A crucial crossbench senator repeatedly voted in support of Adani in Parliament while owning a corporate bond issued by the group’s Abbot Point coal terminal.
Unlike other elected representatives, federal MPs do not have a code of conduct despite calls for one stretching back to the 1970s. And there are no laws or rules governing how ordinary MPs should behave when faced with a potential conflict of interest.
A campaign for a code of conduct that could spell out whether MPs should abstain on voting where they have a personal interest has stretched into its fifth decade.
Movement towards a national integrity commission is also sluggish.
Attorney-General Christian Porter has flagged more work is required before the Government follows Labor’s lead and pursues such a body.
“Labor’s approach has been to announce a body, but provide absolutely no detail about how it would work,” he said on Wednesday.
In September 2016, Senator David Leyonhjelm sought to disclose he was an investor in a corporate bond issued by the Adani Abbot Point coal terminal company through “investment vehicle” Amavid Pty Ltd.
The port company is a corporate entity within the Adani Group that, through a trust, has a 99-year lease of the terminal from the Queensland Government. It is located near coal reserves.
Since then he has voted against several motions from the Greens that were critical of Adani, and has also made public statements in relation to the port or Adani’s mine.
The Liberal Democratic Party senator told Sky News in April last year that although “he wouldn’t like” the Government providing a loan to Adani for its Carmichael coal mine, he was open to support for a railway “that could potentially be used by other operators”.
The speculated railway line would partly connect the Abbot Point port to the Carmichael and other nearby coal mines.
The free-speech advocate has also spoken in the Senate to complain about red tape and environmental activism, using Adani as an example.
Senator Leyonhjelm declined to answer questions from the ABC, including why he bought the bond, how much was invested and whether he thought his actions might constitute a potential conflict of interest.
No requirement to abstain
In contrast to other elected representatives such as councillors, no set of rules exists that governs how ordinary MPs should behave when faced with a potential conflict of interest.
The code of conduct for councillors in Senator Leyonhjelm’s home state of New South Wales requires councillors to not be present when a pecuniary interest arises in a matter before them.
John Wanna, professor in public administration and government at ANU, said the absence of federal rules reflected historical assumptions about what Commonwealth MPs do.
“The presumption was that few federal ordinary members would be in contact with public money, make decisions on properties, or face the temptations state MPs and local councillors face,” he said.
Local government people make important commercial decisions virtually every day so have to have strict procedures in place.”
A set of ministerial standards cover what government frontbenchers should and should not do, including specific obligations to “make arrangements to avoid conflicts of interests arising from their investments”.
It was recently updated when Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull banned sexual relations between ministers and their staff.
Only ministers – not ordinary opposition, backbench or crossbench MPs – are covered by these standards, despite the growing influence of the Senate crossbench.
The votes of past and present Senate crossbenchers like Pauline Hanson, Nick Xenophon and Tim Storer have been influential in passing or blocking legislation in recent years.
Integrity commission calls
Professor Wanna said a federal Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) “may tighten up conflicts of interest issues” in the federal parliament, or even investigate alleged breaches.
Labor leader Bill Shorten announced in January his party would create a federal integrity commission if it wins the coming election.
However Attorney-General Christian Porter has written to his Labor counterpart saying such a commission “may not be the most effective or efficient option”, according to a recent report.
In comments provided to the ABC, Mr Porter argued “this is the worst possible area in which to engage in policy on the run”.
“It’s notable that of the 20 highest-ranking countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, only Singapore (ranking sixth) and Hong Kong (ranking equal 13th with Australia) have national independent anti-corruption commissions,” he said.
A 2012 Rob Oakeshott motion that included a draft code of conduct was successful in the Lower House thanks to support from the Labor Party during Julia Gillard’s hung parliament.
The push had stalled in recent years until February, when independent MP Cathy McGowan revived the old draft.
Calls for a code of conduct for MPs stretch back to the 1970s, when a Joint Committee on Pecuniary Interests of Members of Parliament “felt that a precise and meaningful code of conduct should exist”.
Senators are required to disclose shareholdings, real estate, liabilities, bonds and other potential conflicts on the register of interests.
However, the rules governing the register are not clear on how much information is required for disclosures around investment vehicles, nor how legible the information must be.
In his disclosures following the 2016 election, Senator Leyonhjelm included an annexure listing the investments of Amavid but the page was illegible.
The legibility of the scan only improved following a request as part of a community journalism project known as Burn The Register to make the register of interests searchable.
The investment in the Abbot Point port was only revealed when Senator Leyonhjelm’s disclosures were updated with better quality scans.
Jackson Gothe-Snape is involved with the Burn The Register project.