An opportunity to clarify parliamentary roles and responsibilities

Nov 10, 2022
Functioning of departments and divisions diagram

The Joint Select Committee on Parliamentary Standards has been charged with developing a code or codes of conduct for people working in the Parliament. While the context is to address the bullying and harassment behaviour revealed by the Jenkins Report, the Committee also has the opportunity to articulate through values statements and codes of conduct the respective roles and responsibilities of the different groups of people who work in the Parliament.

This is important. As the Thodey Report on the APS highlighted, the role and accountability of ministerial staff needs to be more formally defined so its relationship with the APS is better understood. More generally, clarifying respective roles and responsibilities would contribute to better understanding of how ‘responsible government’ works in Australia’s democratic system.

There continues to be a view amongst some politicians that democracy involves only having elections and that being elected provides a member of parliament, particularly a minister, authority that should not be encumbered by other processes. But other processes are critical to responsible government, including the separation of powers between the executive (the Government), the legislature (the Parliament) and the judiciary, the role of a merit-based non-partisan public service, administrative laws that demand impartiality, integrity organisations that protect the public interest.

In my submission to the Committee, I suggested that the values (and employment principles) and codes of conduct in the Public Service Act and the Parliamentary Service Act provide a template for articulating the values and codes of conduct for others working in the Parliament – ministers, members and senators, ministerial staff and other staff of members and senators. There would be much in common in the values and codes of conduct, as there is in the current legislation for the APS and the Parliamentary Service; equally, however, there would be important differences as there are in the current legislation.

The differences would reflect the different roles and responsibilities involved:

  • Some are elected and directly accountable to their electorates, others are not;
  • Some work primarily in the executive and are accountable under the system of ministerial responsibility, some work primarily in the legislature;
  • Some are expected to be partisan, some are required to be non-partisan;
  • Some are subject to strict merit-based employment conditions, others are not.

These differences can be generally clarified by articulating through values statements each group’s particular relationships with the Government and the Parliament, with the public and in the workplace.

The following illustrates what such a statement might look like for members and senators – that they:

  • represent and are accountable to their constituents;
  • serve the Parliament;
  • act in and promote the public interest;
  • are committed to serve their constituents and the Australian public;
  • demonstrate leadership in the community;
  • are inclusive, responsive and courteous, show respect and have due regard for individuals’ opinions, beliefs, rights and responsibilities;
  • respect fellow Members and Senators, their employees, Parliamentary Service employees and APS employees;
  • provide workplaces that are safe and rewarding, and free from discrimination, patronage or favouritism;
  • are lawful and trustworthy, act with integrity, and model and promote the highest ethical standards.

These might generally apply also to ministers, but with the following modifications – that ministers:

  • serve the Parliament and are accountable to the Parliament for their ministerial responsibilities;
  • are committed to serve their constituents and the Australian public and are committed to their ministerial responsibilities in serving the Australian public.

I appreciate that this is more extensive than the legislated values for the APS and Parliamentary Service but, frankly, I think the changes made in 2013 to make the values ‘memorable’ led to them becoming less substantial – I hope Senator Gallagher reconsiders them as she develops her reform agenda.

Drawing much more closely on the APS and Parliamentary Service codes of conduct, I suggested the following provisions could apply to everyone working in the Parliament:

  • Behaving honestly and with integrity;
  • Acting with care and diligence;
  • Treating everyone with respect and courtesy, and without harassment;
  • Complying with all applicable Australian laws;
  • Taking reasonable steps to avoid any conflict of interest (real or apparent), and disclosing any material personal interest that might be connected to their public duties;
  • Using Commonwealth resources in a proper manner and for a proper purpose;
  • Not providing false or misleading information in response to a request made for official purposes;
  • Not improperly using inside information or the person’s duties, status, power or authority;
  • When overseas, behaving in a way that upholds the good reputation of Australia.

Other provisions (e.g., complying with directions, maintaining appropriate confidentiality) may need tailoring for each group.

The provision regarding respect and courtesy could also be strengthened by applying words used in Canada that:

  • Harassment, violence and discrimination will not be tolerated, condoned or ignored.

While the proposed Independent Parliamentary Standards Commission should oversee the behaviour of members and senators, the Parliamentary Service Commissioner should be given responsibility for promoting the values and codes of conduct of MOP(S) Act employees as well as the Parliamentary Service.

I am yet to digest the recently released report of PM&C’s review of the MOP(S) Act but note the importance of linking the action arising to the work of the Joint Select Committee: staffing arrangements for MPs must be decided by the Parliament, not just the Prime Minister as the PM&C review tamely recommends.


First published in The Canberra Times  Oct 24 2022

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