When I talk to the community about the lack of a code for MP behaviour, they are astounded

Cathy McGowan

Without rules, everyone is left floundering and asking: what is private? What is in the public interest? Where are the boundaries?

Parliament House in Canberra
‘Political parties will say they have internal mechanisms to deal with integrity and behaviour issues. This is fraught and not good enough.’ Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP
‘Political parties will say they have internal mechanisms to deal with integrity and behaviour issues. This is fraught and not good enough.’ Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

Last modified on Wed 11 Nov 2020 21.39 EST

I remember my reaction upon hearing that a parliamentary staffer, involved in a relationship with then-deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce, was expecting their child.

When I heard the words from a journalist who had engaged in a chat as we left Parliament House on a Wednesday evening in late 2017, I found myself thinking: “How, in this day and age?” And: “No, that just couldn’t be true.”

By February 2018, the pregnancy was no longer a secret. Then-prime minister Malcolm Turnbull had banned his ministers from relationships with staff – the so-called “bonk ban” – and Joyce had stepped down as deputy prime minister and National party leader.

My staff and I had begun researching rules for professional standards within parliament. There was a code of conduct for ministers but nothing for MPs and staff. I wasn’t the first to notice this.

In 2011 the committee of privileges and members interests had endorsed a “draft code of conduct for members in parliament”. This was rejected by a Senate committee inquiry and never progressed.

In 2015 the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association had recommended benchmarks for a code of conduct.

In July 2017 the AFL had banned relationships between its senior executives and staff.

After nearly a year of research and consultation, on 3 December 2018, I introduced two private members bills – one for a federal integrity commission and another for a code of conduct for MPs and staff.

Fast forward to May 2019, when the new independent MP for Indi, Dr Helen Haines, made a commitment to act on this issue. She introduced the “Commonwealth Parliamentary Standards Bill 2020” on 26 October 2020.

Most professions and industries in Australia recognise the safeguards this kind of code provides.

The lack of a formal set of standards, rules and a process for enforcement is an issue for all MPs, senators and their staff. Without rules, everyone is left floundering and asking: what is private? What is in the public interest? Where are the boundaries?

Monday’s Four Corners program and the implied threat of court action by the attorney general give some indication of the urgency of the matter.

I was astounded when prime minister Scott Morrison said this week that he found the term “bonk ban” dismissive, while ignoring the substance of the complaints made in Monday night’s program.

Political parties will say they have internal mechanisms to deal with integrity and conduct issues. This is fraught and not good enough.

These processes are inherently political. We already see the outcomes with staff shuffled from office to office while seeing their careers stagnate.

This is not only a “women’s issue”. It is not only a men’s issue. It concerns not only minorities, nor only the Coalition, Labor party, Greens or independents. It is a parliamentary issue. It is a national issue, a societal issue, a reputational issue and a perception issue.

The community rightly has expectations of a high standard of conduct among their elected representatives.

When I have talk with my community about the lack of a code, they are astounded. Many didn’t know, or exclaim “oh, well that would explain …”, nominating a person and their behaviour.

When voters realise there are no standards to govern MPs’ behaviour, their sense of betrayal and, sadly, cynicism is reinforced.

What will it take for this to change? Is it a louder call from the Australian community that we expect more, and want more from our elected representatives? Is it a call to the PM and the leader of the opposition to follow in the footsteps of Tim Fischer and John Howard and exercise their courage?

The parliament, as a bipartisan whole, needs to acknowledge that Dr Haines and the crossbench have done the work. There is legislation before the House.

It needs to be debated and passed through both houses as a matter of urgency.

  • Cathy McGowan AO is the former independent member for Indi and the author of Cathy Goes to Canberra.