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ASIC gets under the skins of businesses: Bishop and Pyne face probe on new jobs

One of many reasons Scott Morrison won a further term for the Australian Liberal-National Coalition was because he was perceived to have a record of probity, in contrast to Shorten, the CFEMU’s man. However, his record is now being put to the test, following a decision to investigate the post-political careers of two of his former Cabinet colleagues – Julie Bishop and Christopher Pyne. 

PM Morrison has asked his department head to look into whether the former foreign and defence ministers breached the parliamentary code of ministerial standards by accepting consultancies within18 months of resigning their posts. He is, in effect, buying time to figure out what, if any, sanction or reprimand he can impose.

Bishop is working for the international consultancy group Palladium. The company was one of the biggest beneficiaries of the winding up of AUSAID and privatisation of aid distribution when Ms Bishop was office. Pyne has taken a defence consultancy with the international business management group EY. 

It’s not clear why Morrison needs Martin Parkinson to investigate the matter since the code on post ministerial employment is clear. The critical sentence says: “Ministers are also required to undertake that, on leaving office, they will not take personal advantage of information to which they have had access as a Minister, where that information is not generally available to the public.”

This solemn undertaking will almost certainly be broken by Bishop and Pyne. The privileged information and years of experience that they bring to their new roles is precisely why they are valued by their new masters.

Palladium now has over $500 million of aid contracts to administer for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Bishop is on the company’s board as well as providing advice. It is a substantial company established over half a century ago to manage the aid programs of governments and other donors who may either lack the manpower or resources to do so themselves. With 75 offices across the globe. Palladium’s main clients are in London, Washington, Dubai, Nairobi, Abuja and Jakarta. It has offices in Canberra, Brisbane and Sydney, reflecting the importance of Australia as a client. 

Former foreign minister Julie Bishop denies breaking the rules.

Julie Bishop denies breach

But when AUSAID was wound up, a number ofcontractors like Palladium, as well as not-for-profit charities, took over the the distribution of Canberra’s aid budget.  The not-for-profits hate commercial firms getting into this patch.

Christopher Pyne was the minister at the heart of important decisions taken by the Turnbull government, including the purchase from Lockheed Martin of F-35 fighters, and the huge contract to buy submarines from France. His experience and contacts will obviously be of value to EY, which defines its defence consultancy as helping “companies with their business strategy and operating model for the digital age, driving innovation and agility.”

Whatever the investigation concludes, it seems likely that both Bishop and Pyne will be able to continue in their new roles, following in the lucrative footsteps of former trade minister Andrew Robb.

Christopher Pyne

Even if Bishop and Pyne are found to have breached the code, there do not seem to be any punitive measures that can be taken against people who, following the end of a political career, cash in on the knowledge gained from their years of public service.

Of course Morrison might look to the newly enhanced powers of ASIC to send in teams, perhaps including psychologists, to listen in to meetings attended by a former minister to discover whether they are using their knowledge inappropriately. 

This new ASIC activity, which goes under the euphemism Close and Continuous Monitoring, or CCM, is dear to the heart of chairman James Shipton. At a meeting of CEDA at the end of last month he described CCM as “the early identification of deficient practices in specific areas inside entities”. Or, in plain language, to pry into every aspect of the business.

To be fair, Shipton was speaking in the wake of the frightening disclosures of the Hayne Royal Commission and with the laudable aim of protecting vulnerable consumers. 

As someone whose family  has been blighted by crooked but unpunished behaviour by one of the big four banks, I can sympathise. But we should all be wary of a snoopers’ charter that now allows spooks masquerading as shrinks carte blanche to poke their noses into every corner of a corporate entity.

The columnist Janet Albrechtsen describes Shipton’s plan to insert psychologists into boardrooms as part of the Stalinisation of Australian corporate life. “Companies are becoming like East German architecture: grey, conformist, no colour, no character”, she said.

She is right. This ASIC one-size-fits-all mentality is mad. No wonder Australia’s reputation for innovation is withering and our inventors going overseas.

There does not seem to have been any serious Parliamentary debate – or any debate at all – about ASIC’s new powers, or the CCM initiative. Perhaps I have missed it, but Parliament has been AWOL for most of the eight months since the introduction of these powers. A serious debate is badly needed.

In the meantime it might be a good idea to allow some business people with proven experience free rein within ASIC, with an eye to some of the basic principles of accountability and sustainability being introduced into this growing behemoth of a bureaucracy.