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Wednesday, 5 October 1983
Page: 1399

Mr RONALD EDWARDS(8.23) —I think it is interesting to look at the situation that has been presented by the honourable member for O'Connor (Mr Tuckey). He talked about the sort of penalty that will be exacted if there is some failure to comply with requirements for the disclosure of interests by members of parliament. He should reflect upon the fact that the penalty has already been exacted to some extent; it was exacted on 5 March. One of the difficulties the previous Government faced was that towards the end of its days it became a bit murky around the edges. I think the former Treasurer indicated that in his clear endeavours to try to do something about both tax avoidance and tax evasion. One of the difficulties that the former Government faced was that clearly there were areas where one had to be sure about public interest. At this stage this Government has a clear commitment to the disclosure of interests and the reason for that is very precise. We believe that in office one has a public responsibility. We also believe that one should be publicly accountable. Whenever one is given certain privileges one also has some responsibilities, and those responsibilities include being accountable to the public for the sorts of involvements and interests that we have.

One of the reasons why it is awkward for honourable members opposite is that in the past we would have had reason to doubt their veracity in certain circumstances. I think it is interesting that the honourable member for O'Connor has spoken about land holdings because a member of his Party was involved in land holdings in Stumpy Gully, Victoria. That is on the public record and the fact that it is on the public record did not help his Party at all. It is also important that we are able to say in advance that we have established a public record and that we have established some degree of public accountability.

Obviously, it is a little awkward for honourable members opposite. If one does an analysis of wealth holdings, assets and financial positions the Australian community will quickly establish that there are some in this community who have operated from a very privileged position. Little wonder that sometimes they are a little insensitive to the demands of the electorate. They have enjoyed a degree of financial comfort that may not be enjoyed by others in the community.

If one looks historically at the development of the parties that honourable members opposite represent, it is possible to establish that from time to time they have represented elites. Those elites are based on wealth holding and income, and to some extent the electorate is not altogether satisfied with that. If we examine that and if sociologists examine it, it may well come out that honourable members opposite would have reasons for saying that we should not disclose our financial position because it sets us off too far from the rest of the community. One of the things we have to face when there is a public record of members' interests and involvement is that the public will make judgments upon it. I do not think it is necessary to go beyond saying that the public will make judgments. One ought to give the public the capacity to make judgments and the only way is to have a fuller disclosure. Certainly, at the moment the capacity for a full disclosure does not exist. We on this side of the House are saying that we are not afraid of fuller disclosure. Of course, it will be awkward; of course, it will produce difficulties. But if we are to talk in terms of the sorts of involvement that we as public figures have and if we are to talk in terms of the demands that the community makes upon us, we must be prepared to say to the community: 'We are prepared to talk about our particular involvements and arrangements'.

However, so that we keep the picture balanced, I think it is important to say that just because one does have financial involvements, just because one does have experience in companies, just because one has been involved in directorships of companies it does not rule one out from public office. It is also important to say that if there is a clearer picture of the arrangements it is possible for the public to make judgments about our role in the community. But we ought to avoid the sorts of murky arrangements which seem to have developed in the past and we ought to avoid giving rise to the kind of public voyeurism that people seem to take particular delight in and the imputations about honourable members in this House.

I say to honourable members opposite that we have a collective responsibility to the electorate. It is not a case of partisan politics or saying: 'We on this side want to be all squeaky clean so we can make sure that honourable members opposite are tarnished'. We have a collective responsibility and if one looks historically at the development of parliamentary democracy one sees that one of the great handicaps to Parliament is the fact that the community tends to hold us in very low esteem. That is because in the past some members of Western parliaments have been in murky circumstances. We have a collective responsibility to ensure that people's esteem of Parliament is maintained. That is the nub of the matter. It is far more substantial than just saying: 'We are here to try to find pin pricks in the Opposition so that we can make some capital out of it'. That is not the agenda. The agenda is that we have a responsibility to the community so that it can say to us: 'Yes, we can learn to respect those members of parliament because they are willing to disclose their involvement'. The fact that they have an involvement, historically, should not disqualify them from public office. No one is saying that. However, matters should be on the record so that the public can make judgments. I wonder why honourable members opposite are worried about that. There is nothing in particular to be worried about.

If one has had an involvement in business activities, if one has had a directorship, or if one has had shareholdings there is nothing in particular to be afraid of. However, when that involvement becomes hidden, when it becomes subject to questions in this place and consequently subject to media speculation , the damage is done. I say to honourable members opposite that the damage is not done specifically to the individual; the damage is done to the tradition of Parliament. There ought not to be trial by media, trial by royal commission or trial by innuendo, but the electorate should be able to make judgments on the basis of fuller knowledge of those who offer themselves for public office. That is all we are saying. There is nothing particularly sinister in that.

I think it is interesting to look at this matter historically. One of the reasons why some of those in the churches have often argued for degrees of humility and penance and why those churches have been held in high esteem is because it is said that those people in those offices can act disinterestedly. The whole thrust of this motion is that we, in our offices, should be able to act disinterestedly. We cannot presume to do away with our worldly goods and possessions as those in clerical circumstances do. But if, in fact, we can disclose our worldly goods and possessions it can be argued that we can act in the same disinterested manner as those in the clergy act. The interesting thing, of course, is that those in the clergy are held in higher esteem than members of parliament. One does not have to look far to understand why. There are some who, in fact, lower the esteem of those in Parliament. Whilst ever we have a situation in which it is possible for people to make claims about the interests and involvements of people in Parliament and about their linkages with the likes of Christo Moll without full disclosure, Parliament as a whole suffers. I think that is the basic message here. If members of parliament are to act responsibily in the public arena there is nothing wrong with saying responsibly that we have a public commitment to list our interest, involvements and what they might mean in terms of the public.

The honourable member for O'Connor has asked what the penalty is for that. I suggest to the honourable member for O'Connor that quite clearly the penalty is an electoral penalty. That ought to be the major penalty that we face. That is the penalty we face at the moment. If we do not act properly, if we do not act responsibly, the electorate takes it out on us. Similarly, if it is shown that we have private involvement which conflicts with our public duty, the electorate will take it out on us. That is all. That is the substance of it. So I suggest to those opposite that the reason why this motion is important and the reason why those sub-items in the motion are important is because we on this side of the House believe that we have some public accountability and responsibility.

If we can make our position clearer it will not be possible to have trial by innuendo, to have trial by media and to have a substantial series of questions asked in this place. All they do-I say this with great seriousness-is to lower the esteem of Parliament. Those of us who are receptive to the public will know very well that Parliament is not held in the high esteem which many of us would like. The way we can get it on to a higher plane is for us to be willing to say: 'We are prepared to declare our interests and our involvement. We do not believe that that ought to disqualify us from public office. We do not believe that will cause any discredit for us'. That declaration says to the public that we are not afraid to declare our hand.