Search This Blog

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Transparency should be something more than "tabled in Parliament"

The Senate Finance and Public Administration Committee Estimates hearings last Thursday (28/5/2009) for the Department of Finance and Deregulation involved questions concerning the Ministerial and Parliamentary Services Branch of the Department- with $390 million including $45 million in entitlements for parliamentarians under scrutiny.

Not a murmur about electoral allowances, in the news recently. Or about printing, communications or postal allowances. Most of the three hours involved questions about travel allowance, particularly claims by Parliamentary Secretary Jan McLucas who spent 144 out of 180 days in Canberra (on travel allowance), the rest in her rented-out home in far North Queensland. Minister Faulkner and officials said they were satisfied there had been no breach of entitlements.

However it turns out that parliamentarians are taken at their word when they nominate their principal place of residence, and checks only follow if allegations of misuse of entitlements are made. Much was made of the transparency of the arrangements because global travel allowance payments and nominated places of residence are tabled in Parliament "for all to see." This also goes for the protocol that sets out arrangements for any investigation- it's a transparent arrangement because the protocol was tabled in the Senate in October 2000.

Memo about transparency in this day and age to those who spend much of their time in the big house on the hill : These documents would be available "for all to see" if they along with a whole range of others concerning interests and allowances of parliamentarians administered by the Parliament itself and the Department of Finance were on the web, and searchable, not sitting in paper files in Canberra, open to those who makes the journey.

This exchange about a hypothetical doesn't engender confidence about the travel allowance system [at 15]:

Senator RONALDSON— If I were an officeholder or minister I could change my home base, which is currently Ballarat, to Melbourne, which is where my electorate office is located. Then, as long as I had some official business in Ballarat at some time during each day, I could continue to live with my wife and family in Ballarat and claim travel allowance. That is correct, isn’t it?

Ms Mason—Yes.

Ms Clarke—Again, it depends on what principal place of residence has been nominated as your home base.

Senator RONALDSON—I accept that, but you accept that there is the potential there that I could continue to live in Ballarat and have a nominated home base in Melbourne? But you do not make any definition of principal place of residence anyway to cross-reference that, do you?

Ms Clarke—Certainly the Remuneration Tribunal does not. We are bound to implement and administer what it decides.

A little later:
Senator RONALDSON—Indeed, and as we have said before there is no cross-referencing at all. You make no inquiries about whether someone’s principal place of residence is indeed their principal place of residence. You make no inquiries at all about whether someone’s home base is actually their home base. So within the guidelines at the moment that would be quite legitimate.

Dr Watt—Except it would require the member to certify to the Special Minister of State that that was their home base. I would have thought that most members would think quite seriously about how they certified that.

Senator RONALDSON—I would hope you are absolutely right. But if they decided not to there is nothing within the rules at the moment that is actually going to make them accountable for that, is there?

Dr Watt—I would have thought that Ms Mason has given you the answer: it is transparency, published in the parliament. Journalists, the public and other politicians are free to scrutinise that material and may comment.

Senator RONALDSON—But it is fair to say, is it not, that under the rules I could actually move my entire family—in the unlikely event that they would want to join me in doing so—from Ballarat to Canberra. I could keep on telling MAPS that my home base was Ballarat. So, in other words, I am living in Canberra but MAPS still has Ballarat as my registered home address. In that situation how much TA would I get a night—it is $215 as opposed to the $70, is it not?

Ms Mason—That is correct.

Senator Faulkner—If you did that, as you are suggesting in this hypothetical case, you would be making a false declaration as to your home base.

Senator RONALDSON—But you are not checking it, Minister, and the department is not checking it, are you?

Senator Faulkner—No, but I am not going and knocking on your door in Ballarat to—

Senator RONALDSON—No, but you are not knocking on anyone’s door, Minister. You are not comin’ a knockin’ anywhere to determine whether the nominated home base is indeed the nominated home base.

Senator Faulkner—But we are requiring parliamentarians to certify—which has been, of course, the long standing practice, as you would appreciate. And of course, as you have heard, there is a real strength in terms of transparency here. The greater the transparency in the system in relation to travel entitlements, as I think we established after the events of the mid to late 1990s, the healthier the system is and the far less likelihood there is of any rorting of the system. I hope you would appreciate that that is the case.

No comments:

Post a Comment