Ms PATTEN (Northern Metropolitan) (09:49): I am pleased to rise to speak on Dr Cumming’s bill. Integrity in politics is the cornerstone of my party’s platform. In fact the first line on our website reads, ‘The public deserves a political system where their representatives act with integrity and in good faith’, and that is what we expect. That is what the public expects from us. At Reason our focus on open and honest dialogue with the public is there. I know many of us receive so much correspondence to our offices, and I make every concerted effort to respond to as much of it as I can.
Whether I believe it, whether I support the position, whether it is an insult to me, I do try and respond. I think that is part of having those open and honest dialogues that we need to have with the public. We need to have that to ensure that the public has a sense of trust in us. As I have said here many times, we believe in evidence-based policy, informed by expert knowledge and research, not ideology or polls.
And in 2018 election we had a policy that stated, ‘All politicians to be legally bound and required to act in the public interest’, and that we should place a cap on election spending, report political donations in real time, establish and enforce MPs expenses rules and remove some of our vague entitlements.
Now, some of that actually has happened, and I certainly think the Victorian Independent Remuneration Tribunal has gone a long way to hopefully getting the public to understand that this is done independently, that it is done away from this place—it is not us signing our own cheques. But we also wanted to see the extension of the powers of IBAC to investigate the misuse of these public funds.
Just to make it clear: I am not suggesting that Dr Cumming in any way misused any public funds, and in fact Dr Cumming did not commit any offence. She did absolutely nothing wrong, although you certainly would not think that if you had read some of the media articles and the attacks that she took on this. So in that context I commend Dr Cumming for almost falling on her sword today in bringing this integrity matter to the Council.
I actually stated yesterday that I was pleased when the government, through yesterday’s legislation, the Judicial Proceedings Reports Amendment Bill 2021, had recognised that their well-meaning solution had not been quite correct and had willingly come back in here and made those changes, which was positive. In some ways Dr Cumming is coming in here to highlight what may not have passed that pub test—and using one of her precious debating spots in this chamber to do that. It does show integrity, Dr Cumming; it does.
To highlight that mistake and tinker with our integrity rules to improve the way this place operates should be commended. We all know how difficult it is to find staff, and particularly when you are first elected. Yes, Dr Cumming and I do not have—
Dr Cumming: The machine.
Ms PATTEN: Yes. We do not have, I guess, the advantage of having the party structure around us, so there are not people there that have got electorate office experience that you can bring in quickly. Sometimes filling those gaps actually does require employing people close to you—while they may not be your permanent staff—certainly to fill in or just to get you going, get your doors open, get your emails cranking and all of those sorts of things.
But what Dr Cumming experienced and I think more importantly what her children experienced from that was unacceptable; it was absolutely unacceptable. I know that many of us have experienced this.
My electorate staff sometimes have to take a deep breath when they come into our office or an even deeper breath when they answer the phone because they know what is coming down the other end, and it is not nice. So we need people around us that we can trust, and sometimes, as we have seen in this case, it is family. I think we have all had a pretty torrid time online, and certainly I have. Certainly my family has been affected by that.
I had to block my nieces from my social media. They are teenagers and they are on social media, but they could not stay on even my Instagram accounts because of the horrible comments and the horrible posts that people were making.
My other close family ring me and say, ‘I would love to support you, I would love to say something nice, but I can’t because I’m going to get jumped on’. Having to protect our family members like that is very important. But I think people do need to understand and the public does need to understand that we are all humans and we do have families. And our families do not choose to come into this place; our families do not choose for us to be here.
Well, some of them may vote for us, but they do not choose to be affected. We never come in here dreaming that our desire to be representatives would have such an impact on our families. This bill goes to a lot of that. It goes to that expectation that the community has that we do act with integrity, that we do act with accountability and that we are here to serve the public interest, and I do not think there is a single person in this chamber that I would say is not here for the right reasons.
We are here to do all of that, but I think that message is getting lost. We look at the trust barometers. We look at the Edelman Trust Barometer. Every time we are seeing a decline in trust in our institutions, and this institution as well—our Parliament. This is dangerous in the time of COVID, in times of pandemic. It is dangerous if we see the trust in our government being diminished. We need to act at a higher bar. Our pub test has to be a much higher pub test than others.
We have to act with as much integrity and we have to act with and exercise as much good judgement as we can, and we have to be held to the highest standard. While it was completely within the regulations and the law for Dr Cumming to employ relatives, the perception out there was that this was not the right thing to do.
Dr Cumming interjected.
Ms PATTEN: And we listened to that—that is right—and we really do need to. I have avoided the attacks on the political parties—the ALP attacking the Liberals and vice versa. I try and avoid and stay out of those dogfights, because I do not think they do anything.
In fact what I do think they do is they diminish the trust in this place. If we keep yelling at each other, saying, ‘You’re a liar, you’re a liar’, well, I tell you, that sticks out there. If all they see is the negatives about everyone, then that sticks, and I think this is something that we all could reflect upon: the effect of our actions in here or the effect of our actions in the media and the effect that they have on this very institution.
So while this bill is a small piece of cutting and pasting from the federal legislation into a state bill, I think it is important and I think it is another step to really showing we take this job seriously. We take the privilege of being in this place, this privilege of representing our community very seriously. It is critical that there is trust out there.
As I mentioned at the outset, finding electorate officers—I have to say, while I am very grateful for the electorate office budgets, we do not pay our staff extraordinary bucks. They are pretty modest salaries for what we expect them to do.
We expect our staff to be available to us on the weekends if we need it, available to us after hours when we need it, available to do so many things. I mean, they become our family. I know in my office my electorate team is my family. We are close and we care for each other deeply, and we care for our electorate deeply.
As I say, when we were getting so much abuse coming into our office it was so hard for me to see our staff working so hard to help people and yet having to answer 60 phone calls a day and being told how terrible they were, how hopeless they were, how pointless they were, what liars they were. It was awful. I would never wish that upon a family member. I would never wish it upon a friend. But it is the work that we do, and I think it is really important.
I was thinking back to family members working here, and I have to go back to the minister for Fiona Patten, Inga Peulich, who employed her son. We used to joke that she just employed him so she could badger him, both during work hours and after work hours, because she had that type of relationship with him. She certainly enjoyed badgering us in this chamber as well.
I support Dr Cumming’s bill. I support the motivation behind it as well. I think while it is a small change, it actually sends one of those bigger messages—that we do need to stand at a higher level and we need to claw back the trust of our community. We need to regain that faith in the institution of Parliament, in the institutions of government, because if we are going to get through this pandemic, we certainly need to do it. I commend the bill.
Fiona Patten MP
Leader of Reason
Member for Northern Metropolitan Region
Second reading 8/9/21