Search This Blog

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Houses not in order

Picking up on the UK disclosures, does it really matter that we don't know much about payments from the public purse to members of parliament, and how each has spent the money?
In my view its"Accountability 101". Payments to ministers, as such, are usually accessible under freedom of information laws as relevant documents are held by the minister or the agency for which they have responsibility. Parliamentarians and payments to ministers in that capacity, are another matter.

I'm sure most are good honest hardworking folk, but that's no reason why we should not demand high level accountability for public money.Left to their own devices, our parliamentary representatives have created systems that have the potential for some nice little earners outside public glare. No wonder we haven't seen leadership from those who have the numbers to make parliamentary departments subject to freedom of information laws. A couple of examples.

Federal MPs get a daily travel allowance when away from home, including time spent in the nation's capital.There is a six monthly report on members travel published by the Department of Finance and Deregulation. Its not on the web, and gives total amounts spent. Last year now Shadow Treasurer Malcolm Turnbull publicly acknowledged he paid his Canberra allowance to his wife as rent on an apartment she owns there. As to what others do, none of us have a clue.

An Auditor General's report seven years ago noted there was no public reporting on other allowances or payments made to MPs who in addition to publicly funded electorate offices (and three staff), have a privately-plated Commonwealth vehicle, and receive electorate, printing, postal, and telephone allowances. While travel allowance payments are reported, travel at government expense by spouse or dependents is not. Many of the payments appear to be made on the basis of self certification, without the need for proof of expenditure.

The report says "a key area in which some overseas models reviewed, particularly those of Canada and the United States, differed from the approach currently taken in respect of the Australian Federal Parliament is that they provide for significantly greater levels of public disclosure of the guidelines and/or rules that govern entitlements’ expenditure by the members of the respective legislatures; and of the costs incurred by the individual members."

Minister of State John Faulkner to his credit has made a start- cracking down on payment of public funding for elections in the absence of evidence of expenditure, and winding back "printing allowances "that became electoral year war chests. Regulations were tabled in March to reduce the printing allowance for members of parliament from $150,000 a year to $100,000 a year and abolish the option to roll over 45 per cent of entitlements to the following year.

Senator Ludwig said at the time "Prior to the last election, with members of parliament having a printing allowance of $150,000 per annum and being able to roll over 45 per cent of that allowance to the next year, more than $240,000 could be spent by a single member of parliament in a single year—in a single election year. This cannot be justified as appropriate spending. The combination of the rollover and the increased level of the entitlement allowed members of parliament to build a war chest for election spending out of moneys originally designed for communicating with constituents and the community. This, of course, is taxpayers’ money."

Well yes, but unfortunately the Government appears to have done nothing about disclosure of what the money is spent on, or sought to limit use, so in an election year there is nothing to prevent a member paying for how to vote cards from printing allowance and for direct mail from the postal allowance.

In NSW, Greens MLC, Lee Rhiannon has been attempting to throw some light on what NSW MPs get in allowances and gives some details here. There appears to be no public reporting and many payments do not depend on evidence of use of the money. Her website lists the following:
  • Expense allowance for members who have an official title.
  • Electorate allowance. In theory to be spent on expenses. Rhiannon says payments can be pocketed by the member.
  • Logistical support allocation: A lump sum of money to spend on travel, printing, stationery and other 'office expenses'.
  • Electorate mailout account: A $5.5 million Carr Government initiative allowing MPs to send out glossy newsletters promoting themselves.
  • Sydney allowance: Money given to non-Sydney MPs for the time they spend in the capital.
  • Printing bonus: Extra money for some MPs to spend on printing.
  • Charter transport: Rural MPs get cash to use for flying around their large electorates.
Rhiannon notes that parliamentarians also have home fax and phone bills paid, and free flights to and from Sydney - over 100 per year.

The parliament house websites contain no information on rules and guidelines for payments,or actual payments to members.

As to the other states and territories?

So while in the UK Freedom of Information has proved a useful tool to force some accountability, because records of expenditure were kept by the parliament, we have a clear need for more fundamental changes here. Don't expect a rush to action. The late Peter Andren is sorely missed.

No comments:

Post a Comment