Who is Vaile serving?

Who is Vaile serving?

10 Mar 2008

Andrew Brennan and Jeff Malpas
Email: a.brennan@latrobe.edu.au

The key issue is not that Mr Vaile is picking up some extra income during a break from parliamentary work.

The media have made much of the fact that Mark Vaile has been 'moonlighting', by working for ServCorp, a company whose activities he used to promote when he was Minister for Trade.

Within the Opposition, Mr Vaile's activities have provided a focus for the ongoing sparring between Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull, with Nelson condemning Mr Vaile's trip, and Turnbull defending it on the grounds that it is not illegal, while also suggesting that it goes against a change in public sentiment on such matters.

Political infighting aside, there are two substantive issues raised by the affair that have not so far been much distinguished. First is a question of duty - whether it is proper for Mr Vaile to take leave from his parliamentary and constituency work to pursue activities of this sort. Second is a question of conflict of interest - whether the type of work in which Mr Vaile is engaged is proper given his past role as a government minister and his continuing role as a parliamentarian and a leading figure in the Opposition.

No ordinary employees

Everyone, it might be said, is entitled to take leave and it's no business of employers to query the reasons for such leave. But members of Parliament are no ordinary employees, and their obligations are different from those under which most of the rest of us work.

It is a little out of the ordinary for a member of the opposition leadership to take leave during a parliamentary sitting and during the early stages of a new government. It is even more out of the ordinary when the leave is to pursue a consultancy for a particular company, especially when that company - or the group that is the largest shareholder in it - has been a generous benefactor to the Liberal Party.

To work for such a company so soon after leaving government is, however, more than just "out of the ordinary". Regardless of Malcolm Turnbull's claims about its mere legality, such action is, in fact, ethically improper, and something that ought to be ruled out as morally unacceptable behaviour by the rules for ministerial conduct.

Conflict of interest

The key issue is not that Mr Vaile is picking up some extra income during a break from parliamentary work. Nor is it the fact - taken up by the media - that his behaviour shows scant commitment to the Coalition in its new role in opposition.

While there certainly are questions that can be asked about whether Mr Vaile is adequately fulfilling his duty as a leading Parliamentarian, the basic problem is that he is in a situation of conflict, one which allows accusations of impropriety and opens up enormous potential for corrupt practice.

Government ministers often have close relations with businesses and these always carry hazards. One clear danger is that government influence gives preferential support to a company, and that this influence is effectively purchased though the provision of personal reward to the government member who provides such influence.

In straightforward cases of corruption, companies pay cash for the benefits they receive through ministerial favours. More deviously, they can set up deals with ministers that may be realised only after the individual concerned has left their position of influence, deals that guarantee future earnings, through consultancy or directorships, in return for present favours.

So it is really important that ministers hold themselves to standards of conduct that assure the public and the corporate sector of their impartiality.

Under John Howard, it seemed that standards of political propriety had sunk to a remarkable low. A surprising number of former government ministers were appointed to lucrative diplomatic positions, and not, so it seemed, on the basis of their consummate diplomatic skills, mastery of languages or understanding of other cultures, but simply on the basis of cronyism and mateship.

When opposition leader Mark Latham protested in 2004 over the appointment of former communications minister Richard Alston as Australia's new high commissioner to London, Alexander Downer responded by commenting that people who had served their country as ministers should not be excluded from being ambassadors.

Latham, however, was not protesting about one isolated case. According to The Sydney Morning Herald of December 18 2004, there were 122 such political appointments of mates to diplomatic posts between 1996 and 2004.

It was also under Howard that two appointments took place that would have been regarded not only as improper but also illegal in some other countries.

In November 2001, the day after he quit the executive, Peter Reith, former minister of defence, took up a post with the Tenix Group, Australia's largest defence contractor. In the United States, such a move would have risked criminal prosecution, for no former executive members of the government are permitted to engage in lobbying for two years after their resignation.

Former health minister Michael Woolridge promised $5 million in 2001 to the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners towards the costs of setting up an office in Canberra, and then within months had resigned as minister and taken up a consultancy with that very group. Both of these appointments stink - not because there is any evidence that Woolridge or Reith were doing deals that would benefit themselves at taxpayers' expense.

Instead the problem lies in a system that permits cosy arrangements between politicians, business and other interest groups, arrangements that are an open invitation to corruption, improper favours and a general lack of standards in public life. Such arrangements are not particular to any one side of politics, or any one level of Government.

Tas concerns

The persistent concerns about the apparently preferential consideration given by the Tasmanian Government to particular business interests in that state - concerns that relate not only to recent and continuing actions on the part of the Tasmanian Government and its Ministers, but also to past governments and past ministers - suggest a continuing history of administrative and political impropriety that is itself inimical to good and effective government in that state.

Times change.

And there's now plenty of attention being focused on Mark Vaile's relations with ServCorp - a cosy partnership that seems not to be in the public interest.

Of course, it is entirely proper that former ministers take posts after they retire, whether in the diplomatic service, in the private sector or in non-government organisations.

But it is also essential that such posts be scrutinised, and that they be disallowed when clear conflicts of interest are present. This is precisely what happens in the UK, where an independent committee scrutinises all proposed appointments of former ministers for two years after they leave office.

Australia has a relatively small population, and some of the states - Tasmania being, once again, a particularly pertinent example - are not much bigger, in terms of total population, than a middle-sized British town. Town politics is notoriously parochial in terms of standards. Without external checks, it's all too easy for cronyism and mateship to seem the norm, and for egregious conflicts of interest to pass without notice.

If the new Federal Government wants to raise the standard of public conduct in Australia, and to demonstrate its own break with the cronyism and corrupting mateship that has characterised so much of the country's recent political past, then it could do worse than follow the British example and set up a system that will monitor the business involvements of Ministers and Parliamentarians after they have left their positions.

Such a system ought to apply at both state and federal levels, and would form part of a broader and independent structure, perhaps allied with the judiciary or the office of the Auditor-General. The new structure would do two things: educate and encourage politicians in a better understanding of the nature of ethical practice, and also provide effective scrutiny of their conduct across the board.

Andrew Brennan is Professor of Philosophy at LaTrobe University. Jeff Malpas is ARC Australian Professorial Fellow at the University of Tasmania and Distinguished Visiting Professor at LaTrobe University.

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