The Abbott Government’s former Small Business Minister, Bruce Billson, has been caught accepting a retainer of $75,000 from the Franchise Council of Australia over the last four months of his occupation of his seat in the House of Representatives, while he was on a taxpayer funded salary of just under $200,000 per annum. He was in breach of the rules requiring that the payment be disclosed on the parliamentary register of interests. Of course, Billson stated that it was an ‘administrative failure’. Turnbull has really hammered Billson in saying that “It was not appropriate to fail to comply with the standing orders and not make that disclosure”1. That was it. That was all. Nothing else.
Billson said that he acted with complete ‘transparency and integrity’ and apologised for a ‘discourtesy to the House of Representatives’. Billson is now facing demands that he donate the $75,000 to charity. His failing to declare the income could result in Billson being found in contempt of Parliament2. The punishment for this may consist of a fine of $5,000 for individuals or up to six months in prison, should the chamber concerned (House of Representatives) decide to declare Billson’s act to be ‘a contempt’. Does anybody seriously think Billson will be found to be in contempt? If, in the slimmest of chances he is found to be in contempt, then Billson’s former colleagues in the Coalition will decide upon his punishment3. If they do, you can bet the punishment will be nominal at most. After all, hasn’t he apologised to his colleagues? He may not be found in contempt of parliament, but one thing is certain; he has little but contempt for the taxpayer.
While parliamentarians are notorious for having their snouts in the trough, it is usually only cashing in on the tax benefits of family trusts or negative gearing. Billson’s effort is far in excess of those meagre efforts. He was being paid by a lobby group, while receiving a parliamentary salary. This is a clear conflict of interest, but politicians don’t concern themselves with conflicts of interest any more. That would be too inconvenient for them.
Yet another case for a federal anti-corruption body. If Billson and the Liberals can’t see the obvious conflict of interest then we need a commission with teeth to show them the way.
The problem of conflict of interest goes as far back as I have looks, and that is to the Howard years. I think it was Jim Short who was forced to resign because he misled the parliament over a conflict of interest. He was assistant treasurer, and if I remember correctly he had a portfolio of bank shares. I remember Howard at the time trying to deflect interest by saying it wasn’t a conflict of interest. Howard couldn’t lie straight in bed.