Waters still muddy for moonlighting MPs

The draft then went through better hands than mine and in September 2003, ICAC released a 105-page report making 14 recommendations designed to improve the regulation and disclosure of secondary employment of MPs in the public affairs field. Five months later, the bipartisan Legislative Assembly ethics committee sat down to consider ICAC's recommendations.

By then, though, the Brogden affair was ancient history: the 2003 election returned Labor to power, the Government had had its fun with Brogden with the original (and unsuccessful) referral to ICAC, and let's face it, the Opposition was hardly likely to consider Brogden's circumstances inappropriate. Even the independent committee member, Clover Moore, who originally asked ICAC to recommend that MPs be generally barred from other employment, would soon don a second hat as Lord Mayor of Sydney.

So, the seeds of the ICAC report fell on barren ground. In its report, tabled in September 2004, the ethics committee dismissed, ignored or deferred practically every one of the 14 recommendations for changing the MPs' Code of Conduct or pecuniary interest rules.

These included recommendations such as a specific prohibition on paid advocacy (that is, asking questions or making speeches for cash). Even a suggestion that the MPs' pecuniary interests register be made available on the internet - as it is for Westminster and the Scottish Parliament - was deferred pending the conclusion of a trial of internet access in Western Australia. Needless to say, no further action has been taken on this front either.

However, because ICAC had worded its recommendations to ask the Legislative Assembly to consider its suggestions, the ethics committee was able to state (last April) that it had implemented 12 of the 14 recommendations simply by considering them. The commission dutifully noted this in its last annual report.

The sad result is that despite nearly two years of work by ICAC and the ethics committee, no citizen is any wiser about what NSW MPs get up to if they take on consultancy work than when the Brogden affair broke four years ago. If politicians were not about to take the seemingly drastic step of barring secondary employment, then the public might still have been somewhat served by greater transparency about the nature of any additional work.

At the time that I was preparing my draft report, I gave it the file name "Bristol" after the electorate of the 18th-century English MP and philosopher Edmund Burke, who, in one famous speech, told his electors that among their entitlements from him, they could expect that he would provide his industry. This was a motivation I believed worthy of emulation by all full-time, professional MPs in the 21st century. After all, a handsome salary, generous allowances and a munificent superannuation scheme are supposed to support their duties and compensate for potential lost income that their skills might attract elsewhere.

As a former parliamentary staffer, I do not subscribe to the cynical view of politicians as overpaid, good-for-nothing layabouts. I know that the vast majority of MPs are hard-working, dedicated representatives, whose parliamentary, electorate and political functions rarely, if ever, leave them with much time for second jobs of any kind.

But by green-lighting MPs' moonlighting - and muddying the trail of transparency - the parliamentary ethics committee has done itself, its MP colleagues and, ultimately, we the voters, a great disservice.

Stephen Murray is a political analyst.