Fact Sheet E2

Fact Sheet E2: Members' Code of Conduct

 

Summary: Members need high ethical standards to be effective representatives. This means avoiding conflict between their public duties, and their personal interests. They must follow a code of conduct, and disclose their financial interests. If they have a personal interest, members can still debate the issue, but may not be able to vote on it.

 

Preventing conflicts of interest Declaring an interest during a debate
Code of conduct Members cannot vote if conflict of interest
Register of members' interests Breaking the rules

 

Preventing conflicts of interest

Members of Parliament have several responsibilities. They attend Parliament, take part in debates, and some also work on parliamentary committees (see Fact Sheet G2: Parliamentary Committees).

Members also work in their electorates, dealing with issues for constituents. Finally, most also belong to a political party, attend party meetings and functions, and help decide party policy.

Apart from these responsibilities, they also have personal financial interests. The different responsibilities can cause ethical challenges for members in their public role. Their first responsibility is to act in the public interest, and not promote their own private interests.

There are rules preventing members from putting their own interests first. They must follow a code of conduct, and give details publicly of their interests. Their interests are often called 'pecuniary interests'.

Code of conduct

The Members of Parliament (Register of Interests) Act 1978 includes a code of conduct. This lists Parliament's expectations of members' ethical behaviour. It confirms the first responsibility is their public duty. This means they must avoid actual conflicts of interest, and anything which looks like a conflict of interest.

Members must announce any relevant interests during debates. These interests include membership of trade or professional organisations, and any other material interests.

Register of members' interests

Members must give details of certain financial and other interests to the Clerk of the Parliaments. Members do this when they are first elected. They must also give updates if anything changes while they are members.

The Clerk prepares a summary of the interests each September. This is tabled in Parliament and available to the public. For a copy:

web

www.parliament.vic.gov.au > 'Publications and Research' > 'Register of Members Interests'

email

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

phone

Assembly Procedure Office, 03 9651 8563

visit or write

Legislative Assembly, Parliament House, Spring Street, East Melbourne, Vic 3002

 

The summary only includes the name and type of each interest, not the amount. It includes details of:

  • 1. income sources, including fees, over $500
  • 2. companies in which they are directors or hold other offices
  • 3. beneficial interests, worth over $500, in businesses and associations
  • 4. membership of any political party, trade or professional organisation
  • 5. beneficial interests in trusts
  • 6. trusteeships, where a member of their family benefits from the trust
  • 7. the address or description of any land they own
  • 8. any significant contributions to travel outside Victoria (other than from the State or public bodies)
  • 9. gifts received worth over $500, other than from relatives
  • 10. other substantial interests (including by their family) which could appear to cause a material conflict with their public duty.

 

Declaring an interest during a debate

Having a financial interest does not mean a member cannot take part in a debate, or work on a committee inquiry into the issue. However, if they do take part, they must declare material interests.

In debates, a member normally declares an interest at the start of their speech. Alternatively, members may decide not to speak in the debate, so do not need to make a declaration.

For example, a member declared owning a dairy farm when talking about changes to the Dairy Act. Another member, who owned shares in a brewing group, declared an interest when debating a bill to amend the Liquor Control Act.

 

Members cannot vote if conflict of interest

A member cannot vote on topics in which they have a 'direct pecuniary interest'. The rule applies because the member could personally benefit from decisions the Legislative Assembly makes, such as changing the law.

'Direct pecuniary interests' are interests directly relevant to a member personally. They are not public policy issues which impact on a broad group of Victorians.

If a member has a direct pecuniary interest, they can still debate the issue. However, they cannot vote, and must leave the Chamber during a division.

 

Breaking the rules

Deliberately disobeying the Members of Parliament (Register of Interests) Act 1978 is a contempt of Parliament. The Legislative Assembly can take action over contempts, like judges do for contempts of court. It has the power to investigate and take action against the member involved. The Act also allows fines of up to $2000.

In extreme cases, the Assembly can expel a member for a conflict of interest. The member loses their seat and the Speaker calls a by-election. This has not happened since 1869, when two members were expelled for bribery.

The Constitution also recognises that, in some situations, a member cannot continue in office. For example, they must not be involved in a contract with the State, or receive any income or fees from the State (other than income as a member).

A breach is very serious. Under the Constitution, a member loses their seat, leading to a by-election.

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