Thank you Auditor-General for that introduction. I am honoured that you have asked me to speak this morning. I would like to begin by acknowledging that we meet on the lands of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people. I recognise their continuing connection to the land and waters of these lands. I pay my respects to elders past and present and I extend this respect to any First Nations people here today.  


I’ve been asked to speak today on the theme of integrity and how I think it applies to my work in the Senate. I’d also like to make a few wider observations about the role of integrity generally in democracies and the importance of the work of agencies like the Australian National Audit Office in keeping our institutions strong.


We have all heard people say, “politicians are all the same, they are just in it for themselves” and there is often a degree of scepticism about peoples’ motives for wanting to be a politician. I think that this is often a lazy characterisation. It invites cynicism unnecessarily and it normalises the conduct of those individuals who are found to have acted unlawfully or unethically. In fact, in my experience, most politicians from all sides of the political map, are motivated by ideals about wanting to contribute and change the world.  


Much of parliamentary business is run on conventions which assume that individuals will behave with integrity and mostly they do.


And I would say the same for public servants – generally people are in those jobs for the right reasons.


But with that said, we continue to find examples of individual corruption or unethical conduct. I note that the ANAO’s most recent annual report identifies the need for a continuing focus on public sector ethics, integrity and probity. Serious ethical conduct issues were identified in at least two programs, and there was a concerning lack of focus on compliance and governance in many more, leading the auditor-general to question whether ethical behaviour is sufficiently embedded as part of public service culture. Rightly, he says that it is the job of leadership to ensure that both the letter and spirit of compliance laws and rules are observed, and to establish a culture where these democratic safeguards are valued rather than seen as an unwelcome hindrance to getting the job done.  


Because whenever a corner is cut, it is easy for bad practice to creep in, and once in, to seep through into culture. One person might strain the rules, but someone else observing that might then bend the rules, which  might lead others to ignore the rules altogether.


Politicians are not immune to these culture issues One cautionary tale is the parliamentary expenses scandal that unfolded in the UK in 2009. In that case, various details of politicians’ expenses claims were leaked and published in the media.


The resulting outcry made it clear that many parliamentarians, of all political persuasions, were claiming expenses in a way that the public considered unacceptable. The system was unexceptional in principle - MPs were able to claim the expenses directly connected with their parliamentary work.  


However, over time, it had became a system that was exploited by many to become, effectively, another form of top-up income, by allowing MPs to claim for refurbishments and mortgage interest on expensive homes for instance.


Arising out of the scandal, eight parliamentarians were convicted of criminal offences.  That obviously showed a clear lack of integrity on the part of those individuals. But the interesting and possibly more concerning thing about the scandal was that there were so many others whose conduct fell short of fraudulent, but who had operated the system in a way that was clearly not in the spirit of the rules. A number of ministers of the government had to resign their portfolios, and a significant number of parliamentarians resigned or retired. So, the integrity issues that arose in that case had a direct and significant effect on the governing of the country and trust in politicians generally. A UK Ipsos Mori survey from September 2009 showed that only 20% of people trusted politicians to tell the truth.


Most of those MPs would not have considered themselves dishonest or unethical people. They would have started using the expenses system and observed how others were using it. They may have assumed that it was just the done thing to claim expenses in a certain way.


But instead of doing the done thing, they should have been interrogating themselves about whether it was the right thing.


Clearly, over time, a culture had been allowed to develop in which parliamentarians had insufficient regard to their own required standard of integrity.


This had likely happened more easily because it was a self-administered system, with a number of apparent loopholes or ambiguities, and without any external oversight beyond the parliament. It is worth noting that following the expenses scandal, a new independent body was introduced to deal with parliamentary expenses oversight.


This is in fact how the Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority, or IPEA, was established. After many scandals involving politicians using travel for business stretched into politicians buy property, attending events and other such matters on the public purse.


Again, they were just following what others had done without thinking about whether it was the right thing to do.


We now have a dominant purpose test to determine whether the claim is for the dominant purpose of parliamentary business. The Test asks whether a parliamentarian would have undertaken the activity or incurred or claimed the expense, allowance, or other public resource but for their parliamentary business. Where they would have taken the same action without the parliamentary business, the test is not satisfied and the expense, allowance or other public resource is not claimable.


There are three lessons that I take from these events. Firstly, as parliamentarians and public servants, we must always be really vigilant about our own integrity.


We are regularly required to take decisions, and issues of ethics and integrity should always be at the forefront of our minds when we do this.


Secondly, it shows the value of having robust procedures and rules by which we operate.


Thirdly, it shows me the value of having independent institutions such as the ANAO and the National Anti-Corruption Commission to provide specific accountability and oversight.


So, I’d like to talk a little about what integrity means to me in my work, taking those three levels into account.


Firstly, on the issue of personal integrity, there are two roles that I hold, one is to be a WA Senator elected on a Labor platform; and one is to be the President of the Senate. I think that slightly different considerations apply to what is meant by integrity in each role.


A politician is, by definition, partisan and political. One is elected on that basis on a political platform, in my case, a Labor platform. So in that sense, integrity does not necessarily mean that one must be impartial. In a political sense, I think that integrity involves having values and being prepared to stand for them. It also means telling the truth. There are a diverse range of views among parliamentarians.


We can try to make our argument as persuasive as possible. However this should not impact personal integrity or the integrity parliamentarians hold for the parliament. For instance, we should not be stating falsehoods or spreading misinformation just to try to win votes on false pretences.


How we conduct ourselves matters.  We should avoid conflicts of interest, or abuses of power. We should not act in self-interest or create the appearance of doing so. We should follow parliamentary rules and procedures. We should be prepared to hear views other than our own in a respectful way. We should welcome openness and transparency. And importantly, as leaders, we should not be afraid to call out such behaviour in others when we see it.


As the President of the Senate, I am additionally an office-holder with a specific role in the parliament as a presiding officer.  In order to maintain the confidence of Senators generally and to keep order in the chamber, this means that I have to make decisions with impartiality, while still maintaining my position as a Labor senator.


I’m not the first one to identify that this can sometimes be a tricky balance. The first president of the Senate, Richard Baker, said in 1904, and I quote, “The difficulties of the dual position which I am called upon to fill are very great …. In the first place, I have to perform the ordinary duties of a President or a Speaker, and in the second place, under our Constitution, I have to give not a casting vote, but a deliberative vote when, as it sometimes happens, party feeling runs high. The difficulty of reconciling these dual positions is very great …”


I agree with him, but it is my job to wear those two hats, and therefore I must try to separate them as far as I can.


As with ministers or other office-holders, there are plenty of other day to day ways in which integrity issues arise.  I will give you an example.


Currently, if a parliamentarian is scheduled to go on an international delegation, I must give permission if they wish to cut their trip short, or add other travel on to the trip. Now international travel is one of those sensitive issues because it is expensive and it takes parliamentarians away from their work in Australia. There are in fact many good reasons for parliamentarians to travel internationally and in my experience, on such trips, there is little time for recreation and a lot of time spent in hotels and conference centres. It might be easy to wave through requests for extended or amended trips, on the grounds that the flight expense is being incurred in any event. However, I make a point of examining each request, one by one, with no guarantee or even assumption that a request would be agreed to. It is important to me that a culture does not creep in whereby politicians can routinely add a few days to an overseas trip, and it becomes “just the done thing”. I really need to assess on each occasion whether the trip amendment is appropriate in the circumstances. And I have not been afraid to say no where I don’t think it is. 


As Senate President, I am also responsible for the parliamentary departments, including the Department of Parliamentary Services, the Department of the Senate and the Parliamentary Budget Office. So I have a responsibility there too to ensure that staff working in those departments are enabled to work ethically themselves.


Our cultures in departments and agencies flow from ministers and senior executive staff. If staff work in a system where compliance is seen as an unnecessary infringement or something to be “worked around”, the workplace culture will start to reflect that attitude.


We should not put pressure on public servants to cut corners or to work around procedural safeguards or compliance mechanisms.   And we must allow public servants to retain their impartiality even while they are implementing a particular government’s policy agenda.


I also make a point of acknowledging good work. Whether it is the department secretary of the maintenance team. Good work should be acknowledged and appreciated.


Often, politicians will claim that they haven’t broken the rules, but the question remains – “was it ethical?”


So that’s a little about what personal integrity means to me. But in addition to our personal ethics, rules and systems also need to be designed with accountability in mind. I can think of several ways in which this happens in my role.  


Firstly, in the chamber. Chairing the Senate in accordance with agreed standing orders and conventions, ensures orderly debate. It is part of my role to interpret and apply the standing orders of the Senate. When a question of interpretation arises, convention requires that I lean toward an interpretation that preserves or strengthens the power of the Senate, and the rights of Senators. In other words, I cannot just make an interpretation that favours my own party. In this way, democracy is facilitated. 


For the system to work, senators need to be able to trust that I will deal with their issues in a way that is fair and not political.


This is why I also have the Clerk of the Senate to advise me in relation to the standing orders. The Clerk impartially advises on the application and interpretation of standing orders.


Acting impartially to ensure the confidence of Senators means that I sometimes have to admonish those on my own side of the Chamber, to enable opposing arguments to be properly heard.


The standing orders of the Senate prescribe rules of governing the conduct of senators during their participation in Senate proceedings, and it is my responsibility as President of the Senate to maintain order in the chamber.


In my time as President, I often reflect on the standards of conduct in the chamber and what I can do to lift standards of decency and respect. It is important to note that the Senate now truly represents the views of Australia. I am of the strong view that Senators must take responsibility for their actions and their words in the senate. Of course, we do have standing orders which ensure that high standards are upheld but ultimately what is said and done in this place is the responsibility of each and every senator.  I always urge senators to withdraw any language and or actions which offend others and to do so willingly.


Standing order 193(3) prohibits “offensive words…imputations of improper motives…[and] personal reflections” against senators and members. It revolves around the idea that there should be some constraints on language directed to other senators or members.


This is intended to ensure that political debate is conducted in the privileged forum of Parliament without personally offensive language.


This raises the question of what constitutes “personally offensive language”. Odgers says:


It is for the chair to determine what constitutes offensive words, imputations of improper motives and personal reflections under this standing order. In doing so, the chair has regard to the connotations of expressions and the context in which they are used.


It is in upholding the standing orders that we are able to bring order to our proceedings and debate our politics in a way which is in line with our democratic values. For the system to work, senators need to be able to trust that I will deal with their issues in a way that is not purely political.


There is also the Senate Estimates Committee process. Three times per year, Senators from all parties can ask questions about the operation of the departments for which I am responsible. This is a powerful democratic accountability measure.


The other set of standards which we now have in the Parliament is the Behaviour Standards and Codes.


The need for a behavioural Code became obvious when the “Set the Standard” report arising from the Jenkins review in 2021 reported that one in three people working at the commonwealth parliamentary workplace had been sexually harassed, and that just over half had been on the receiving end of some kind of bullying or harassment.


Additionally, discussions around whether to implement a code of conduct for parliamentarians relating to ethics and integrity have been ongoing since the 1970s.


Both houses of parliament have now endorsed draft behaviour standards for parliamentarians, staff and contractors in an effort to change the culture of parliament toward a more respectful one.


The draft Behaviour Standards and Codes provide overall that, “All Australian parliamentarians have a shared responsibility as employers and leaders in the community to ensure that Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces meet the highest standards of integrity, dignity, safety and mutual respect.” It requires parliamentarians to recognise the importance and value of diverse viewpoints and that robust debate should be conducted with respect for differing views.  This respect for diverse viewpoints in debate lies at the heart of how the parliament and democracy operates.


The Codes are a work in progress. It has been proposed that there should be an independent parliamentary standards commission, and the government is currently considering the design of the new commission and the process by which the behaviour codes should be implemented. Accountability is a necessary requirement in upholding the codes of conduct, maintaining personal integrity and integrity to the parliament.


The IPSC will feature a sanctions regime, which is important in ensuring that the sanctity of parliamentary debate and the safety of those who work in parliamentary workplaces is held to the highest standard.


I’d like to talk finally about the other independent agencies which oversee accountability, transparency and integrity. One of these is the ANAO and I’m sure I don’t need to tell you what your organisation does. Keeping the public sector accountable and transparent is a crucial tool in maintaining confidence in our institutions.


In my view the ANAO has in the past had to fill a gap to hold relevant actors to account where ethical standards fall short. The Leppington triangle case, which I’m sure you’re all aware of, is perhaps a good example of this. It was clear to Labor that a national integrity commission was also required.


We now have that missing part of the jigsaw –namely, the National Anti-Corruption Commission, which started operations on 1 July this year. The NACC watchdog will bring a further layer of transparency and accountability to the parliamentary and public sector. Its function is to prevent and deal with serious or systemic corruption. For these purposes, corruption is defined as breach of public trust, abuse of office, misuse of information and/or doing something that affects a public official’s impartiality, such as a bribe. The definition of corruption for the purposes of the NACC, will not relate solely to conduct of a criminal standard, although potentially criminal issues might be investigated. And another important function of the NACC will be to work to raise awareness and provide training to the public sector about preventing, detecting and reporting corruption in whatever form it may arise.   


So I have spoken about the need for personal ethics, integrity in systems and also the role of independent agencies which ensure accountability. Why is it so important? Well, integrity and ethics are not just “nice to have”. As I set out in my example above about the UK scandal and our establishment of the Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority, a failure of integrity can have direct and lasting consequences on government and the administration of services and justice. It affects the confidence in which institutions are held, and when integrity scandals bring down senior officials, it inevitably leads to disruption either in government or in the provision of services.


The OECD has identified 5 public governance drivers of trust in government institutions. They are reliability, responsiveness, openness, integrity and fairness.


The OECD Trust in government indicator measures the share of people aged 15 and over who report having confidence in the national government. Trust in government is linked to political participation, social cohesion and collaboration in tackling societal challenges.


Australia ranks 16th out of 38 and above the OECD average when it comes to trust in government at 49.9% - the average was 43 per cent. Performance has slightly worsened over time, dropping slightly from 53.2 per cent since 2006.


The level of confidence in government has however fluctuated over the years, rather than travelling in one downward direction, and that indicates to me that declining trust in government is not inevitable. Rather, it shows that people are watching what we do – as they should. It also tells me that we are doing ok – compared for example to the UK at 39% and the US at 31% - but that there are many other democracies doing substantially better on this trust and social cohesion metric. We cannot afford complacency.


Polarisation is an increasingly concerning issue in the world’s societies – that is, division of society into mutually exclusive “us and them” camps.


I think that we are facing an important moment in Australian society where we decide whether we will be a cohesive society or a polarised one. There are certainly political strategies out there which are aimed at polarisation. The problem with that is, that polarisation in society is associated with democratic decline and lack of trust in government and other institutions.


This makes it all the more important that we keep our parliament and public institutions as places where the right thing is done and seen to be done. We cannot afford further erosion of trust in our institutions, our democracy depends on it.  Strong independent oversight and anti-corruption bodies, along with robust internal rules and procedures, maintain fairness and impartiality. But I also think that there is a particular duty on parliamentarians and other senior leaders to lead on these issues. Integrity is not just the narrow definition of avoiding corruption. It is a wider concept of honesty, good faith and mutual respect. 


I hope that it has been clear from what I have said that the work of ANAO is extremely important. It’s important in a practical and immediate sense because we have to know whether our programs are delivering value, and whether taxpayer money is being put to best use. But in a broader sense, the agency also plays a crucial part in establishing accountability and transparency. That in turn strengthens our institutions and our democracy. So I thank you all for your important work.


Thank you.