The Australian Democrats are calling for tough new laws to regulate the commercial activities of former government ministers.
Senator Andrew Murray, the Democrats accountability spokesman, says the matter is one of urgency, especially given the persistence of rumours circulating about the future employment prospects of members of the former Coalition government.
“We’ve always thought the law should be strengthened to deal with the conflict of interest matters,” Murray said. “The difficulty with any situation where ministers will take up … employment opportunities [after being in Cabinet] is that if you have an unenforceable code, which is what the new administration has, then you can never really ensure that the situations you’re trying to avoid actually prevail or are prevented.”
The Rudd Government’s voluntary code of conduct is an unsatisfactory safeguard against conflict of interest, according to the Democrats spokesman. “I don’t think the current government is interested in making the changes we propose. What they have done is introduced a better code [than the previous government], an internal code. But the difficulty with any code is enforceability, and the fact remains that the next administration can change it.”
Instead, Murray believes that penalties, including criminal sanctions, need to be considered. Other jurisdictions impose criminal penalties on former politicians who abuse their power. In the United States, there is a two-year ban imposed on former members of the executive lobbying in their former area of responsibility, with a five-year imprisonment penalty for failure to comply.
The proposed laws would act akin to a “restraint of trade clause”, bringing politicians into line with other professionals in possession of sensitive market information. “It’s a restraint on trade. It’s not a restraint on getting employment,” Murray explained.
“In the legal world you would describe that as a restraint of trade … It has exactly the same genesis. An important point to note is that ministers have access to privileged information which is often [commercial] in confidence which has great value to third-parties.”
Senator Murray says the broader remuneration problem still needs to be addressed in order to attract people to public life. “If you address that properly and pay people properly for the job they do, you will then attract people into the profession. Of course, many people don’t enter it for the money; if that was the case I wouldn’t be there for a start,” he said.
“[The] number one [priority] is to attend to the broad remuneration area; number two is attend to the broad political governance area. The problem is that if you wait for the first two to occur, the [tougher legislation] will never occur and in the meantime you get former ministers in extremely sensitive areas with privileged information profiting from that use of that privileged information.”