Public trust and confidence in our democratic institutions, especially the federal parliament, is at historically low levels, with little faith that politicians consistently act in the public interest.
Transparency International Australia (TIA) told this inquiry:
Revolving doors and ‘golden escalator’ opportunities for ministers and senior political staff, creates a ‘culture of cosiness’ and increases the likelihood that the well-resourced are heard more often, and more sympathetically, in policy discussions. This poses a risk to good decision-making.
This revolving door that prioritises the interests of big business over the community is not a new phenomenon. It is also not an issue that is restricted to one side of politics. The Grattan Institute estimates that 25 per cent of former federal Ministers and assistant Ministers take on roles with special interests after their political career ends.
The post-Ministerial appointments of Mr Pyne and Ms Bishop are simply the latest in a long line of post-Ministerial appointments facilitating the ongoing culture of cosiness that continues to erode public faith in politics.
The Greens remain committed to pursuing measures to clean up politics.
Cooling off period
The Grattan Institute’s submission outlines three key risks associated with post-Ministerial appointments:
A minister could make decisions in office with a view to their future employment.
A former minister may bring privileged information with them to their new role.
A former minister’s relationships may enable privileged opportunities to influence.
These risks diminish over time, and should not unduly prevent former Ministers engaging in meaningful post-parliamentary careers. However, it is critical that actual and perceived conflicts of interest are avoided.
We consider that an 18 month cooling-off period, even if actively enforced, is inadequate to minimise conflicts in relation to for-profit roles.
TIA states that international best practice is 3–5 years. The Grattan Institute states that the cooling off periods in comparable jurisdictions range from one to five years. While not explicitly addressed in the Ethicos Group’s submission to this inquiry, the organisation’s Founding Director, Howard Whitton, has previously described the current cooling-off period as 'ridiculously low' and called for the period to be extended to five years.
The Greens consider that Ministers should be subject to the highest standards, and support an extension of the cooling off period to 5 years.
Amend clause 2.25 of the Ministerial Standards to extend the ‘cooling off period’ for post-Ministerial lobbying and advocacy activities to five years.
Scope of the restrictions
'Lobbying' is defined under the Lobbying Code of Conduct as people or companies lobbying on behalf of a third party. This definition has been interpreted narrowly to exclude in-house employees lobbying directly for a company or industry. Former Ministers may exploit this language to argue that an in-house post-Ministerial role does not involve 'lobbying' under the Code, and is therefore not in breach of the Ministerial Standards. This undermines the objective of the post-Ministerial employment restrictions.
The revolving door, and the conflicts it gives rise to, is not limited to Ministers. Senior staff members, such as chiefs of staff and key advisers, often have access to sensitive information and network contacts that are equally beneficial to corporate interests. For example, research by the Grattan Institute shows a significant number of commercial lobbyists formerly held government positions. The research also showed that lobbying firms employing former government officials 'are more successful at getting meetings with government'.
Addressing undue influence and conflicts of interest will require lobbying restrictions to extend beyond former Ministers. TIA recommends that a cooling off period apply to all members of parliament, including Ministers and Shadow Ministers, and all senior political staff, with the duration of the cooling off period varying depending on the person’s role. Ministers should be subject to the longest period.
Extend the definition of ‘lobbyist’ in the Lobbying Code of Conduct to include in-house lobbyists and all those holding an orange Parliamentary pass
Extend restrictions on post-parliament lobbying and advocacy roles to all members of parliament and senior staff.
Ms Bishop suggested in her submission that the onus should be on current serving officials to not meet with former Ministers during the cooling off period, rather than on former Ministers. She states that current officials are 'subject to ongoing scrutiny through the Parliament, including Question Time and Senate Estimates, and by the media'.
The Greens agree that current officials must avoid conflicts of interest and should not meet with former Ministers during the cooling off period. However, scrutiny and accountability of current officials is undermined by the lack of transparency regarding Ministerial meetings.
In 2016, the Senate approved an order of continuing effect requiring each Minister to table a statement prior to the commencement of budget estimates listing all meetings with former Ministers, including details of the attendees at the meeting and the topics covered at the meeting. That order has not been well observed.
To facilitate parliamentary and media scrutiny, we support TIA’s recommendation to publish Federal Ministerial diaries. Providing access to diaries allows public scrutiny of who ministers are meeting with and encourages Ministers to meet with a broader range of stakeholders. Such a requirement is not unprecedented. The Queensland Government currently requires online disclosure of Ministerial diaries at the end of each month, while NSW Ministers must make quarterly disclosures.
That the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet establish and maintain a publicly accessible Ministerial Diary Register, updated at least monthly. The Register should include details of all meetings between Ministers and Assistant Ministers with for-profit lobbyists, who is present at the meeting, and the subject of the meeting.
We reject the view that the case for an independently enforced statement of ministerial standards has not been made out.
The Committee Report says that deficiencies in the current model can be remedied 'by having a prime minister who cared about integrity and was prepared to hold their ministers to account. The Australian people are entitled to expect this'.
The Australian people are absolutely entitled to expect strong Ministerial Standards and for those standards to be enforced. However, this is simply not happening, and we cannot pretend that a change of leadership would be enough to change the culture of cosiness.
There are countless examples, under this and previous governments, of the Ministerial Standards being ignored or their imprecision being exploited. As the Grattan Institute said:
These examples highlight the gulf between the stated intention of the Ministerial Standards – including maintaining public trust – and their lack of effect in practice with respect to the revolving door.
TIA and the Grattan Institute advocated for an independent body to oversee and enforce the Ministerial Standards. The Accountability Round Table called for standards to be set in legislation or a parliamentary Code of Conduct, and for parliament to be responsible for authorising independent investigations and determining sanctions where standards were not met.
The Greens support statutory parliamentary standards and the establishment of a Parliamentary Standards Commissioner to oversee and enforce those standards. Our National Integrity (Parliamentary Standards) Bill 2019 will be introduced in the next parliamentary sitting week.
We also support calls by the Grattan Institute and the ART to appoint a Parliamentary Ethics Adviser to provide confidential advice regarding integrity issues. Former Ministers should be required to consult with the Adviser prior to accepting any post-Ministerial role.
Compliance with the Ministerial Standards will also be encouraged by the introduction of effective sanctions. Sanctions imposed on a former Minister found to have breached the post-Ministerial standards could include reduced access to Parliament House, losing parliamentary pension entitlements, or restricted eligibility for government tenders for the firm that they are engaged by.
Enact Parliamentary Standards legislation to give statutory force to the Ministerial Standards and to establish a Parliamentary Standards Commissioner with responsibility for education and advice, oversight, investigating complaints, monitoring compliance, and enforcement.
Appoint a Parliamentary Ethics Adviser
Introduce effective sanctions to deter former Ministers from taking on lobbying and advocacy roles in breach of the Ministerial Standards
Other integrity reforms
Strengthening and enforcing the Ministerial Standards will be a positive step in cleaning up federal politics.
However, these measures must be supported by broader integrity reforms to improve transparency and accountability and reduce undue influence over public policy, including:
Establishing a strong and effective national integrity commission, as proposed in the National Integrity Commission Bill 2018 (No 2);
Strengthening regulation of political donations to protect the public interest against corrupting influences;
Ensuring the rigour and transparency of the Lobbyists Register;
Strengthening the Lobbying Code of Conduct and providing for compliance investigations and enforcement by the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner.
Senator Larissa Waters