Monday, 29 October 2012
Private Members' Business
Code of Conduct for Members of Parliament
There is a deep disillusionment among many parts of the Australian community at the moment that currently wishes a pox on all our houses. Recently, I attended the triennial conference of the National Council of Women of Australia and was presented with a petition calling for:
A more civil and dignified approach to parliamentary debate at the federal level and for greater respect to be demonstrated to the office of the Prime Minister.
The petition went on to say:
The increasingly crude, juvenile, disrespectful and overly combative behaviour of many members degrades parliamentary process, creates an inappropriate behavioural model for our youth and causes ridicule in the eyes of world nations.
The petition was triggered by a speech I gave to the ACT arm of the council earlier this year in which I said that, for most of the time, parliament is a 'functioning, calm and respectful place' and that members are 'doing their best to represent their local constituents and good work is being done'. But I added that, at times, parliament can be unbearable, and it is question time that makes it so. During question time, I often look up at some of the young Australians who come to watch us and I wonder, 'What must they think?'
I understand that, as a contest of ideas, politics is conflict. I know that the contest can, and sometimes should, be quite willing, and I certainly get the fact that the hung parliament has poured rocket fuel on the contest. But what I have witnessed in question time is a menacing tone that journalists and colleagues of long standing tell me they have never seen before. The Speaker seeks to bring civility to question time, and she does her best, but that menacing tone is still there. There is often a deeply sinister undertone. Indeed, the current nature of public discourse in this country I find profoundly unsettling because politics is now almost never about a contest of ideas; it is entirely focused on the personal. I am worried because the decency in debate that protects society from its most base urges has cracked. In the process, that belittles people and denigrates the institutions that bind our society.
There are parts of our society that are clearly uncomfortable with a female prime minister and with female leaders. Question time, the recent debate about sexism and the tone of recent debates has very much highlighted that. Question Time has also set this tone, and behind it roils a tsunami of bile and prejudice that plays out on talkback radio, in email campaigns and on Twitter and Facebook. It is not just the abuse that is the issue; it is the role-modelling. When one of the schools in my electorate comes up to Parliament House for an education tour, I drop by to say hello and answer their questions. Sometimes I find the students in the public galleries and sometimes I find them role-playing in the model lower house chamber.
What is deeply disturbing is that teachers tell me their students' behaviour and language can get quite fresh, in keeping with what they have seen or heard at question time. This behaviour and language would not be tolerated in the classroom, in the schoolyard or in any workplace, but it is seen by students as a signature of parliament and the acceptable face of Australian political discourse. However, it does not need to be so.
Here in parliament we need to moderate the pitch and tone of the debates we engage in. We need to show that a contest of ideas about what is best for our nation's future can be conducted with civility. I became the member for Canberra because I have a strong and enduring faith in the decency of the Australian people. I believe in the power of our legal and political institutions to enhance that. Our nation is founded on the best principles of the Enlightenment. Our nation has been at the vanguard of social reform and has wrestled with and overcome its fears. Most of this has not been fashioned by making new laws but through good leadership on all sides of politics over generations. Nations reflect their leaders. Leaders can call out the better angles of our nature or stir the darkest fears and hatreds that lie in every human heart.
I want decent and civilised debate on issues that matter in Australia, devoid of personal attack, particularly on the grounds of gender. I call on leaders on all sides of politics, in the media and in the community to invoke the values and spirit of two of Australia's greatest Prime Ministers, so beautifully articulated in a sign along the RG Menzies Walk. The day Menzies resigned as Prime Minister of Australia in August 1941 he sent a short note to John Curtin, Leader of the Labor Party, thanking him for his magnanimous and understanding attitude:
Your political opposition has been honourable and your personal friendship a pearl of great price.
Your personal friendship is something I value … as a very precious thing.
I am pleased to rise to speak to the motion on a code of conduct for members of parliament. Let me state clearly right at the outset: I certainly do not support a code of conduct. The reason is quite straightforward. I hear all the hand-wringing speeches from members of parliament who lament the way question time is conducted. They do not like the fact that the public generally view parliamentarians with low esteem—understandable given the types of behaviour they see. Believe you me, it is not lost on me that we have in this parliament some of the most untoward parliamentary conduct, in particular by two members of the lower house. That not withstanding, I do not attempt to condone in any way, shape or form their behaviour or more broadly the types of behaviour that we see in question time, which the previous member spoke about at length. I do not condone that, but I also am not so foolish as to believe that some bit of paper labelled a code of conduct and some other additional public servant role named an integrity commissioner or some such is going to do anything to change this parliament.
When I read through the Draft Code of Conduct for Members of Parliament, I noted that the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Privileges and Members' Interests did not make a firm recommendation about whether or not a code of conduct should be adopted. The reason for that is very sound: those who argue that a code of conduct is going to be the silver bullet—the panacea to re-establishing in the heart of our nation the people's faith in the institutions of the lower house and the upper house—know full well that they cannot justify that position based on experience in other jurisdictions, both domestically and internationally.
If it were as simple as passing some meaningless code of conduct with some other quango in the form of a so-called integrity commissioner, we would have seen results in other jurisdictions. We have not seen results because it does not mean anything. We can pass all the bits of paper we want, we can have all the codes of conduct we want, we can have all the laws we want but if people do not abide by them, if people do not respect them, there is no point. The simple reality is this. When it comes to the behaviour of parliamentarians, each and everyone of us is subject currently to the best scrutiny around—that is, the scrutiny of the opposite side. Whether you are in government or opposition, other members of parliament are watching closely and other political parties are contesting your seat while watching your activities closely. That is why things often bubble to the surface. But even more than that—I think all members would recognise the black humour in this—the greatest check on any member of parliament is their own side.
Make no mistake: we all know that there is no shortage of ambition among parliamentarians or, indeed, from those who aspire to be parliamentarians. I have no doubt that, if a parliamentarian is doing the wrong thing, it would take all of about five seconds for someone on their own side to pull out a big trusty knife and slit their throat, as we all know. I think that there is already a couple of fairly good checks and balances.
In addition to that, there is media scrutiny. We know that the media through their investigative journalists—some of whom in Australia are among the best in the world—have the opportunity to ensure that behaviour that is unacceptable is routed out. Then, in addition to that, we have the laws of both the state and federal parliaments. These laws have at their disposal a police force to undertake investigations and to bring action if it is warranted. So, on every level, for members of parliament, there are already checks and balances in place.
The reason that there is still behaviour that people frown upon is that, fundamentally, it comes down to individual choice. Simply adding one more document to a pile of documents and simply having one additional public servant called an integrity commissioner is not going to change a thing. Anyone who believes that it will is delusional. It has not changed things in other jurisdictions. It is not as if in the United Kingdom or in the state of Queensland, where these types of vehicles exist, there is this great love of the parliament or towards parliamentarians. No. The same problems exist in those jurisdictions. This is nothing more than a feel-good exercise that will deliver no net tangible benefit whatsoever.
Fundamentally, I say to all those that like to champion this argument that there should be a code of conduct and an integrity commissioner: why hasn't it worked elsewhere? More importantly, if they are serious about making changes then, as Gandhi would say, 'Be the change you want to see in the world.' I say to them that they should change their behaviour. (Time expired)
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)