Monday, 26 October 2020
Commonwealth Parliamentary Standards Bill 2020; Second Reading
That this bill be now read a second time.
It's also an honour to introduce the Commonwealth Parliamentary Standards Bill 2020 which complements the Australian Federal Integrity Commission Bill 2020, which I have just introduced. This bill sets out the components of the proposed national pro-integrity framework that are specific to the Commonwealth parliament. In particular, this bill creates a statutory code of conduct for MPs and their staff; a statutory basis for the existing registers of interest for parliamentarians; a new parliamentary integrity adviser, who will provide independent, confidential advice and guidance to MPs and their staff about integrity matters; and a new parliamentary standards commissioner who will assess, investigate, resolve or refer serious alleged breaches of the new code of conduct.
When I arrived in this place I was astounded to learn that no such code of conduct exists for MPs. Every other significant public profession in this country, from bureaucrats to judicial officers, journalists, barristers, medical professionals, nurses have established codes of conduct. This code of conduct has 10 simple components: (1) MPs must prioritise public duties and democracy, (2) MPs must declare and avoid conflicts of interest, (3) MPs must never use their position for personal profit, (4) MPs must ensure outside community or employment engagements are clean, (5) MPs must refrain from accepting gifts and hospitality that create conflict issues, (6) MPs must not use influence for private purposes or as an agent of a foreign power, (7) MPs must comply with IPEA and Remuneration Tribunal rules around public resources, (8) MPs must not deliberately mislead parliament and must seek to act courteously without detracting from robust debate, (9) MPs must not exploit confidential or personal information obtained as an MP and (10) MPs must not take improper advantage of office for post-retirement activities.
The code of conduct in this bill is based on the global recommendations of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, of which the Australian parliament is a member. This code is specifically designed to protect robust debate on issues of public importance, ensure parliamentary officers and resources are used in the public interest and discourage political office holders from clear unethical behaviours that discredit the integrity of the Commonwealth parliament. This new code of conduct will give the parliamentary standards commissioner a clear metric to identify and assess unethical conduct that we have seen countless examples of in this parliament. The parliamentary standards commissioner will have the same powers of the Auditor-General to conduct investigations with appropriate safeguards to protect rights to procedural fairness, rights to privacy and the protection of personal reputation and the advancement of the public interest. It will also be empowered to refer the most serious and systematic cases to the new Australian federal integrity commission for stronger, objective investigation if necessary.
It is incumbent upon this parliament and all MPs to lead by example. The public holds us to high standards and so should we. This bill is an important component of the national pro-integrity framework proposed in the Australian Federal Integrity Commission Bill 2020. It is my pleasure to comment this bill to the House.
I second the motion. In the remaining time I will say a few words. I must say, as a former barrister, I was rather surprised that as members of parliament we don't have a code of practice and a code of conduct. I think it is something that is missing, and it takes away from the contribution we can all make. It is something that I think would elevate the conduct of members of this place and would ensure that the principles for which we are here—to serve the public interest and ensure a robust debate that serves the public interest—are carried out.
There's no doubt in my mind—along with 80 per cent of the Australian public—that there is a call for a national integrity commission and, along with that integrity commission, a code of conduct for members of parliament. Too often the Australian people get cynical when they hear of one scandal after another involving members of parliament and departments. Just in the last few weeks, we've seen numerous scandals explode on the front pages of our newspapers, and the Australian people could be forgiven for getting cynical and believing that the bar is lowered just one little bit further, because, at the end of the day, we have these headlines but we don't have any outcomes. The Australian people never get to see or understand what happens next. We sometimes have people falling on their swords and sometimes we don't, but, often, it's a rolling front-page of headline after headline until we get to the next scandal. I done think that is a good outcome for democracy. We really should see a government and all members of this place looking to uphold a greater standard. If not from us, then who will it be? Who will make sure that we actually have a better standard?
There have been a lot of calls during the pandemic this year that it's too hard to pass this kind of legislation or that the consultation needed simply isn't possible. I don't accept that reason, because we've seen that a lot of our operations have been able to be done through Zoom and other electronic mediums. In the last six months, during COVID, we've seen legislation brought to parliament ranging from easing restrictions on political donations, banning mobile phones in immigration detention centres and dramatically restructuring university fees. We've seen a push through of legislation when it came to environmental protections and we've seen collaboration from both sides of the chamber to bring about emergency legislation to ensure Australian people are properly cared for during this pandemic. So I think that amidst this kind of situation we absolutely have the right ingredients to bring every member of this parliament together to ensure that we pass legislation that will uphold a greater standard of integrity, accountability and conduct by the members in this place. There has been a disregard and a carelessness with accountability and good governance, and we absolutely must bring that back.
I strongly believe that every MP in this place has a duty to their constituents. I believe it goes to the core of the values that we are here for—what we represent as members of parliament and what so many Australians fought so hard to protect and defend for so many years. I do believe that it's time for accountability and for every member of parliament to step out from behind party lines and come and be accountable for what you truly believe in. You either stand for integrity, anti-corruption and a code of practice and code of conduct and accountability or you condone every breach by inaction and by unwillingness to debate it and to vote on this legislation. I believe strongly that it's time to bring on the debate on both of these bills: the Australian Federal Integrity Commission Bill 2020 and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Standards Bill 2020.