In a saga that seems to have dragged on for ages an immediate resolution is unlikely to be found with the reverberations of Craig Thomson’s actions set to be felt for some time to come. The scandal revolving around findings that Craig Thomson, member for Dobell and former National Secretary of the Health Services Union (HSU), used nearly $500,000 of union funds to pay for personal expenses including travel, meals, entertainment, prostitutes and his own election campaign has raised issues regarding the conduct of our elected representatives. Amid the scandals surrounding Thomson and stood-aside Speaker, Peter Slipper, calls have been renewed for the implementation of a new code of conduct. This was, after all, a deal sweetener offered by Gillard to the independents to help her form minority government. There have even been calls for toughening rules to make it possible to ban MPs for civil as well as criminal offences.
Thomson for his part has displayed a jaw-dropping amount of gall in his response to the intense scrutiny being placed on him. He claimed that it was all a convoluted plot hatched by enemies within the HSU to “set him up with a bunch of hookers and ruin him”, all in the face of an 1100 page report of findings, not merely allegations, by Fair Work Australia. His implicit request for people to simply dismiss the evidence against him and instead accept his far-flung explanations reeks of desperation or a nearly ineffable level of self-delusion. This has not sat well with an incredulous public who view him as a morally bankrupt sleaze, the Coalition who are baying for his blood and an embarrassed Labor government and union movement.
Questions about Thomson’s fate and the scandal’s effect on Labor and unions will probably be answered after Thomson delivers a tepid, obligatory Dennis Denuto-esque defence in front of Parliament. In the mean time there are other pressing issues at hand, namely, what to do with ethically challenged politicians.
It’s easy enough to say that politicians shouldn’t need a code of conduct to know that fraud and sexual harassment are unbecoming of their office, but the a formal code has become a political necessity. The idea of a new code of conduct has been championed by Independent MP Tony Windsor following damning civil allegations against Thomson and Slipper. “Given the furor on this issue, particularly from the Coalition, maybe it’s time that the Parliament actually looked at what it can in fact do if people are found guilty of both civil and or criminal offences”, Windsor said. While this may raise some prickly questions about separation of powers between political and legal systems, Windsor’s heart is in the right place.
There are plenty of issues where a code is necessary, or would at least be helpful, to identify and outline inappropriate behaviour, for example, disclosure of secondary sources of employment or income. At least with a formal code there is less ambiguity regarding acceptable behaviour and clearer guidelines on how to deal with transgressors.
But serious political action has been shelved until November as the standing committee of senators’ interests has delayed its report into a code and a parliamentary integrity commissioner. It’s almost as if MPs would prefer there be no apparatus for reviewing their ethical standards, a sentiment that both sides of politics profess to: the Coalition openly and Labor under their breath.