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Tuesday, 28 February 2012
Page: 1047

Senator FAULKNER (New South Wales) (16:19): Today's matter of public importance debate is yet another exercise in political desperation from the opposition, who have scraped the bottom of the political barrel and decided to debate the issue of government standards. It is a very courageous move from the Liberal Party to initiate a debate on honesty, transparency and accountability given their absolutely lamentable record in these areas.

Let us look at the facts. Let us look at just some of the achievements of the Labor government since it was elected. Just three days after the Rudd government was sworn into office, a tough new code of ministerial conduct—the government's Standards of ministerial ethics—was released. The code requires ministers and parliamentary secretaries to conduct themselves to a higher standard of conduct than has been expected of them in the past. The standards are underpinned by the principal that ministers and parliamentary secretaries must act with due regard for integrity, fairness, accountability, responsibility and the public interest. The code means that it is no longer possible for ministers after their retirement or resignation to transition to lobbying or conducting businesses in an area where they have had ministerial responsibility until an 18 month cooling-off period has passed. This is very different to Mr Howard's nonstandards in that area. For the first time, a code of conduct for ministerial staff was introduced to codify the role of the staff of members of parliament and to ensure high standards. The code of conduct for ministerial staff sets out the standards that ministerial staff are expected to meet in the performance of their duties. The importance of the role of ministerial staff in providing advice and assistance to ministers in the performance of their functions is well recognised and accepted. Their closeness to the most significant decisions of government is a privilege that carries with it an obligation to act at all times with integrity and with an awareness of the expectation of the Australian community that the highest standards of conduct will be observed. We now have a MOP staff annual report that provides updates on staff costs, staffing levels and changes in staffing arrangements.

The government introduced a new lobbying code of conduct and register of lobbyists. Within one year of coming to office in 2007 it established the lobbying code of conduct and a public lobbyist register. The lobbyist register allows ministers and their staff to know who is engaged in lobbying and whose interests are being promoted.

The code includes a prohibition on lobbying activities for former ministers and parliamentary secretaries, and former senior ministerial staff as well as former members of the public service and Defence Force. The code has gone further in promoting integrity and transparency in the way third-party lobbyists and government representatives interact. Lobbyists who represent third parties must be on the register before they can begin to lobby the government.

The government introduced important public service reforms such as merit based selection for the employment of heads of government agencies to which the Public Service Act applies. Performance pay for departmental secretaries and senior statutory officers was removed. And, of course, this Labor government has been responsible for major reform of the Commonwealth Freedom of Information Act. It has worked hard to promote a pro-disclosure culture across the government.

These reforms have been critically important, in my view, in promoting more open and transparent government. We abolished conclusive certificates—a provision of the old FOI Act. That was used by the former Howard government to prevent the release of information that it found to be politically sensitive. FOI application fees have been abolished. The range of exemptions has been narrowed. We have created an Office of the Australian Information Commissioner. Shorter access periods for government records are now in place.

These amendments to the FOI Act have resulted in a much more transparent culture across the Public Service. I for one believe that they have been very significant, very positive reforms, and I am personally proud that I have been an advocate for them.

Now, perhaps, we might focus some attention on the record of the Howard government on honesty, transparency and accountability so that in the unlikely event that anyone is listening to this debate they might compare and contrast the records of the current government and its Liberal Party predecessor. Let's go for a trip down memory lane: travel rorts, balaclavas on the waterfront, and Mr Stan Howard and National Textiles. What about Mr Peter Reith and the Telecard affair? What about 'children overboard' or, if you like, 'truth overboard'. 'Truth overboard' is something that has gone into the political lingo as a result of the outrageous behaviour of the Howard government.

What about the $300 million 'wheat for weapons' scandal? What about the lies about Iraq and the weapons of mass destruction? What about the abuse of government advertising that became the hallmark of the Howard government? What about all the ministerial resignations? We could start with poor old former senator Jim Short and his subsequent reward appointment to the European Bank. We could mention the resignations of Parliamentary Secretary Gibson and Minister Prosser. We could talk about Minister Jull. We could talk about Minister Sharp or Minister McGauran, if you want. We could talk about former senator Warwick Parer, who was the minister for resources, who owned an $8 million interest in a resources company—a share in a coalmine.

What about Peter Reith becoming a consultant for the defence company Tenex just after he resigned as the defence minister, not to mentioned the Telecard affair? What about Dr Michael Wooldridge, as health minister signing a $5 million deal for the RCGP and, shortly after, getting a $300,000-a-year consultancy for the college?

What about the Federation Fund scandal? What about the MRI scandal? What about the use of Kirribilli House—as I dubbed it, 'party central'—by Mr Howard and his cronies for Liberal Party fund raisers and knees-ups for the Liberal Party? So do not come in here with your hypocrisy and dare try and debate issues of honesty, accountability and transparency.

Senator Brandis interjecting—

Senator FAULKNER: Your record is a disgrace. You were absolutely right, Senator Brandis, to call Mr Howard a lying rodent.