Labor Senator John Faulkner's status is unrivalled.

Labor Senator John Faulkner's status is unrivalled. Photo: Rocco Fazzari

Labor senator John Faulkner is an interesting individual.

A giant of the Left, an intellectual gladiator and the self-appointed moral guardian of the Australian Labor Party - perhaps even of the Australian Parliament.

He is not one to shy away from dishing out some frank advice to his own team.

As an elder statesman of the ALP, Faulkner's status is unrivalled.

Being a former minister in the Keating, Rudd and Gillard governments delivers him respect from across the political spectrum, albeit grudgingly at times.

An extreme party loyalist, Faulkner is also somewhat of a Labor historian and author.

And he has been a key strategist in pretty much every federal election over the past two decades.

Recognised instantly by his large-framed, Coke-bottle-lensed glasses, Faulkner is just as well known for his dry wit, his often grumpy demeanour, and his unflinching demand for ethical behaviour from public officials.

In 2008, as cabinet secretary and special minister of state in Kevin Rudd's fledgling Labor government, Faulkner introduced new rules for a ministerial code of conduct and for political fund-raising.

In 2010 the non-partisan Accountability Round Table presented him an integrity award named in honour of the late John Button (another champion of political ethics).

Yet Faulkner is certainly no angel and can deliver a low blow in a political brawl. He has played the game long enough to know where to find a good source of mud and how to sling it with gusto.

Faulkner has sparked fear in many a senior public servant appearing before Senate estimates hearings.

At times he has even seemed like a bit of a bully with his relentless and dogged line of questioning.

In opposition he was devastating in his grilling of witnesses.

In government, he has been no less so.

Accountability is his mantra.

And he has had more than one stoush (mostly behind closed doors) with Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

So when Faulkner, currently a backbencher, is a headline speaker at a conference dedicated to integrity in government, there are plenty of people eager to hear him.

Such was the case on Tuesday during a conference at the University of Melbourne Law School. Faulkner delivered an address titled ''Political Integrity: the Parliament, the public service, and the parties.''

His opening line set the scene for the very public lashing he was about to give the nation's political players - in particular some very unsavoury elements in his own party.

''No one ever argues that governments should have less integrity, that elected officials should not be accountable, or that public servants should behave unethically,'' Faulkner began his speech.

''Broad statements of the value of integrity, transparency, accountability and ethics gain general agreement from all sides of politics and from all participants in public debate.''

Then straight to the killer line. ''But government integrity demands more than general expressions of goodwill.''

Yes, Faulkner was about to tip a bucket on those who only paid lip service to the notion of impeccable behaviour in public life.

He went on to question much of the current processes of our political system and some of its practitioners.

''If the test of integrity is failed, if polling takes precedence over principle and expedience over ethics, trust in not only the individuals involved but in the entire process of democracy is undermined,'' Faulkner said.

He spent the next half hour explaining why there was enormous work still to be done - by his own side of politics even - towards the creation of more transparency in government, greater accountability for politicians and better protection for whistleblowers.

He criticised the current government and the Parliament for failing to act sooner and more decisively on a number of those fronts.

And he condemned the same institutions for sitting on reports and for letting matters get bogged down in committees rather than ensuring genuine progress on ethical issues.

The failure to date to introduce a code of conduct for federal MPs is one big bone of contention Faulkner has with the Parliament.

Noting that a clause to establish such a code was included in the agreement between Labor, the Greens and three independents in the formation a Labor minority government after the 2010 election, Faulkner decried the ''unedifying'' process that has kept it far from a reality.

''I can see no justification for there being no code which sets out the applicable ethics standards for my conduct as a federal parliamentarian,'' he said.

He then detailed how a code was commissioned, drafted, eventually proposed for endorsement, and languished on the notice paper in the House of Representatives before being passed there on the last sitting day of this year. But on the same day, which was just last week, the Senators' Interests Committee tabled in the Senate a report recommending the Senate not adopt the code proposed by the House Committee.

Unedifying indeed.

''I am not so unkind to suggest it was designed to fail, but its failure was inevitable,'' Faulkner said.

Yet while much of the speech went to matters involving federal Parliament, it was specifically the NSW branch of the Labor Party, his own branch, for which Faulkner saved his most vigorous criticisms.

And it was that part of his address that attracted the most media attention and which caused the most internal rumblings.

Faulkner condemned the ugly and corrupt elements of the party.

''It is time to acknowledge that there have been some in our party's ranks with neither political principles to defend nor moral convictions to uphold,'' he said, before pointing out that those individuals were a small minority in big majority of decent, ethical people.

He called for party rules to be subject to the courts, for factions to be partially disempowered, for machinery committees to be abolished, and for a ''one strike and you're out'' rule to apply to members found guilty of corruption.

There are moderates on both sides of politics, particularly on specific social conscience issues, but rarely in the current Australian political system do we see a senior politician vigorously, pointedly and publicly critique his own party.

On the other side, Malcolm Turnbull has perhaps emerged in more recent times as the Coalition's voice of reason.

But when it comes to insisting on integrity in government, Faulkner has the runs on the board and it will be to the Labor Party's detriment if it pays no heed to his calls.

More broadly, the whole Parliament as well as those wishing to enter politics should consider this week's Faulkner speech as a must-read text - that is, if anyone is serious about lifting the tenor of Australia's public discourse.

Chris Johnson is The Canberra Times' chief political correspondent.