Procedures for the registration of senators’ pecuniary interests are contained in special orders first adopted in 1994. Such procedures had been under consideration since 1983, but had not been adopted, mainly due to doubts about their effectiveness. They were finally adopted as part of a “package” of “accountability reforms” announced by the government following the resignation of a minister over alleged misallocation of certain cultural and sporting grants.
A special order of the Senate requires senators to declare specified interests, of themselves, and of their partners of which they are aware, which are then entered in a register, kept by a designated officer of the Senate and open to public inspection (those relating to partners are confidential). The order originally obliged senators to declare relevant interests during proceedings in the Senate. It had been the practice for senators, before the adoption of the order, to declare any interests in matters before the Senate. The requirement was abolished in 2003, but senators may still do so. The system for the registration of interests is supervised by a standing committee, called the Committee of Senators’ Interests. The Senate’s order declares that failure to comply with the order is a serious contempt of the Senate. Another order, adopted on 26 August 1997, requires senators to register gifts presented to them in their official capacity.
Historically, the formal requirements for registration of interests can be seen as the long term result of two significant inquiries. A Joint Committee of Pecuniary Interests of Members of Parliament was appointed in 1974 and reported in September 1975. The committee considered whether arrangements should be made for the declaration of interests of members of Parliament and, if so, whether a register of interests should be compiled and what it should contain. The committee examined the concept of a code of conduct and the arguments for and against a formal register of interests and concluded that an appropriate balance could be achieved between the flexible guidance of the former and the rigid requirements of the latter by instituting a system of declaration of interests in which it was compulsory to declare certain interests while declaration of others was discretionary.
The second inquiry was by the non-parliamentary Committee of Inquiry Concerning Public Duty and Private Interest, chaired by the Chief Justice of the Federal Court of Australia, Nigel Bowen, and established in 1978. The committee suggested a set of principles providing for the avoidance or resolution of conflicts of interest and applicable to various categories of persons holding public office or playing a role in public life. The committee’s recommendations in relation to ministers were adopted, including confidential disclosure of pecuniary interests.
A motion proposing a system for the registration of senators’ interests was referred to the Standing Orders Committee in October 1983. After lengthy consideration of and consultation on the issue, the Standing Orders Committee reported in May 1986 that there was a fundamental disagreement amongst its members about the effectiveness of the proposed register and the soundness of the proposals in the resolution relating to registration and declaration of interests. The committee considered that the question should be determined by the Senate.
Notice of a motion relating to the registration and declaration of senators’ interests and the establishment of a Committee of Senators’ Interests was given on 20 November 1986 and debated on 17 March 1987 but was unresolved before the 1987 double dissolution.  Although it appears that the re-elected government intended to re-introduce the motion, this did not occur until well into the following Parliament. When this motion was debated in May 1992, the same fundamental disagreements about the effectiveness of the register were evident and debate was adjourned. Similar notices were again given shortly after the commencement of the 37th Parliament and again the Opposition claimed that the proposed system would be ineffective. Consideration of the matter was postponed until the Budget sittings later that year but, in the meantime, government senators and Senator Chamarette (Greens, WA) tabled declarations of their interests on 25 May 1993. Motions were debated on 19 and 30 August 1993 but were not dealt with conclusively until 17 March 1994 when the Committee of Senators’ Interests was appointed. The Register of Interests, containing all senators’ declarations, together with those of senior departmental officers, was tabled in the Senate on 9 June 1994 in accordance with the terms of the resolution of 17 March requiring this action within 14 sitting days.