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Friday, August 31, 2012

Paper pile of polly perks Strike Two

Today's Fairfax revelations from that joint project to shine some light on gifts and hospitality given to federal parliamentarians include that 70 have failed to disclose complimentary premium Foxtel or Austar packages to their electorate offices from the Australian Subscription Television and Radio Association (ASTRA), and only 32 disclosed a gift by Commercial Radio Australia of digital radios given to all 226. Micro detail perhaps, but nice to see the UTS journalism students involved take a bow today: Lawrence Bull, Nathan Coates, Paolo Hooke, Frances Mao, Lillian Radulova and Nina Young.

(Update In the Senate on 12 September Senator Faulkner drew attention to a number of errors in the published version of his declaration of interests some of which were said to be errors in transcription and others false entries.)

Those non-disclosures sit alongside yesterday's reports of declared gifts previously hidden in piles of handwritten paper, as summarised in The Age that Israel and Israeli lobby groups wooed politicians with 44 fully or partly funded trips in the past two years, followed by Taiwan (16 trips) and the Tibetan government-in-exile (five). Courtesy of Qantas the leading corporate ''benefactor''
all 226  enjoy free membership of the Chairman's Lounge and Qantas has provided more than 200 free flight upgrades - of 289 recorded in total - worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Gina Rinehart's Hancock Prospecting was the second-biggest provider of trips at a time when the mining tax was a hot issue. Billionaire Andrew Forrest's Fortescue Metals Group is another ''generous'' miner. Technology company Huawei, which was excluded from National Broadband Network tendering because of security concerns, has taken Coalition frontbenchers Julie Bishop, Andrew Robb and Bronwyn Bishop on tours to China. Two members of a Senate committee considering a white paper that will determine billions in defence spending, Mark Bishop and David Johnston, accepted a charter flight from England and accommodation from French shipbuilder DCNS to inspect its factory. As members of the parliamentary diabetes support group, Judi Moylan and Mal Washer accepted a trip to the World Diabetes Leadership Forum in Copenhagen paid by drug company Novo Nordisk.
In editorials today both The Age and the SMH remind our representatives of the standards we should expect of those in public life. As The Age in MPs should slam the door shut on influence peddling puts it:
Let's be clear about the conflicts of interest here. Were such benefits given to members of a company board, public committee or a councillor at the lowest tier of government, they would have to declare them and excuse themselves from decisions affecting the provider. MPs do not excuse themselves from parliamentary debates, committee deliberations and votes, so must observe a higher standard. They ought not accept travel, accommodation or gifts that create a risk, real or perceived, of compromising their decisions as public representatives. If the givers' intentions are not to influence political decision-makers by undemocratic means, what other motive is there?
And apart from the probity issues, information about who gets to chew an influential ear about what is most times itself a matter of significant public interest but not something our laws require to be made public.

The Sydney Morning Herald in A shadow darkens on one side of the digital divide concludes on a theme familiar to readers here:
The Herald/UTS project should not, in truth, be necessary. Filling in documents of such public importance by hand, and submitting and publishing them only in that form, is no longer adequate. Indeed, it looks like a passive form of obstructionism. They should be filed online, and made available automatically for all to see.

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