A version of this article was first published: as a paper delivered to the AAANZ Conference Internationalisation of Accounting - 11 July 1995
Where do politicians go when they finally retire from the hustings? In most cases, the preferred option is a clear break from the formal requirements of public duty and the opportunity to fade into the obscurity of private life.
However, a few are tempted by the revolving door of Australian politics. Spinning on its well-greased bearings, it beckons those who are willing and able to trade on their public position for private profit. For those who step through the door, the rewards can be extremely lucrative – especially if you have held a senior ministry within a government still in power. That's the ‘upside’. The 'downside' is that a significant number of your fellow citizens are likely to take you to task and question the ethics of your decision – something recently experienced by two prominent 'revolvers', Peter Reith and Michael Wooldridge.
Whether accurate or not, the public perception is that those who pass through the revolving door are offering to sell, to the highest bidder, influence over and access to people with power. The closer the new employer's industry is to the former Minister's portfolio and the quicker the transition to the new role, the deeper the public scepticism seems to be.
At the heart of public concern is a belief that there is something fishy about a system that allows the revolving door to turn unchecked. For example, people worry that, in the run-up to retirement, Ministerial decisions might be affected (albeit slightly) by the need to foster the good opinion of prospective employers. There is also the feeling that former Ministers might seek to promote private interests over public policy from the other side of the 'political grave' and that for them to do so is both unfair and improper.
All of these concerns have been present, to a greater or lesser degree, in the criticism directed against Mr Reith and Dr Wooldridge.
Mr Reith is now a consultant employed by the Australian defence contractor Tenix – a position that he took up within weeks (if not days) of leaving office. The new job was squarely within the responsibilities of his Ministerial portfolio and the turnaround was lightning quick. So, Mr Reith pushed all of the buttons needed to generate a critical response.
Dr Wooldridge did the same and suffered additional damage due to an unfortunate misunderstanding about a decision, towards the end of his term as Minister for Health, to allocate a significant lump of Commonwealth funds to his prospective employer, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP). Of course, it should be noted that the Commonwealth Government later reversed the funding decision and Dr Wooldridge has since left the RACGP after what seems to have been an unhappy parting of their ways.
Those who pass through the revolving door, those that receive them on the other side and those they leave behind in their old jobs in Government all reject criticism of the current arrangements. Each group argues, in effect, that they ought to be trusted to do the right thing and that their integrity should be relied upon as a defence against improper conduct. Perhaps we should trust people more. In an ideal world we would. Yet, the sad fact is that there's little point in playing the 'trust card' at this point in time; perhaps in the future – but certainly not today.
However, our response to this issue should not be tied to variations in the climate of trust across the community from time to time. The issue goes deeper than that. If we do not believe that public power should be tradeable for private profit, then we should act on that principle, consistently. The simplest thing to do would be to put a chock in the revolving door and stop it turning – or at least slow it down.
There should be a two year moratorium on former parliamentarians (and especially Ministers) working in jobs where either all or part of their role is to make representations to government – or to advise those who do. If that level of restraint costs the public purse a few more dollars by way of compensation for lost opportunity, then it is a price worth paying to improve the quality of our democracy.