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Scrutinise MPs’ networks as well as their wallets

21 April 2012 939 views No Comment

Scrutinise MPs’ networks as well as their wallets

Parliamentarians don’t take interest declarations seriously, ROSS FITZGERALD writes

When the Australian Sex Party’s president, Fiona Patten, called for a register of religious interests to be set up for federal MPs a couple of weeks ago, it piqued my interest. She claimed that within the register of members’ interests, section 13 required them to list their involvement with religious organisations. As the federal government gives millions of dollars to religious organisations every year, she argued that religious affiliation had the potential to cause a conflict of interest just as much as owning shares in BHP or holding a company directorship.

When I comment on moral or social issues, I have long declared my status as a recovering alcoholic, now sober for 42 years.

Alcohol is deeply imbedded in the psyche of this country and helps frame many of our national debates both through the effects it has on the private lives of individuals and families, and also by the pressure that alcohol companies exert on federal, state, and territory parliaments.

My declaration is important when I comment on issues ranging from drug law reform through to domestic violence, youth suicide, mental health, corrective services and a host of other matters. My relationship with alcohol is integral to many of my opinions on our social, moral and cultural life.

For a member of Parliament, who not only comments on social life but actively creates the parameters of it for millions of people, declarations of private interests are much more important. It is entirely appropriate for an MP to declare their personal financial interests in such a way that any of the taxpayers who pay their wages can view this information.

With this in mind, I had a close look at the members’ interest statements of the 43rd Parliament and was quietly shocked at the dismissive attitudes and the short shrift paid to this register by many MPs. It also took me almost an hour to find this information on Parliament’s website.

Perhaps they don’t know it, but failure to properly declare these interests means that an MP can be held in contempt of Parliament. My feeling is that many of them are in contempt. For example, when asked about the nature of his wife’s savings or investment accounts, Anthony Albanese says this is ”not known”. He’s being asked by the Parliament of Australia, in the interests of transparency and under threat of a contempt charge, to state his spouse’s interests and he says ”I don’t know”. What does it take for him to ask her I wonder? And what does it take for the Speaker of the House of Representatives to make him ask her?

Similarly, Bob Katter is even more gung ho about his wife’s finances and says, ”She does not provide me with this information and regards it as her private business”! Later on, he says: ”My wife has at times bought and sold some investment properties but she regards this as her private business.” Sorry, Bob. She’s married to a federal parliamentarian who is paid a more-than-comfortable wage by the taxpayers of Australia and, if they want to know whether her buying and selling of houses compromises your vote on new housing laws, you have to tell them. To his credit, Katter did list his brother-in-law as head of a company that is involved in negotiating clean energy corridors, but this still doesn’t explain why he can’t find out about his wife’s interests.

When asked to declare personal items over the value of $7500, Andrew Wilkie was about the only member to declare his car, even though most MPs would own cars that were worth substantially more than this amount. Malcolm Turnbull’s declarations were so many and varied that he needed an attached sheet for every section.

Adam Bandt’s declaration was typical of about one-third of declarations, in that he left most of his form blank with single-word answers to questions that clearly require more information.

Many of the questions about MPs’ finances were badly framed and asked them to list things such as their family home with some MPs even giving their private addresses. Almost all MPs would have a family home but their private addresses should never be divulged on a form like this. The fundamental idea of a register should be to get beneath all the normal assets that MPs have and to expose the hidden links that could potentially corrupt or influence their decision-making. At the moment, the financial side of the register fails to do this. It’s full of airline upgrades, free magazines and completely useless information. Bronwyn Bishop’s declaration of a free ticket to see Ben Hur is a case in point.

Patten’s call was particularly aimed at the lack of declarations by MPs in section 13 of the register, which deals with membership of an organisation that is likely to cause them a conflict of interest. Her beef was that with some MPs being members of the Parliamentary Christian Fellowship, not one of them had listed it in section 13. She makes a good point. My research showed that most MPs left this blank but when they did fill it in they listed organisations that were frivolous and/or clearly not capable of causing issues.

The high-profile federal Labor MP Craig Thomson listed membership of Qantas’s Chairman’s Lounge as the only organisation he was affiliated with that was capable of causing a conflict of interest. How about that?

Paul Neville was virtually the only MP I could find who listed a religious organisation in this section: the Catholic Parish of Bundaberg. Given the Victorian Parliament’s notice to open an enquiry into child-sex abuse in religious institutions, surely this should now be mandatory for all MPs? Kevin Rudd’s listing in this section went completely over the top: he itemised almost 50 organisations of which he is a proud member and a number of ”patronages” that could cause a conflict of interest, including the Golden Retriever Rescue and the Banksia Foundation. Significantly, though, he did not mention the fact that he was head of the Parliamentary Christian Fellowship.

When a person becomes a member of Parliament, it is not too much to ask that he or she put aside half a day to properly outline the financial interests and links to organisations that will receive money and other benefits from his or her vote as an MP. The register as it is now does not even go half way to doing this. And it should not be buried so deeply in Parliament House’s website that it is inaccessible to all but the most experienced web browsers.

Professor Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 35 books, most recently the co-authored political satire Fools’ Paradise.

The Canberra Times, April 21, 2012