Former government minister Bruce Billson will be examined by a bipartisan committee to determine whether he acted in contempt of Parliament by taking undeclared payments from a business lobby group.
In consenting to the investigation, Speaker Tony Smith said he was “sufficiently concerned” by the possibility Mr Billson had demonstrated “corruption in the execution of a member’s office”.
Mr Billson, who retired from Parliament at the July 2016 election after being dumped from the ministry when Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull took over as leader, announced in March last year he was taking up a position with the Franchise Council of Australia. However, the income from this new position was not declared on his parliamentary register.
Since the failure to register the separate income was revealed, Liberal MPs have expressed surprise that the former small business minister began receiving his $75,000 salary from the industry group while serving as an MP and he has faced calls to donate the amount in question to charity.
Manager of opposition business Tony Burke, who sought the inquiry, said the committee would investigate if the dual employment raised “any issues that may constitute a contempt of the House or to any issues concerning the appropriate conduct of a member” regarding his responsibilities to voters.
MPs who fail to properly complete their register can be declared in contempt of Parliament, risking a fine of up to $5000 or imprisonment for up to six months.
Mr Smith said the House of Representatives still had jurisdiction over former MPs for their actions while in office, as in the case of disgraced Labor politician Craig Thomson who was formally reprimanded in 2015 after leaving Parliament in 2013.
Permitting the referral, Mr Smith noted two possibly relevant matters of contempt in Parliament’s procedural handbook: “corruption in the execution of a member’s office” and “lobbying for reward or consideration”.
He emphasised he had “not made a determination that there is a prima facie case” but said he was “sufficiently concerned” to support consideration by the committee of privileges and members’ interests.
The parliamentary examination will come on top of a review by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, which Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull asked to assess whether Mr Billson breached the ministerial code of conduct. The ethics code stipulates that former ministers cannot lobby government on any matters related to their portfolios for 18 months.
MPs from both sides of politics have told Fairfax Media that Mr Billson had been extremely active in lobbying them on franchising issues – which he was also involved in as small business minister – since he took on the role.
Mr Billson and the Franchise Council have insisted he did not engage in any relevant lobbying or advocacy while an MP or in the timeframe set out in the code of conduct.
The former MP for the Victorian seat of Dunkley has labelled his failure to properly declare the income a “discourtesy”.
The story Former MP faces ‘corruption’ investigation over two jobs affair first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.