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Wednesday, 5 October 1983
Page: 1395


Mr MAHER(6.25) —Having listened to the Opposition speakers in this debate , I can appreciate how they harboured and protected the bottom of the harbour crooks and tax cheats on the basis of not revealing their privacy. I have never heard such a load of garbage about privacy. Opposition members have been prim and phony in this debate that has been going around the world for years. It was only the Watergate scandal in America that put any heart into these schemes to make members of parliament and senators declare their interests. I do not know what honourable members opposite have to complain about. They have shown hypocrisy about dissuading people from standing for parliament. It will be a protection for parliamentary candidates. The British reports recommended that parliamentary candidates should be considered so that their assets can be declared. We heard a certain amount of humbug from the Opposition in relation to this disclosure.

Opposition members were in government from 1975 until earlier this year. They did nothing about the disclosure of the interests of members of parliament. They said that there should be a register. They had the opportunity. What did they do ? They did nothing at all. Now tonight they are dithering around and putting up all sorts of very weak excuses as to why there should be no register. What do they have to be ashamed of? Surely their assets are honestly earned and not corruptly derived. Surely they have nothing to complain about.

I congratulate the Government on bringing this issue to a head and bringing forward this motion that the Deputy Prime Minister (Mr Lionel Bowen) has put to the House. I believe that this resolution will be agreed to and that members of parliament will follow the Ministry in making a declaration. If Ministers have to correct the register, they will. It will happen to many of us. The resolution deals with the interests of the families of members, and this includes spouses and, I should imagine, dependent children. It is possible that an honourable member may not accurately know the interest of his dependent children or his spouse. The register which has been proposed in the House by the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) is of an experimental nature. I say good luck to the Ministers who have the courage to amend the register and to press ahead and put down accurate details. It will be interesting to see whether our colleagues on the other side of the House are as courageous if they make any mistakes and fail to list accurately their interests on the register.

Any member of parliament is sensitive about disclosing his assets or lack of assets. In my experience one of the things we can do is obtain an overdraft from a bank. If a bank manager knows we have no assets, and this is published in our provincial papers, this right might disappear. There is a need for a register. We are moving towards fairness to candidates. We are moving towards public funding of elections and public disclosure of donations to political parties and to candidates. These important innovative reforms go hand in hand with the disclosure of members' assets. It is part of a package, and no matter what members of the Opposition say they cannot have public disclosure of party funding and electoral funding without at the same time having a fair disclosure of their own assets and holdings in a register so that the public can see that, despite the problems with regard to privacy, members are not crooked, they are not dishonest and that they are not being unfairly influenced in their deliberations on any Bill or any matter before the House.

Sitting suspended from 6.30 to 8 p.m.


Mr MAHER —Before the suspension of the sitting for dinner, I was dealing with the motion moved by the Deputy Prime Minister. In supporting this motion I was explaining to the House that the need for a register of disclosure of members' pecuniary interests is part of a package. We cannot have public funding and public disclosure of party and political donations unless we also have disclosure of members' interests. In this day and age if the public is to have trust in this delicate flower of parliamentary democracy there must be disclosure of members' private interests. I was rebutting the remarks of the honourable member for North Sydney (Mr Spender) who really drew a long bow when referring to the lawlessness that he imagined occurred in Italy, with the threat of kidnapping and the like. Every Sunday throughout the various States of this nation the social pages of the newspapers are filled with people spending enormous sums of money, giving big parties and obviously showing off and flaunting great wealth. I think it is quite ridiculous to say that because a member says that his or her spouse has a parcel of shares in the Broken Hill Proprietary Co. Ltd or a similar company that member is placing his or her family at risk. This is absolute rubbish. People in this nation seem to compete at showing off their wealth in front of the media. From what I can see, they even engage consultants, Press secretaries and media personalities to promote their interests.

However, the Canadian Parliament scheme has interested me. Under that scheme Ministers declare their interests and, if they are at all nervous about disclosing their interests, they can put their money into Canadian Government bonds which they then do not have to declare. If a member's wealth is placed in government bonds, thus helping the nation, that is called an exempt asset under the scheme that the Canadian Parliament has evolved. The Canadian Parliament requires public disclosure but not of the matrimonial home, of recreational property, of automobiles or of works of art, and Canadian provincial savings bonds do not count as assets. I commend this Canadian system to the Standing Orders Committee because I think there is great merit in it.

I support this motion which I believe the Government has worded extremely carefully. It is doing a great service to the nation by highlighting the need for members, without too much hooha, to disclose their assets. After all, members are not frightened to take salaries from the public purse and, thinking back to last year's revelations, we know that they are not altogether backward in coming forward to take travelling allowances from the public purse. As the Deputy Prime Minsiter said, this issue has been canvassed extensively in many reports and inquiries, more recently in the Bowen Committee of Inquiry on Public Duty and Private Interest commissioned by the former Prime Minister. The Bowen report says that members of parliament who are not Ministers exercise influence, at least in theory, but it stresses that Minsiters exercise influence. Therefore , it made a number of recommendations involving members of parliament. It also dealt with the staff of members, which interests me. I really feel that honourable members may have difficulties ascertaining staff assets, but this was one of the recommendations of the Bowen Committee. Staff matters are not involved in the motion before the House, but a considerable range of assets is listed in it.

Of course, that brings us to the question of the loss of privacy. My attention has been drawn to an article in the Parliamentarian of July 1983 by Dr Sandra Williams about the experience of the American Congress. Dr Williams made what I thought was an interesting point. I quote from her article:

In accepting the broad public financial disclosure provisions of the new ethics codes, both Chambers--

This is in the American Parliament-

reluctantly gave up their claim to privacy in their financial dealings in order to reassure the 'public' that they were serving them and not their private interests.

I think that in a sense encapsulates this whole debate: We are not serving our private interests, we are serving the public; and the public must see this. In Australia, we have a great tradition of privacy with regard to people's personal affairs, their income tax and their social security arrangements. In my experience, government departments resist subpoenas served on them to produce evidence. The New South Wales Privacy Committee and many other privacy committees are very active and vocal in protecting the private rights of citizens. I think honourable members can quite naturally be concerned that their spouses will have to declare or somehow reveal what assets are held, particularly as spouses receive little consideration except for certain minimum travelling rights to Canberra and members receive very little consideration from the Commissioner of Taxation when they make claims for expenditure incurred on behalf of a spouse.

I support this motion, but I believe there is a need to protect the member, particularly if a candidate in an election were to use unfairly the assets or lack of assets of a member. I think the British notion that parliamentary candidates should make some sort of disclosure is worthy of consideration, although the British select committee had some real problems in getting parliamentary candidates to make a declaration because there is such a short period between the close of nominations and an election. Nevertheless, it may be in the interest of members for the Standing Orders Committee to consider also whether parliamentary candidates in each election should declare their interests .

I feel that there will be great novelty value in the declarations of members' interests, as there has been interest in the declarations of Ministers' interests. But this will soon be forgotten in much the same way as the novelty at the introduction of electoral funding in New South Wales was quickly forgotten. People will just accept that members of Parliament will declare their interests and that fair play and honesty will be seen to prevail in Parliament. I urge the House tonight to support this motion moved by the deputy Prime Minister. If the vocal members of the Opposition are prepared to take their salary and travelling allowances to the point of scandal and shame on their part , as we know they did, they should be prepared to reveal the minimum assets that they hold. If they are not prepared to do that, they should put their money into government bonds.