Conflicts of interest and the corruption of politics

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Political representation, when performed correctly, is a demanding and taxing job and I have no problem with the level of tax-payer funded salaries for politicians, provided they carry out the work expected of them diligently, and to their best capacities.

For the backbencher, politicians are the go-between for the citizen and the parliamentary system: the laws that are made on their behalf, and how these laws affect the lives of citizens in the electorate. The politician is the sounding board of community needs and expectations – they are expected to resolve problems on a daily basis and represent the concerns of electors in the Australian Parliament.

 

If the politician is lucky enough, or sometimes good enough, they’ll become a minister with important work in a specific portfolio, hopefully in the national interest and, of course, paid at a level that’s commensurate with the relevance of the work they perform.

Sounds a bit naff? Maybe. My point is: all members of Parliament are extremely busy people and time-poor – there are too many political tasks to attend to and the 24 hours in the day are usually not enough to complete these.

And the reason I’m bringing this up?

This week, we had the peculiar case of former Liberal Minister, Bruce Billson, censured by the House of Representatives’ Standing Committee of Privileges and Members’ Interests for receiving a salary from the lobby group, the Franchise Council of Australia, during the final months of his time in Parliament, which ended with his resignation in May 2016.

Billson was the Minister for Small Business for two years up until September 2015 – he was dumped from the ministry when Malcolm Turnbull challenged Tony Abbott for the prime ministership and, several months later, he started receiving a salary through contacts he would have created during his time as Minister.

There are several troubling issues here: a member of Parliament, supposedly working full-time to represent his electorate in a job he was elected to do, and paid at a tidy sum of $199,040 per year, was also working for the Franchise Council of Australia with a salary of $75,000. What were the duties that he was not performing as an elected member of Parliament while he was busy with his work with the Franchise Council of Australia? Is it actually possible for a member of Parliament to adequately perform their duties, if they are also working elsewhere?

There are so many red flags flying in this case, that it’s almost unbelievable that Billson actually took on the additional salary – a member of Parliament, on the payroll of a powerful lobbyist, in an area that he was directly responsible for as a Minister of the Crown.

There’s also the issue that Billson is actually allowed, by law, to do this. There is no code of conduct. There is no law against this. Unless Billson, or any other member of Parliament, hold office with or profit from the Crown and infringe Section 44 of the Australian Constituion, he’s free to do as he pleases.

The Commonwealth Ministerial code of conduct states that for an 18-month period, a Minister should not take personal advantage of the information to which they had access to as a Minister. Technically, this means Billson should have waiting until March 2018 to acquire any positions relating to his portfolio, but he was actually taking personal advantage while he was still in Parliament. That takes some chutzpah and bravado.

And the repercussions?

Federal Parliament has censured Billson for “not declaring his personal and pecuniary interests, in respect of this paid employment, in accordance with the resolutions and standing orders of the House”.

That’s it. There’s no other penalty, although Parliament could have gone one step further towards contempt, would could have led to penalties of six months in prison, or a $5,000 penalty. As it stands, Billson would have received a tougher penalty for parking his car for a few minutes over a one-hour time zone. It’s clearly inadequate.

Are there any other members of Parliament in this position and how would we ever know? It’s up to each individual member to decide, and there’s almost no point in continuing with a code of conduct if there are no punitive measures in place to deter this type of behaviour.

The parliamentary register of pecuniary interests is also an area of frustration – many statements lodged by members are scrawled in barely decipherable handwriting – almost written in contempt for the electorate for having the audacity to expect their MPs keep away from corruption – and it’s difficult to discern the value of assets and if any decisions they may have made as backbenchers or ministers, have been influenced by their personal interests.

For example, the Minister for Home Affairs, Peter Dutton, owns six properties, but we only know this through detailed investigations by the media, and he has accumulated over $20 million in property since the time he entered Parliament in 2001.

Is this the reason he is so vehemently against any reforms to negative gearing and capital gains tax? And where does he find the time to assess and make these acquisitions? He’s the Minister responsible for national security, law enforcement, emergency management, border control, immigration, refugees, citizenship, and multicultural affairs, including federal agencies such as the Australian Federal Police, Australian Border Force and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation. That is a massive workload – assuming he’s performing competently in the position which, on the evidence available to us, doesn’t seem to be the case.

Where did he find the time to make arrangements with ABC Learning – the corporate childcare company with links to the Liberal and National parties that essentially rorted the Child Care Benefit scheme to build an empire, and spectacularly collapsed in 2008 – to collect rents of $110,000 per year, and then sell a childcare centre he owned to ABC Learning? In 2007, Dutton was accused of personally benefiting from his policy decisions as Minister for Revenue and Assistant Treasurer, but simply denied it and we all moved on.

It’s not clear from the register of pecuniary interests, but it was reported in 2015, that the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, purchased shares in Vanguard Information Technology in July 2014, while he was Minister of Communications.

One of the many companies Vanguard has an interest in is Prysmian, the company which has supplied 1,800 kilometres of copper wiring for the National Broadband Network. The NBN has been fraught with many problems, not least because of the decision to abandon Labor’s fibre-to-the-premises scheme, and opt for the inferior fibre-to-the-node option, which depends on existing copper networks, and replacing inadequate wiring with new – hence the need for 1,800 kilometres of copper cabling.

Why did Turnbull invest in Vanguard in 2014 while he was Minister for Communications? Did his investments in Vanguard influence Turnbull’s push for an inferior copper network, even on a subconscious level? Even if he wasn’t aware of the relationship between Vanguard and Prysmian, should a Minister hold shares in a company related to their area of influence?

Blind trusts have been used by US Presidents in the past to avoid potential conflicts of interest during their term in office. It’s not a requirement of office, and the current US President, Donald Trump, has refrained. But is this an idea that could be considered for the Australian Parliament?

A research paper, Conflicts of Interest Avoidance – Is there a Role for Blind Trusts? was commission in 1996 to assess the merits of a blind trust system for Parliament but, typical of the many areas of parliamentary reform that could have been introduced by former Prime Minister John Howard, this idea was shelved and the current inadequate system of the pecuniary interests register was introduced.

For a parliamentary system to function in the best way that it should, it needs people from all walks of life to participate – even the people that have amassed a fortune before entering politics. It doesn’t end well for some – as former Palmer United leader, businessman Clive Palmer, found out in 2016 when he was ignominiously rejected by the electorate, after sitting in Parliament for only 58 per cent of the time, and rarely being seen within his Queensland electorate of Fairfax. He obviously had better things to do with his time. And it might not end well for Malcolm Turnbull.

People that can’t commit to being the elected member shouldn’t be in Parliament. Building up massive property portfolios, managing large shareholdings, or being on the payroll of a political lobbying company is time away from electoral and community duties and, in many cases, a clear conflict of interest.

Who are elected members actually representing? Is it the community, personal business, or the interests of big business lobbyists? Until we are able to clearly see this, the balance of Parliament will always swing too hard in the direction of commercial and personal interests.

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Eddy Jokovich

Eddy Jokovich is a Sydney-based journalist and producer of many books, magazines and handbooks and has worked as a war correspondent, journalist, lecturer in media studies and production.