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Thursday, 14 June 2007
Page: 5


Senator BOB BROWN (Leader of the Australian Greens) (9:37 AM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I seek leave to table an explanatory memorandum related to the bill and to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows—

This bill aims to restore the public’s trust and confidence in the government and its Ministers and to ensure that openness, honesty and integrity form the basis of dealings between Members of Parliament and lobbyists.

In 2007, two government Ministers and one shadow Minister have resigned over issues of wrongdoing and impropriety. Former Minister for Ageing, Senator Santo Santoro, failed to disclose more than 70 share interests to the Senate or, it appears, to the Prime Minister, raising legitimate concerns about conflicts of interest with his portfolio. Four federal Liberal MPs are currently under investigation for potential electoral fraud.

There is a lack of accountability and transparency that must be addressed.

Currently accountability rests on a code of conduct issued by the Prime Minister. This is not a system the public can have confidence in —it must be put on a legislative footing.

This bill will restore confidence in government accountability by:

  • Requiring Ministers to divest themselves of all shares or move them to a blind trust within 28 days of becoming a Minister;
  • Requiring the public registration and regulation of lobbyists;
  • Placing limits on the post-separation employment of Ministers for up to two years after leaving the Parliament.

Lobbying

The problem of influence pedalling in politics must be addressed, particularly in light of numerous scandals in Western Australia, Queensland and my home state of Tasmania.

There is no denying that lobbying is an important part of the democratic process, but it needs to be regulated to ensure openness and accountability. The existing clauses in the Ministerial Code of Conduct are demonstrably insufficient.

The register of lobbyists introduced by the Hawke Labor government could have been improved but it was abolished by the Howard government in 1996.

To ensure lobbying activities are open and transparent, this bill will create a public register of lobbyists and regulate the industry.

The bill will require:

  • all paid lobbyists to be registered and to lodge detailed information with the Commonwealth Public Service Commissioner; lobbyists to file a quarterly return of lobbying activity, with details about who they met and the purpose of the meeting;
  • the Public Service Commissioner to maintain a Register of Lobbying Activity that is open for public inspection in hard copy and on the internet;
  • penalties to apply for failure to abide by the lobbying laws and the Australian Crime Commission to investigate offences.

Members of the public or those lobbying in a volunteer capacity will not be covered by the laws, but the definition of lobbyists is broadly drafted to cover law firms, public relations companies and former politicians as well as professional lobbyists.

Divesture of Shares

Many Ministers may hold shares and investments on appointment to office. The government has tried to limit the perception that conflicts of interest may arise from this situation by requiring Ministers, through the Code of Conduct, to divest any investments that might relate to their portfolio or move such shares to blind trusts.

Clearly that approach hasn’t worked.

Any shareholding and share trading while performing Ministerial responsibilities can no longer be accepted.

Defining whether share holding and share trading are or are not related to a portfolio is often an arbitrary decision. And Cabinet decisions impact on a wide range of issues which could affect the value of a broad range of share holdings.

That is why The Greens have decided to require all shareholding by any Minister to be banned.

The inarguable fact is that Ministers should be free from conflicts of interest, both real and potential.

Therefore this bill requires all Ministers divest themselves of all shares, options, futures, debentures, stocks, bonds or any like security within 28 days of taking office.

Post-separation employment of Ministers

Increasingly Ministerial office is a doorway to a career in big business. Too often a Minister will retire from Parliament only to take up a consultancy with a corporation directly related to their former portfolio.

Currently there is no mechanism to prevent Ministers and their advisers leaving parliament and becoming lobbyists or advisors to companies with a direct interest in matters relating to their former portfolio.

The advantage inherent in this practice distorts the lobbying process to benefit the interests of organisations with large budgets who can afford to ‘buy’ this level of influence.

The possibility and perception of inappropriate influence over future government decisions is not sustainable. It must end.

The bill will close the ‘revolving door’ between government and business.

The United States, Canada and the United Kingdom have all placed limits on the employment Government Ministers or Secretaries can undertake upon leaving office and Australia should do the same.

The bill will legislate for a two year ban on Ministers or their advisers ‘switching sides’ to represent or work for any organisation which had significant dealings with their former portfolio.

Exceptions will be allowed for charitable work and in some cases work for an international organisation, but strict penalties will apply for breaches of the law.

For too long government decisions have been influenced by lobbying and big money. For too long Ministerial responsibility has been a doorway to largesse.

For too long the public has had to endure scandal after scandal.

This must end.

The Greens believe openness, honesty and integrity are vital to a healthy democracy and the Lobbying and Ministerial Accountability Bill will ensure these values are better upheld in the Australian Parliament.

I recommend the bill to all Senators.


Senator BOB BROWN —I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.