants is extended to independent statutory officers. It is a critical part of making sure that the Commissioner for Children can do their work.

Of course a more fundamental issue here is that in 2011 the Integrity Commission prepared a report that recommended government adopt codes of conduct that provide for members of parliament, ministers and ministerial staff, and that such codes be tabled in parliament. Further, the Integrity Commission in its report of yesterday says:

To date, the recommendations that the Government adopt codes of conduct that provide for members of parliament and for ministerial staff have not been implemented.
As we know, the Government, the Liberals, were given an opportunity late last year to correct this and make sure we established a code of conduct for members of parliament and ministerial staff, and they voted against it.

In the Premier's contribution today we need to hear two things. We need to hear him state unequivocally that he expects his ministers to respect the independence of statutory officers and we need to hear from the Premier what the plan is for bringing in a code of conduct for members of parliament and ministerial staff. That was a key recommendation of the Integrity Commission that has been ignored and when the House was given an opportunity to address this in a meaningful way, the Premier and his party room voted against it. We had an opportunity last year to establish a code of conduct which surely you would think would receive tripartisan support. It did not. Labor voted for it, the Greens voted for it, and the Liberals voted against it.

That must be addressed by this parliament. We need a code of conduct for members of parliament and ministerial staff and we need to make sure that this document, the ministerial code of conduct, is worth more than the paper it is written on. This is the same code of conduct that allowed a minister of the Crown to three times make a false statement to a budget Estimates committee. It is the ministerial code of conduct that allowed the former minister for State Growth, in the space between his green leather seat and the lectern, to cook up a lie about the proposed privatisation of the TasTAFE building. This ministerial code of conduct has had very a poor light shone on it and, Premier, you need to address this as a matter of urgency. It has been raised again by the Integrity Commission and you know you cannot stall on this any longer.

 

Dr WOODRUFF (Franklin) - Mr Deputy Speaker, as Mr Hidding seems to be heading out, before he leaves the Chamber, I want to say that we are pleased to hear that the Government will look again at reviewing the Ministerial Code of Conduct which is clearly a deficient code of conduct.

Mr Hidding - No. A new code of conduct.

Dr WOODRUFF - Exactly, a new code of conduct. We have heard it all before. I hope this member, unlike the other members who have made those promises, is going to keep his word. We hope you do.

Mr Hidding - You haven't been here long enough to say that to me.

Dr WOODRUFF - The Greens have been trying to get action on an improved code of conduct for at least eight years now. We have been calling for a crime of misconduct in public office for the same length of time. It is clear that there are endemic problems in the culture of how ministers operate and how this Government operates, which is about secrecy.

We have had a perfect example laid here in question time today. We have lies told to the Greens about the extent of involvement. This has been vindicated by the information released under a right to information request. Correspondence between Forestry Tasmania and the James Neville-Smith's Smart Fibre proponents, shows a much greater extent of involvement than Forestry Tasmania staff, than the minister's office told us was the case with Forestry Tasmania on this Dover Southwood export port proposal.

It is clear that it ranges across a whole raft of areas. We did not get an honest response. It is there in black and white. People can look through it make their own assessment about the extent of the untruths that we told. That is exactly the stuff that is not covered under the Ministerial Code of Conduct we have at the moment. That does not go to other MPs, it only goes to ministers. It does not includes a minister's staff and it does not extend, as we found in this case, to apolitical statutory bodies, or the responsibility of a minister, or other members of government, to behave ethically with propriety to those other offices.

There is a compelling case for change. We know from the experience of this Liberal Government is that the fish rots from the top. The Premier has had many opportunities in the last four and a half years to bring in this change. He has consistently refused to take up those opportunities and has put roadblocks in the way. He has made endless excuses. What we hear, again and again, it that this Government is refusing to bring Tasmania up to the same standards as other states in Australia and as world's best practice on a whole range of probity and anticorruption mechanisms and laws.

Last year, on behalf of the Joint Integrity Standing Committee, I attended a conference in Sydney, which was a national and international anticorruption conference. It was clear from that, that there are numbers of areas that need to be improved, numbers of laws that need to be strengthened, so our independent Integrity Commission can have great powers so they can require public hearings and be more emboldened, through law, to have a deeper level and a more independent and proactive level of investigation than they are currently do.

This is the case in other states that have successfully brought members of parliament to heel. The New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption has successfully brought cases against members of parliament for allegations of corruption that were, after investigation, found to be true.

This is law that needs to be addressed in Tasmania because it is lacking. It is in all of our interests to shore it up. I was particularly disappointed by the minister for Police's answers in Estimates last week to a question I raised about the Integrity Commission's report into the management of information in Tasmania Police. The Integrity Commission recommended the disclosure of official secrets and unauthorised access to computer offences be reviewed with a view to amending those policies and procedures to make them all more certain and to align our law with equivalent offences in other Australian jurisdictions.

I asked the minister whether he was comfortable with the state of the law and whether he would take up the Integrity Commission's recommendation and review the law. The minister refused to answer that question and instead agreed finally to reviewing the report and its recommendations, which is not the same thing. The Minister for Police, Fire and Emergency Services, who ought to be concerned about integrity in this state at least as much if not more than any other minister, will not even put in place a commitment to review, as the Integrity Commission recommended, the law of the disclosure of secrets. That is shameful and very concerning.