A code of conduct for members of the House of Representatives?

The House of Representatives is currently debating a motion, moved by Independent MP Rob Oakeshott, to introduce a code of conduct covering members of the House of Representatives. The motion is based on the recommendations in the report by the House of Representatives Standing Committee of Privileges and Members’ Interests on a draft code of conduct for members of parliament.

The motion is supported by the Government but the Manager of Opposition Business, Christopher Pyne, has confirmed that the Coalition will not support the motion if the relevant Senate committee has not reported on a code for the upper house.  He said that the Coalition had adopted this approach because ‘it would be peculiar if the House of Representatives had a code of conduct and the Senate didn’t'.

The Senate Standing Committee on Senators’ Interests is due to report on a code of conduct for senators on 27 November 2012. 

In 1975 Australia was one of the leaders in parliamentary ethics when the Joint Committee on Pecuniary Interests of Members of Parliament tabled its Report on Declaration of Interests. The committee noted that the drafting of a code of conduct was beyond its terms of reference but ‘felt that a precise and meaningful code of conduct should exist’.

In 1976 then Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, established a committee chaired by Chief Justice of the Federal Court, Sir Nigel Bowen, to report on public duty and private interest. The committee, known as the Bowen Committee, reported in July 1979 and recommended that a code of conduct be adopted for general application to all officeholders who were defined as Ministers, members of parliament, public servants and statutory officeholders. A draft code was included in the report.

Since then, draft codes have been produced for discussion but neither the House of Representatives nor the Senate has ever voted on a code of conduct.

If the House of Representatives adopts a code of conduct it will not be the only jurisdiction where one chamber in a bicameral parliament has adopted a code of conduct.  Members of the Western Australian and Tasmanian lower houses have introduced codes of conduct while the upper houses in these parliaments have not.

All states and territories except South Australia and the Northern Territory now have codes covering members of at least one chamber.

In the United Kingdom the Code of Conduct together with the Guide to the Rules Relating to the Conduct of Members was adopted by the House of Commons on 24 July 1996. It included the seven general principles of conduct underpinning public life which were advocated in the first report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life (the Nolan Committee): selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. These principles have formed the basis of many Westminster parliamentary codes of conduct.

The House of Lords Code of Conduct came into effect on 31 March 2002.

More recently, the conduct of members of the House of Commons has been subject to additional scrutiny.  In June 2011, the House of Commons introduced the Respect Policy to resolve complaints of improper behaviour by members of parliament and their staff against House of Commons staff.

The policy was introduced after consultation by the House of Commons Management Board with the House of Commons Commission, trade unions and political parties. It reinforces the principle that House staff have a right to be able to carry out their duties free from harassment, ridicule or other unwelcome behaviour from members of the House of Commons and their staff.

The policy sets out the rights and responsibilities of members and Commons staff and the procedure for considering and resolving allegations by Commons staff.  The procedure is summarised in Respect Policy Key Facts, and involves, if necessary, the relevant party Whip, the Speaker and, as a last resort, the House of Commons Commission (the employing body) which may consider reporting the matter to the House of Commons.

The policy will be reviewed in 2012–13, in consultation with the Trade Union side.

Earlier this year UK newspapers reported that complaints, made by House of Commons staff under the Respect Policy, were being investigated.

There is no equivalent Respect Policy covering senators and members of the Australian Parliament and staff employed in the Australian Parliamentary Service.

More information on parliamentary codes of conduct is available in the Parliamentary Library publication Codes of conduct in Australian and selected overseas parliaments


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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