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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Lots of grey about ministerial code of conduct

Monday was a long day for the Senate Finance and Public Administration Committee and officials from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet as they went through the biannual Finance and Public Administration process. They started at 1.30pm and finally wrapped up after 11pm. The media reports focused on the 'news that matters' such as the Prime Minister's child care arrangements, how the family dog is coping at the Lodge, and who paid for the PM's New Year's eve party (his wife did).

In all this no one raised any questions about Freedom of Information and privacy policy, but Opposition senators had a lot to raise regarding the government's commitment to openness and transparency.

They didn't get much in the way of answers to questions about aspects of the Ministerial Code of Conduct including the lack of definitions of behaviour that would constitute a breach. At the end of the day, the Prime Minister will be the sole judge of whether there has been a breach and what should be done about it. Senator Andrew Murray mused about the need for a parliamentary ethics adviser or authority but wasn't rushed with takers.

The Government has missed its deadline to have in place other parts of the accountability and integrity framework by the time Parliament commenced. Officials said that the code for ministerial staff and the register of lobbyists is nearing completion but the discussion suggested that many important aspects (for example who is a lobbyist and what constitutes a meeting with one) are still to be finalised. It sounds like there is some significant wriggle room regarding a pre election commitment that ministerial staff will be available to answer questions posed by parliamentary committees: this now seems only to be applied where a staffer has been improperly involved in executive decisions.

Two noteworthy tidbits about the way things were: the answers to 34 questions taken on notice at the previous Estimates Committee meeting went to the Prime Minister's office on 27 July last year and stayed there, finally being made available to the Committee by the new Government last week just before the Committee hearing. Nothing important really, just things like the wine supply and the costs incurred by the then incumbents at that 'home away from home' - Kirribili House. And the average time taken to provide answers to questions on notice directed to the former Prime Minister during the year ending July 2007, was 182 days - the requirement is to respond to questions in the House within 60 days, and the Senate 30 days.

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