GREENS BILL: Disclosure of MP's Interests

Mark introduced a Greens' Private Members Bill today that will ensure that Members of Parliament disclose membership of all organisations, including clubs, societies, sporting groups, religious organisations or other community groups on the Register of Interests. Also, the Bill requires that the Register be published online in a format that is publicly accessible.


The Hon. M.C. PARNELL: This bill aims to reform the Members of Parliament (Register of Interests) Act. It is a very short bill and it has three goals: firstly, to ensure that members of parliament must disclose on the register of interests membership of all organisations, including clubs, societies, sporting groups, religious organisations or other community groups. That is the first change.

Secondly, all MPs must update the register at least once a year. That is not a change. We already do that, but ministers must advise of any changes to their entry every month. In other words, if a minister acquires an interest of any sort, then that should require continuous disclosure and not just the annual disclosure that all members of parliament are subject to under the current regime. Thirdly, the register must be published online in a format that is publicly accessible.

On one level this reform is purely administrative, however, I think it does go to improving accountability and transparency. I know that these are two characteristics that we often pretend are very robust in this place, but in reality they can be quite deficient in some areas. In South Australia our existing legislation is geared toward ensuring that members of parliament disclose financial connections such as interests in financial institutions, as well as creditors, debtors and other potential conflicts of interest.

The act outlines the required content of members' annual or ordinary returns. It includes statements of income as well as whether they or family members hold office in any company, corporate or unincorporated body. I am not a director of any companies, but I am the public officer of two unincorporated bodies. That is on my register. Whilst the wording of the act is clear to some, I think it is outdated and I think it is vague in some places, but it is the principle of disclosure that is important. Our electors should know about any potential conflicts of interest.

One thing that is missing is that there are many cases where a member's personal interest is not so clear-cut. At one level, conflict of interest can appear to be very straightforward. Members should disclose and potentially not vote on things that will directly and personally benefit them or their families. However, there are some relationships that whilst not a direct financial conflict can be an indicator of influence that might be brought to bear on a member. That is why I think it is important that disclosure be more thorough rather than less.

The bill provides that membership of organisations, such as community organisations, sporting clubs or religious groups, should be disclosed alongside membership of trade unions and business organisations, which are already in the act. At present, the limits of disclosure are very limited. Few members disclose their memberships outside the narrow range that is currently required. I do—I list all my community group memberships, but most members do not. I note that many federal MPs disclose a wide range of their memberships, but not all MPs do. The Prime Minister famously has disclosed his membership of the Cronulla Sharks; that is on his register of interests.

The question for us is, should South Australian MPs be required to disclose memberships of, for example, sporting clubs? For example, if the Adelaide Crows hypothetically wanted to build a new clubroom on public land, and the responsible minister—whoever that might be—happens to be a member of the Adelaide Crows, should that be disclosed? Of course, it could be disclosed ahead of any debate or decision in cabinet or, if it was a bill, it could be disclosed in parliament, but I think it makes more sense for matters like that to be disclosed routinely through the register of interests.

It does not take a rocket scientist to appreciate that the goals of the Crows may be in conflict with a minister's commitment to the South Australian public. Whilst that minister might not benefit personally from any favourable outcome for a football club, it is reasonable to expect that their membership could influence their decision. Whether they need to recuse themselves is a whole different matter, but I think the public have a right to know about the interest.

The issue with ministers, I think, is fairly clear-cut: we need to know much more about their interests. But what about other members of parliament? I think increasing the disclosure requirement is just as valid for ordinary MPs. For example, the power to reject land use zoning rests with members of the Environment, Resources and Development Committee (ERDC). If they decide to reject a rezoning of land, it comes to the floor of parliament and all MPs have the power to vote there, not just the minister.

If land was being rezoned to benefit a group to which an MP belonged, that clearly requires disclosure. Again, disclosure up-front makes more sense than disclosure on a case-by-case basis, especially when it is relatively easy for a member to list the organisations to which they belong. Although the current act in South Australia has a clause outlining a category for:

…substantial interest…whether pecuniary or not… which [an MP] considers might appear to raise the material conflict—

They are the words — between the MP's private interest and public duty, the wording is decidedly vague and it leaves the decision as to whether or not an organisation membership could constitute a conflict of interest to the discretion of the MP. That is not as robust as the wording that is used federally and in many state jurisdictions around Australia. Under the federal equivalent of this legislation, registrable interests include:

…any other interests where a conflict of interest with a Member's public duties could foreseeably arise or be seen to arise.

Under this category, federal members have registered things like their membership of the Mandurah Offshore Fishing and Sailing Club. Another one declared they were an honorary member of the Royal Motor Yacht Club, Woolooware. I do not even know where Woolooware is. Anyway, they clearly have a Royal Motor Yacht Club there.

While the federal legislation does broaden the scope of what MPs must declare when compared to the South Australian register of interests, we have seen that it is not enough. You need go no further than the example of the Nationals' deputy leader, Bridget McKenzie, whose failure to disclose her membership of a sporting club that was the recipient of financial grants that she was responsible for approving led to her losing her position. How much easier would it be if there was a requirement for a member of parliament to list all their interests if they then become a minister, because these things happen not just on an annual basis but, in many cases, on a revolving basis. It makes much more sense to disclose up-front.

The ACT has found a solution to this lack of clarity, and their position was to keep it very simple. Their position is the same as mine: declare all memberships of organisations. In the ACT, disclosure of any and all memberships is required on the statement of registrable interests, including political organisations, community organisations, lobby groups and sporting or other clubs.

In Victoria, MPs must register their membership of 'any political party, body or association or trade or professional organisation of which the member is a member'. That is very similar to the words we have.

New South Wales requires all organisations, unions, political parties, etc., to be listed. They also have a discretionary disclosures category, which includes RSLs, surf clubs, Rotary and things like that. Again, the test in the New South Wales regime is anything where 'the member considers might appear to raise a conflict between his or her private interests and his or her public duty'. So they do not actually require the disclosure of all memberships because there is that test that the member applies.

In Tasmania, it is similar to Victoria. They do not require membership but they do require office-bearer roles to be disclosed. Queensland is similar to South Australia. Northern Territory uses the words 'might appear to raise a conflict between his or her private interests and his or her public duty'. Western Australia has 'might appear to raise a conflict between his or her private interests and his or her public duty'. Again, in Western Australia, only if you are an office-bearer are you obliged to disclose.

I think there is good reason and good precedent for expanding the disclosure that South Australian members of parliament are required to make. Personally, I would like to know if any of my representatives were a member of, for example, the Adelaide Club. Under current rules, the public has no right to know whether an MP might be a member of a men's only 'gentleman's club' where Adelaide's self-proclaimed influential people socialise behind closed doors. Currently, no-one has a right to know that.

Similarly, MPs do not have to disclose if they are members of some particular religious group or a sect as part of their register of interests. If an MP belongs to a religious group or an organisation that has a core belief system that facilitates discrimination—for example, on the basis of race, sexuality, sex or gender—then that MP's public duty to all South Australians may be in conflict with their organisation's goals and principles. Should that membership be disclosed?

Even though there might not be any personal gain to be made from a membership of such an organisation, if a member of parliament's church or sect says that, for example, LGBTIQ+ people should not have access to the same rights and services as others, then there is an argument that that is a private interest that may inform how that person votes when issues of public interest come up before the parliament.

Of course, we can never guarantee objectivity that is free from influence or values and beliefs. Everyone brings their own values to this place, nor should we try to change that. But it is important that voters at least know what kinds of belief systems or organisations or models are contributing to their MP's decision-making. Disclosure of memberships is one way of advancing that.

The last part of this bill, perhaps the most basic, is that the register should be available online and should be accessible to the public. At present, there is a regime that journalists, I think probably on an annual basis, contact the registrar and ask to see the register. My understanding is that the House of Assembly has put theirs online. Ours is available on request. But we know that the community is interested in these things.

In 2019, for example, News Corp, through Adelaidenow, published the information in an online tool that allowed their readers to search through the MP's register of interests. They put a fair bit of effort into compiling the data. Mind you, they lost a bit in translation. You only had to line up what they put online and what was in the paper versions to see it was not quite right—all the more reason for the official version to be the publicly accessible version. Let's not have News Corporation or anyone else having to do interpretation.

I think this is public interest information and I think it should be online. There is another small change that I mentioned earlier, which is that I think ministers need to be held to a higher account and they do need to notify changes in real time, as it were, rather than just an annual return.

In conclusion, I think this is an important bill that goes to accountability. I would like to thank in particular the Parliament Research Library, which helped track down all of the equivalent positions in other states and territories. It is a good service that they provide to members of parliament, so I thank them for that. I also thank Alice Mussared in my office, who has done a power of research in helping pull this together. With those words, I commend the bill to the council.