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Code of Conduct for Members of Parliament - Report by Joint Standing Committee on Integrity

Cassy O'Connor MP

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Wednesday, 22 August 2018

Tags: Governance, Code of Conduct

Ms O'CONNOR (Denison - Leader of the Greens) - Madam Speaker, that was a refreshing, if not a little dull, contribution from the Premier.

If you had not spoken, I was going to say, I don't expect you to be able to oppose this motion because unarguably it is a body of work that must be done by this parliament. It is a matter of regret that we had this debate last year, brought on by Labor. Because it was a bit too close to the election, there could not be the same consensus over a single code of conduct for members of parliament than we have here today.

It is interesting to look at the Integrity Commission's 2011 report. One of the first major pieces of work that the Integrity Commission did was to develop those draft codes of conduct for members of parliament, ministers and ministerial staff. There are other issues relevant to a code of conduct for ministerial staff. This is not the time for that debate necessarily, but it is an issue that the parliament needs to deal with. In its argument for parliamentarians to adopt a code of conduct, the commissioner says -

The Commission identified that well-developed codes of conduct motivate elected members and public officers to act ethically because codes provide guidance as to what constitutes ethical behaviour and on the consequences of failing to act appropriately.

The commissioner concluded that -

Codes of conduct play a valuable role in defining and communicating acceptable standards of conduct in an organisation or parliament, provide guidance to individuals and motivate them to demonstrate appropriate behaviour.

The commissioner also recognised that standards of parliamentary and ministerial ethical conduct are of great interest and importance to Tasmanians.

If you did a spot poll on the streets, Tasmanians would be surprised that we are not already operating under a single code of conduct. They would be very surprised to hear that Tasmania's parliament is the only parliament that does not have a single code of conduct for its members in place.

Remember, we are also the only state that does not have an offence of misconduct in public office in place. That was another key recommendation of the Integrity Commission, which would give the Integrity Commission and Law Enforcement Agencies and courts greater clarity on what constitutes misconduct. It would give public officers, including elected representatives, public servants, the Governor of Tasmania - because no one should be above the law - greater guidance on what constitutes misconduct.

Anyone who has read either Quentin Beresford's book, The Rise and Fall of Gunns Ltd or James Boyce's book, Losing Streak, about the pokies industry, would recognise a recurrent theme of those true histories is an inability in some parts of the establishment in Tasmania to understand what corruption or misconduct is.

There is a particular form of institutional corruption which is fostered in environments where you do not have good codes of conduct in place, or a statute that defines the offence of misconduct in public office. I can indicate we will continue to pursue the introduction of an offence of misconduct in public office in Tasmania. It is simply not realistic to suggest Tasmania does not have the same requirement for this offence to be within the criminal law as other states and territories. Being small does not keep the public interest protected and it does not ensure the ethical conduct of either elected representatives or other public officials. The matter of misconduct in public office is a matter this parliament will be asked to deal with.

I was listening with great interest to both the contributions. The Leader of the Opposition's suggestion was that potentially more work is required on what the code contains. I understand why she would say that; it is part of the reason there has not been a code implemented for seven years now. The original draft code of conduct came out in the 2011 report and then it was revised in the 2016 Integrity Commission summary report that was prepared for the Joint Standing Committee on Integrity. It is very difficult, as an ethical elected representative - or I hope I am; I try very hard to be - to understand the sticking points in the draft code of conduct prepared and refined by the Integrity Commission. They have made some subtle changes to the original draft because originally it was a statement of principles and now we have a statement of values. Every person in this place is here because we have a set of values we believe in and in our own way we want to make Tasmania a better place and give to the community.

The statement of values is something we should all subscribe to every day in here. It is a short list. As members of parliament, we value: the public interest and the fundamental objective of public office to act solely in terms of the public interest; the improvement of the economic and social conditions of all Tasmanian people and our service to our fellow citizens to achieve this; the promotion of human, social and environmental welfare through the responsible execution of our official duties; integrity, honesty, accessibility, accountability, fairness, transparency, courtesy, respect and understanding; loyalty to shared principles, respect for differences and fairness in political dealings to our fellow member of parliament and ethical political practices that support the democratic traditions of our state and its institutions and the rejection of political corruption.

Surely, they are values every person who is privileged to be elected into this places shares. I believe there is some confusion over what constitutes the public interest. That is a debate we should have in here. What constitutes the public interest when we are making decisions about planning, for example, or when we are bringing in draconian anti-protest laws? Is it in the public interest to restrict the right to protest? How do you weigh what the public interest is when you have on one side employers and, on the other, workers who absolutely have a right to protest against their conditions in the workplace or to stand up on any other civil or political matter they feel passionately about?

We should examine each day our conscience on the matter of the public interest because surely our guiding doctrine is to work always in the interests of this island and its people. There would be days when people observing parliament would wonder if, as a collective, we understand what the public interest is.

One of the elements of the draft code of conduct discusses the declaration of personal interests. This is an area where there has not necessarily been a strict adherence to the principle of a declaration of a personal interest -

A member is personally responsible for full and accurate disclosure of her/his financial and other interests, particularly in accordance with their obligations under the Parliamentary (Disclosure of Interests) Act 1996.

The Integrity Commission reports -

Members who have a material interest in a matter being considered as part of their official duties must not vote or participate in discussions on that matter unless they have first declared their interest to Parliament, or in any other public and appropriate manner.

Without being specific about who this relates to, we have had debates in this place and I know legislation has gone to Cabinet in relation to Airbnb, short-stay accommodation and the housing market. There are members of Cabinet who have Airbnb properties and whether there was a declaration of that within Cabinet or any request to be excused from a vote on that matter is something we cannot know because we do not know what happens inside Cabinet. That is fine and I respect that convention.

In Tasmania, because we are small, because we have not had a particularly proud history of separation between corporate and political interests, there is a higher risk here of small to larger-scale cronyism, conflict of interest and, potentially, institutional corruption because it is so cosy. Having a code of conduct in place that we commit to and abide by every day would be a very good start to tackling some of the systemic issues we have in Tasmania.

We saw that at the last state election. Very large sums of money came in from pretty shady interests. We do not know how much money came in and we do not know where it came from, we do not know whether it went into the Liberal Party Tasmania bank account or whether it was given in kind to the Love Your Local campaign. If we are serious about improving the ethical conduct of this parliament and everyone who is elected to it, if we are, hand on heart, committed to integrity in public office and restoring public trust in parliamentarians and the institutions of democracy, we have to have donations reform in Tasmania.

Having a code of conduct is one part of an important equation to restore integrity to our democratic institutions. It will be incomplete without donations reform because it legal for the Premier not to declare how much money came into the Liberal Party coffers or into the Love Your Local campaign to support the Liberal campaign. It is currently legal but it does not make it right and it does not make it ethical. It undermines public confidence in parliaments and undermines public trust in all of us. Listen to talk back radio, read letters to the editor; we are all tarred with the same brush.

When we or our colleagues misbehave, act unethically, act against the public interest or take money from a corporate interest that is intended to influence our decision-making, it undermines public trust in all of us. That is highly regrettable. We are seen as a class, a breed of people and a breed not to be trusted. That is highly regrettable because democracy is not perfect but it is so much better than any alternative on offer anywhere in the world. We aim for a democracy that works in the public interest, protects the rights and freedoms on citizens and makes sure we have a healthy environment to hand on to future generations and that our economy is not creating inequality, which is what is happening in Australia today, Madam Speaker. The level of inequality in Australia is obscene and it is not showing any sign of improvement.

With those few words, I am glad, on behalf of the Greens, we are going to have a consensus on this issue. I heard the Premier say we will endeavor to have this work done by the end of the year. I trust that is simply being cautious, that it is possible to have this work done by the end of the year.

Mr Hidding - Best endeavours.

Ms O'CONNOR - If parliament agrees the work should be done by the end of 2018 and it is not done, will there be a statement made to the House on behalf of the committee in that we can be updated?

Mr Hidding - You are on your feet making a contribution. There does not have to be a commitment to this. If we are all voting for this, the intention would be inevitable.

Ms O'CONNOR - Yes. As you are aware, Mr Hidding, the motion is prescriptive in that way. If it is not completed by the end of 2018, parliament should be updated.

Mr Hidding - You would not have appreciated us trying to amend it on that matter.

Ms O'CONNOR - No, I understand that. I am following through and making sure the parliament is updated. Marvellous; we have tripartisan support for a motion before the House.