Fiddling With Fig Leafs: Lee Rhiannon On Andrew Robb And ‘Ministerial Standards’

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Major party politicians are once again in the news for ‘self-enrichment’. Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon weighs in.

When former resources minister Ian Macfarlane was nearing retirement, the then Prime Minister Tony Abbott gave an astonishing speech in the chamber.

Gushing over Mr Macfarlane’s efforts to dump the mining tax, Mr Abbott said: “It was a magnificent achievement… and I hope the sector will acknowledge and demonstrate their gratitude to him in his years of retirement.”

Four months later, Queensland Resources Council came through – appointing Mr Macfarlane as their new CEO, with a reported pay packet of $500,000 per year on top of his parliamentary pension. A couple of months later Woodside Energy also appointed Mr Macfarlane to their board, citing his wealth of knowledge and experience in the sector.

In his capacity as QRC’s new CEO, former resources minister Ian Macfarlane boasted at a Townsville business breakfast that he would speak to his ‘good mates in Canberra’ about amending native title laws and clearing the way for the Adani coal mine.

It was as audacious as Mr Abbott’s statement in parliament.

Former Liberal Minister, Ian Macfarlane. (IMAGE: Engineers Australia, Flickr)
Former Liberal Minister, Ian Macfarlane. (IMAGE: Engineers Australia, Flickr)

Both Mr Macfarlane’s appointment to the QRC, and his admission about lobbying his mates over native title, appear to breach the Statement of Ministerial Standards.

The current Ministerial Standards were first issued in 2013 by Abbott. The idea was that ministers and newly-ex ministers should be held to some basic standards of integrity, in keeping with the public’s expectations.

Both Abbott and current Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull have cited the very existence of the standards as proof that their governments are serious about accountability and integrity in office.

But in my view, the Standards are useless in practice. The Prime Minister can wield them when it suits, and ignore them when it doesn’t. Mostly they are a fig leaf for governments doing very little to clean up dodgy behaviour.

Andrew Robb, former Minister for Trade.
Andrew Robb, former Minister for Trade.

Part of the Ministerial Standards sets out a ‘cooling off’ period. In the first 18 months out of office, ex-ministers must not “lobby, advocate or have business meetings with members of the government, parliament, public services or defence force on any matters on which they have had official dealings as Minister”.

When the Greens challenged Mr Macfarlane’s appointment he simply said that the Prime Minister was ‘cool with it’. We asked the Department of Prime Minister if the PM sought their advice on the appointment – they said no. And that was the end of that.

Last October when former trade minister Andrew Robb took a job with the Landbridge Group, who won the notorious 99-year lease at Darwin port, the Greens made the same complaint. Doesn’t the appointment breach the Ministerial Standards? The government simply disagreed.

Now Mr Robb’s appointment is back in the news again, after fresh revelations that he actually took the job a day before he left office. During his ‘cooling off’ period, Mr Robb led a delegation of Australian government trade officials to China. The government insisted they were just ‘note takers’.

Turnbull government ministers have continually excused Mr Robb’s appointment, and said they were not aware of any lobbying.

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But how can we take their word for it?

Last year the Senate passed a Greens motion ordering the government to publish a list of every meeting between a minister or senior public official and a former Minister still within their ‘cooling off’ period.

But when I asked the Prime Minister’s Department a little while later if they were complying with the order, they admitted they had no procedure in place to do so.

When I asked Senator Brandis in Senate Estimates what would happen if the Standards were breached, he replied:

‘… the consequence would be that the obligation had been breached and the breach of the obligation would be a fact that would no doubt attract notoriety.’

What?

Six months after that Senate order, Attorney General George Brandis repeatedly told the Greens during Senate Estimates that the order for disclosure was “under consideration.” He refused to say when this “consideration” will conclude. The government has simply chosen to ignore this basic transparency measure.

australian values, attorney general, george brandis
Attorney General George Brandis.

The rub is that the Ministerial Standards can only be enforced by the Prime Minister of the day. They could be changed at any time or removed altogether. They are not legislated, and there is no specific procedure for enforcing them.

So what would work better? The Greens have put a number of ideas on the table. One is our national ICAC bill, currently before the Senate, which allows for the development of a legally binding code of conduct for all parliamentarians (not just ministers).

The revolving door won’t stop spinning until we replace the fig leafs with enforceable, water-tight laws.

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Lee Rhiannon is the Greens' democracy spokesperson and Senator for NSW.

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