House debates

Monday, 29 October 2012

Private Members' Business

Code of Conduct for Members of Parliament

11:42 am

Photo of Julie OwensJulie Owens (Parramatta, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I am actually pleased to stand and speak on this motion concerning the code of conduct for members of parliament. Sometimes I think that we are our own worst enemy. We can be very good at bagging ourselves, and sometimes we deserve it. There is no doubt that sometimes the style of parliament is one that would not be accepted in any other place—certainly any other workplace—and there is no doubt that, at times, we all look at it and wonder what is going on in our parliament. I also try to look beyond that to the content. Sometimes I think that the style that we use in parliament overwhelms the very content.

I remember after the last week of parliament, for example, if you went out into the community and you watched the news—which I actually did get to do for a few days following parliament; I do not always—you would have thought that the entire parliamentary session that week had been a debate about sexism. That was an important debate, but if you look at what was actually achieved, if you look at the content of the parliament that week, we introduced the legislation to link the emissions trading scheme in Australia to the one in the UK—an important piece of policy work. We introduced the legislation to set up the trust fund to pay the low-wage worker—an incredibly important piece of Labor business. We announced that we would move to ban gag clauses that the Howard government introduced and we abolished in 2008 that prevent not-for-profits from criticising governments. We introduced legislation to ensure that workers of state owned enterprises would have the same protection if that enterprise was sold as the worker in a commercial organisation would have if the enterprise was sold. That is just four out of dozens of pieces of legislation that were actually handled by the parliament in that week. We have almost two stories. We have the story of government and the content of the parliament and what it actually achieves. Then we have the story of the style of politics which is played out very publicly on almost every news media outlet to the detriment of the content.

There is no doubt at the moment that we have a hung parliament. In previous parliaments, if the opposition pulled a stunt—and we did it when we were in opposition; every opposition does it—the government had the numbers to shut it down. Those stunts carry on longer now and they are more aggressive than they were in a parliament where the government had the numbers.

The finely balanced numbers on the floor of the parliament make more room for stunts and behaviours on both sides, and certainly the public sees that.

I want to make a point about the conduct of members of parliament. I know that many members of parliament, in fact most members of parliament, take very seriously their role as a member of parliament and carry their obligations for good behaviour into their private lives in extraordinary ways and very small ways. I remember when I became a candidate that one of the things I realised very early on—and this may seem very trivial, but this is the level at which we consider our behaviour—was that I could no longer jaywalk in front of children because they knew who I was. I would be standing at a light and some child would say, 'That's Julie Owens,' just as I was about to jaywalk, and I would think, 'Okay.' I can see the Deputy Speaker is smiling, because I am sure he has been through exactly the same thing. The way that you look at your own behaviour changes profoundly when you become a person who is known in your community. You look at everything you do through the eyes of a person who may see you do something and may copy you or be affected in the way that they think about politics. We live with this every day. I know that for most members of parliament their behaviour in their public life is extraordinarily good and beyond reproach.

It is good to discuss these issues of codes of conduct, but I do think we need to bring a little bit of balance to the argument. It is very easy for us and the media to concentrate on the worst examples and give no attention at all to the extraordinary number of members who carry out their duties in the public sphere with incredible integrity. So I would urge everyone when they consider this issue to actually look not just for the worst elements but for the best as well.

As a government, we made a number of improvements. We introduced substantive ministerial ethics and a code of conduct for ministerial staff. We established a lobbying code of conduct and the public Register of Lobbyists. We have introduced freedom of information legislation. We have reintroduced independent oversight to campaign advertising and our entitlements are open to more scrutiny than under any previous government. (Time expired)

Debate adjourned.

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