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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Parliament outside the transparency and accountability loop

David Hawker the federal Liberal MP for Wannon is a former speaker of the House of Representatives and in "Don't starve the watchdog" in The Australian yesterday made a good case for a properly resourced parliament, among other things. Two paragraphs mentioned below deserve comment. Both concern transparency and accountability of the parliamentary departments-House of Representatives, Senate and Parliamentary Services. Hawker is incorrect in claiming the administration of parliamentary entitlements for members and senators is entirely in the hands of the Department of Finance.  But a broader omission is any reference to the absence of accountability and transparency of the legislature as a branch of government allocated significant public funding. The three departments were appropriated $142 million in this year's budget. They should be subject to the Freedom of Information Act, like most of the executive branch, and in respect of matters of an administrative nature, the courts.

The Government to date has shown not a spark of interest in a 1995 recommendation of the Australian Law Reform Commission to this effect. Despite the matter being raised in a number of submissions, and by several witnesses at recent Senate Committee hearings on the FOI Reform legislation, one senator (The Greens Ludlam) asked one question of one witness on the topic. Maybe, like Hawker parliamentarians aren't fully aware of how the system works and the hole in our transparency and accountability framework. But an independent committee due to report next month may give the issue a kick along.

Hawker's two paragraphs -emphasis added- and information about the parliament and that independent committee follow.
Expenditure on the parliament is subject to a number of controls. The Speaker has responsibility for the Department of the House of Representatives, and the President of the Senate has ultimate responsibility for the Department of the Senate. The Speaker and the President are jointly responsible for the Department of Parliamentary Services. The Public Service Act (1999) helps to ensure that the parliament is served by a professional body of staff independent of the public service and dedicated to supporting MPs in fulfilling their constitutional role. The three parliamentary service heads are responsible for the efficient, effective and ethical use of resources. However, they do not control the actual amount allocated to parliament. Parliamentarians' entitlements are managed by the Department of Finance and Deregulation......
The importance of accountability and transparency was demonstrated by the investigations in Britain and Australia into members' allowances. The problems were based on unclear rules, mixed accountability, and a lack of transparency. In Australia's case, the government, through Finance, managed the payments, which suggests that who has this task is less of an issue than what is being administered and how widely it is reported.
The Department of Finance and Deregulation administers "a number of entitlements" of parliamentarians. However the Portfolio Budget Statement for the Department of House of Representatives includes $61 million in appropriated funds with $29 million listed for member salaries, allowances and other entitlements; the amounts similarly appropriated to the Department of the Senate are $35 and $14 million; and to the Department of Parliamentary Services $46 and $14 million. Exactly what is covered by "other entitlements" is difficult to work out from published information, but it certainly includes electoral allowance.

An Auditor General's Report (3) last year identified major problems in the system and prompted the Government to announce  a number of reforms to the parliamentary entitlements framework, and  refer broader matters for future reform to an independent Committee. The terms of reference include a request for advice on "improving transparency in the use of taxpayer-funded parliamentary entitlements" and the Committee is to have regard to "entitlements provided at Parliament House." It is due to report next month. So is the Senate Committee looking at the FOI Reform Bill. Here's hoping the stars align.

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