Travel and hospitality

Fore! Deputy PM won't disclose details about free golf round

Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles has breached parliamentary rules and the Ministerial Code of Conduct by not disclosing who gave him a free round of golf at a top US club with an ugly past.

Sean Johnson

Baltusrol's Club’s par 5 18th hole (Photo Gold Digest)

It's a step up from the 9 hole Geelong Golf Club in Richard Marles’ hometown.

A short drive from Manhattan, Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield New Jersey has hosted seven U.S. Opens, two PGA Championships, and two Women's U.S. Opens. Golfing legend Jack Nicklaus described the 36 hole course as “among my favorite courses - it is certainly one of the finest in the world", while Forbes magazine ranked it the world’s tenth most exclusive golf club. Baltusrol is one of the few courses listed on the US National Register of Historic Places.

Joining fees are an eye popping US$150,000 (A$224,000) and annual membership dues US$18,500 (A$27,000).

Members also have to contend with this: until relatively recently the club barred Black Americans, Jews, and women from being members.

Established in 1895 on the land of a murdered farmer called Baltus Roll, the club's prejudice became a prominent civil rights issue in the 1960s, forcing Richard Nixon, who was himself racist and antisemitic, to resign as a member to protect his political prospects in the upcoming 1968 presidential election. Decades past before the club finally introduced a non-discriminatory membership policy in 1991 to avoid losing its hosting of the U.S. Open two years later.

Baltusrol's former head pro Johnny Farrell (left) with Richard Nixon. Photo: Baltusrol Golf Club

Baltusrol might've changed its ways (reluctantly), but it's still good at keeping people out - as a private club, it only allows the general public to play if they are a guest of a member.

So golf tragic Marles must have been beside himself when a member invited him to the course on 4 December 2022.

While Marles declared his free game to the Register of Members’ Interests on 30 January, he breached register rules by not disclosing the name of the club member, with the register’s explanatory notes stating, “Members are required to identify the source of any sponsored travel or hospitality.”

He also fell foul of the register resolutions by not declaring the hospitality within 28 days (1 January 2023), putting him at risk of being found guilty of serious contempt of the House of Representatives and dealt with accordingly.

(This is not his first offense: Marles neglected to declare his part-subsidised trip to China in 2019 courtesy of the China Matters think tank.)

The breaches mean Marles has failed to comply with section 3.3 of the Ministerial Code of Conduct, which says, “Ministers must declare and register their personal interests, including but not limited to pecuniary interests, as required by the Parliament from time to time.”

Open Politics contacted Marles’ office on three occasions to seek the name of the club member, but we received no response. Although Marles has no obligation to respond to our queries, he is required to comply with the interest register rules and the ministerial code of conduct.

Alas, the register rules are almost never enforced, with MPs and senators routinely not declaring their interests and not getting into trouble for it. Not complying with the ministerial code of conduct is usually a bigger deal and in ancient times meant dismissal from the ministry. But the code's nominal enforcer, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, doesn't appear to take it very seriously judging by his failure to take any action against four ministers in 2022 who breach the code by owning shares.

Photo: Baltusrol Golf Club

Corruption risk

Marles’ failure to disclose the source of the hospitality to the interests register makes his declaration largely meaningless as it doesn’t enable the public to assess whether a conflict of interest exists.

If we were talking about a complimentary round at a goat track, we wouldn’t be too fussed. But Baltusrol is one of the world’s most exclusive and expensive courses. The club member who provided Marles with the game must therefore be very wealthy and connected, and may have had a commercial or political interest in duchessing Australia’s second most senior elected official.

Perhaps they were a defence contractor or lobbyist seeking to influence the defence minister on an upcoming procurement, say the $368 billion AUKUS subs deal? Or a foreign government official pushing some policy agenda.

Whoever they were, Marles is now indebted to them. As we like to rant about at Open Politics, when someone accepts a gift it creates an obligation to return the favour. This is the societal norm of reciprocity, which rent seekers abuse by providing donations, gifts, free travel, and hospitality to try to extract a benefit for themselves. This could be a contract, grant, favourable regulation, board appointment, licence, or award. AO, anyone?

So the public deserves to know the member's name, Mr Marles. Oh, and next time you’re stateside you might want to think about playing at a club without such a record of discrimination. And maybe do it on your own dime.

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