The lax letter of the law

A question thrust into prominence recently is why federal parliamentarians do not have a formal code of conduct. The issue has been revitalised in the wake of the allegations levelled at Craig Thomson and Peter Slipper about the performance of their duties.

Now, admittedly, the Thomson allegations relate to his activities prior to election as a Member of Parliament but, given they include suggestions he utilised some $250,000 of union funds that were not his own to fund his election campaign, most people would regard it as a pertinent overlap.

What initially proved compelling political theatre as the lurid and sensational claims about both MPs were made public by an excited media pack has now become nauseating as we witness interminable attempts to prove or disprove culpability. The prevarication, posturing and pragmatism that has characterised most of those caught-up in these dramas has fomented a wave of public revulsion that all this has happened with, effectively, public money.

The frustrating aspect to the scandal is the almost complete focus on whether either man has actually broken the law. If they have, certain penalties will surely flow and a clear pathway to conclusion will likely have been determined.

But that is not the issue that should concern us most. It matters not, in the ultimate scheme of things, whether Peter Slipper as a Member of Parliament or as Speaker of the House of Representatives never once breached the regulations governing the use of taxis and hire cars. Similarly, whether he remained strictly within entitlement for his extensive overseas and domestic travel is not the core issue

What matters to taxpayers – and what makes them even angrier about the blame-shaming and buck-passing that has shrouded these incidents – is that Slipper has blatantly abused his moral entitlements. Even if every single journey he has ever made is entirely legal, most voters believe he has rorted the system.

But as Government and Opposition play games impinging on the bigger scheme – who gets to rule the nation – the abuse of ethical practice rates barely a mention anywhere.

The same goes for Thomson. He is, without question, entitled to the presumption of innocence when it comes to breaching the law. He is, without question, entitled to defend any charges that may arise and be granted full protection of due process.

But voters have unquestionably condemned him for flouting all accepted conventions about what standards of behaviour are morally appropriate for a Member of Parliament.

It is clear from the attitudes and statements of both these MPs that they resile from any sense of shame that they have flouted public expectations about a natural code of conduct for parliamentarians. Their actions are deemed morally reprehensible by a very large segment of the population but they refuse to act accordingly.

This makes it abundantly clear that a formal code of conduct would have little prospect of curtailing such abuse of privilege. A draft code was in fact developed and circulated not long ago but it ran to some 90 pages. Such complexity only aids and abets those who have only sufficient conscience to find loopholes to exploit.

What is needed is for our parliaments to demand a clear and very high standard of moral and ethical behaviour and stop playing semantics with the letter of the laws they write.