The Accountability Round Table

Acceptance Speech for the Missen Award – Melissa Parke
Wednesday 11 December 2013

I too would like to pay respect to the traditional custodians of the land, the Nunnawal and Ngambri peoples. I also acknowledge Sir Gerard Brennan, Tim Smith Chair of the Accountability Round Table and other members of the Roundtable, parliamentary colleagues and staff, and Bernard Wright, the Clerk of the Parliament, who is retiring next week. I want to pay tribute to Bernard for the enormously valuable contribution he has made to the work of the parliament and for the dignity and kindness with which he has carried out that role.

I am greatly humbled – hopefully not in the Rupert Murdoch sense of the word – to be receiving this award today and I want to sincerely thank those responsible for the nomination and the Roundtable for its decision. I would also like to thank Sir Gerard for being here in parliament house today and doing us the honour of speaking at this integrity awards ceremony.
I was here in June 2010 when John Faulkner and Petro Georgiou received the John Button and Alan Missen awards respectively and I am honoured now to join their company alongside my friends and colleagues Mark Dreyfus and Judi Moylan.  I would also like to acknowledge other parliamentary colleagues Kelvin Thomson, Russell Broadbent, Mal Washer, and a number of others who could easily be standing here in my place.

When receiving his award, John Faulkner quoted French renaissance essayist Michel de Montaigne saying “There is no man so good that if he placed all of his actions and thought under the scrutiny of the laws, he would not deserve hanging ten times in his life”, and therefore, like John, I regard this award, not as an achievement but as a challenge, as a goal to live up to rather than laurels to rest upon.

It was a challenge I set myself in my first speech in parliament when I identified 3 main areas in which I intended to wage the war against indifference, the first being Australia’s place in the world, the second the issue of sustainability, and the third I expressed as follows:
“Finally, as the sum of my ideals, I believe in the promise of good government. Government can reflect the best in us and it can, by the collective power we vest in it, be a creative and enabling force for positive change. Democracy is not something that only happens every three years on election day; it is a living thing and it must be nourished, tended and maintained through greater openness, access and interaction between government and the wider community.”

An example of good government in the last parliament was the passing of the public interest disclosure or whistleblower protection laws, in which Mark Dreyfus as the Chair of the Legal and Constitutional Affairs committee and later as Attorney General played a pivotal role, assisted enormously in this by the indefatigable Prof AJ Brown, Tim Smith, Howard Whitton and others from the Accountability Roundtable.

I would add to this notion of good government, the importance of good parliament. Over recent years we have seen the increasing power of the executive vis a vis the parliament. This is reflected in the control exercised by the leadership of the respective parliamentary parties over the content of question time and much of the other business conducted in and outside of the parliament.

The incredibly valuable work done by parliamentary committees, the senate estimates process, parliamentary groups dedicated to particular issues and by parliamentarians representing their electorates and raising awareness about causes in countless ways, including in their party rooms, in international and domestic fora, through speeches, debates on legislation, petitions, PMBs and so on largely goes unsung. The role of the active and interested backbencher is vastly undervalued.

I wish I had had the opportunity to meet Alan Missen, who fought relentlessly for human rights and social justice, and braved the disapproval of his own colleagues as he crossed the floor some 41 times during his 12 years in the Senate.  I also only know John Button by his legendary reputation for integrity and humility. The true legacy of these parliamentarians lies in the fact that they earned and wielded moral capital – their integrity was the strength they displayed within their own parties, with the opposition, with the media and with the community. And as we know, moral capital is a political commodity as valuable and as elusive today as it was then. Australian politicians were ranked 39 out of 40 – just ahead of telemarketers – in a poll a few years ago and it is likely that our standing has not improved in the intervening years.  It is disturbing that the increasing public cynicism and suspicion towards politicians may also be contributing to a general disengagement from community debate on matters vital to our future, such as climate change.

The oft-cited qualities of loyalty, unity and bipartisanship in politics can at times be corrosive of the public interest when they lead for instance to consensus decisions to ignore international human rights treaty commitments, to overlook transgressions by MPs or to avoid establishing transparency and accountability mechanisms that might lead, it is feared, to mutually assured destruction or inconvenience to the established order. In an article this year in The Conversation, Labor elder Barry Jones described the position of the major political parties on asylum seekers as “negative bipartisanship based on fear”.

In presenting the inaugural parliamentary awards in 2010, Sir Anthony Mason said he hoped the awards would focus attention on the vital importance of integrity and accountability in public life, encourage public understanding and discussion of government accountability issues and in this way counter the growing cynicism about our parliamentary democracy.

In 2011 in the St Thomas More Forum lecture, Chief Justice Robert French spoke of the concept of public office as a public trust. Today Sir Gerard has spoken of the notion of the public interest deriving from the fiduciary nature of public office and what constitutes true political leadership. These ideas are I think encapsulated well in the prayer said every day by the Speaker’s Chaplain in the UK Commons:
“May they never lead the nation wrongly through love of power, desire to please, or unworthy ideals but laying aside all private interests and prejudices keep in mind their responsibility to seek to improve the condition of all mankind.”

Nelson Mandela was perhaps the perfect embodiment of these qualities but there is no reason that each of us cannot strive for greater wisdom, dignity and courage as parliamentarians.
I thank the the Accountability Round Table for its continuing efforts to bring these values to the fore through the John Button and Alan Missen awards.

Melissa Parke

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