Travel and hospitality

Transparency MP the latest caught not declaring junket

The other week our social media monitoring uncovered five politicians who didn't declare privately-sponsored junkets. Today we look at two more and ask why interest disclosure rules are not being enforced.

Sean Johnson3 April 2023

Pictured from left: Luke Gosling, Helen Haines, Angie Bell, Claire Chandler, Raff Ciccone, David Pocock, Alison Byrnes, Keith Wolahan, Aaron Violi and Cassandro Fernando. Photo from Senator Chandler’s Facebook page

Transparency and integrity advocate Helen Haines and Labor’s Luke Gosling are the latest MPs to have been caught by Open Politics not declaring their sponsored overseas travel and hospitality to the parliament’s interests registers.

Haines and Gosling visited Washington D.C. and New York over 15-21 January with eight of their parliamentary colleagues as guests of the US State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program, which covered flights, accommodation, incidentals, and provided tickets to Hamilton the Musical on Broadway.

Unlike their colleagues, Haines and Gosling didn’t disclose their junkets to the Register of Members’ Interests within 28 days (18 February) as required by parliamentary resolutions governing the disclosure of MPs' private interests.

Under the resolutions, all sponsored travel and hospitality over $300 from a foreign government must be declared, with MPs guilty of serious contempt of parliament if they knowingly don’t do so.

Haines' and Gosling’s trips only appeared on the interests register after Open Politics contacted them on 26 March. Haines' trip declaration appeared, along with various unrelated gifts, on 27 March, the first additions she has made to her statement of interests since it was submitted to the 47th parliament on 8 August 2022. Similarly, Gosling's trip declaration on 28 March was the first addition he's made since submitting his original statement on 22 August.

Haines' office claims the declaration was submitted to the register on 24 March, though the official who administers the register told Open Politics he normally processes a declaration the same day as long as it is received in business hours.

Whatever date the declaration was submitted, both MPs failed to declare on time. Haines' declaration also did not include the date or month of her trip, making it impossible to determine whether the disclosure was made within 28 days in the absence of our access to other public sources like social media.

As for why they didn’t declare the trips, Haines' spokesperson said the delay was "due to an oversight in our office", while Gosling never replied to our email.

Haines' breach of the rules was a surprise to Open Politics as the independent MP is regarded as one of parliament's strongest advocates for integrity and transparency, stressing on her website, "Australians deserve better from their politicians. That’s why I have worked tirelessly to introduce a federal integrity commission, clean up political donations and bring transparency to politics."

Well, Haines hasn't exactly lived up to her rhetoric on this occasion. This is even more problematic given the junket was paid by a foreign government. While the International Visitor Leadership Program is generally viewed as a benevolent exchange program for foreign professionals to engage with US officials, it’s really a soft power tool to promote US foreign policy.

As Michael Pignatello, one of the department’s foreign service officers and a liaison to the US Department of Defence (DOD), told DOD News in 2022, "IVLP delivers tremendous value for U.S. foreign policy. Each program reflects participants' professional interests and supports U.S. foreign policy goals."

It’s reasonable to ask then whether our travelling band returned to Australia with a more favourable view of US foreign policy, particularly on hot button issues like China's threat to the US's global dominance? While the US might think it’s in its strategic interests to stymie China’s rise, it’s clearly not in Australia’s national interest to battle with its largest two way trading partner.

Are there any consequences for not declaring junkets?

The revelations come just a week after Open Politics uncovered that senators David Van and Deborah O’Neill, and MPs Peter Khalil, Terry Young and Libby Coker, failed to disclose junkets, raising questions about whether the parliamentary committees that oversee compliance with the registers are enforcing the rules.

So we alerted the chairs of the committees to the trips and asked whether they could investigate.

A spokesperson for the Chair of the Standing Committee of Senators' Interests, Senator Linda Reynolds, told Open Politics the senator had no comment about senators David Van’s and Deborah O’Neill’s trip declarations, adding, “this is a matter for each Senator and I would refer you to their respective offices for a comment.”

The office of the Chair of the Committee of Privileges and Members' Interests, Rob Mitchell, had nothing really to say either about the trip declarations of MPs Peter Khalil, Terry Young, and Libby Coker, advising us that Mitchell never publicly comments on committee matters. To do so would be "inappropriate", they said.

This doesn’t give us much confidence the committees will take action.

However to be fair to Reynolds and Mitchell they have very limited powers to investigate colleagues who fail to declare trips, or other interests, as the Senate and House committees can only inquire into matters that have been referred to them by a parliamentarian from their chamber or by the chamber as a whole.

As we’ve discussed previously, referrals almost never occur, and findings of serious contempt are even rarer. While the major parties regularly conduct opposition research on each other over undeclared interests, they are wary of referring matters to committees for formal investigations for fear the other side will do the same.

And it’s unlikely a lone MP or senator will make a referral as they would instantly become a social leper with their parliamentary colleagues.

So don’t hold your breath that anything will come of our revelations. We will continue to see politicians not disclose their interests and not face any consequences.

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