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Thursday, May 14, 2009

A story of sorts about MPs payments in our own backyard

The Australian media continue today to lap up the UK MPs expense story- in addition to the Fairfax papers, the ABC is onto it with this lead:
"The British Parliament is facing one of the biggest crises in its history after a week of politically-devastating revelations about MPs' expenses claims."
The West Australian even had room to run an Associated Press story on Heather Brooke.

But dear reader, as to interest in the opaque aspects of Australian Federal, state and territory arrangements for payments to parliamentarians, well it seems to be zilch, zero, not even a hint in mainstream media reports of the contrast between what is coming out in the UK, and what we don't know here.

Just on the Federal front, there are three departments that carry out administrative functions on behalf of the parliament. Details of allocations to the departments in Tuesday's Budget are at the bottom of this page listing Portfolio Budget Statements. All up the Department of House of Representatives has about $61 million in 2009-2010, including $27-$30 million in salaries and allowances to be paid to members.The Department of The Senate $47 million (about $11 million left over from last year) including about $15 million in member entitlements. And the Department of Parliamentary Services $210 million, around $73 million carried over. None are subject to the Freedom of Information Act. Minister Faulkner says change is not part of the FOI reform agenda despite the recommendation from the ALRC in 1995. There is no publicly available information about the payments to individual members and senators or how the money is acquitted (if at all) or spent.

A reminder from a post in May last year about what the Auditor General had to say:
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."
All this is separate from allocations to the Department of Finance and Deregulation - subject to the Freedom of Information Act- which provides current Parliamentarians and their staff, and former Senators and Members with a range of facilities and services,including: electorate office facilities; travel and accommodation entitlement support; personnel-related services; and VIP hire car services. To the tune of $390 million in 2009-10. Some information about MPs travel and use of cars is published twice a year- but not on the web. As noted in March some unnamed members won't certify the payments made on their behalf by Finance to be correct or properly incurred.

Opacity in the states and territories-if NSW is any guide -is the same or worse. This from that same post in May 2008:

"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."

Bringing the NSW Parliament under NSW FOI law was one of the recommendations from NSW Ombudsman Bruce Barbour not acted upon by Premier Nathan Rees in his proposed reforms announced last week.

At least the media is finding plenty of interesting stuff about payments to parliamentarians-in the UK.

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