The Senate's family secrets

Unlike MPs, senators are not required to publicly disclose the interests of their partners and children. As a result, almost nothing is known about the family interests of 11 ministers and 10 shadow ministers. Open Politics discusses why this matters.

By Sean Johnson
1 February 2022


Paul Keating famously called the Senate "unrepresentative swill" in comparison to the House of Representatives. The Bankstown brawler's description may've been a little unfair, however the house of review can be legitimately criticised as the less transparent of the two chambers when it comes to the disclosure of parliamentarians' private interests.

The House introduced a Register of Members’ interests in 1984 following then prime minister Bob Hawke's establishment of a publicly accessible ministers' register the previous year. The reforms drew on the recommendations of the 1978 Bowen Report, Public Duty and Private Interest.

Against opposition from some members, the reforms required the public disclosure of the interests of spouses/partners and dependent children. For good reasons.

The disclosure of family interests guards against the risk that a member will make decisions or try to influence public policy in a way that favours the holdings of their immediate family. More importantly, it neutralises any efforts by a parliamentarian to conceal their interests by transferring them to a trusted family member.

Which brings us to the Senate.

Hawke proposed a Senate register too but it was not adopted, possibly because his government didn't have the numbers in the upper house. It took over a decade and the passage of four parliamentary terms before the Senate got around to establishing a register in 1994. By then Hawke had long left parliament (having been helped into early retirement by his ambitious treasurer).

But the Senate only went halfway, creating a two part register: one containing senators' direct interests that would be publicly disclosable (Form A), and another with the interests of their spouses/partners and dependent children that would be kept confidential (Form B).

To emphasise the private nature of Form B, the register's explanatory notes employ all caps by stating that family interests are "NOT available for public inspection" and can only be publicly disclosed if the Committee of Senators’ Interests determines there is a conflict of interest.

From reviewing the committee's reports page, it appears the committee has not disclosed the family interests of any senators during the term of the current parliament. This may be because the committee has carefully scoured all senators' statements and determined there are no conflicts of interests that need to be disclosed to the public. Maybe.

Whatever the case, the register rules mean we have 76 senators for whom little is known about their family interests, including their shareholdings, family trusts, real estate, and liabilities. Nor do we know if senators' families have received gifts, hospitality and travel from companies and lobby groups - given the families of some MPs are getting freebies it raises questions about whether senators' loved ones are benefiting as well.

The only time the public gets a slight glimpse into these interests is when a senator declares their joint ownership with their partners of assets - e.g. the family home, investment properties, and bank accounts - or joint liabilities like mortgages.

Open Politics' analysis of the registers shows the average number of disclosed family interests for a member is 15.1 compared to 1.4 for senators. If we were to assume that senators' families have the same average number of interests as members, the total undisclosed interests in the Senate Register would be 1041. That's an average 13.7 undisclosed family interests for every senator.


  Person Average
interests
Total
interests
Members Self 29.3 4,422
  Family (partner + dependent child) 15.1 2,284
Senators Self 32.3 2,457
  Family (partner + dependent child) 1.4 104
  Total 9,267
Source: Report from Open Politics database, 29 January 2022

Of course the figure could be lower. Or higher. We don't know because the Senate won't divulge it. But we can be almost certain there are a large number of undisclosed interests recorded in the register on the Senate side of Parliament House.

Ministers

The potential for a conflict between a senator's public duties and their private interests increases when they are part of the executive government. Ministers shape new legislation and regulations to allow or restrict an activity. They can grant public funding to one organisation and deny it to a competitor. And they have the power to appoint people to public boards. While ministers are accountable to parliament and need to follow ministerial standards and public expenditure rules, they still have wide discretion in managing their portfolios. Cabinet ministers in particular.

There's always a risk those powers will be abused for private gain, which is why it is so critical for their family interests to be in the public domain.

As detailed in the tables below, there are 11 senators in the Morrison ministry: six cabinet ministers, three in the outer ministry, and two assistant ministers. The Opposition shadow ministry has 10 senators: four in shadow cabinet and six assistant shadow ministers - all could be sitting on the Treasury benches after the election.

Open Politics does not suggest these or other senators are putting their private interests ahead of their public duties. They are simply following the register rules. Further, a few senators would not have any declared family interests because they don't have a partner and/or dependent children.

However the Senate register as it stands increases the opportunity for a corrupt politician - someone like former NSW MP Eddie Obeid - to advocate for regulations, policies, and concessions that serve the family's concealed interests. At a minimum, the lack of full disclosure damages public confidence in Australia's political system.

The Senate needs to close the loophole by amending the resolution on senators' interests to require the public disclosure of spouse/partner and dependent children interests.

It's well past time. 38 years, to be exact.

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Cabinet  
Marise Payne Minister for Foreign Affairs
Minister for Women
Bridget McKenzie Minister for Emergency Management and National Recovery and Resilience
Minister for Regionalisation, Regional Communications and Regional Education
Simon Birmingham Minister for Finance
Michaelia Cash Attorney General
Minister for Industrial Relations
Anne Ruston Minister for Families and Social Services
Minister for Women's Safety
Linda Reynolds Minister for the NDIS
Minister for Government Services
Outer Ministry  
Jane Hume Minister for Superannuation, Financial Services and the Digital Economy
Minister for Women's Economic Security
Zed Seselja Minister for International Development and the Pacific
Richard Colbeck Minister for Senior Australians and Aged Care Services
Minister for Sport
Assistant Ministers  
Amanda Stoker Assistant Minister to the Attorney-General
Assistant Minister for Women
Assistant Minister for Industrial Relations
Jonathon Duniam Assistant Minister for Forestry and Fisheries
Assistant Minister for Industry Development


Shadow Cabinet  
Penny Wong Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs
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Shadow Minister for Immigration and Citizenship
Shadow Minister for Government Accountability
Don Farrell Shadow Special Minister of State
Shadow Minister for Sport
Shadow Minister for Tourism
Katy Gallagher Shadow Minister for Finance
Shadow Minister for the Public Service
Shadow Assistant Ministers  
Jenny McAllister Shadow Cabinet Secretary
Shadow Assistant Minister to the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate
Shadow Assistant Minister for Communities and the Prevention of Family Violence
Carol Brown Shadow Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Tourism
Shadow Assistant Minister for Tasmania
Patrick Dodson Shadow Assistant Minister for Reconciliation
Shadow Assistant Minister for Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians
Glenn Sterle Shadow Assistant Minister for Road Safety
Kimberley Kitching Shadow Assistant Minister for Government Services and the NDIS
Louise Pratt Shadow Assistant Minister for Manufacturing
Shadow Assistant Minister for Employment Services and Skills