FORMER small business minister and MP for Dunkley Bruce Billson has left an unintended legacy at Federal Parliament in the wake of a privileges committee inquiry into a second job he accepted while still in parliament.
The committee has recommended parliamentary rules be changed to ban federal MPs from being paid as lobbyists after Mr Billson came under scrutiny for the acceptance of a $75,000 a year job as executive chair of the Franchise Council of Australia in March 2016, four months before retiring from Parliament.
Mr Billson has admitted he made “an administrative error” in not declaring the job in his parliamentary register but says he never tried to hide the job from public scrutiny.
A media release was sent out by the FCA announcing Mr Billson’s appointment in March 2016 and the then Dunkley MP was happy to speak to journalists about the job (“‘Agile’ Billson building for the future”, The Times 16/5/16).
When asked by The Times in May 2016 whether there “is anything dodgy in this”, Mr Billson responded, in a previously unpublished comment: “Absolutely not — it’d be crazy to do anything like that now.”
The parliamentary committee recommended late last month that Mr Billson be censured for failing to declare the job on the parliamentary register but ruled his “conduct did not constitute contempt”.
“The committee accepts Mr Billson’s comments that he failed to comply due to error and oversight, as evidence that he did not intend to interfere improperly with the free exercise of the authority or functions of the house,” the committee’s report stated.
Mr Billson received a $6250 payment for his FCA employment, while an MP, on 13 April 2016, as part of the annual salary of $75,000.
The report, entitled Inquiry concerning the former Member for Dunkley in the 44th Parliament: possible contempts of the House and appropriate conduct of a Member, revealed a complaint about Mr Billson’s second job while a sitting MP made by neighbouring federal Isaacs Labor MP Mark Dreyfus in August 2017 triggered the committee’s investigation.
When approached by The Times after the report was released last month, Mr Billson said: “I have previously recognised my administrative error and oversight in not providing timely notification of changes to my register of interest prior to the Parliament in the final weeks before it was dissolved with the calling of the election I was not contesting and have formally apologised to the House for this failure.
“The FCA and I have demonstrated that during the weeks when my widely publicised appointment as a director and executive chair overlapped with the end of my term as an MP, there was no improper influence, advocacy, lobbying, conflict of interest or impact on the free performance of my parliamentary duties, and welcome the committee’s conclusion ‘that no finding of contempt could be made’.”
Mr Dreyfus said “the Billson dual salary scandal never passed the pub test and it’s clear why”.
“Being a Member of Parliament is a full-time job. That Mr Billson took on a second, high-paying job and didn’t declare it to the Parliament, shows that he knew it was wrong, yet he did it anyway.
“Mr Billson let down the people of Dunkley and he should apologise.
“Mr Billson was rightly censured by the House of Representatives, in a motion supported unanimously by the government and opposition. This is an extraordinary outcome that shows just how serious Mr Billson’s breach was.
“Mr Billson’s behaviour and his clear conflict in being a legislator while on the payroll of the Franchise Council of Australia, without declaring it, is exactly why Australia needs a National Integrity Commission.
“Labor calls on Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to establish a National Integrity Commission now so that the public can have faith that their elected representatives won’t repeat Mr Billson’s actions.”
Mr Billson also declared a previously unregistered payment for “advisor services” through his Agile Advisory Pty Ltd business during the committee’s inquiry process.
“Agile Advisory was activated to make productive use of my available personal capacity in the approach to the 2016 election which was my ceasing being a member, and had begun to assist a personal friend who was the founder/CEO of a small technology business with business coaching, strategy and personal branding service,” Mr Billson voluntarily advised the committee.
The committee, chaired by Queensland Liberal MP Ross Vasta, accepted Mr Billson had again failed to declare the payment to Agile Advisory while an MP in error.
Mr Billson declined to identify the personal friend or the amount paid to Agile Advisory when asked by The Times.
The former cabinet minister is still executive chair of the FCA.