At its core, the National Integrity (Parliamentary Standards) Bill 2019 (the NIPS Bill) is about restoring public trust and confidence in the integrity of parliament, the public sector and our democratic systems. It is part of an integrated package, complemented by the National Integrity Commission Bill (No 2) 2018, that aims to create a culture of integrity and respect and a practical, proactive approach to preventing corruption.
The Committee report notes that previous Senate committees have not supported a parliamentary code of conduct, preferring a voluntary approach.
Yet it is clear that voluntary standards and poorly enforced Ministerial codes of conduct have not restored public trust nor improved the calibre of parliamentary debate.
The 2019 Australian Election Survey conducted by the Australian National University confirmed that confidence in government was the lowest it has been since the survey began in 1960, with as few as 25 per cent of respondents saying that they trust the government. In 2019, Australia declined 8 points in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. And Democracy 2025 reports that the most recent World Values Survey Wave 7 (2017–2020) found that Australia is one of the worst performing countries in terms of political trust, recording a score of 30 per cent.
Former Greens leader, Senator Richard Di Natale, initially proposed a code of conduct in 2018 in response to declining standards of behaviour that led to a senator wearing a burqa into the Senate as a publicity stunt, a senator talking about 'the final solution', and disgraceful examples of sexist, racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic comments in parliament.
Since then, we’ve had many more examples of poor behaviour—Sports Rorts, the unresolved issue of Minister Taylor’s intervention in an investigation into illegal clearing on land in which he has an interest, Minister Taylor’s use of fabricated climate data in a letter to the Sydney Lord Mayor, and the Prime Minister’s call to the NSW Police Commissioner in relation to their investigation of that matter, various allegations of misuse of funds and travel allowances, and ongoing conflict issues arising when former Ministers switch very quickly to lobbying roles in their post-parliamentary life.
Each of those issues has been a catalyst for slanging matches and point scoring on the floor of parliament, but little practical disciplinary action or efforts to change behaviour. The public is sick of it.
The loss of civility in parliamentary debate, the general lack of transparency, the favours done for mates and donors, overlooking even flagrant breaches, and the political reward of cushy post-parliamentary careers all contribute to the erosion of the public's trust in democracy. As the submission from Benjamin Cronshaw notes that 'confused and underwhelming government responses highlight the need for stronger and clearer Parliamentary standards'.
The NIPS Bill would establish a statutory code of conduct requiring all politicians and senior staff to behave respectfully, to perform their roles seriously and with care, to avoid conflicts of interest and profiting from their positions. It requires parliamentarians to ensure that power and public resources are used in the public interest. It could not be clearer that such a code is needed.
The Greens are committed to cleaning up politics and restoring public faith in democracy. The NIPS Bill and its companion, the National Integrity Commission Bill (No. 2) 2018, will lift the standards and make parliament a place that works for everyone.
That the National Integrity (Parliamentary Standards) Bill 2019 be passed, along with the National Integrity Commission Bill (No 2) 2018.
As noted in the Committee’s report, the National Integrity (Parliamentary Standards) Bill 2018 was introduced by former member for Indi, Cathy McGowan MP, as part of a package that included the National Integrity Commission Bill 2018. The Greens introduced a complementary Bill in the Senate, the National Integrity Commission Bill (No 2) 2018 (NIC Bill) at the same time.
All Bills lapsed at the proroguing of the 45th Parliament. The Greens reintroduced our National Integrity Commission Bill (No 2) 2018, and that was passed by the Senate on 9 September 2019. The NIPS Bill reintroduces the Bill originally proposed by Cathy McGowan to complement the NIC Bill.
The NIPS Bill recognises that the erosion of the public's trust in democracy is not only a result of high-level corruption, but of the more insidious misuse of power and declining standards of political discourse. The package of reforms allows for issues to be considered within the broader integrity framework and allocated to the appropriate body depending on its severity. Potentially serious or systemic integrity issues will fall to the National Integrity Commissioner, while less serious, but still concerning, integrity matters would be assigned to the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner. The Commissioners would cooperate to avoid overlap in their roles while ensuring that all integrity matters can be considered.
While we note the concern raised by the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) about the NIPS Bill being introduced as standalone legislation, the NIPS Bill is intended to operate alongside the NIC Bill and complete the integrated package of reforms. Collectively, the two Bills will create a nationally coordinated integrity framework that fosters a culture of integrity and respect, establishes clear oversight and enforcement roles for various actors, and provides strong whistleblower protections.
The Committee report states that 'the best scrutiny mechanism for the conduct of parliamentarians is regular free and fair elections. Parliamentarians are ultimately answerable to their constituents, not each other'.
While ultimately true, this is not a rationale for avoiding efforts to improve the standard of conduct of parliamentarians between elections. Robust debate on a wide range of issues is essential to democracy. However, parliamentary commentary can have serious implications for individuals and groups of the Australian community. Politicians are in a unique position of responsibility in influencing the nature of civic conduct in Australia, particularly in issues relating to multicultural affairs, migration and citizenship, sexuality, gender equality and professional conduct in the workplace. Implementing a strong code of conduct would go some way towards raising the standard of debate, ensuring that the privileges afforded to politicians are exercised responsibly and in the best service of the public interest.
The Parliamentary Integrity Adviser established by the NIPS Bill will provide confidential advice on integrity issues, with a view to assisting politicians and staff to understand their obligations and talk through ethical issues. By providing a forum for people to seek confidential advice about ethical issues and behaviour that they think could be problematic, the overall standard of behaviour will improve—both through proactive intervention to prevent poor behaviour and encouraging witnesses to report poor behaviour.
Relationship with existing integrity instruments
The NIPS Bill intends to complement and operate alongside a range of existing bodies and processes. The Parliamentary Integrity Adviser will have an important role in advising politicians and staff regarding existing responsibilities, identifying gaps or where greater clarity is required, and opportunities to improve the overall integrity framework.
As noted by Transparency International, the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner would work closely with an established National Integrity Commission and other appropriate law enforcement agencies, enabling a more comprehensive and coordinated approach to tackling both criminal offences and misconduct. The Parliamentary Standards Commissioner will also work with the existing Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority in relation to the use of parliamentary allowances.
The parliamentary code of conduct established by the NIPS Bill will supplement and strengthen the existing Prime Minister’s Statement of Ministerial Standards (the Ministerial Standards) and the Lobbying Code of Conduct and give those codes the independent oversight and teeth they have been lacking.
Transparency International’s submission recognises the need for the Ministerial Standards to be strengthened. Currently, the Ministerial Standards are developed and enforced by the Prime Minister at her or his discretion. The fact that the Prime Minister was able to determine that post-parliamentary lobbying work undertaken by former Minister Christopher Pyne and Minister Taylor’s failure to disclose his family company’s interest in property at the centre of the grasslands investigation were consistent with the Ministerial Standards illustrates the weakness of those standards and the lack of transparency and rigour in their enforcement.
These weaknesses were also exposed when former Minister McKenzie’s conduct in the Sports Rorts affair was found to have breached the Ministerial Standards, but only in relation to her failure to disclosure membership of a gun club rather than the broader integrity questions regarding the allocation of grant funding. The ongoing refusal to release the report prepared by the Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet into the Sports Rorts affair (the Gaetjens report) compounds the need for stronger, independent standards and accountability.
Register of interests
The NIPS Bill does not supplant the existing registers of interests but gives a statutory basis for the register to simplify enforcement. We support the recommendation from Transparency International to extend the rules to require beneficial interests to be registered, and hope that would be pursued as part of the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner’s initial review.
The intention of the NIPS Bill is to formalise the requirement to register interests which may conflict, or may be seen to conflict, with a politician’s public duty. We acknowledge the comment by the Accountability Round Table that this must extend beyond pecuniary interests and support the recommendation for clause 3(c) of the NIPS Bill to be amended.
Replace clause 3(c) of the National Integrity (Parliamentary Standards) Bill 2019 with the following:
(c) provide for a register of parliamentarians’ interests which may conflict, or may be seen to conflict, with their public duty.
Additional codes of conduct
The parliamentary code of conduct outlined in the NIPS Bill sets minimum standards. Clause 20 of the NIPS Bill provides that either House of Parliament may adopt a code of conduct that operates concurrently with the provisions of the NIPS Bill.
The Accountability Round Table recommends that Ministerial Standards be developed as a legislative instrument adopted by parliament, rather than developed, amended and enforced by individual Prime Ministers. We would support that outcome, noting that the parliamentary code of conduct will apply in addition to any Ministerial Standards or other Code of Conduct adopted under clause 20 of the NIPS Bill.
Currently, the Code is intended to apply to staff as appropriate (see Clause 19); in practice, a number of the Code provisions will apply only to parliamentarians. As noted by the CPSU, there would be value in a more tailored, staff-specific code of conduct, developed in consultation with staff representatives. The NIPS Bill allows for that.
Protection of whistleblowers
The NIPS Bill seeks to encourage those with concerns regarding the conduct of politicians to come forward with confidence that their concerns will be taken seriously.
Importantly, the NIPS Bill seeks to protect those who come forward with integrity concerns. Discussions with the Integrity Adviser are confidential, and it will be an offence to threaten or intimidate any person who refers a matter to the Commissioner, seeks advice from the Parliamentary Integrity Adviser or provides information, documents or other evidence to those bodies.
The NIPS Bill also recognises the potentially corrupting influence of political donations, and the impact these have on parliamentary integrity. The NIPS Bill would compel a formal legislative review to improve the consistency and enforceability of Commonwealth, State and Territory donations disclosure and campaign expenditure rules and to bring those rules in line with national and international best practice.
The Greens remain committed to reforms that improve the accountability and transparency of political donations and campaign financing, including a ban on political donations from those industries known to have the most corrupting influence, rigorous real-time disclosure of political donations, low disclosure thresholds and overall donation caps, and a review of public campaign financing rules.
That the government adopt recommendations made by the Senate Select Committee Inquiry into the Political Influence of Donations.
Senator Larissa Waters