Hey! Plug the gaps in rules on MPs’ disclosure of financial interest

The decision by Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party MP Helen Dalton to make a voluntary, public disclosure that she owns water trading rights worth millions of dollars is welcome but it exposes, once again, the woeful inadequacy in NSW parliamentary ethics rules.Ms Dalton, an irrigator who owns a farm 40 kilometres from Griffith, disclosed in her annual filing in the MPs’ register of pecuniary interests that she has water rights which, because of the drought, are now worth an estimated $17 million.The potential conflict of interest is obvious. She is playing a role in advocating the Shooters policies on the Murray Darling Water Basin plan, which, for example, include cutting charges for irrigators who own water rights that are curtailed because of the drought.Ms Dalton has said she has no plans to sell the water rights, which perhaps mitigates the potential conflict of interest, but it does not remove it.Ms Dalton has done the right thing but the more worrying general issue is that under current rules she does not appear to have been under any clear obligation to disclose her interests in full. Premier Gladys Berejiklian said so in Parliament.The regulations for MPs’ register of pecuniary interests, which date back to 1983, are vague and clearly cover only a limited range of assets and income such as interests in real property and companies.It is unclear whether MPs have to disclose water rights or the assets of family members or the assets of family trusts.By contrast, under federal parliamentary rules, MPs must disclose all relevant potential conflicts of interest.The Independent Commission Against Corruption in NSW called for that sort of disclosure in 2014 in a report on how to prevent a repeat of the problems exposed by its inquiries that year.It also called for the creation of an investigative body to enforce the rules.But the government has delayed and obfuscated for five years.It asked the privileges and ethics committee to conduct a review in 2014 and then the same committee confusingly launched a second review which only reported a year ago. The committee quietly dropped the recommendation for broadening the disclosure rules and instead called for a further review.It made one recommendation which actually would allow politicians to keep more things secret. In the name of easing the administrative burden on MPs, it lifted the threshold for reporting income and gifts from $500 to $1000.The committee noted that the register of pecuniary interests is a bit hard to access but it failed to recommend putting the register online. This has now happened but in a format that is so cumbersome it makes journalists’ lives a nightmare.The one recommendation by the committee that might encourage transparency was to replace the complicated and slow system of annual disclosure with a continuous disclosure regime where MPs have to report within a month.Yet that has not happened. Annual reports such as Ms Dalton’s still only come out months late, once a year. In fact, the government is yet to give its formal response to any part of the review.The government should immediately implement disclosure rules in line with ICAC’s original recommendations. The register should be accessible and the onus should be on MPs to disclose all assets that could create a potential conflict of interest.The comical paper shuffling that has delayed this obvious reform is the sort of self-serving behaviour that undermines faith in politics.