New Speaker must lead the way in restoring parliamentary ethics and trust

Bronwyn Bishop resigned as Speaker following a controversy that brought the public’s trust in her office into question. AAP/Daniel Munoz

The race to become the new Speaker of the House of Representatives following Bronwyn Bishop’s resignation is hotting up.

But what can the new Speaker do to restore the Australian public’s faith in the office – and in MPs more broadly – after Bishop’s resignation due to a series of lavish entitlement claims?

Restoring basic integrity

The new Speaker must act decisively to end perceptions that the chair of the House had become an instrument for the government rather than the guardian of the rights of all MPs – no matter what their party – and of the House’s integrity.

By demonstrating impartial application of the House’s rules, the new Speaker can first restore the respect of non-government MPs in their high office and, by extension, enhance citizens’ trust in parliamentary democracy.

The Australian parliament has slipped badly behind better parliamentary practice, such as the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association’s Benchmarks for Codes of Conduct for Members of Parliament.

I was the leader of the team that developed the benchmarks. They combine and build on the best code provisions from throughout the almost 200 houses of parliaments in the Commonwealth. In particular, the UK and Canada have made major reforms that leave Australia’s parliament looking very backward.

Such a code could restore the separation of parliament and executive government – something that has been lost in Canberra. It could build a strong parliamentary integrity system – that is, a range of powers and a culture that support and enforce ethical conduct.

The federal parliament dropped the ball on a code of conduct in 2011 when the Senate declined to support a very modest proposal by the House of Representatives. The new Speaker could resurrect the idea and lead the adoption of a code based on the benchmarks by the House alone. The Senate could make its own decision, respectful of the autonomy of each chamber to decide such matters.

Fixing the entitlements system

The Speaker’s little-appreciated role outside the House in session could be key to resolving the entitlements furore. The new Speaker should take the lead on reforming parliament’s integrity system rather than leaving it to the very limited and fragmentary parliamentary entitlements review announced by the prime minister.

Using a code as the centrepiece of an effective parliamentary integrity system, federal MPs’ use of “entitlements” would be rigorously policed.

The current system has pre-computer-age delays that have no justification. Under a reformed system, MPs could report spending on a continuous basis as part of the routine management of the public resources used to do their jobs in parliament and in the electorate. The parliament would immediately publish expenditure reported by each MP (for example, travel) and also the money parliament spends on behalf of the MP (for example, office rent).

A government department would thus no longer control the services and funds used to support MPs, removing the blurred separation of parliament and the executive. Parliament would manage this in accordance with the code’s extensive provisions.

However, an international standard code would go far beyond administering entitlements. It would ensure that MPs had professional development and independent advice on ethics. Allegations of breaches of the code would be given to the Speaker, who must refer them to a separate independent officer. This person would investigate the facts of the allegation, with protections against false or frivolous claims.

Such a system makes it much harder for breaches to be swept under that carpet. In practice, codes like this lead to parliaments acting firmly against MPs found to have breached the code in almost all cases.

The code would include a graduated scale of penalties and sanctions, ranging from a reprimand to expulsion. The final decision is for the House to make. Clearly, expulsion would be limited to the most extreme, egregious breaches.

The Speaker has the opportunity and the responsibility to lead the cultural climate within the parliament. This is essential to underpin ethical conduct. Not only should their conduct be exemplary and beyond reproach, but the Speaker should take every opportunity to subtly remind MPs of the responsibilities they bear to act in the public interest and in compliance with the spirit and letter of a code.

The new Speaker can earn a place in history by leading the implementation and rigorous enforcement of a code of conduct for MPs.


Ken will be on hand for an Author Q&A between 10:30 and 11:30am on Thursday, August 6. Post your questions in the comments section below.